In terms of high concept projects, this is a no-brainer: Have one of today’s top contemporary Soul stylists, Leela James, record music made famous by and in spirit of the legendary R&B singer Etta James. The two vocalists share similar musical personas as proud and stubborn women who artfully express raw emotions. Of course, a straight remake of Etta’s songbook would be stale. Etta did them so well that there needs to be a way to rework them to make them more contemporary. As a result, these songs are given a more modern feel through the production. They would sound right at home on today’s radio: In fact, the music often sounds like someone who is all over the radio, Adele.
That’s not a shock, as Etta’s work has influenced scores of important musicians. There are differences between Leela and Adele, but the resemblances are striking. This disc would certainly please the legion of Adele fans hungering for more music of this kind, and Leela fans will certainly enjoy her renditions of these songs. She is a bit more pop-oriented than Etta or Adele. For example, in a world where The Marvelettes’ version of “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” was the number one single (and what a world that would be!), Leela’s rendition of “I’m Loving You More Every Day” also would be a top ten hit.
However, that same light touch can work against Leela. On some of the most well-known Etta tracks, such as “At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind”, Leela sounds unconvincing. This is exacerbated by the fact that she does both songs as duets. It’s not that she’s not loud enough. Leela has a strong voice, but she exhibits more bark than bite. She never lets the music go out of control, and the songs (sheesh, she sings that she’d rather not see at all if it means seeing her man with another woman!) implies a much more emphatic approach.
On the sexy songs, such as “I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby”, this same trait works to Leela’s advantage. She makes Etta’s earthier version sound a bit silly by comparison. Making love with Leela sounds more fun than heavy — which is a good thing. The same is true for “Sunday Kind of Love”: Leela makes the wistfulness of love on the day after a night of passion an inviting pleasure.
Leela does a fine job with less familiar material, such as “Nobody Loves You Like Me” and “It Hurts Me so Much.” The fact that these songs are largely unknown allows for a degree of playfulness, letting the songs build to gentle climaxes and the vocals ooze over the instrumentation. The effect comes off as heartfelt more than soulful, even when she expresses her pain.
Etta’s heyday as a recording artist occurred during the ’50s and early ’60s, at a time when being a black woman in the music business was a tough way to make a living. She stood as a role model for later artists who saw her talent as a beacon to which they could find inspiration. As a more contemporary artist, Leela has benefited by Etta’s path-making. Leela does well to honor Etta, and this album shines a light on both of their talents.