Robert McElhiney James was born on Christmas Day 1939 in Marshall, Missouri to Albert Lamkin James and Alice (née McElhiney) James. He has an elder sister, Katherine. He started playing the piano at the early age of 4. His first piano teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth, who taught at Mercy Academy, a local Catholic school, discovered that he had perfect pitch. At age seven, James began to study with Mrs. R. T. Dufford, a teacher at Missouri Valley College.
His first professional music job was when he was eight years old and playing for a tap dance class at Mercy Academy.
At age 15, James continued his studies with Franklin Launer, a teacher at Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, with more music instruction during high school from Harold Lickey, conductor of the Marshall High School Band and Orchestra. Apart from the piano, James can also play trumpet, timpani, and percussion. From 1950–56, he competed at the Missouri State Fair piano competitions and walked away with several blue ribbons. He remembered that "cows were being judged at adjacent buildings." Other early jobs included being a member of the Earle Parsons Dance Band (c. 1952–55) which played various engagements around the Marshall area. It was during this time that he penned his first dance band arrangement.
During the summer of 1955, at Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, James played for dancing and occasional jam sessions with the Bob Falkenhainer quartet on the Governor McClurg Excursion Boat in the evenings. He recalls that "during the day we had free time and I became a proficient water skier that summer!" At age 16, a solo engagement followed in the summer when James traveled with good friend Ben Swinger to Colorado and ended up with a job in the piano bar at the Steads Ranch resort in Estes Park.
A year later, he attended the University of Michigan and began his journey towards receiving his Bachelor's and his master's degree in Music. During the first semester of his sophomore year, James transferred to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts. James's roommate was Nick Brignola, who has become one of the great baritone sax jazz artists. While at Michigan, James played free jazz with musicians in Ann Arbor and Detroit. In 1962, his band entered the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, where the judges included Henry Mancini and Quincy Jones. After James's band won the competition, Jones signed James to an album deal with Mercury Records. Mercury released James's first album, Bold Conceptions (1963), a free jazz exploration that was produced by Quincy Jones and that differed from the smooth jazz for which he would later become known. In New York City, James worked as an arranger and was hired as piano accompanist for jazz singer Sarah Vaughn. He reunited with Quincy Jones when Jones asked him to do some arranging for studio sessions. Creed Taylor, producer and founder of CTI Records, was at the sessions and hired James to work for CTI as a producer, arranger, and studio musician. In the 1970s, James worked on albums by Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington, Jr., and Maynard Ferguson.
Creed Taylor invited James to record a solo album. The result, One (CTI, 1974), contained the song "Feel Like Making Love", which Roberta Flack already had as a hit. James had been hired to play piano for the song on Roberta Flack's album two weeks before recording a version of his own, using the same band. Radio stations played both and contributed to the commercial success of One.
After three solo albums, James founded his own record label, Tappan Zee. Immediately thereafter, he cut a disco version of the Theme to Star Trek: The Motion Picture a 45 of which was included with the soundtrack LP and recorded the album Touchdown (Tappan Zee, 1978). Among the songs on the album was "Angela", the theme song for the TV show Taxi. James provided all the music for Taxi and collected some of its music, including "Angela", on The Genie: Themes & Variations from the TV Series Taxi (1983). When he toured in 1979, he was supported by a marketing campaign that included posters of him at the wheel of a New York yellow cab. The performances were documented on the album All Around the Town (Tappan Zee, 1980), with a cover of James at the wheel.
James turned from smooth jazz to classical music to record Rameau (1984), his interpretations of Baroque-period composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. In later albums, he interpreted the work of two more Baroque composers, J. S. Bach and Domenico Scarlatti.
A year after Rameau, he collaborated with David Sanborn on Double Vision (Warner Bros, 1986). The album won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance. His collaboration with Earl Klugh, One on One, won a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance in 1980 and has sold over one million copies. Another collaboration with Klugh, Cool, (Warner Bros., 1992) was nominated for a Grammy, as was Joined at the Hip (Warner Bros., 1996) with Kirk Whalum,recorded Flesh and Bone in 1995 and another solo album, Joyride (Warner Bros., 1999).
James was looking for a bass player while recording the album Grand Piano Canyon (Warner Bros., 1990) with drummer Harvey Mason and guitarist Lee Ritenour. Mason and Ritenour suggested Nathan East. After working with them for a while, James suggested they form a band, which resulted in the contemporary jazz quartet Fourplay. The band has recorded over ten albums and has seen a couple of personnel changes, with guitarist Larry Carlton replacing Ritenour and then Chuck Loeb replacing Carlton.Fourplay celebrated its 25th anniversary with the album Silver (Heads Up, 2015).
James's music, especially his early albums, has been sampled often, with his songs "Nautilus" and "Take Me to the Mardi Gras" leading the field.
