The instant Vika Bull sashayed onto the stage for the opening of At Last:The Etta James Story, she became Etta James.
She walked the walk, talked the talk and immortalised Willie Dixon’s ‘I Just Wanna Make Love to You’ with a passion that had her audience loving her right back every minute, every word, every sound she uttered until the end of the mammoth show.
But, oh, the microphone hiccoughs! Unforgiveable. A lesser performer could well have thrown a tantrum, but a sense of humour and true professionalism continued to deliver the narrative that brought understanding of Etta’s extraordinary life.
Vika’s amazing vocal range and power commanded every one of Etta’s classics and all were complemented by the excellence of The Essential R&B Band that never once overpowered her.
Having Ben Gillespie put his trombone aside to be a cheeky song and dance partner in ‘Roll with Me Henry’, the song that first brought Etta attention as a 15 year old, was a master stroke as was highlighting the guitar talent of Dion Hirini, who accompanied Vika on ‘It’s a Man’s World’ and led her into ‘I’m a Woman’.
The era in which Etta lived was a tragic one, including race discrimination and rejection. Many of her songs, like ‘Fool that I Am’ and ‘Lovesick Blues,’ brought tears, but no more so than with the plaintive ‘I Want a Sunday kind of Love’. Etta’s soul was damaged by this time but her passion and gutsy courage never waivered. At 71, just three years before her death, the song for which she is most remembered, ‘At Last’ finally brought her the reward of peace and a loving family to end the turbulent years.
As Vika delivered this song, it resonated through the theatre with such intensity that it brought the 800-strong audience to its feet in thunderous applause and deserved appreciation.
Thank you, Vika. It was a privilege.