Leela James shares the same last name as the late legendary blues woman Etta James. As a young girl, James’ raw and husky voice earned her the nickname “Baby Etta.” But that’s not all they have in common. “She was very vocal; I’m very vocal,” says James. “She’s didn’t take no stuff; I don’t take no stuff. I can just relate to that.”
Now James is paying homage to one of her musical heroines with a new album of covers called Loving You More… In the Spirit of Etta James. She spoke with ESSENCE.com about introducing Etta’s lesser-known hits to a new generation, daring to cover her biggest hit, “At Last,” and rocking blonde hair in the spirit of Etta.
ESSENCE.com: What made you want to cover Etta James’ music?
LEELA JAMES: One of the execs at my label suggested we do a song in dedication to Etta. It kind of started out as one song and then the project evolved. With her death and everything, we were like how about we make this whole project in dedication to her because she was such an incredible artist? I felt like she didn’t get a lot of respect and props while she was alive. I said we need to keep her music and legacy out there and this would be a great way to reintroduce her to a whole new generation. She has so much material. She was an awesome lady. We took a few of her songs, flipped them and gave them a whole new sound but in the same spirit. I also do a couple of originals on the album.
ESSENCE: What did Etta James mean to you?
JAMES: I just love real sangers. And she was one of those greats. She, along with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Betty Wright — these people can sang. She was the epitome of a blues singer.
When I was young and started singing, people would say, “You remind us of a baby Etta.” My voice was always big and husky, and raw and bluesy too. I performed at the Montreal Jazz Festival a few years ago and I was introduced as Etta James’ granddaughter. I said, “I’m not her granddaughter but I’ll take it.” It’s a personal connection for me.
ESSENCE.com: You dared to remake Etta’s biggest hit, “At Last.” That’s a major song to touch.
JAMES: To be honest we weren’t going to record that song because of those reasons. I purposely was going to stay away from it because it’s been touched a few times. My goal was to do songs that people didn’t know belonged to her, but towards the end of recording we felt like how can we do a tribute and not do that song. We decided to flip it really far by turning it into a duet. Now I’m glad we did because it has a fresh approach.
ESSENCE.com: You’re also rocking blonde hair these days.
JAMES: It’s in the spirit of Etta. We went blonde to capture her whole look for the project. I’m still happy and nappy under here. Give me my fro, let me go.
ESSENCE.com: Did you ever meet Etta?
JAMES: No, I never got the chance to meet her. But on the other hand, I did have the chance to meet people who worked with her so that helped to really tap into her spirit.
Leela James’ latest album Loving You More… In the Spirit of Etta James is out now.