Her voice has been the very sound of the Rocky saga for the last four decades with millions upon millions of moviegoers and radio listeners thrilling to the exhilarating chorus of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now”. Total Rocky is honored to present our exclusive interview with the multi-talented DeEtta Little-West – singer, actor, author and inspiring Christian evangelist.
Appearing on the official soundtracks of the first two Rocky films, DeEtta recorded the quintessential Rocky anthem, “Gonna Fly Now”, as well as Rocky and Adrian’s love song, “You Take My Heart Away”, and later “All of My Life” on the Rocky II soundtrack. Today, she’s active as ever in her work as a minister, actor, and happily married mother and grandmother.
“Music has been my life,” DeEtta says. “If my mother were alive to tell it she would say that I started singing from her womb,” she laughs. Inspired by the singing style of Roberta Flack and the sounds of Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, DeEtta started her own singing career very early in life. “I began my journey of performing in talents shows, musicals, beauty pageants, stage productions and last but not least, church. All at the age of 12 years old.” Born and raised in San Diego, California along with three brothers and a sister, DeEtta attended college where she majored in music.
Performance runs in the family; her late brother, actor Cleavon Little went on to star in various stage and screen productions, making his Broadway debut in 1968 and going on to earn a Tony Award, and later an Emmy for his television work. He’s best loved for his role of Sheriff Bart in Mel Brooks’ comedy classic “Blazing Saddles.”
After moving up to Los Angeles after college, DeEtta landed work in the entertainment field and joined the group Sweet Salvation, where she made her first recording with the band on the Elektra-Asylum Label in 1972. “From that point I began my real journey in the music industry,” she recalls. “I was brought in by an amazing woman, a friend named Fritz Baskett. She is a wonderful vocalist and songwriter. The band was one of the best bands that I have ever heard in my life. Great musicians with a whole lot of funk and soul. Good times!”
Hear DeEtta’s “Rock Steady”
Sweet Salvation stayed on the music scene during the early-mid 1970’s, producing a number of cool jams including a cover of Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady”, performed by DeEtta on the group’s self-titled album, “Sweet Salvation”. “It was one of our hottest numbers,” she says of the incredibly energetic and exciting song, which, in our opinion is even better than the Queen of Soul’s original.
Bill Conti and the Rocky Soundtrack
It was while working as an executive assistant at a Los Angeles television network that DeEtta met Shelby Conti, wife of composer Bill Conti. Though today the Juilliard trained Conti is recognized as a gifted composer, honored with an Oscar and five Emmy Awards, in 1975 Conti had only been on the Los Angeles music scene for about a year and was on the lookout for musical talent and deals. Shelby Conti, herself performance oriented as a former Ballet Corps dancer, discovered that DeEtta could sing and invited her to the Contis’ home to meet her husband. “The rest was history,” West says.
Conti developed the incredible Rocky soundtrack before the film was edited, mostly based on a simple melody he created for the character of Rocky Balboa, and various versions of that melody are heard in a number of tracks throughout the film. They are without a doubt Rocky’s signature notes. “Gonna Fly Now” was originally intended as a roughly one minute piece of instrumental music to score Rocky’s epic training montage, but after the film’s director John Avildsen added scene after scene to the montage, each time asking Conti to score a little bit more music to cover the additional length of film, it ended up being nearly three minutes long.
Avildsen described the footage to Bill Conti as the theme developed like a patchwork quilt, detailing the moment when Rocky has triumphantly run atop the steps of the museum, arms in the air. “It’s like he’s standing up there jumping around,” Avildsen said. “It’s like he’s gonna fly.”
The director’s words hit a chord, and Conti went back to work on the piece, this time shaping it into an official song with lyrics by singer-songwriter Carol Connors (famous for her rendition of the smash hit of the late 1950’s, “To Know Him is to Love Him”) and Ayn Robbins, a poet and painter who also received acclaim for her lyrics to the song “Someone’s Waiting for You” from the 1977 Disney film “The Rescuers”.
“Gonna Fly Now” (better known as Rocky’s Theme) is recognized as Rocky’s powerful anthem and won Bill Conti an Academy Award nomination in 1976 for Best Original Song, not to mention a Golden Globe nomination, an RIAA Certified Platinum Album, and a Grammy nomination for Rocky as Best Original Score. The American Film Institute ranked the song 58th on the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Songs list.
Hear DeEtta’s “Gonna Fly Now”
Describing Conti as being very hands-on with the Rocky soundtrack recording at United Artists Studio in Los Angeles, DeEtta recalls that the composer was “absolutely there every step of the way. He conducted the orchestra, played the baby grand piano and directed the vocalists.” Interestingly, a few of the orchestral performers who worked on the original Rocky re-teamed 30 years later to re-record “Gonna Fly Now” for 2006’s Rocky Balboa.
Very few takes of “Gonna Fly Now” were recorded, each of them being almost identical. The finished track sounds like a dramatically rich chorus of singers belting out Rocky’s theme in unison; in fact, the only voices on the recording were West, Nelson Pigford and Shelby Conti, who, for some reason, was not credited on the track. “There are some amazing things that can happen in the studio. Strong, powerful voices can be overdubbed once and it sounds like an amazing choir,” DeEtta explains of the recording process.
“Gonna Fly Now” held the number one position on the Billboard charts for the week of July 2, 1977, but also received an RIAA Certified Gold Record and two Grammy nominations for Best Instrumental Composition and performance.
