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Leela James: New Soul From An Old Soul

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Leela James: New Soul From An Old Soul

Leela James: New Soul From An Old Soul

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Finally, this hour, take a guess. What year was this song released?

(Soundbite of song, "Tell Me You Love Me")

Ms. LEELA JAMES (Singer): (Singing) I unpacked my chest for you. Do everything that you want me to. Can't believe I gave you all my love. What in the world was I thinking of? I just...

BLOCK: 1967 maybe? 1971? Well, how about 2010? This song is from the latest album by Leela James. She's a singer whose heart is in a bygone era of American music.

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, it's not so easy to be an old soul in a hip-hop world.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Leela James even looks like she belongs in another decade.

Ms. STEPHANIE WILLIAMS (Music Director, "Tom Joyner Morning Show"): She looks like she will be dancing on "Soul Train" in 1975.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLAIR: Stephanie Williams, music director of the "Tom Joyner Morning Show," is talking about the cover of Leela James' latest CD. James has these white, over-the-knee boots on and her hair is huge - bigger than Chaka Khan's ever was.

(Soundbite of song, "Let It Roll")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Why are you stressing? Why are you worrying about it? When there's a will, there's a way out around it. If you can't change it, just forget all about it. Let it roll. Yeah.

BLAIR: Leela James sounds like the kind of singers Stephanie Williams used to see in smoky clubs in Memphis when she was growing up.

Ms. WILLIAMS: Her voice has this wisdom to it. It's like her voice has lived a life that she has yet to live, you know?

(Soundbite of song, "Let It Roll")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Just let it roll and let it roll. Let it roll. Just let it roll.

BLAIR: This kind of neo-soul is not exactly the stuff radio hits are made of these days. So support from the "Tom Joyner Morning Show" was a major boost to Leela James' career. Tom Joyner reaches about 8 million people daily. And it's an older crowd. Stephanie Williams says their urban AC or adult contemporary format is right for artists like James.

Ms. WILLIAMS: They have to come over to the grown folks' side a lot of times, to the urban AC side where they can get the exposure, you know, that they need. And grown people can listen to grown people's music without, you know, the hip-hop and the things we have out there right now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLIAMS: ...on our kids' iPods.

BLAIR: Leela James says most of the rest of the people in the music business haven't known what to do with her. In 2005, she was signed to Warner Bros., a major label. It started out well. Her first CD was a tribute to some of the soul stars of the 1960s and '70s. In her song "Music," she names some of her heroes. Aretha, Chaka, Gladys.

(Soundbite of song, "Music")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) Somebody playing on the guitar strings makes me think of my favorite songs. Mmm. It reminds me of when I heard Aretha sang, Gladys, Tina and Chaka Khan. Mmm. We can't go back to yesterday. But can't we just put the thongs away?

BLAIR: We can't go back to yesterday, but can't we just put the thongs away? Leela James.

Ms. JAMES: You don't have to be butt-naked in your videos or whatever to sell your soul, to sell the record.

BLAIR: For other artists, being on a major label would've been a triumph. But for James, it didn't turn out that way.

Ms. JAMES: They didn't really know what to do with me, you know? I'm a soul singer, a black artist. And Warner really wasn't known for that type of music.

BLAIR: Leela James' new CD is on Stax, a smaller label that was once home to such soul icons as The Staple Singers and Otis Redding.

Ms. JAMES: And Stax, being that it's a legendary soul label, the whole process of recording the album in itself was like smooth sailing. They get it. They get - I mean, that's - they get a soul voice.

(Soundbite of song, "Tell Me You Love Me")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) ...all night long. 'Cause when you leave me, babe, I'm thinkin' 'bout you always. I'm ashamed to say how much I want you to stay.

BLAIR: Stax has been pretty much dormant since the early 1980s until the Concord Music Group bought the label in 2004 and relaunched it. A spokesperson for the company said they'd like to help artists develop their careers rather than chase hit-driven radio formats. But Leela James says she'd be just fine with a radio hit.

And here's another challenge for a soul artist in the 21st century: It's hard to top those great songs from the 1960s and '70s.

Ms. JAMES: You take a Al Green record like - or something by Marvin Gaye, when you hear those timeless records, there's not too much that can compare to that kind of stuff.

BLAIR: So Leela James doesn't mind doing covers of those songs in her concerts. No doubt she'll do some tonight when she performs at the "Tom Joyner Family Reunion" in Orlando.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song "A Change is Gonna Come")

Ms. JAMES: (Singing) It's been a long, a long time comin', but I, I know a change gonna come.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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