Don't let Leela James' size fool you. The diminutive woman with the high-pitched speaking voice is a dynamic, deep-voiced, old fashioned Soul singer. A former track star and business student at Cal State University, James set her sights on a professional singing career in the late 90s. She was signed by RuffNation Records but her contract was absorbed by the giant Warner label upon RuffNation's demise. Unfortunately, her project fell between the cracks at RuffNation and Warner for nearly four years.
Her personal trials as an artist in limbo led to the overall theme of the debut album she put together for Warner. Called A Change Is Gonna Come, the album was designed to capture the varied influences in James' musical life, ranging from Gospel to the Blues to classic Soul, and the lyrical theme of facing and overcoming obstacles -- a subject she came to know well during the long period working to get the project released. The album's executive producer, Commissioner Gordon (who also worked on Lauryn Hill's landmark Miseducation of Lauryn Hill disc), helped bring together an All-Star list of producers to work on the CD -- surprising for a new artist's release -- including Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, James Poysner, Chucky Thompson and Mtume.
A Change Is Gonna Come was released in June 2005 to favorable critical response, and with good reason. "When You Love Someone" is a deep, soulful love song that could have come from 60s Memphis, and James' deep, expressive voice wrings everything out of the cut. Equally impressive are the organ-based "Music" and the bluesy "My Joy." James' voice has been compared to Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan, but I hear a gutsier Angela Bofill. And guts are what are required to take on a cover of Sam Cooke's seminal "A Change Is Gonna Come," a song she put on the album at her mother's request. While the disc has some uneven spots, overall it is a triumph for a new artist with a great voice and surprisingly soulful expressiveness.
It was nearly three years until James released a full follow-up album, in the form of Let's Do It Again, a very good album of classic soul covers handled in James' unique way with a live band. It became an instant hit and won for her the Female Vocalist of the Year at the 2009 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards. With the award in hand, James signed with Stax Records and in May of 2010 released her third album, appropriately titled My Soul.
In 2012, James returned to Shanachie Records and began working on a tribute to the great Etta James. The album, In the Spirit of Etta James, is slated for a Summer 2012 release.
By Chris Rizik