Keltner was initially inspired to start playing because of an interest in jazz, but the popularity of jazz was declining during the late 1950s and early 1960s, and it was the explosion of pop/rock in the mid-1960s that enabled him to break into recording work in Los Angeles. His first gig as a session musician was recording "She's Just My Style" for the pop group Gary Lewis and the Playboys.
Keltner's music career was hardly paying a living, and for several years at the outset he was supported by his wife. Toward the end of the 1960s, he finally began getting regular session work and eventually became one of the busiest drummers in Los Angeles. His earliest credited performances on record were with Gabor Szabo on the 1968 album Bacchanal.
It was his work with Leon Russell playing on Delaney & Bonnie's Accept No Substitute that attracted the attention of Joe Cocker, who recruited Russell and everyone else he could out of the Delaney & Bonnie band for his Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. Playing with Joe Cocker led to work in 1970 and 1971, on records by Carly Simon (Anticipation), Barbra Streisand (Barbra Joan Streisand), Booker T. Jones (Booker T. & Priscilla), George Harrison (The Concert for Bangladesh), and John Lennon (Imagine).
Keltner is well known for his session work on solo recordings by three members of The Beatles, working with George Harrison, John Lennon (including Lennon solo albums, as well as albums released both by the Plastic Ono Band and Yoko Ono), and Ringo Starr.
Keltner played on many key former Beatle solo releases, including Harrison's 1973 album Living in the Material World and Lennon's 1974 album Walls and Bridges. When Ringo Starr recorded his first full-fledged pop album, Ringo, Keltner was featured on several tracks. Following this, Keltner joined George Harrison on his 1974 tour of the United States.
In 1974 Keltner played on the Lennon-produced Nilsson album Pussy Cats alongside Ringo (and Keith Moon) on "Rock Around the Clock". Keltner was featured on the Nilsson albums Son of Schmilsson with Harrison, Starr and Beatles associate Klaus Voorman as well as Duit on Mon Dei with Starr and Voormann.
Keltner's relationship with the former Beatles was such that his name was used to parody Paul McCartney on albums released by Harrison and Starr in 1973. Early that year, McCartney, the only Beatle not to have worked with Keltner, included a note on the back cover of his Red Rose Speedway album, encouraging fans to join the "Wings Fun Club" by sending a "stamped addressed envelope" to an address in London. Later that year, both Harrison's Living in the Material World and Starr's Ringo contained a similar note encouraging fans to join the "Jim Keltner Fan Club" by sending a "stamped undressed elephant" to an address in Hollywood.
Keltner played the role of the judge in the video for George Harrison's 1976 Top 30 hit, "This Song".
In 1989, Keltner toured with Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band.
Keltner is an endorser of DW drums, hardware and pedals, Ahead drumsticks/gloves/griptape, Paiste Cymbals, Remo drumheads and world percussion and Roland electronics.
In 1987, Keltner, along with guitarist Ry Cooder and bassist Nick Lowe, played on John Hiatt's Bring the Family. Four years later the four musicians reunited as the band Little Village, recording an eponymous album.
Keltner played drums on both albums released by the 1980s supergroup the Traveling Wilburys, playing under the pseudonym "Buster Sidebury".
Keltner became Ry Cooder's go-to drummer, recording with him on many of his albums for over 40 years, including the following, as well as playing with him in Little Village.
Keltner, as a freelance drummer, has worked with a long list of artists.
Jim Keltner recorded two albums with his band Attitudes for George Harrison's Dark Horse label. The band also included Danny Kortchmar, David Foster and Paul Stallworth, and recorded Attitudes in 1975 and Good News in 1977.
He is featured on Carly Simon's 1971 album, Anticipation.
He played on various tracks on Randy Newman's albums Sail Away and Little Criminals, including "You Can Leave Your Hat On", "Short People", and "Jolly Coppers On Parade".
He also played drums on the Bee Gees 1973 album Life in a Tin Can.
In 1973, he was the session drummer on Bob Dylan's Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, which includes the hit "Knockin' on Heaven's Door". He described that session as "a monumental session for me because it was such a touching song, it was the first time I actually cried when I was playing".
In 1974, he played on most tracks on the Jack Bruce album Out of the Storm.
Other demonstrations of his style and range can be found in "Jealous Guy" on John Lennon's Imagine, the hit single "Dream Weaver" by Gary Wright, "Josie" on Aja by Steely Dan, and "Watching the River Flow" by Bob Dylan.
Keltner is the drummer on the Steely Dan tune "Josie" (released in 1977). In the DVD "Steely Dan - Classic Albums: Aja", Donald Fagen states that in the bridge of the tune, Keltner overdubbed a 16th note based pattern played on a metal trash can lid.
