Discovered by Quincy Jones at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival in 1963, James recorded his first solo album, Bold Conceptions, that year for Mercury Records. 58 albums and innumerable awards would follow through five decades. He honed his skills working with Creed Taylor, working on albums for artists like Hank Crawford, Grover Washington, Jr, among others. While with CTI, James found great popular success overseeing significant hits for Paul Simon, Neil Diamond, Maynard Ferguson, and Kenny Loggins.
In 1974, James finally recorded his own album, One, which launched a lifelong career of recording and performing live. After three more albums, James began his own label, Tappan Zee Records. This allowed James to spend more time in the studio, focusing on his own creative works. It was during this time that he recorded his own gold seller, Touchdown, which included his composition, “Angela”, the instrumental theme from the sitcom ‘Taxi’, and possibly James’ best know work. Bob composed all the original music used in that television series for its entire run. One On One, the first in three collaborations with Earl Klugh, was awarded a Grammy in 1980 for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, and has sold over a million copies. During this time, James set the standard for the smooth jazz sound in the late 1970s.
A different aspect of the musical talent of Bob James was demonstrated on his three classical albums recorded for the CBS Masterworks division, the first of which was Rameau released in 1984, and followed by ‘The Scarlatti Dialogues’ & Bach keyboard concertos with the Pekinel Sisters.
In 1985 James moved to Warner Bros Records, and kicked things off with Double Vision, a collaboration with David Sanborn, and produced by Tommy LiPuma. Double Vision was another Grammy winner, selling over a million albums.
While recording his album, Grand Piano Canyon, in 1990, James reunited with longtime friend, drummer Harvey Mason, Jr. It would also be the first time James would work with guitarist Lee Ritenour, and bassist Nathan East. This would be the start of something beautiful, as these early sessions ignited a spark which would engulf the Jazz world as Fourplay. Fourplay’s first album was recorded and released in 1991. The Group would collaborate on a total of three albums, until 1998 when Ritenour left the group, and Larry Carlton took over. This version of Fourplay continued the group’s huge success for seven more albums. After 12 years, Carlton decided to delve further into his solo career, and the band brought in guitarist Chuck Loeb in 2010.
A personal and professional highlight was the collaboration with his daughter, Hilary, on their Flesh & Blood album, which toured 15 U.S. cities. James continued collaborating on separate projects with Earl Klugh, (Cool) and Kirk Whalum (Joined At the Hip). Both albums were nominated for Grammys. His solo career continued throughout the 90′s, culminating with Joy Ride in 1999, and another Grammy nomination.
In 2001, Dancing On the Water, was released, once again showcasing James’ creative versatility. The album includes performances with Keiko Matsui, Joe Sample, Dave Holland, and Chuck Loeb. Fourplay released Heartfelt in 2002, and spent much of the year touring across the globe. That same year, James released Morning, Noon, & Night, whose title track went to #1 in Contemporary Jazz Radio.
While appearing at New York’s Blue Note, in February of 2003, James went into the Hit Factory with Billy Kilson, James Genus, and Ken Freeman on the board. The result was Take It From the Top, a tribute to pianists who inspired James; Ahmad Jamal, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, and Oscar Peterson, among others.
The very next year James was at it again, with Fourplay releasing Journey in 2004. Fourplay toured most of the year, culminating with a trip to South Africa in November of 2005 and a final tour stop in Bangkok, Thailand in December. This event featured the world premiere live performance of James’ ‘The Angels of Shanghai.’ This project encompased several months in the Far East collaborating with students from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, who played ancient Chinese instruments, as well as James Genus, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason. This project finally toured the U.S. in 2007, and culminated with a performance later in the year at the prestigious Seongnam Art Center in Seoul, Korea, where James was also invited to have a solo exhibit of his art in conjunction with the performance.
James stayed busy in 2006, releasing Urban Flamingo in February, and on April 7, was awarded the George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards. Summer saw the release of Fourplay’s tenth record, appropriately called X. This tour literally took James around the world again with stops in Spain, London, California, Hong Kong, Japan, Kuala Lumpur, and Indonesia.
In 2008, James released a Christmas album with Hilary James, and another Fourplay album Energy. Energy featured Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, and another Grammy nomination with the first single, “Fortune Teller”. The year ended on a high note with James and close friend, the Tony award winning Broadway director Jack O’Brien, receiving the International Achievement Award by the state of Michigan.
Bob has maintained a commitment to sophisticated production and arrangements, while stretching out in different and new directions. This culminated with another busy year in 2009 with the release of The Very Best of Bob James. Not stopping there, James also released Botero, a collaboration with Jack Lee, composed music for the Broadway play ‘Impressionism’, and recorded Across the Groove, a collaboration with Japanese sax player Masato Honda, all in the same year. This again led James touring across Asia, Europe, and the U.S.
2010 saw the twelfth Fourplay album released, Let’s Touch the Sky, which led to another world tour, culminating with an unforgettable collaboration with the New Japan Philharmonic in Tokyo in December. This premiered new orchestral pieces arranged specifically for this concert, and was Fourplay’s first performance with a symphony orchestra. Fourplay was voted Best Group of the Year at the American Smooth Jazz Awards to wrap up a busy 2010.
And in 2011, James jumped at the opportunity to work on Jazz for Japan, a benefit album to aid the recovery of Japan after the devastating natural disasters in early 2011. Fourplay continued heavy touring in the far east, with James headlining a special benefit concert in the Iwate prefecture of Japan raising funds to aid with their recovery.
James also started a collaboration with Savannah guitarist Howard Paul with Just Friends: The Hamilton Hall Sessions. Fourplay toured the U.S., headlining the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl, and receiving the Oasis Contemporary jazz award for ‘Group of the Year’. James also was honored in his hometown of Marshall, MO, with the inaugural ‘Bob James Jazz Festival’.
In September, Altair & Vega, the Four-Hand piano duet collaboration with Keiko Matsui, was finally released. This unique collaboration which started 10 years ago, had already resulted in several memorable live tour performances, but Bob & Keiko had long hoped that this music would eventually result in a commercially released CD. They got even better than that when E-1 agreed to the concept of including a live performance DVD from a performance at Manchester Craftsmens Guild. Bob & Keiko plan to tour in 2012 showcasing this project.
James is recognized as one of the progenitors of smooth jazz, however, his music has also had a profound effect on the history of hip hop music, having been sampled often. Two of James’ songs – “Nautilus” from 1974′s One and “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” from 1975′s Two – are among the most sampled in hip hop history. According to whosampled.com, “Nautilus” and “Take Me to Mardi Gras” have been sampled in thirty-two and forty-three hip-hop recordings, respectively. The title track from his 1981 album Sign of the Times was sampled in De La Soul‘s “Keepin’ the Faith”, and Warren G‘s “Regulate”. His “Angela” was sampled in the track “Cab Fare” by Souls of Mischief. The track “El Verano” from the 1977 album “BJ4″ is used as a sample in the song “Blown Away” by the Cocoa Brovaz and also in the Masta Ace Track “NY Confidential”. N.W.A‘s “Alwayz into Somethin’” uses a sample of “Storm King” from the album Three. “Can’t Wait” by Redman features a sample of “Caribbean Nights” from the album Touchdown. English Drum & Bass pioneer Adam F extensively sampled “Westchester Lady” on his 1995 breakthrough release Circles. Röyksopp sampled his version of “You’re as Right as Rain” for their instrumental track “Eple.” In addition, James is mentioned in a verse by André 3000 on “Black Ice” from Goodie Mob’s second album Still Standing.