*She has toured as the opening act for The Black Eyed Peas and Macy Gray. She sang duet posthumously with the incomparable Ray Charles on his album, “Genius and Friends” and collaborated with some of the music’s most prolific producers in Wyclef Jean, Raphael Saadiq and Kanye West.
However, on this day, Los Angeles reared singer, Leela James is finding it hard to feign any enthusiasm at all.
Speaking with EUR’s Lee Bailey over the telephone, she says she is not feeling well and has taken meds in order to heal in time for an upcoming performance.
Bailey empathizes, offers to postpone to another day and, after getting the go-ahead asks the singer how she handles illness when performances have been scheduled.
“I just pray” she responds. Her voice is barely audible.
The name Leela James may not be a household one just yet, but her soulful voice, first introduced to us in 2005 with her debut record, “Change Is Gonna Come” offers a welcomed throwback to some of music’s greatest soul and R&B singers. Think: Betty Wright (“Clean Up Woman”), Mavis Staples (“I’ll Take You There”), Aretha Franklin (“Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”), Gladys Knight (“If I Were Your Woman”) and even Angie Stone – the newest artist of the aforementioned group; and James’ label-mate on Stax Records. Yet not unlike each of these great vocalists, who successfully carved out their individual niche, James’ voice houses its own soulful styling; an authentic approach to the experiences of life and love, and the ability to convey a story with the depth and wisdom of an elder.
Surprising, since she is only 27. There is something “familiar” about her. Her speaking voice – at least on this day – more closely matches her age; and there is something about not feeling well that even prayer cannot dismiss: The frustration a Black woman feels when someone has the nerve to ask if her hair is “100% hers” – which Mr. Bailey did.
“It’s 100-percent mine. It’s on my head so its mine!” she offers quite matter-of-factly.
Enough said on that, as Bailey goes on to identify her “old-fashioned” sound.
“I wasn’t really aware of it being old fashioned. I guess to me, I sound Ol’ Skool, and people don’t necessarily hear that today–that sound– as much as it used to be heard,” James explains when Bailey asks why she chose this particular genre or style of singing. “I call it the type of singing [where] people actually…sing. You don’t hear a lot of REAL singing…real voices, you know? Not to discredit some of the other stuff but the reality is that people don’t sang…anymore [sic]. They might sing and play around and sound cute…make something decent enough to be played on the radio. You go into some of these churches, that’s when you hear real singing. I’m not moved by ‘tiny’ voices, if you will. I like real solid voices. I love Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight. I love those voices because they just have meat in them and stuff you can feel… I think that unfortunately radio doesn’t play that music all the time. You just hear the other stuff and people start thinking it doesn’t exist anymore.”
James admits that the lackof support from radio for her soulful genre of music can be disheartening.
“I feel like there is so much music out there, all kinds of music… people can have different options instead of the same old sounding stuff that tends to be played in heavy rotation. Then you start feeling like …somebody is an ‘Ol Skool Singer’…They are not Ol’ Skool, they’re just…real singers. It’s just like when you’ve been eating something bad for so long, when you get something good you don’t even know that it’s good ’cause you’ve been used to eating bad…if you’ve never had a real home-cooked meal, you think you’re getting something special just because you go to Boston Market.” (Laughs).
James, who says there has been an “over-saturation of cookie-cutter music,” went further to demonstrate how a generations’ lack of exposure to authentic music is both detrimental and frustrating. She recalled a recent experience. “I did a show about a month ago in San Francisco and the day before Mavis Staples was there…We were all so excited, trying to get in and catch her performance. One of the young people was like (with attitude) ‘Well, who is that,’ and we’re like OMG! It’s like, they didn’t understand. They were like, ‘Ugh, she sounds so scratchy’. That sounds good to me (laughs)! There are some [young people] that are into it, but there are others that if you don’t sound real studio-mixed, it’s not happening.”
A lack of heavy radio rotation doesn’t appear to have stopped audiences from singing James’ praises. On “Let’s Do It Again,” her second album, she demonstrated the versatility of her rich vocals via a series of covers originated by the likes of Al Green, Betty Wright, Bootsy Collins and The Staples Singers. Soultracks.com – a respected website for all things Soul, R&B and Gospel, responded to an online poll and awarded the singer their 2009 Reader’s Choice Award for Female Vocalist of the Year. James also received recognition with a nomination for Outstanding New Artist from the NAACP Image Awards and a Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist in 2008 by the Soul Train Music Awards. She spent four years between the release of her first and second records on tour; performing for festival audiences in the Netherlands, Switzerland and South Africa.
“After my first two records I knew I had to find a way to have more control over what was happening with my career,” says James, who will release her third, most personal record, “My Soul” on May 25. “When I was younger, I was just excited to be making records, and I wasn’t aware of some of the fine print that is part of the business. I had to learn how to take charge of where my music was going and how to get there.”
The first single off the album, “Tell Me You Love Me”, was produced by rap and hip-hop producer Gerard Baker (Toni Braxton, Masta Ace, Billy Crawford) and co-written by James, Andrea Martin and Gordon Williams. Leela says this is one of her favorite songs, as it talks about someone really trying to make love work. Listeners may find themselves thinking, “What is it about this song, this voice, this style that seems so familiar?” The answer may be Randy Crawford.
There is a cadence and vibrato in James’ voice, in this particular song, reminiscent of Crawford. Just close their eyes and you can practically hear Crawford singing “Street Life” or something. “This song is dealing with the reality that a lot of people get caught up in,” she explains to Lee Bailey.
“They just want to be held…patted on the back and told ‘you’re doing a good job and I love you.’ Everybody needs to hear that sometimes.” James insists she is not singing the song to anyone in particular. (Scroll down to watch/listen as James performs “Tell Me You Love Me.”)
Another favorite is the song, “I Want It All.”
“It’s semi political. I basically put …out there exactly what I want. Its one of those records I really like because, for one, I did it freestyle.” I went into the studio and as the music was playing, I started blurting out things…it came together and everybody was like, ‘Oh, we’ve got a song!'” James is undoubtedly very excited about this project and while she doesn’t shy away from her concerns about radio support; she’s not holding her breath, telling Bailey she knows that her fans will seek her out and find her regardless, and this, she says, “makes me happy.”
Fans can also see Leela James as one of the co-hosts on the 2nd season of BET’s hit show on fashion and beauty called “My Black is Beautiful.” The debut of season two celebrated iconic women from television and movies; and James portrayed actor BernNadette Stanis, “Thelma Evans from the 1970s show ‘Good Times’. The singer, who wore a jean jumpsuit and mimicked a ‘back-in-the-day’ dance move following her introduction by host, actor Tasha Smith, was caught off-guard and couldn’t contain her joy when Stanis actually showed up as a guest later on the show.
Lee Bailey closes out the interview by asking the singer to share anything more she wants her audience to know about her. Without hesitation, obviously recalling Bailey’s opening question she says, unapologetically, “I want people to know that I’m very excited about this album. I want them to know that my music is what I want to be known for, and not my hair.”
You got that, Mr. Bailey? Good!
DeBorah B. Pryor is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. She is the president of The Art of Communication, and provides group and individual consultation for those needing assistance with public speaking. Visit www.dpryorpresents.com or email [email protected] for more information.
Check out Leela James performing “Tell me You Love Me”: