By Chris Murray
Special to the Sunday Sun
“Hey Nineteen, that’s Aretha Franklin. She don’t remember the queen of soul. It’s hard times befallen soul survivors.”
– Hey Nineteen by Steely Dan.
If hard times have befallen soul survivors as the ’70s pop band, Steely Dan, once suggested in the song, “Hey Nineteen,” you would never know it if you heard the soulful sounds of rising rhythm and blues singer Leela James.
Having grown up in Los Angeles in the midst of hardcore hip-hop and pre-packaged, video-driven popular music, James is a refreshing reminder that the soulful sounds of divas like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and Mavis Staples stretch beyond the mere boundaries of time.
“With her Southern personality and her real soulful, gutsy way of expression in terms of articulation of expression of the song is very refreshing and her attitude to see her on stage is a pleasure ,” said WDAS radio personality Mimi Brown.
In other words, James definitely remembers the “queens of soul.”
“I’m definitely influence by the real singers I call them. The folks that have meat on their voices,” James said. “I love the Aretha Franklins, the Gladys Knights. I loved the gospels sounding voices because I was raised in the church. I’m used to folks that can sing. I like good down home kind of singers.”
Even James record label is a throwback to the old days ’70s soul—Stax Records (a division of Concord Music Group), which once included the likes of Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers and Rufus Thomas, produced her newest album, “My Soul,” which is scheduled to be released on May 25. She said this album is more reflective of her and her own experiences.
“I just want to people to take me on in the way that they have taken my other music,” James said. “A lot of this music is definitely apart of me that’s why it’s called, “My Soul.” I didn’t have the restrictions that I had in the past. I had more choice on this album.”
While her voice can range from being soft and sweet to the gritty down to the gut spiritual soul reminiscent of singers like Betty Wright, Etta James, Angela Bofill and oddly enough Janis Joplin (albeit with a lot more polish), James has the ability to make her audience a part of the show as well.
As the opening act for Angie Stone at a recent show (April 16) at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, James turned her time on the stage into an old school backyard cookout sans the barbecue grill with people from their 20s to their 40s dancing on the stage with the 26-year-old songstress as she belted out tunes from back in the day with a little help from her band and a DJ on stage.
And for good measure, James kicked off her high heel shoes and turned her show into a summertime family reunion on what was a cold spring night outdoors.
“Every show is not going to be the same,” James said. ” I feel the soul and the energy of the audience and the spirit of what’s going on at that time. It’s not scripted. (At the Keswick), we didn’t rehearse or plan none of that. It just happened.
“It’s whatever I’m feeling at that moment in time. I just like to have a good time when I perform. I want people to feel the music. They spent their money to see a show. I try my best to give them a show.”
Maintaining a busy schedule which involves constant touring, James has thrilled audiences all of the world from South Africa to the Netherlands with her soulful performances.
James said she likes to perform and record music with the combination of a live band and a DJ. What ever manifestation of the music, James wants the sound to be authentic in her own unique way of keeping it real.
“I love instruments, I have a band. (In Philadelphia) I brought out a DJ. I love combining the sounds,” James said. “But I love coming out ultimately with something that still sounds raw and not contrived or everything computerized. I love combining the music.”
Brown said James’ music and her live performance is an effort to uplift the spirits of people in hard times in the way that Franklin, Patti LaBelle and Marvin Gaye did when they dominated the music scene.
“(James) wants to embrace her audience with music that makes them feel good,” Brown said. “Music that takes the worry away or the music that’s real about what life is and it has the expressions of love and also the expression of enjoying life and having fun and dancing.
“She wants everybody to be apart of her music. In other words, she’s not singing at you, she’s singing to you and everybody is apart of the celebration of music.”
Since 2005, James has recorded three other albums—”A Change is Gonna Come” and “Let’s Do it Again.” James also recorded a live album, “Live From New Orleans.” She was nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Soul Train Music Award in 2008. The website soulsingers.com named her their Female Vocalist of the Year in 2009.
But James is not necessarily a household name just yet in a time when more popular singers of lesser ability are commanding the airwaves more so through the use of well-choreographed music videos.
James said while she wants to maintain the integrity of her music, she would definitely like to reach as wide an audience as a possible.
“All of it goes hand-in-hand in my opinion,” James said. “You want people to respect your work first and foremost and hopefully as a result of that will come the notoriety and that comes with the exposure. It’s like the song that I performed (at the Keswick Theatre) called, ‘I Want it All.’ I think all of it can work together if it’s done right.”
As much as James reveres the old school singers, she said she is a fan of her contemporaries in the neo-soul movement like Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, and Angie Stone.
Getting James brand of music out to that wider audience is a task easier said than done, especially in the tightly formatted, corporate-owned radio stations. She said she would like to see radio stations expose young people to differents types of music and artists.
“I think that radio plays a major part where music is,” James said. “That is really making things go round and round. Until the rotation is slightly altered to show more variety then I think you’re going to get what you get today and young people are only going to know one or two artists. They’re not going to know about songs by people like Womack and Womack because it’s not something they heard. The old school moment section of the radio is only in the mix.”
James, like many of today’s neo-soul artists, has to be a bit of a self-promoter. There was no rest off stage or aftershow party. Shortly after her show in Glenside, James was in the lobby of the Keswick Theatre signing autographs, selling the single from her CD, and posing for pictures with her fans.
Brown said with the downsizing of the music industry, artists have to take an active role in promoting themselves. She said what bodes well for James is that she has the ability to reach people from a variety of age ranges.
“I think that the variety of age groups from 20s to 40s and 50s,” Brown said. “She’s covering a big band of audience. I think she needs to continue to do what she’s doing and people will catch on to who Leela James is. She’s a person and a voice that’s going to stand out in the crowd.”