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Universal Studios Fire Destroyed The Original Recording Of Etta James's 'At Last' -- And 500,000 Other Songs

A studio set is engulfed in fire at Universal Studios, Sunday, June 1, 2008. A large fire tore through a backlot at Universal Studios, destroying a set from "Back to the Future," the King Kong exhibit and both video and music reels. (Mike Meadows/AP)
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A fire burned on the Universal Studios backlot more than a decade ago. We knew that it damaged Back to the Future's Courthouse Square, and the King Kong Encounter attraction -- but the extent of the damage to the Universal Music Group vault wasn't fully known to the public until a New York Times investigation was released today.

Around 500,000 songs were destroyed, including scores of classics. And that likely includes the master recording of Etta James' iconic "At Last."

Master recordings are the canonical ones that all copies are made from -- it's impossible to precisely replicate a master, particularly one from the pre-digital world.

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It's the song that launched a million wedding first dances. It's the one that rang in America's first black president, with Beyoncé belting it out for Barack and Michelle Obama's first inaugural ball dance.

Etta James was born in Los Angeles, and she died in Riverside in 2012 at 73 years old. Her debut album, At Last!, was released in 1960.

The title track was put out as a single in 1961, reaching number 2 on the R&B chart. It wasn't an original -- the song was first written for the 1941 musical movie Sun Valley Serenade -- but it's the one that burrowed its way into the feels of generations.

Firefighters help remove film canisters from a burning video vault at Universal Studios on Sunday, June 1, 2008 (Juan Guerra/AP)

At last
My love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song

The song's structure is simple, but not a pure verse/chorus like we expect in a pop song. There is no chorus -- unless you count the repeated words "at last" in each verse as a chorus.

At last
The skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you

Those two simple words get their own moment -- they don't try to put anything else on those lines, the song just lets those words hit you in the gut. This song and those words are about finally finding your dream, finding a love that changes everything.

I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known

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The song's bridge offers more of a look back, explaining what came before that "at last" moment. It's about accomplishment, and the giddiness that comes with that kind of love.

Oh yeah yeah
You smiled, you smiled
Oh and then the spell was cast
And here we are in heaven
For you are mine... at last

The song's last verse breaks the pattern set up by the first two -- no "at last." It makes you wait for it -- the words come back one last time to close the song out... at last.

James's final appearance on television was performing "At Last" on Dancing With the Stars in 2009. The crowd came to their feet, with the dancers paying tribute to the legend.

Firefighters (C) walk past debris after approximately 400 firefighters from the Los Angeles area battled a huge fire on the backlot of Universal Studios June 1, 2008. (Pool/Getty Images)

James died in 2012, days before her 74th birthday. She'd dealt with addiction for decades, and died after suffering from both Alzheimer's and leukemia. The impact of James, especially through "At Last," brought Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, and Christina Aguilera all to deliver tributes at her funeral.

The master may be gone, but the song remains -- and will likely be played at wedding receptions near you for generations to come.