I first discovered Leela James early in her solo career when her former label, Warner Brother Records, seemed to be on the verge of shelving her then unreleased debut A Change Is Gonna Come, largely produced by unsung soul legend Commissioner Gordon (Lauryn Hill). Her high drama, churchified live show at Cleveland's Peabody Night Club in 2004 sent me running to my keyboard extolling her as the first "Duchess of Soul." Here, at last, was a young artist who gets it! In articles for the now defunct hipster tome Urban Dialect I railed against the decision-makers at Warner Bros. as tone deaf, unscrupulous obstructionists who were robbing the public of a future icon. Wherever Leela James performed, across the country other critics and music journalists were joining my chorus, after just one dose of James' legendary shows. Even the then up-and-coming John Legend was reportedly caught off-guard by James' soul-searing pipes after having the misfortune of following Ms. James opener on Legend's first headliner tour. Luckily Legend, like so many of us, realized a good thing when he heard it and later invited James to tour South Africa with him, welcoming the competition. In any case, Warner Brothers finally-almost a year later-got the message and released James' debut album, to high public acclaim and private head-scratching among those of us who lobbied for its release.
But despite some funky singles, the recording failed to fully capture the magic of seeing Leela live. Songs that felt revelatory and raw to the point of tears just didn't translate James' gifts as a bluesy storyteller. A live set on iTunes was a little better, but there really is nothing like seeing Leela James' performing on-stage. What got lost in translation also forced listeners to pay attention to lyrics that while heartfelt, weren't classics. I had several conversations with industry folks after those releases and the consensus was that no digital recording of James was ever going to be able catch her lightning in a bottle. Maybe vinyl might, maybe, but it seemed hopeless for those of us trying to convert others using A Change Is Gonna Come as representative of James' work.
Well, we were wrong...sorta. There still is nothing close to seeing Leela James live and I hope readers make a point of doing just that when the lady tours this project. What Let's Do It Again does prove is how James is recorded is what makes all the difference in wanting to regularly listen to a Leela James album. It wasn't enough that James has a bold old school voice; that voice needed to be documented in an old school way. Recording live with a rhythm session, like the Stax and Atlantic greats of lore, gave James the give and take she needed as an artist to give life to jams like the Rolling Stones "Miss You" and Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World." On rock covers like the unexpected "I Want to Know What Love Is," Leela is in total control, vacillating between sensitive sharing and confessional wails. She doesn't always make the cuts pretty, but the necessary electricity and excitement she brings to these rock and funk jams reflect the honesty of her live shows. There are moments of pure brilliance on Let's Do It Again.
However, what surprises are the soul covers, which sometimes get just out of Ms. James' grasp. On these cuts it's the tremendously talented band rescuing the proceedings from boredom, particularly on Bobby Womack's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Bootsy Collins' "I'd Rather Be With You" is a nice nod to James' West Coast roots, but vocally it lacks the grimy "oomph" that made it a funk standard. James' spot-on impression of Phyllis Hyman on "You Know How To Love Me" and lovely version of the overdone "Simply Beautiful" make great listening but are so traditional in approach you wonder why she bothered. In her phrasing, James makes "I Try" more her own, but fails to connect to the lyric's desperate plea. As expected, she fairs much better on a title track that feels fresher than the original, but gets distractingly interrupted by a testimony about why James is doing the tune and a "thank you" list in the middle of the cut; "why, Leela, why?" Throughout these mismatched vocal covers is a band whose keys and rhythm section is stunningly akin to anything coming out of Muscle Shoals. When the project isn't at its optimum, it's these intelligent musicians who keep you listening for more. Their achievement here is noteworthy on a set of familiar songs this difficult to perform, much less personalize.
Whether inspired by the band or James, there is fun to be had on Let's Do It Again. Her dancehall flavored Womack and Womack's "Baby I'm Scared of You" makes good use of the Jacksonesque melody line that has always made the song a personal joy. Of course, "Clean Up Woman" is everything you want from a lady who has-ever since her Jason's Lyric soundtrack debut-been fittingly compared to Betty Wright.Thanks to her new label, Shanachie Records, and a band that finally gets her, fans finally have a set of worthy Leela James recordings to share with people who may not have understood our passionate love for this artist and who can finally get on board with a woman whose talent is only superseded by her big hair and adorable stiletto heels. Keep standing tall, Ms. James. Highly Recommended.