Leela James “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World”:
Leela James Celebrates the Enduring Power of Soul Music on Shanachie Debut “Let’s Do It Again”
When Leela James decided to call her new album LET’S DO IT AGAIN, it wasn’t necessarily because she happened to record a profoundly soulful version of that Staples Singers classic. There was a deeper meaning involved for her as one of the most acclaimed soul singers of the new generation. It was all about pursuing her vision of music, the kind she sang about on the song simply titled “Music” on her best-selling debut CD, on which she name-checked Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan and wondered “where’s the music gone?” For LET’S DO IT AGAIN, Leela was determined to make music the old-school way, just like they used to do at Stax, Motown and Muscle Shoals, recording live in the studio to capture the spontaneous magic and raw emotion that can only come by recording an in-the-moment performance where the singer feeds off the energy of the musicians. It was a courageous move but Leela was up for the challenge as
she translates classic soul into her own contemporary style with unique interpretations of a wide-ranging set of songs. The results leap out of the speakers, making LET’S DO IT AGAIN an irresistible experience of joyous, organic, funky, soul music that is all too rare these days. Slated for March 24th on Shanachie Entertainment, LET’S DO IT AGAIN, is a triumphant sophomore effort from one of the most electrifying singers on the scene today.
“I love real music,” Leela explains, “meaning I love instruments, I love real musicians playing. I most enjoy performing with my band because I get energy from the crowd and the instruments; it really does something for
me. So the opportunity to go into the studio and combine that live energy with the studio was just a blessing.”
The spontaneous nature of the music-making on LET’S DO IT AGAIN, which Leela produced, can be heard on the session multi-tracks. When Leela and the band kick into a funk version of The Rolling Stones classic “Miss You”, a song she has been performing at concerts for some time, the groove initially is tight but not exciting enough for her taste. “I want you to slow it down, make it FONKY, more dirty,” Leela instructed her musicians. They hit it again and you can hear Leela singing to the engineer, Marc Fuselli: “Marc I want you to hit the record button and let it roll…let it roll…let it roll…we tryin’ to figure it out right now…but let it roll.” She continued some wordless wails and then began singing the familiar verses as the groove got deeper. It evolved into a tour-de-force performance. On her version of Betty Wright’s “Clean Up Woman,” as the familiar opening lick is played by her guitar player, Leela sings the “oh, oh, yeah” intro to another classic song, “Mr. Big Stuff.” It acts like a sample except of course she was creating it live spontaneously. She had told the band on this one to speed the groove up, make it more “hip hop.” Those alterations transform the song into something fresh. Leela’s version of Womack & Womack’s obscure gem “Baby I’m Scared Of You,” the “steppers” groove had folks dancing in the studio as background singer Andrea Martin spontaneously dropped a Jamaican-style dance-hall rap into the tag. None of these things were planned.
Leela hand-picked all the songs on the album, choosing ones that had particular meaning for her. She decided to do “Nobody Knows you When You’re Down And Out” in the style of Bobby Womack’s recording because her father had a particular love for his version of the song.
Her take on Bootsy Collins’ “I’d Rather Be With You,” on the other hand, had been getting great reaction at her shows. But many of the songs were selected because of Leela’s desire to pay tribute to the artists who originally did them—Al Green, Betty Wright, Phyllis Hyman, Angela Bofill, The Staples Singers and James Brown among others.
“We were blessed to open up for James Brown on tour in Europe,” Leela relates. “I was elated after a show to go meet him backstage and talk with him. He pulled me into an interview on camera and said ‘this is a great
singer’. This was the King, the Godfather talking about little ‘ol me! He said I should carry on the tradition. He gave me a lot of advice. I feel a personal connection with him and an obligation to keep the funk tradition
Many of Leela’s fans may be surprised that she chose to do songs previously recorded by Phyllis Hyman and Angela Bofill, singers known for a more jazz-inflected delivery than Leela’s.
“Phyllis Hyman was an amazing, incredible singer, “Leela gushes. “She had an incredible voice and an amazing range but she wasn’t the biggest artist that she could or should have been. I wanted to do SOMETHING by her. I decided to do “You Know How To Love Me” because it was her breakout record and it’s uptempo, with funk in it, so it’s right up my alley. It’s my way of paying tribute to an incredible artist who never truly got the acclaim she deserved. Angela Bofill is still around (though recovering from two recent strokes). Her tone is very distinctive. I can relate to that. People when I was young would say certain things I did reminded them of her. I didn’t hear her much because I was on the West Coast. I was just taken by the beauty of her voice. She’s another person I wanted to pay homage to. Some singers aren’t as known as they should be and as a young singer I wanted to pay respect.”
Leela James’ deep connection with soul music tradition comes naturally. Born in Los Angeles, gospel music was a natural part of her church-going childhood as was the blues, funk and R & B that she heard in her home, thanks to her father’s vast record collection. Her performances on the indie live circuit as well as her appearance on hip hop legend Pete Rock’s SOUL SURVIVOR II album and stints as opening act on national tours by The Black Eyed Peas and Macy Gray generated a tremendous grassroots buzz. So while her critically-acclaimed debut album A CHANGE IS GONNA COME seemed to come out of nowhere, to those in the know, it was one of the most anticipated albums of the year. With production by Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, James Poyser and Chucky Thompson, and Executive Produced by Commissioner Gordon, A CHANGE IS GONNA COME, boasted a striking slate of original songs co-written by Leela as well as impressive interpretations of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” and bits of acoustic blues. Dubbing the raw, soulful sound of her music “back porch soul,” Leela was immediately compared to such luminaries as Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Mahalia Jackson. “Music,” the first single from the album, hit the adult urban contemporary charts. VH-1 embraced Leela as their first “You Oughta Know” artist and played her videos in heavy rotation.
The tremendous momentum that followed the release of A CHANGE IS GONNA COME, afforded Leela James the opportunity to tour relentlessly for three consecutive years, playing virtually every prestigious festival on the international circuit. She even appeared at the Montreux Jazz Festival twice and on one of those occasions, was handpicked to open for BB King during his “Farewell Tour.” The legendary bluesman even invited the young chanteuse onstage to perform alongside him!
Over the years, critics, fans and musicians alike have recognized Leela James extraordinary gifts as a vocalist, storyteller and keeper of the great soul tradition. Leela had the distinction of being selected to duet with Ray Charles on a version of Les McCann’s “Compared To What” on the posthumously-released Ray Charles album GENIUS AND FRIENDS and was a guest vocalist on Robert Randolph And The Family Band’s 2006 album COLORBLIND, proving that Leela’s talent ranges across many musical genres. Leela James also toured Japan and was invited to perform with singer/songwriter John Legend in South Africa.
LET’S DO IT AGAIN is at once a celebration of the enduring power of soul music and assertion of its contemporary relevance for a new generation. It reveals new aspects of Leela James’ artistry and range as a singer.
“I don’t know what I fit a current mode of category,” Leela muses. “I try to just do me. I’m a soul singer but there’s a lot of music in me, a lot of variety. I love all kinds of music and people may not know that about me.
I can’t really be pigeonholed. I’m a singer. I just happen to be soulful. I don’t limit myself because whatever I do is going to be me. It could be a pop song but once I get through with it there’s gonna be some “stank” on