The James Gang: Houston's Leela Updates the Great Etta

Categories: Soulsville

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How do you remake a song as iconic as Etta James' "At Last"? Should you?

That's the question Houston's Leela James had to confront on her new project Loving You More... In the Spirit of Etta James, a tribute to the R&B legend who died this past January.

Rocks Off first encountered Leela when we were knocked out by her 2009 album Let's Do It Again. With her hair now blonde, she even resembles Etta a little.

But Loving You More is no covers record. The production and arrangements are very much in tune with contemporary R&B, and remakes like "Something's Got a Hold on Me" come off with a definite hip-hop swagger. "It Hurts Me So Much" even borrows the signature piano lick from Dr. Dre & Snoop Dogg's 2001 classic "Still D.R.E."

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Photo courtesy of Shanachie Records
The two Jameses are not related, except musically, and never met. Both women's voices can be take-charge, full-throated instruments that seize the listener's attention, and both can be subtle and sexy when they need to be. Leela says as she worked on the project (which was suggested by her label Shanachie), she definitely grew to feel a kinship with the late Etta.

She was definitely very serious about her music," Leela says. "When she was in the studio recording, she'd work really fast. She'd knock the songs out, and at the same time she was very hands-on. She was part of the process a lot."

Leela says she wanted to give the songs on Loving You More... an "unexpected" angle, but she also wanted to introduce the R&B icon to another generation of listeners. Despite the makeover, which can get pretty radical, Leela thinks the late singer would approve of the project.

"From what I got a chance to discover about her and from people that knew her, I think she would like a lot of what we did," she says. "I think she would actually be honored and proud that we took the time to do something like this, because in her lifetime she really didn't get a lot of acknowledgment the way she probably should have."

Rocks Off asked Leela to pick out five songs from the album that especially moved her and tell us a little more about them.


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