That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
Released in 1960, “At Last” was Etta James’s second hit single from and the title track of her debut album. It crossed over from the R&B charts to the Billboard Hot 100 and went on to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
From commercials to the first dance at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural balll. (covered by none other than Beyoncé), the song permeates our culture. According to IMDb, James’s “At Last” appeared in 64 television show episodes or movies. From classics like Rain Man to unexpected venues like Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never documentary, the song has celebrated victory in love (finally!). However, James was almost twenty years too late to claim this song as her own.
Ironically, the original song was written for a a movie, Sun Valley Serenade, in 1941. Glenn Miller and his orchestral posse recorded the song. The original performance of Miller’s version included vocals from John Payne (Fred Gailey in Miracle on 34th Street) and Lynn Bari (Captain Fifi in China Girl), but the head of the movie studio thought it was too much. The vocals were then deleted from the film version, not to be heard until the movie was reissued in 1954 along with the outtake.
In 1942 the song was re-recorded by Glenn Miller, his orchestra, and Ray Eberle on vocals. Featured in another movie, Orchestra Wives, this version even made it on the Billboard pop music chart in 1942. Yes, the charts go back that far, but they were called “Songs with the Most Radio Plugs” back then. This version of “At Last” also featured on a “Victory Disk” sent by the U.S. War Department to troops overseas in World War II. Talk about reach for a romantic ballad!
The original has more of a mellow, big-band style, which to be fair, is a bit of an oxymoron. Woodwinds and brass trade off, each driving the melody in turn. The instruments fade in and out; you can almost picture how it would be the perfect backdrop to a movie: prominent during transitions, more reserved during peak dialogue or action. The mood is fairly chipper, no hint of the past “lonely days.”
Even the purists who prefer the original must admit that no one can resist this opening line. The swooping strings, swelling with hope, are powerful, putting you in the state of mind to dance, even if with an invisible partner. This intro is much more dramatic than the original. Then Etta’s heady voice joins in, holding its own amongst the strings. Her delivery still has hints of the melancholy life before it became “like a song.” She both rejoices in finding love and breathes a sigh of relief that her life of longing is over. “At last,” indeed! Her version is perfect for those both at the finish line and those still running towards it; allowing some to join in the victory and others to be buoyed by the aspiration that one day this song will ring true for them.
Many people have covered the song since James, including plenty of other women with powerhouse vocals like Aretha Franklin, Cyndi Lauper, and Martina McBride. However, perhaps the cover gold star ultimately goes to Christina Aguilera, who was asked by James’s family to sing “At Last” at Etta’s funeral in 2012.