“My ears absolutely perk up every single time that I hear it,” she says of the song for which she received a Gold Album. “There are times when people will text, email, Facebook or Instagram me when they hear it.”
Hear DeEtta’s “You Take My Heart Away”
Singing “You Take My Heart Away”
West was also teamed for a duet in the United Artists Studio with singer Nelson Pigford for “You Take My Heart Away”, Conti’s wonderfully romantic ballad which became Rocky and Adrian’s signature love theme throughout the Rocky series.
“I knew Nelson before we started the Rocky project,” West says of her singing partner. “What a phenomenal bass/baritone voice.” In his 40+ year career, Nelson Pigford has done more songwriting than performing and perhaps his most famous work was as co-writer on Barry White’s 1977 song “It’s Ecstasy When You Lay Down Next to Me”.
Recorded in a separate studio session, “You Take My Heart Away” is the #8 track on the original Rocky soundtrack. “Right off the top, I fell in love with the song,” DeEtta says of the ballad written by Conti, Connors and Robbins. “It is a wonderful song. My daughter wants me to sing it in her wedding – as soon as her Knight in Shining Armor comes forth!”
Billboard rightly described the song as “a rousing, romantic, soulful duet by vocalists DeEtta Little and Nelson Pigford. The singers and the big orchestral production combine for an intense and commercial crossover sound.”
As many fans may have noticed, the version of this love song on the soundtrack album is noticeably different than the one heard on the record player in Rocky’s apartment on the night that he kisses Adrian for the first time in the movie. West recalls recording several takes of “You Take My Heart Away” and explains that for whatever reason, one of the alternates was chosen to be used in the background of this scene. The film version of the song is slower in pace, a bit funkier, and has slightly different vocalizations by the singers.
“You Take My Heart Away” ranked in the Top 40 on the pop charts following the release of Rocky in 1977 and was covered by many major recording artists of the day including the great Shirley Bassey (who even released an album of the same name that year), Steve Lawrence, and James Darren, though none comes close to the heart and soul of Little and Pigford’s incredible original.
On November 21, 1976, DeEtta attended the New York premiere of Rocky and bumped into an old friend – the Master of Disaster himself, Apollo Creed. “It was amazing. The greatest part of attending the premiere was to see Carl Weathers,” West remembers. “Carl and I went to college together. We actually appeared in a stage production of ‘West Side Story.’ He was my dance partner. We hadn’t seen each other since our college days.”
Hear “All of My Life” from Rocky II
Rocky II and “All of My Life”
Following the success of Rocky, DeEtta and Nelson Pigford were called back by Bill Conti two years later to team up for a second installment of the series, Rocky II.
West and Pigford’s vocalization of “All of My Life”, the continuation of Rocky and Adrian’s love theme, sadly never made it into the movie itself although the instrumental does appear as background music. “I had no idea that it wasn’t going to make it into the film. I loved that song as much as I loved ‘You Take My Heart Away.’ I was shocked that it didn’t make it,” West says. The vocal version of “All of My Life”, with joyously romantic lyrics penned by both Bill and Shelby Conti, thankfully does appear on the Rocky II soundtrack.
Despite her success in the entertainment industry, she felt led into a more meaningful direction with her music – and her life.
“The call of God was on my life at the early age of 16,” she says. “I knew that one day I would be totally consumed with it, but at that age I was trying to find my way.” The transition from entertainment to evangelical work was a seamless one for DeEtta, in fact the two truly went hand-in-hand. After the release of Rocky II in 1979, DeEtta accepted the call to Christian ministry under the pastorate of her husband Dr. James A. West. “I didn’t have to do much career juggling because a part of my ministry is singing, so I just took another route and began to focus more on singing gospel/inspirational music. It was easy because God had His hands on it.”
DeEtta and her husband are the parents of three children, Nicol, Danielle and Phillip as well as proud grandparents. The Wests were named one of Atlanta’s “Most Powerful Couples” in 2011 and were both inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers of Morehouse College.
Now the Community Affairs Liason at UP TV – Uplifting Entertainment, DeEtta also represents Magic Johnson’s network, ASPiRE TV and still manages to act in the network’s world premiere movies – 15 of them so far – and stage plays for UP TV, as well as mainstream films such as Martin Lawrence‘s “Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins” and “Preacher’s Kid”.
“I’m so blessed to be working at a company that recognizes all of my gifts,” she says. “I am an actor and I love using that gift. I have been blessed to be in about 14 movies that have aired on UP TV. In September we will start the production of a Christmas movie entitled, ‘A Baby for Christmas.’ This is the third installment of a wonderful Christmas franchise that UP TV is producing – I’m praying they will make it a series.”
Later this year, DeEtta be journeying to South Africa to serve as a volunteer at a local mission. “I have so many amazing ministry assignments that the Lord has given me,” she says. “I love preaching/teaching His word and seeing His people being transformed right before my very eyes.”
Gifted with an incredible talent, DeEtta has been able to both entertain audiences all over the world with her recordings and share the gospel through her ministry of music. “My mission is to uplift, encourage, empower, inspire and bring a word of healing to the mind, body and soul. That can happen every single day. I don’t have to be in a pulpit or on a stage to deliver a message of hope and healing,” she says. “As we walk with God, our lifestyle should always breathe life into the hearts of the people that we come in contact with, daily.”
Mission accomplished, DeEtta.