It's been a long time coming...
Take equal parts Mavis Staples, Tina Turner and Betty Wright, blend till smooth and serve straight up on the rocks — no chaser. That's the introduction to this 24-year old L.A.-bred force of nature who's primed to take the music world by storm. The name: Leela James
. The buzz? The new kid moving in on Neo-Soul Drive at the corner of Retro Lane. A quick glance at the petite sister with the Betty Boop speaking voice & boho blowout makes you ill-prepared for the potency of her gritty rasp. Faster than you can say Michel'le, you're knocked out by her raw talent. In other words: she's the next Big Thing. Since ingenues are being churned out like an assembly line, it's nothing out of the ordinary to be blessed with an impressive instrument, but Ms. James imbues a fiery passion that's gone AWOL in today's market. With a throaty growl that recalls the lost era of pre-Memorex, her chops make you stand up and take notice. I had the pleasure of seeing her tonight at the Tower Records' Village branch to perform cuts off her debut album, A Change Is Gonna Come
. And while she earned her diva-in-training stripes by showing up an hour late, all was forgiven once Ms. James hit the stage to let loose vocals with the fury of a thunderclap. Setting it off with her first single Music
and accompanied by two backup singers, percussionist and a keyboard player, James stomped and wailed her way to the core of her plaintive chorus: "where did all the soul go?/it's all about the video/we don't sing no mo'/where's the music gone?" Obviously she came armed with an antidote, because soul was in abundance as she sashayed to the hand-clapping grooves of Good Time
(the roller-rink rhythms courtesy of Gwen McCrae's 1981 disco classic, Funky Sensation
) then segued to the smoky blues of the self-love proclamation Mistreating Me
. The store's rock/pop CD section could've doubled for Mount Bethel Baptist once the buoyant Soulfood
was extended into an impromptu jam/testifying session complete with tambourines and holy ghost hollers. An unnecessary acoustic take on No Doubt's breakup anthem Don't Speak
could've been left well enough alone, but she fares better and does justice to the Sam Cooke classic that boldly announces her arrival. A change has come indeed. Don't sleep.