Keltner is credited as the drummer on the 1979 album by Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown, Makin' Music.
Keltner appears on Marc Jordan's 1979 album "Blue Desert" on tracks "Twilight" and "Lost in The Hurrah".
Keltner specialized in R&B, and developed a deceptively simple drumming style that melds a casual, loose feel with extraordinary precision. He is said to have influenced Jeff Porcaro and Danny Seraphine of Chicago.
Keltner played on the Saved album by Bob Dylan released in 1980.
Keltner performed on many classic recordings by J. J. Cale and often worked with bassist Tim Drummond.
He played on most of the tracks on Roy Orbison's swansong Mystery Girl.
He played on four Richard Thompson albums: Daring Adventures (1986), Amnesia (1988), Rumor and Sigh (1991) and you? me? us? (1996).
Also, he was a session drummer for the reunited Pink Floyd on the album A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
In the mid-1990s, Keltner joined the London Metropolitan Orchestra on its recording of "An American Symphony" on the movie soundtrack for Mr Holland's Opus.
In 1992, he played (together with Booker T. & the M.G.'s) at Bob Dylan's The 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration.
In 1993, he toured with Neil Young and Booker T. & the M.G.'s.
He played on Brian Wilson's 1995 album, I Just Wasn't Made for These Times
He played on Gillian Welch's album "Revival, at the track "The only one and onely"
In 2000, Keltner toured with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on their "Tour of America".
In 2000 he was the drummer on Neil Young's album Silver & Gold.
In 2000 he and Charlie Watts, of The Rolling Stones, released a CD 'The Charlie Watts-Jim Keltner Project'
In 2002, he briefly joined Bob Dylan's band during the European gigs while its main drummer, George Receli, recuperated from a hand injury. Later in the year, Keltner played in Concert For George, a tribute to George Harrison a year following his death. Wearing a sweatshirt with a Bob Dylan logo, he reprised his role as the Wilburys' drummer, joining Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne for "Handle with Care." During that project and performance, he worked with Paul McCartney along with other percussionists, including Ringo Starr.
In 2003, he toured with Simon & Garfunkel in their Old Friends tour.
In 2006, he toured with T-Bone Burnett in The True False Identity tour and was featured on Jerry Lee Lewis's album Last Man Standing. He played on Mavis Staples's album We'll Never Turn Back, produced by Ry Cooder.
He also lent his drumming skills to the tracks on Richard Shapero's full-length album entitled Wild Animus: The Ram, recorded the same year.
In 2007, he appeared with Lucinda Williams on West. The album was listed No. 18 on Rolling Stone's list of the Top 50 Albums of 2007.
In 2008, Keltner appeared on Break up the Concrete by The Pretenders, on One Kind Favor by B. B. King and on Oasis's "The Boy with the Blues", a non-album-track from Dig Out Your Soul.
Also in 2008, Keltner participated in the production of the album Psalngs, the debut release of Canadian musician John Lefebvre.
In 2009, Keltner played drums on singer/songwriter Todd Snider's entire Don Was produced album, The Excitement Plan.
In 2010, Keltner produced Jerry Lee Lewis's Mean Old Man duets CD. He played drums on Fistful of Mercy's debut album, As I Call You Down, which one of the band's members, Dhani Harrison, described in an interview as the first project of his that he felt worthy to bring to Keltner, who was an old family friend (Dhani is the son of George Harrison). Keltner also played on The Union by Leon Russell and Elton John, produced by T-Bone Burnett and released on October 10, 2010. He also appeared on the eponymous Eric Clapton album, on 8 of the 14 tracks.
Joseph Arthur's 2011 album, The Graduation Ceremony, features Keltner on drums, reprising a partnership that began with the Fistful of Mercy project.
He has recorded twice with the indie band She & Him, on 2011's A Very She & Him Christmas and 2014's Classics.
For the 2012 release, Chimes of Freedom: The Songs of Bob Dylan Honoring 50 Years of Amnesty International, Keltner sat in a studio with Outernational covering Dylan's "When the Ship Comes In".
In 2012, he also played drums on John Mayer's "Something Like Olivia", the fifth track of the album Born and Raised.
That same year, he recorded with Italian instrumental band Sacri Cuori on their second record, Rosario.
In 2013, Keltner appears on the track "If I Were Me" from Sound City: Real to Reel with Dave Grohl, Jessy Greene and Rami Jaffee. Also, on "Our Love Is Here To Stay", a classic Gershwin jazz standard recorded by Eric Clapton for his album, Old Sock.
In 2016, Keltner recorded drums for Neil Young's thirty-seventh studio album, Peace Trail. In 2016 Keltner also appeared on The Rolling Stone's CD "Blue & Lonesome" playing percussion on "Hoo Doo Blues"