*On Jan. 5, 2009, Beyonce serenaded Barack and Michelle Obama at the Inaugural Neighborhood Ball as the couple shared their first dance as president and first lady of the United States. But somewhere, at that very moment, Etta James was livid. The music legend was not okay with Beyonce – who was in theaters at the time portraying James in “Cadillac Records” – being chosen over her by the Obamas to sing her own signature song.
Neighborhood Inaugural Ball “At Last” Performance
About a month before the Neighborhood Ball, “Cadillac Records” premiered in theaters with Beyoncé’s portrayal as James earning rave reviews. Her re-recording of “At Last” for the soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance, and James reportedly greeted her warmly at the film’s opening.
Beyonce singing “At Last” as Etta James in “Cadillac Records”
But interviewed away from Beyonce at the film’s red carpet premiere, the shade from Ms. James was not subtle.
2008: Etta James at “Cadillac Records” Premiere
The Obamas asking Beyoncé to sing her signature song appeared to be the last straw.
“You guys know your president, right? You know the one with the big ears?” James asked from the stage of Seattle’s Paramount Theatre. “Wait a minute, he ain’t my president. He might be yours; he ain’t my president. But I tell you that woman he had singing for him, singing my song — she’s going to get her ass whupped.”
“I can’t stand Beyoncé,” she continued. “She has no business up there, singing up there on a big ol’ president day… singing my song that I’ve been singing forever.”
Watch below, beginning at 0:42.
James would later backpedal on her comments, with some at the time pointing to an Alzheimer’s diagnoses as the reason she was so frosty. James said that the president is “handsome” and “cool,” and explained that she was just a little hurt at being “left out of something that was basically mine, that I had done every time you look around.”
But, plot twist.
James’ version of “At Last” is itself a cover that was written 18 years earlier for the 1942 musical film “Orchestra Wives.” It was originally recorded by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra with vocals from Ray Eberle and Pat Friday.
Orchestra Wives (1942) – “At Last”
And then trumpeter Ray Anthony came along with his version in 1952 that was so popular that it went to #2.
Ray Anthony – At Last
No matter who wrote it or recorded it before Ms. James in 1960, it’s quite apparent that “At Last” is at least unofficially hers, and hers alone. Even Beyonce made a point to convey this respect when she sang “At Last” to James directly at the 2008 event Fashion Rocks.
Beyonce Sings “At Last” to Etta James Fashion Rocks Awards 2008