Leela James is a performer who has no problem taking other folks’ classic tunes and making them her own.
On her debut 2005 album “A Change is Gonna Come,” an album that cemented her rep as an R&B singer who evoked the old-school soul of the ’60s and ’70s, she re-did Sam Cooke’s immortal number. In 2009, she hooked up with label/tribute-album haven Shanachie Entertainment and released an album full of covers called “Let’s Do It Again,” with tunes ranging from the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” to Al Green’s “Simply Beautiful.”
For her latest album, “Loving You More … in the Spirit of Etta James” (also on Shanachie), she concentrates on covering the music of the one and only Matriarch of R&B.
James, 29, thought she might as well cover the tunes of her late, legendary namesake, who passed away in January, especially since she’s often compared to her vocally. She’s even been asked if the senior James was related in some way. “People thought that I was, and, also, because we’re both from LA and our similar vocal styles and the huskiness in our voices,” says James, on the phone from her home in Houston. “But, no, there’s no relation.”
But James, who traded her trademark, wild/woolly locks for platinum-blond, Etta-esque curls for “Loving’s” cover, will gladly take the compliment.
“Etta James is a wonderful, incredible artist,” she says. “So to be even mentioned in the same sentence as her is definitely an honor and humbling.”
Save for a couple of original tunes, “Loving” is filled with L. James doing revamped renditions of signature E. James tunes. “At Last” is on the list. (That’s the closer.) But there are also favorites like “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” “I’d Rather Go Blind” and “I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby.”
“I wanted to try to find songs of hers that, you know, are kind of unfamiliar to the masses and kind of give them a new, fresh makeover, and just re-introduce them in general to this new generation,” James says.
Yet it isn’t just Etta’s sound that Leela is emulating. She also weaves in other artists’ distinctive sounds. “It Hurts Me So Much” seems to re-create Dr. Dre’s staccato, twinkle-twinkle sample from Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.,” while “Damn Your Eyes” picks up the drum-machine beats from Prince’s “Erotic City,” and “Nobody Loves You Like Me” has her sounding like Al Green during his “Love and Happiness” prime.
Recording in Nashville, James hooked up with producers Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders (India.Arie, John Legend) to create a tribute album where these unfamiliar tunes were given a familiar spin.
“It was a collective effort to pick songs that stood out, whether it be the lyrics or the melody,” she says. “But it was really the goal to try to flip the whole project – a lot of the songs – and take them from one extreme to another.”
James says she is looking forward to doing live shows that will have her performing these songs as well as some of her original tunes.
This Saturday, she’ll be one of many performers vocally welcoming students to N.C. State at the daylong block party/street festival known as “Packapalooza.”
And just as she proves on this album, there’s a strong possibility that James will take these beloved songs and put her foot all up in them.
“There definitely wasn’t any hesitation whatsoever,” she says. “I just wanted to pay homage and tribute to her by recording her songs and bringing them back out and making them relevant for today. I think, you know, if I didn’t feel like I could kind of take on the talent, I probably would’ve left it alone.”