Leela James

When Leela James decided to title her upcoming album Let’s Do It Again, it wasn't necessarily because she happened to record a profoundly soulful version of that Staples Singers classic. There was a deeper meaning involved for her as one of the most acclaimed soul singers of the new generation. It was all about pursuing her vision of music, the kind she sang about on the aptly titled song “Music” from her best-selling debut CD, during which she name-checked Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Chaka Khan and wondered “where’s the music gone?” For Let’s Do It Again, James was determined to make music the old-school way—just like they did at Stax, Motown, and Muscle Shoals—recording live in the studio to capture the spontaneous magic and raw emotion that is only achieved through an in-the-moment performance where the singer feeds off the energy of the other musicians. It was a courageous move, but James was up for the challenge, translating classic soul into her own contemporary style with unique interpretation.

James’s deep connection with soul music tradition comes naturally. Born in Los Angeles, gospel music was a natural part of her churchgoing childhood, as was the blues, funk, and R&B that she heard thanks to her father’s vast record collection. With production by Kanye West, Raphael Saadiq, Wyclef Jean, James Poyser, and Chucky Thompson, James’s debut release—A Change is Gonna Come—boasted a striking slate of original songs co-written by the singer as well as impressive interpretations of Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” Dubbing the raw, soulful sound of her music “back porch soul,” James was immediately compared to such luminaries as Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan, and Mahalia Jackson.

Critics, fans, and musicians alike have recognized James’s extraordinary gifts as a vocalist, storyteller, and keeper of the great soul tradition. She had the distinction of being selected to duet with Ray Charles on a version of Les McCann's “Compared to What” on the posthumously-released Ray Charles album Genius and Friends, and was a guest vocalist on Robert Randolph & the Family Band’s 2006 album Colorblind, proving that James’s talent ranges across many musical genres.

Let’s Do It Again is at once a celebration of the enduring power of soul music and assertion of its contemporary relevance for a new generation. It reveals new aspects of Leela James’s artistry and range as a singer. “There’s a lot of music in me—a lot of variety,” she muses. “I can’t really be pigeonholed. I’m a singer. I just happen to be soulful. I don’t limit myself because whatever I do is going to be me. It could be a pop song, but once I get through with it, there’s gonna be some ‘stank’ on it!”

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Jessye Norman