Part of Etta James' legacy, besides her singular voice, was her transgressive spirit. James did much on her own terms, even until her death, and it is that spirit that vocalist Leela James' taps into for her latest recording Loving You More (In the Spirit of Etta James).
Like her 2009 "cover" recording Let's Do It Again, Loving You More (Shanichie) is less a collection of remakes and more an example of James' own original (and yes transgressive) interpretation of the music of an iconic figure such as Etta James. The best indication of James' intent is the opening track, in which the hard driving Rhythm & Blues of Something's Got a Hold on Me, one of Etta James' signature tunes, is featured as modern jump-beat replete with hand-claps. Minus the brass instruments, Leela James' version almost feels like it belongs in a Second Line.
Something Gotta Hold on Me is one of the tracks on Loving You More, that will forever be linked to Etta James in the popular imagination. The younger James might have been forgiven if she simply played it straight on some of these tunes -- with her own unique vocal style -- but to her credit, she apparently thinks more of Etta James' legacy, and trusted that her own artistry would stand on its own.
With the help of producers Drew Ramsey and Shannon Sanders (Heather Headley's In My Mind), James sounds assured and original on tracks like I'd Rather Go Blind and At Last, (she's joined by Sanders on both.) The two songs where staples on two of Etta James' most popular early albums -- her debut At Last (1961) and her "comeback" Tell Mama (1967) -- and both feature piano lines reminiscent of classic Doo-Wop. The songs are a nice gesture to Etta James' early development as lead singer of The Peaches (Roll with Me Henry), working with band leader Johnny Otis.
On the equally well known Etta James ballad, A Sunday Kind of Love, James is every bit as laid back, as her version recalls some of the recent work of Meshell Ndegeocello on recordings like Devil Halo (2009) and Weather (2011). Etta James would likely find Leela James' version unrecognizable, but in many ways that is the point. The largesse of the late James' vocal gifts has inspired artists (musical and otherwise), far beyond the Chess Records studios where she built her reputation.
One of the strengths of Loving You More, is that Leela James was not simply content to delve into the most recognizable Etta James, and spends as much time on the later decades of James' career, when she, like so many of her generation, were re-branded as two-fisted Blues singers. It was a period when much of the nuance of James' voice had been lost, but it still possessed its power. It's also a period where James earned nearly a dozen Grammy nominations and won the award on three occasions in three different categories.
Audiences were re-introduced to James with the release of her live recording Seven Year Itch (1989), from which Leela James offers a version of Etta James' Damn Your Eyes. In the spirit of the era that it was recorded, Leela James performs the song in a style that immediately recalls mid-1980s synth-R&B like Cherrelle and Alexander O'Neal's Saturday Love, while the background vocals feature the refrain "damn, damn, damn" in a pop culture reference to Good Times.
Leela James draws from Etta James' own collection of covers--1998's Life, Love and the Blues --performing I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby, a song originally recorded by the late Johnny Guitar Watson for his classic Ain't That a Bitch (1976). Leela James version is closer to the Watson original than James' cover. Ain't That a Bitch also features Watson's Superman Lover, which became a favored hip-hop sample in the 1990s. Leela James makes those connections to Hip-hop with her version of James' It Hurts Me So Much (1961), featuring a sample of Dr. Dre's Still Dre, as the song serves as a homage to the city of Los Angeles, of which both of the James women and Dr. Dre are some of the city's native children.
Leela James' willingness to re-imagine the music of Etta James through many musical and historical contexts, speaks to the ways that the older James' music was a constant inspiration for the younger James, regardless of what kinds of musical styles might have been catching her fancy at any given time. Fittingly, one of the highlights of the recording is the Leela James original, An Old School Kind of Love, which is a simple reminder of the place that Etta James will always have in the hearts of her fans.