One of the most powerful female voices of all times, Etta James, was an understated genius whose career was marred with a tumultuous personal life and her private battles with substance. With a career that spanned over fifty years, James sang songs from the south – RNB, gospel, blues and rock ‘n’ roll – all with a voice that could fill your belly with butterflies and explode your heart. She even helped Avicii become a millionaire with her sample on ‘Levels’. Blues songstress Vika Bull is Etta James in AT LAST: THE ETTA JAMES STORY, a stage show that presents the life and music of one of the greatest voices of the twentieth century.
For Vika Bull – one half of blues duo Vika & Linda, who most recently played the Byron Bay Bluesfest, and has sung with Paul Kelly – the decision to play Etta James in the stage show was a no brainer. “When I got into the music business when I was seventeen, I was introduced to her,” Vika tells me. Singing the songs of James is how Bull pays tribute to her idol – her first passion in the music business.
Part of the appeal of James’ voice is her range – from supernova power, to ultra-soft and gentle, James displayed a certain vulnerability in her voice that was representative of her tumultuous life. “I liked her especially because of her power, but also the fact that she can be really gentle and very vulnerable when she wanted,” Vika says, attributing this vulnerability to James’ tough childhood in foster care.
Early doo-wop singers and RNB songstresses had a particular quality that was not indicative of the time. At a time when women were expected to exhibit meekness, these singers were empowered and independent as a result of growing up in a society that segregated them based on colour. “That is why they became so great,” Bull states. “They could sing so well, and with honesty, because they had been through it.”
Condensing a career of fifty years into a two-and-a-half-hour show is no easy feat, as Bull and the producers combed through her extensive discography and picked out the right songs to create the show. “She sang up until she was about seventy! We had to skip a lot, but most of the hits are there,” Vika says. “We go right through – there’s RNB, funk, soul, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll. Everything she sang, we try and cover.”
Trumpet player Tibor Gyapjas helps to narrate her life throughout the show, as he and Bull follow James’ life in all of its highs and lows. It explores her birth, to a fourteen-year-old mother and unidentified father, her meeting with Johnny Otis (who launched her career), her struggles with substance, her ten-year separation and subsequent reunification with lifelong partner Artis Mills, and finally her death.
In telling the story through narration as well as music, they are able to give the audience a taste of her personality. “There are some really funny moments,” says Bull. “She was a really cheeky, funny woman. A kind of mischief maker, and I really like that about her.”
Although an accomplished and powerful singer herself, playing the part of Etta James still poses technical challenges. “It’s hard because it is really vocally challenging, because of how powerfully she could sing. I have to try and put that across. It can be draining,” Bull says. A typical pre-performance day consists of a lot of rest and vocal exercises. “I try and sing as close to the original as I can. I don’t stray too far from anywhere. You can’t really stuff around with songs like ‘At Last’ or ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’.”
The struggle of putting together a show that pays tribute to a larger-than-life figure lies not only in emulating her voice, but more deeply in remaining true to her memory. “I am aware that she has passed on, and I have to try and tell the story that will make the audience really happy, and also make her happy,” Bull says. “I get a bit scared sometimes and think ‘what if she hates it?’ So I am really mindful of that.”
At Last: The Etta James Story will be showing at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre on Saturday July 4 at 8pm and is SOLD OUT my friends.