Words: Matt Innes
Few artists will ever leave a legacy like that of soul and blues legend Etta James. ‘At Last – The Etta James Story’ is a musical tribute to an artist who didn’t just sing the blues, she lived them.
Australian singer Vika Bull takes on the titular role for the production which recounts Etta’s troubled yet incredible life story through her music. “It took me about a year to prepare,” Vika says.
“I had to learn her songs, had to research her life, and I read her book ‘Rage To Survive’ twice which I still refer back to now and then. I looked at a lot of stuff on YouTube.
“Then the preparation became: ‘how am I going to sing this seven nights a week’ because it’s a really tough sing, so I had to practice very hard and become vocally fit – kind of like running a marathon.”
Etta was born in Los Angeles in 1938 during the Depression and started her singing career at the age of 14. Although she produced a string of hit songs and records, her long-term struggles with heroin addiction and the legal problems that entailed came to define her life as much as her music.
‘At Last’ doesn’t shy away from these darker aspects of Etta’s life and presents them as a vital influence on her writing and singing. “We celebrate the highs and the lows because that’s what made her a great singer,” Vika says.
In a career that spanned over five decades, Etta James produced an immense catalogue of songs across a multitude of genres. From boogie-woogie and doo-wop, to low-slung blues, ballads and upbeat funk, she ran the gamut of style.
“The hardest part of this show is singing the many different styles that Etta sung because she had a very long career,” Vika says. “This show is getting my full focus at the moment because it is very challenging but so enjoyable; such a great story and so many great songs.”
Etta passed away in 2012 but both she and her extensive breadth of work remain integral in the canon of Western music, with the seminal ‘At Last’ becoming her signature tune. Vika herself was captivated by Etta’s voice from a young age.
“The first song by Etta I heard was ‘Roll With Me Henry’ a duet sung with Richard Berry who I think was uncredited. I fell in love with it instantly and had to find more songs sung by this woman. I think the enduring appeal is that Etta could sing so honestly and people really feel that.”
‘At Last – The Etta James Story’ makes its UK premiere in 2017. Stay tuned for venues and dates.
Bury St. Edmunds