He is a drummer and session musician who is reputed to be one of the most recorded drummers in R&B history. He started out as a tenor at the tender age of fourteen with a vocal quartet assembled by Henry Jacobs in 1954. Eventually his younger brother Thomas joined and they billed themselves as The Carpets. (Their first choice, The Velvetones, was taken.) They released their first record on the Federal label in February 1956. Both sides, “Why Do I” and “Let Her Go”, were penned by James. In spite of good reviews, The Carpets never took off.
James went solo for a while and then joined the Air Force. He failed an audition for the Air Force band as a trumpeter and eventually joined a singing group that entered a competition called Tops in Blue. His group was riddled with in-fighting, however, and lost out to the now-famous Del Vikings.
In 1961, after his stint with the USAF, he re-united with his brother in a re-incarnated version of The Carpets. It turned out to be the turning point in James’ career. When bassist Harold Rice quit the band, Harry Wilkins vacated his drum post to play bass, and James took his seat at drums. By his own admission, he wasn’t very good at first, and early in his career as a studio musician he gave away his services for free. The Carpets changed their name to The Derbys and embarked on a tour of the Southern U.S.
James joined The Midnighters for a year or so, followed by stints with Dyke & The Blazers and Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. By the early ’70s, he was ready to embark on a solo career and cracked the R&B Top 40 with “I Got To Find My Baby”. It was not in the cards for James to set the world on fire as a solo act, however. James’ destiny was to become one of the most sought-after session musicians of his day.
It all started with The Jackson Five’s “Dancing Machine”. Motown liked him so much, he started getting regular work. Since then, he has worked with a litany artists and groups, including Herb Alpert , Anita Baker, Booker T. & The MGs, James Brown, Ray Charles, Joe Cocker, Natalie Cole, Sam Cooke, Paulinho Da Costa , Jackie DeShannon, Lamont Dozier, The Drifters, George Duke, Yvonne Elliman, Euge Groove, Donald Fagen, Jose Feliciano, The 5th Dimension, The Four Tops, Aretha Franklin, The Gap Band, Marvin Gaye, Gloria Gayor, Herbie Hancock, Hues Corporation, The Isley Brothers, Etta James, Rickie Lee Jones, Quincy Jones, Tom Jones, B.B. King, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Patti LaBelle, Ramsey Lewis, Little Richard, Melissa Manchester, Sir Paul McCartney, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis, Jr., The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Aaron Neville, The Osmonds, Peaches & Herb, Wilson Pickett, The Pointer Sisters, Billy Preston, Lou Rawls, Otis Redding, Della Reese, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Minnie Riperton, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Kenny Rogers , Rose Royce, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Patrice Rushen, Boz Scaggs, Shotgun, Simply Red, Frank Sinatra, Phoebe Snow, The Spinners, Barbra Streisand, Donna Summer, Syreeta, Tavares, Teena Marie, The Temptations, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder . He has also produced works by Thelma Houston, James Ingram, Bill Withers (“Lean on Me”), Bobby Womack, and Yarbrough & Peoples.
James appeared on Beck’s 2006 release Information and Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds CD and from 2009 he has worked regularly with Beck.
Here he is drumming with Marcella Detroit and the Gadson Band on “Don’t Look Down”…