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."
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.
"Loving You More": "It turned out to be a groovy, uptempo dance record that just feels good, it's commercial radio-friendly. It sounds nothing like the original, but it's still in the spirit of Etta. It still has a groove.
"Something's Got a Hold on Me": "This is another one of my favorites, only because it was one of her uptempo dance-type records, and we kind of continued in that spirit and made it fun and funky and groovy and modern for today.
"It Hurts Me So Much": "The original is more soul. We took it and sped it up and gave it something completely different, more of a hip-hop twist with some West Coast flavor on there. That one was really fun. It was like, 'Wow you took an Etta James record and gave this gangsta boogie-type of vibe to it. It sounds so fresh and cool - people that hear it can't even believe it's an Etta record. That's the point."
"At Last/I'd Rather Go Blind": "Those are favorites of mine, mainly because those are records you've probably heard a thousand times over, and that's what's normally associated with her. We took them and created duets. Shannon Sanders was singing on there with me, and I think it came out real cool. It took the songs from one extreme to another, so they pretty much sound the opposite of what the originals were."
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"I Want to Ta-Ta You Baby": "That's another one I enjoyed. It has a nice little vibe about that one."
Loving You More is out today on Shanachie Entertainment.