Interview with John Livings – The Writer of At Last: The Etta James Story
Interview with John Livings – The Writer of
At Last: The Etta James Story
St David’s Hall
Thursday 27 September, 8pm
THE captivating tale of a genuine soul legend comes to St David’s Hall on Thursday 27 September with At Last: The Etta James Story.
This stunning show relives Etta’s turbulent life and features some of her most beloved songs including Tell Mama, Something’s Got a Hold on Me, Sugar on the Floor, I’d Rather Go Blind, her iconic signature song At Last and many more.
Here’s our chat with John Livings – the writer of this smash-hit production.
Etta’s life was one of incredible highs and lows. How true to her life’s narrative is the production?
100% true, which considering some of Etta’s dark times may be viewed as a tragedy. From an early age she experienced deprivation and grinding poverty. As an adult she drank heavily, was hooked on heroin and cocaine and in and out of jail on numerous charges. And if that’s not enough, she once spent 17 months in a notorious psychiatric hospital. But she herself never shied away or tried to hide her past, and I would have been doing her memory a disservice if I’d have sugar-coated her story.
Mercifully, she managed to conquer her demons, and I’m pleased to say that the contentment she found in the last few years of her life is also 100% accurate.
There must have been a wealth of source material to research. How did you begin? What was the process?
Etta had a long career, but it wasn’t exactly stellar and contrary to popular belief she never had any major hits. Sure she topped the R&B charts on occasion, but she was never mainstream – Etta didn’t do mainstream. Consequently, there’s not a vast wealth of material written about her. But I enjoy the research process and digging deep into the archives of Chess Records (Etta’s label of 16 years) produced a wealth of material. And of course Etta was – and still is – much loved and revered by a vast array of artists throughout the world, who have delighted in sharing their Etta stories in various publications and books.
One such story is from Keith Richards’ excellent 2010 autobiography Life. In 1978, Etta was the opening act for the Rolling Stones’ US tour. The band were huge fans, and recognised in Etta a performer wild enough to handle their stadium-sized crowds. Well, she didn’t disappoint and off-stage developed a lasting friendship with Keith. The two – thick as thieves – even went through a mock, backstage wedding, exchanging vows and rings and Keith naming his new “bride”, Etta Richards. Now there’s a match made in rock ’n’ roll heaven!
How long did the project take to come to stage from inception?
From inception to stage would have only taken about a year. I think I went through twelve drafts before the producers were happy, and whilst all that was going on our fantastic musical director John McAll was writing arrangements and putting the band together.
The thing is that though Australia is a huge country in landmass it only has a population of just over 24 million, which is spread out over vast distances. Consequently, to make any production financially viable it is necessary to work lean and mean and there’s not much time or budget for months of try-outs in the ’burbs. So we moved fast on At Last, but thanks to our amazing cast and crew we pulled it off and audiences embraced the show from day one.
With such a remarkable life and career as Etta’s, how do you decide what to include and what to leave out of a two-hour narrative concert?
That’s a very good question, and probably one of the biggest challenges in writing a story that’s as rich as Etta’s is what to leave out. The narrative is in part a pathway from one song to the next, and I found myself reluctantly ditching some great stories because I just couldn’t make them fit. Choosing which songs to include in the show also proved to be a daunting task – for the simple reason that we were spoilt for choice.
In her long career Etta recorded an impressive 30 studio albums, a half-dozen live albums and every year sees the release of more and more compilation albums. I had a wish list of songs that I wanted to include in the show, but the final decision was made by the producers, the music director and of course Vika. There are 22 songs in the show – my personal favourite being Sugar on the Floor – that was written by one-time Elton John collaborator, Kiki Dee. Etta’s emotive cover featured on her 14th studio album Deep in the Night, which was released in 1978.
What was the most interesting thing you found out about her?
I continue to find interesting things about her, and here are just a couple of those great stories that – try as I may – I still haven’t managed to shoehorn into the show! In the 1950s, Etta was playing a club in Memphis where she happened to share the bill with a young Elvis, who was just starting to make waves. Segregation was very much in place, and it wouldn’t have been possible for the talented pair to be in the same diner. But much to Etta’s delight Elvis turned out to be a true gentleman, super cool and respectful and addressing her as “Ma’am”. A couple of years later Elvis was The King and Etta, spending months on the road, was touring with a small pet monkey named Leo that she’d brought along for company. Always an animal lover, Etta doted on Leo and with Elvis dolls all the rage she dressed him up like a little Elvis, complete with a miniature black leather jacket and a pair of jeans with a hole cut out for his tail!
