James was only 17 when her first hit, "The Wallflower (Roll With Me Henry)" took #1 on the R&B chart in 1955, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 on the strength of her passionate vocals and rousing live performances. James was an active touring performer into the early 2000s, until her leukemia diagnosis.
Perhaps best known to younger audiences for the popular wedding theme "At Last," James had a minor controversy in 2009 when she reportedly said, "I can't stand Beyoncé"— who portrayed James in the 2008 film Cadillac Records—after Knowles performed "At Last" at President Obama's inaugural ball. James later said the comment was a joke.
James died in a Riverside, California, hospital, from complications of leukemia. She is survived by her husband, Artis Mills, and sons Donto and Sametto James, both musicians who played in her band.