Most soul pundits were surprised by the extensive media coverage that followed the sad passing, earlier in the year, of Etta James. Not that the column inches and news reports weren’t deserved… it’s just that, in the UK and Europe especially, they seemed out of proportion to the profile she enjoyed. In the UK, for instance, she’d only ever had one hit (and that a very belated reissue on the back of a TV ad), but it was gratifying to see that the news editors were happy to devote time to her achievements. Better still was the fact that some of the reissue labels (like Ace) were prepared to release some of her lesser known albums to complement the inevitable greatest hits packages. Now contemporary soul singer, Leela James, goes one further with a whole album in tribute to Etta.
Born in L A, Leela James’ soul vocals were honed in local churches and her debut LP, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was critically acclaimed for its “back porch” style. Two more albums followed – including ‘My Soul’ on the then recently re-launched Stax label before she re-located to Shanachie where management and execs believed she could make an excellent job of paying homage to the late, great Etta James.
Produced by Grammy winners Shannon Sanders and Drew Ramsey (John Legend, India.Airie etc), Leela knew from the onset that she didn’t want to offer note for note copies of Etta’s classics. Rather, encouraged by her team, she’s opted to set the material in a modern soul /R&B setting. Hear the concept to best effect on the rolling, energised take on ‘Something’s Got A Hold Me’. It’s so different to Etta’s wonderful original but it retains all the same urgency and pressure points. Other classics to receive similar make overs are ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, the more obscure ‘I Want To Ta-Ta You Baby’, ‘Nobody Loves You Like Me’ and ‘At Last’ which is delivered as a duet with producer Shannon Sanders… they pull it off wonderfully.
The album boasts two new songs too – both the brief ‘Soul Will Never Die’ and ‘Old School Kind Of Love’ are written and delivered in a style that Etta James would be proud of; indeed, I suspect, the great lady would be proud of the whole project.