Vika Bull is known for her powerful, gutsy voice. Along with her sister, Linda, she has performed with some of the top names in Australia, lending her strong vocals to such artists as Paul Kelly, Renee Geyer, John Farnham and Tim Finn… just to name a few and, of course, as part of The Black Sorrows with Joe Camilleri but it is with ‘At Last – The EttaJames Story’ that Vika steps to centre stage to showcase that amazing talent. This is a two hour narrative concert telling the story of Etta James, performed beautifully by Vika and including such Etta James classics as ‘Tell Mama’, ‘Something’s Got a Hold on Me’, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ and her signature song, ‘At Last’.
“I’ve been doing (the show) for two and a half years now, on and off,” Vika explains in our recent interview. “We did the first show in February 2013, a year after her death. She died in January 2012,” Vika explains. “It’s come along way. It runs a lot smoother now. In the beginning, I wasn’t that good at the script but I think I’ve got it down now!”
I have to share that I have heard only glowing reports from those who have seen the show and the singer is appreciative of the feedback. “Oh that’s nice,” she responds. “Thank you. I’m really glad to hear that. I was really worried about that when I read the script. I was really concerned as she’s my favourite singer and I thought if I don’t sing the show properly, I’ll just get bloody slaughtered! And because it’s so tough, that was my main concern. It’s such a hard sing.”
Learning the songs, she says, was the easy part. After all, she was already a fan of the legendary singer. “I knew the tunes well. I just had to memorise the script. I’d never done anything like that before. I’ve never had to speak so much and that was different. That was very hard. I just felt completely naked up there. Singing is easy but speaking is different.”
It’s quite a learning curve when you have to learn your craft in front of an audience, on the job so to speak but, as Vika says “I think it’s a good way to learn. You learn very fast.”
Vika started her singing career while her sister, Linda, was still in school. The younger sister had aspirations of being an artist and went to teachers’ college to become an art teacher but, according to Vika, “She didn’t really enjoy it so she started singing with me.”
At the age of 17, Vika joined her first band, Fear of Flying and went on from there to a band called Sophisticated Boom Boom. “That was a late 50s, early 60s doo woop band,” she explains. “I love that era of music. It was actually the bass player in that band that introduced me to Etta James. It kind of went from there. I joined a few more bands and then Linda and I started our own band, and then we joined the Black Sorrows.”
Vika tells me that her love is performing ‘live’. “I don’t enjoy the studio at all whereas Linda does. I prefer touring and being in venues every night and singing. We grew up in that 80s pub rock era. We had very hard training so it was like working six nights a week with The Sorrows and going on the road for six weeks at a time. I really like that and I just love the pub rock scene. I think it was really good training especially for doing a show like this which is really tough. That kind of training was really handy. Live performance is what I like.”
The show is playing in a number of regional centres as well as the bigger cities and, while Vika says that the audiences are the same in both, she does concede that some regional audiences are a bit more reserved at first. “But once they settle in, it’s like they start to get into the groove and at the end of the night, everyone is exactly the same and probably more in love with Etta James than they thought they would be because she’s fascinating. They’re really appreciative and they really love it and they are fascinated by her story.”
When I ask what part of Etta’s story inspires her most, Vika responds without hesitation. “The fact that she is a survivor; the fact that she hit rock bottom and then came back and conquered all her demons and continued singing. That’s what I really admire about her.”
And that, Vika says, is what motivates her. “It’s hard to tell the story sometimes,” she admits, “because she does go quite low but that would have made her a great singer. I think that it made a lot of those singers great singers. They had a bit of a hard time and they were incredibly strong women but behind the scenes there was a lot of shit going down and I think that’s what made them so great. They were very honest when they sang.”
After this tour winds up, Vika will join forces once again with her sister, Linda when they will be going on the road with C. W. Stoneking, singing backing vocals. “And then I do a bit more stuff with Paul Kelly at the end of the year,” she tells me. “I really like singing with him too. I like doing the harmonies. Linda and I really love being harmony singers and being the backing singers. It’s our thing.” Vika says she feels very comfortable stepping back to sing harmonies but has been happy to take the lead in The Etta James Story. “The Etta show is a real challenge for me because I’ve got to be out front and I’ve got to sing lead. I’m exposed!” she laughs.
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © Sharyn Hamey 2015. All rights reserved
For more information about ‘At Last – The Etta James Story’ and for full tour dates and booking information, go to www.atlasttheettajamesstory.com.au