You would be hard-pressed to find a greater connection between a song and a performer than the one shared by the late Etta James and her classic “At Last.” The song earned her a special Grammy Hall Of Fame award, and the feisty singer fiercely fought for her right to perform it even as her health deteriorated in her later years. But it might surprise you to hear that it was not a big seller for her originally. On the other hand, it was a huge hit for the guy who’d introduced it a couple of decades earlier — Glenn Miller.
Originally an instrumental composed by Harry Warren, the song went almost unnoticed as one of several performed by Glenn Miller’s band in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade. But the following year lyrics were added by Mack Gordon, and the band not only issued it as a record (as the ‘B’ side for “I’ve Got a Gal In Kalamazoo”) but also featured it in the new movie Orchestra Wives. The newly-reborn song, complete with vocals by Ray Eberle and Pat Friday (dubbing for actress Lynn Bari in the filmed version), became a Top Ten hit for the band and a favorite for swooning fans.
In the years that followed, it would go on to be performed in various arrangements by countless performers, but none would top the one that occurred in 1960 when a lady named Etta James took ownership of the song.
4 thoughts on “Anatomy Of A Song – “At Last””
One of my favorite songs – the Etta James version was our wedding song in 2004 – ahhh the memories.
I bet it has shown up at a lot of weddings. 🙂
“At Last” barely even showed up in the final cut of Sun Valley Serenade – it’s only briefly heard in the background of one scene. The arrangement used was somewhat faster and less complex, making it come across more as a standard pop song than a romantic ballad.
Reportedly the film’s penultimate cut was running a lot longer than the studio wanted, so several of the (then) less-consequential tunes were either removed entirely or relegated to the background. However someone decided that At Last had enough potential to give it a second chance. The slower and much more lush arrangement used in Orchestra Wives turned it into a major hit.
I confess to being really torn between the Miller version and Etta James’ reworking. Despite being a lifelong Miller fan and amateur scholar, the 1942 recording is still somewhat of a period piece. So long as I think of Etta’s version as almost a different song rather than a cover with no connection to the original, my 2¢ is that it’s survived the test of time much better. As much as it pains this Miller aficionado to say it, I think she now owns the tune.
Thanks for your knowledgeable comments, always appreciated here at the GMC.