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Soul legend's greatest songs performed on stage
The smash-hit show,At Last – The Etta James Story, visits Birmingham Town Hall on October 18, with Australian star Vika Bull (pictured) taking the lead role. Following its world premiere in Melbourne in 2013, the show has repeatedly packed theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand. In 2016 it returned to Melbourne for a sell-out season at The Arts Centre and it later triumphed for a third season at Sydney Opera House.
Telling the story of the turbulent life of soul legend Etta James, who died in 2012, aged 73, and featuring some of her most beloved songs, including Tell Mama, Something's Got A Hold On Me, Sugar On The Floor, the heart-rending I'd Rather Go Blind and her iconic signature song At Last, the production boasts some of Australia's finest and funkiest musicians in the shape of The Essential R&B Band.
I caught up with Vika to hear more about the show.
Tell me about the format of At Last – The Etta James Story.
It's a narrative concert. I tell Etta's story, and in between sing her songs. There are 23 in the show – all great – and her story is fascinating.
I've read that Etta James is your favourite singer. As a performer, what does it mean to you to sing her songs on stage?
I take it very seriously. I have a lot of respect for her. When I started in this business at 17 she was the one I listened to every day. I liked the way she sang with power and honesty. The first song of hers that I heard was Roll With Me Henry. I was instantly hooked. I loved the duet, I loved the voices, I loved the song. Her music has influenced my career greatly because of the way that she sang and I liked the fact that she could sing a lot of styles.
How did you prepare for the role?
I looked up a lot of stuff on the internet. I read her book, Rage To Survive. I already knew most of her music, so there was no problem there. The real work was in preparing my voice because the show is a very hard sing and I had to get vocally fit.
Is there a particular song that still really gets you every time you perform it?
All I Could Do Was Cry gets me every time. It's so sad.
Given the longevity of Etta's career, there are a lot of different styles in the show. Do you have a favourite song to perform? Or one that's more of a challenge?
My favourite song to perform is Tough Lover. The most challenging is The Fool That I Am.
You rose to fame with Australian Blues outfit, The Black Sorrows, with whom you toured the world, performed for Nelson Mandela, and supported legendary musicians such as Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Sting and Joe Cocker. How does touring with a theatrical production differ?
It's very different. The same show every night! I thought I would get bored but I haven't. I still love performing this show because I love the songs so much and never get tired of them.
You are accompanied by The Essential R&B Band, whose line-up – unusually for a touring show – hasn't changed since the show premiered in 2013. There must be a real chemistry there.
Yes, we like each other very much and have an enormous amount of respect for each other – I have been working with some members of the band for over 20 years!
The show has been phenomenally received in Australia, where you performed sold-out dates at the Sydney Opera House. How did that reception feel?
I was very pleased with the way people reacted to the show. I was quite shocked at first, but Etta is fair dinkum and Australians love that.
At Last – The Etta James Story 2018 UK tour dates:
October 13: The Sage, Gateshead; October 14: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; October 15: Opera House, Buxton; October 17: Barbican, York; October 18: Town Hall, Birmingham; October 20: Corn Exchange, Cambridge; October 22: Cadogan Hall, London.