Leela James – Let’s Do It Again

O.k., let’s get one thing out of the way right now.  I have always thought that R&B vocalist Leela James’ debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come, which often integrated a blues/jazz touch, was a meteoric smash out of nowhere.  Seeing her perform that album was yet another phenomenal experience for me.  This sophomore release, Let’s Do It Again, while not yet clearly surpassing that debut in my mind, is still another example of the power and remarkable drive of this young lady’s vocal style.  Handling covers in such a way as not to offend the originators is one thing, but to repaint those covers with such passion and to present them with a vocal personality that clearly distinguishes them from the original is another. As obvious as that sounds, it’s not always the case.

You only have to listen to James’ interpretation of King James Brown’s 60s hit “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” to know that she set out to place her own thumbprint on this classic. No, it’s not really sung in its entirety—a slight disappointment for me, since the lyrics were as important to me as the melody—but it still has body and presence, and I suspect the Godfather of Soul would approve.  She handles rock group Foreigner’s soul-wrenching “I Want to Know What Love Is” quite competently and with marvelous vocals (although I feel too much emphasis was placed on a portion of the instrumental hook), and her funky, mid-tempo, rock & roll spin on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” will raise your eyebrows, but I actually fell in love with this version (attribute it the diehard bluesman and classic rocker in me, I suppose).  Trust me: This is certainly not your Bessie Smith version, but then, I understand that James chose Bobby Womack’s version to cover, as it was her father’s favorite.  This does, in ways, more closely resemble that version, but it’s still a cool rocker!

There’s also her husky, sexy tribute to Al Green with “Simply Beautiful” (another fav of mine here).  Now, this cut reminds me more of that debut album I so love.  The soulful and bluesy effort to touch my inner being was quite effective.  Finally, there’s the title track, a nod to the classic Curtis Mayfield composition and the inimitable Mavis Staples.  James does the piece proud, again with that soulful strength that so marks her style.

Leela James is a rare find, in my mind, if only for her intense and soulful/bluesy touch that is so well-defined for one so young but so very attuned. I suspect that a lot of credit goes to her parents and the music to which she was exposed early on, as well as to her early decision to dedicate herself to the classic sound and backbone of this marvelous genre.   We are all quite fortunate to have such a dedicated artist escort us to the land where memories reside oh-so-bountifully. -- Ronald Jackson