And then there was the time in 1974 when Etta was flown to Kinshasa, Zaire to sing alongside James Brown, B.B. King and a host of others as part of the entertainment for the Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman fight billed as The Rumble in the Jungle. The whole escapade turned out to be a disaster, the performers kept under virtual house arrest for several weeks before being flown out of Africa with Etta not having sung a note. The fight eventually took place with Ali winning by a knock-out in the eighth round…but that’s another story!
Why do you think she’s such an influence on artists today?
Etta is authentic and that’s what resonates with people. She has become the singer’s singer, and her popularity only appears to be growing stronger since her passing in 2012. I can’t accurately answer why this is so, but I think it’s great that she’s so widely respected and that her memory lives on in the growing number of fans that love her the world over. Her signature song At Last constantly tops the list of favoured wedding songs, and even turned up on the catwalk at this year’s London Fashion Week.
How did it feel to watch the first full performance?
February 15th 2013. Clocktower Centre, Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Australia – Showtime! Yes, I’m not making it up. At Last premiered in the sleepy suburb of Moonee Ponds; Dame Edna’s old stomping ground. How did it feel to watch the first full performance? In a word, “terrifying!” We knew that we had the best singer in Vika, and that the band were hot and as good as it gets but until opening night we had no idea as to how the show would be received. Ticket sales had been healthy, and if I recall we had a more-or-less full house. I was cowering in the dark at the back of the Stalls and wincing at every fluffed line and missed cue.
But I needn’t have worried for the audience failed to notice any first night nerves or minor stuff-ups and that first show climaxed with a standing ovation. “That’s not normal” commented Simon Myers, one of the producers who was standing next to me. “Better not get used to this”. Simon has been in the theatre for many years, and knows what he’s talking about. But he’s been proven wrong in that standing ovations at the end of At Last have become the norm. Maybe I’ll never get used to it. I don’t think I want to.
Has the show changed since it first premiered? Vika and the band have stayed with the production throughout. What did they bring to the show that you weren’t expecting?
The format of the show has not changed at all, but the performance goes from strength to strength. We’ve juggled a few numbers around and Vika added another song (as though 21 wasn’t enough for her!) But I must’ve seen At Last over 50 times, and yet there’s always something new and different to see and hear. It’s to be expected that the narrative is delivered with more polish than earlier shows, but what stands out for me is how the musicians get to individually shine night after night.
The band are seriously tight yet with John McAll’s arrangements; are left enough space to fly and to express themselves. The band have stayed with the production since day one, which considering the fact that they are all much-in-demand musicians speaks volumes for the passion that they all have for At Last. And I’m thrilled that they are all available for this, our first UK tour.
Vika comes with an extraordinary musical pedigree. What do you think is the key to the magic of her performance?
Vika simply has one of the best voices in Australia, and we are privileged and honoured that she stepped up to star in At Last. But more that her voice she has a natural feeling for the songs of Etta James, and the honesty and passion in which they need to be performed. She takes her craft seriously, works hard onstage and yet her warmth and good humour are never far from the surface.
She’ll sometimes go off script and engage the audience in friendly banter, a number of her off-the-cuff ad-libs finding their way into the show to which I’ll then shamelessly take credit for! And it does no harm that Vika happens to be a total sweetheart offstage too. Always generous with her time and, though sometimes exhausted after a show she’ll make sure to meet and greet fans in the foyer, sign autographs and pose for selfies. Vika is much loved in Australia…and I suspect she’s about to wow UK audiences too!
Finally, tell us what can audiences expect from At Last?
One of the finest female voices that they are ever likely to hear…anywhere! And backed by an incredible band whose joy at playing the songs of Etta James is palpable. It’s a pretty damn good story, but don’t take my word for it – check out all the 5-star reviews!
PLEASE NOTE: Under 14s must be accompanied by an adult.
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