Left – Vika Bull. Photo – Chrissie Francis
Of the many singers who credit big-voiced, soulful, rowdy singer Etta James with inspiring them, two names give you pause to think. One is drug-loving bad boy Keith Richards, with whom she had such an instant rapport they reportedly "married" in a mock backstage ceremony while on tour together. The other is the uber-talented and equally drug-loving Amy Winehouse, who sadly failed to survive the harsh treatment she imposed on her long-suffering body.
At 26-27 – the age when so many talented musicians have died and at which Amy was in her final descent – Etta hit a similar low patch, hiding away from life, work, and any friends who weren't part of her daily drug-taking routine.
When we hit that point in At Last: The Etta James Story, we are barely half an hour into a two-hour show, and you know there's a whole catalogue of gutsy, sensitive and hip-jiggling music, sung in her perfectly nuanced and heartfelt way, that has yet to come.
It's a shocking reminder of how lucky the musical world was not to lose Etta earlier – and how much we might have enjoyed if Amy had found a way out.
Born in The Great Depression to a 14-year old who spent much of Etta's childhood in jail, life was never going to be easy for the girl born Jamesetta Hawkins.
Her yoyo life of addiction and respite, love and loss, separation and reunion, hopelessness and redemption may be the stuff that keeps soap opera audiences hanging on but it's also exasperating to witness and, as singer Vika Bull and trumper-player Tibor Gyapjes narrate her tale between songs, there were audible groans from the audience with every relapse.
Sensibly, the co-narrators make no effort to act out the story – just reading the tale seemed challenge enough and Vika especially appeared uncomfortable in her speaking role. Some sound and technical issues plagued the first half and probably did not help. The material they are working with is well researched and interesting but sounded at times disjointed and lacking fluidity.
But luckily the essence of Etta James was always her music, and that is what the performers in this "narrative concert" also excel at.
Vika Bull is a perfect match for Etta James; apart from showing total familiarity with every semitone and dynamic of every song, the style and sensitivity of Etta's music sits precisely in the range that Vika's own voice swells, rolls, shines and soars so powerfully that it sounds as if her heart will burst with emotion.
In the program Vika reveals she was hooked on Etta's music and voice from the first time she heard it: "I listened to her night and day, mimicking her every lick. Her voice just got me in the gut." Those years of practice paid off and now Vika's voice gets you in the gut, too.
The Essential R & B Band are in their element, too. Led by pianist John McAll, they never overwhelm Vika and rise to the challenge of every solo slot offered, with guitarist Dion Hirini, trumpeter Gyapjas and saxophonist Remco Keijzer given especial space to shine.
All the classics are there – the bouncy duet 'Roll With Me Henry', the mournful 'I'd Rather Go Blind', and the uplifting 'At Last' – and even those who aren't familiar with her work may have a flashback to a Muppet moment from childhood when a certain pink diva blessed the world with her rendition of W-O-M-A-N.
It's just over a year since Etta James died, and she was making her voice heard right up until the end, recording her final album just a year before she died (of leukaemia) and jealously sniping when Beyonce – not herself – was asked to perform the Etta classic 'At Last' at Barack Obama's inauguration.
With luck this admirable presentation of her life and works may be enough to launch new interest in the singer whose powerful personality shone through in her songs – many of which she wrote or co-wrote – and who never gave up on living life to its fullest.
Room 8 presents
At Last: The Etta James Story
by John H. Livings
Director Simon Myers
Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre, 188 Collins St, Melbourne
Dates: From February 19 until March 3; check times on website
Tickets: $39 – $69
Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au | Athenaeum Box Office on 9650 1500