"Nautilus" was sampled by Eric B. & Rakim in "Let the Rhythm Hit 'em", Run-D.M.C.'s "Beats to the Rhyme", Ghostface Killah's "Daytona 500", DJ Jazzy Jeff's "Jazzie's Groove", Jeru the Damaja's "My Mind Spray", Freddie Gibbs's "Extradite", and "Farandole (L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2)" appeared on the Funcrusher Plus LP from Company Flow. Nangdo's "Nikes". The bassline from "Nautilus" appeared in "Children's Story" by Slick Rick.
"Take Me to the Mardi Gras" incorporates in its first four measures a bell-and-drum pattern that is one of hip hop's basic breakbeats. Crash Crew's "Breaking Bells (Take Me to the Mardi Gras)", Run-D.M.C.'s "Peter Piper", LL Cool J's "Rock the Bells", the Beastie Boys' "Hold it Now, Hit it", Missy Elliott's "Work It", will.i.am's "I Got it from My Mama", "This Is Me (Urban Remix)" by Dream, "I Want You" by Common, and "Take It Back" by Wu-Tang Clan.
Most famously, however, James's 1981 song "Sign of the Times" was sampled by Warren G and Nate Dogg in their 1994 single "Regulate".Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance, with Earl Klugh, One on One (1979)
Grammy Award for Best Jazz Fusion Performance, Vocal or Instrumental, with David Sanborn, Double Vision (1986)
Grammy nomination, Cool with Earl Klugh (1992)
Grammy nomination, Joined at the Hip with Kirk Whalum (1996)
Grammy nomination, Joyride (1999)
George Benson Lifetime Achievement Award (2006)
Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental, "Fortune Teller" by Fourplay (2008)
International Achievement Award, State of Michigan (2008)
Best Group of the Year nomination, American Smooth Jazz Awards, Fourplay (2010)
Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella, "Ghost of a Chance" (2016)
Bold Conceptions (1963)
Lucky Seven (1979)
Sign of the Times (1981)
Hands Down (1982)
The Genie (1983)
The Swan (1984, reissued 1995)
The Scarlatti Dialogues (1988)
Ivory Coast (1988)
J. S. Bach: Concertos for 2 & 3 Keyboards (1989)
Grand Piano Canyon (1990)
Straight Up (1996)
Playin' Hooky (1997)
Joy Ride (1999)
Dancing on the Water (2001)
The Essential Jazz Collection (2002)
Morning, Noon & Night (2002)
Bob James in Hi Fi (2003)
Take It from the Top (2004)
Urban Flamingo (2005)
The Very Best of Bob James (2009)
All Around The Town (1980)
One on One (with Earl Klugh) (1979)
Two of a Kind (with Earl Klugh) (1981)
Double Vision (with David Sanborn) (1986)
Cool (with Earl Klugh) (1992)
Flesh and Blood (with Hilary James) (1995)
Joined at the Hip (Bob James and Kirk Whalum album)|Joined at the Hip (with Kirk Whalum) (1996)
Angels of Shanghai (with Jack Lee) (2005)
Ataraxis (With Deeyah) (2007)
Christmas Eyes (with Hilary James) (2008)
Botero (with Jack Lee) (2009)
Altair & Vega (with Keiko Matsui) (2011)
Just Friends: The Hamilton Hall Sessions (with Howard Paul) (2011)
Quartette Humaine (with David Sanborn) (2013)
The New Cool (with Nathan East) (2015)
In the Chapel In the Moonlight (with Nancy Stagnitta) (2017)
Between the Sheets (1993)
The Best of Fourplay (1997)
Yes, Please! (2000)
Let's Touch the Sky (2010)
Esprit De Four (2012)
With Hank CrawfordWe Got a Good Thing Going (Kudu, 1972)
Wildflower (Kudu, 1973)
With Johnny HammondWild Horses Rock Steady (Kudu, 1971)
Higher Ground (Kudu, 1973)
With Chet BakerBaby Breeze (Limelight, 1965)
She Was Too Good to Me (CTI, 1974)
Carnegie Hall Concert (CTI, 1974) with Gerry Mulligan
With Ron CarterBlues Farm (CTI, 1973)
With Paul DesmondSkylark (CTI, 1973)
With Jackie and RoyTime & Love (CTI, 1972)
With J. J. Johnson and Kai WindingStonebone (A&M/CTI (Japan), 1969)
With Hubert LawsCrying Song (CTI, 1969)
Afro-Classic (CTI, 1970)
The Rite of Spring (CTI, 1971)
Morning Star (CTI, 1972)
Carnegie Hall (CTI, 1973)
In the Beginning (CTI, 1974)
The Chicago Theme (CTI, 1974)
The San Francisco Concert (CTI, 1975)
With Don SebeskyGiant Box (CTI, 1973)
With Gábor SzabóMizrab (CTI, 1972)
Macho (Salvation, 1975)
Turn On The Tap(with Richard Tee,Wilbert Longmire and Mongo Santamaria)
2005 Live at Montreux
2005 Bob James: An Evening of Fourplay Vol 1 & 2
2006 Bob James Live