On first listen, Leela James' "Tell Me You Love Me" sounds like it could have been recorded in the '70s, but it's actually a cut from her latest album, released earlier this year. James' heart lies in a bygone era of American music, to the point where she even looks like she belongs in another decade. Sometimes it's not so easy being an old soul in a hip-hop world.
"She looks like she'd be dancing on Soul Train in 1975," says Stephanie Williams, music director of the Tom Joyner Morning Show. Williams is talking about the cover of James' latest CD, where James has white, over-the-knee boots on, and bigger hair than Chaka Khan ever had. Williams says James sounds like one of the singers that she used to see in smoky clubs in Memphis when she was growing up.
"Her voice has wisdom to it," says Williams. "It's like her voice has lived a life that she has yet to live."
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 James' career. Joyner reaches about 8 million people daily, and it's an older crowd. Williams says the show's "urban adult contemporary" format is right for artists like James.
"They have to come over the grown-folks side a lot of times, to the urban AC side where they can get the exposure they need," Williams says. "Grown people can listen to grown people's music without the hip-hop and the things we have out there now on our kids' iPods."
Selling Your Soul
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. But being on a major label didn't turn out to be the triumph that James hoped it would.
"We can't go back to yesterday," says James. "But can't we just put the thongs away?"
For many artists, being on a major label would represent a triumph. But for James, it didn't turn out that way.
"They didn't really know what to do with me. I'm a soul singer, a black artist," she says. "Warner wasn't really known for doing that kind of music ... You don't have to be buck naked to sell your soul, to sell your record."
James' new CD is on Stax, a smaller label that was once home to soul icons such as The Staple Singers and Otis Redding.
"Stax, being that it's a legendary soul label, the whole process of recording the album in itself was smooth sailing," James says. "They get it. They get a soul voice."
Stax has been mostly dormant since the early 1980s -- until the Concord Music Group bought the label in 2004 and relaunched it. A spokesperson for the company said Stax would like to help artists develop their careers rather than chase hit-driven radio formats.
But 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.
"You take an Al Green record, or something by Marvin Gaye ... when you hear those timeless records, there's not too much that can compare to that kind of stuff," James says.