Bob James (musician)

Robert McElhiney James (born December 25, 1939) is an American Grammy Award-winning jazz keyboardist, arranger, and record producer. He founded the band Fourplay and wrote "Angela," the theme song for the TV show Taxi. He is most famous for standards such as "Nautilus", "Westchester Lady", "Heads", "Night Crawler", "Touchdown", "Blue Lick", "Sign Of the Times", "Spunky", "Marco Polo", "Courtship" and "Just One Thing".[1] Music from his first seven albums has often been sampled and has contributed to the formation of hip hop.[2][3]

Bob James
Background information
Birth nameRobert McElhiney James
Born (1939-12-25) December 25, 1939
Marshall, Missouri, U.S.
Occupation(s)Musician, composer, arranger, record producer
InstrumentsPiano, keyboards
Years active1962–present
Associated actsEarl Klugh, David Sanborn, Fourplay, Nathan East
WebsiteOfficial website

Early life, education and family

Robert McElhiney James was born on Christmas Day 1939 in Marshall, Missouri to Albert Lamkin James and Alice (née McElhiney) James. His elder sister's name is Katherine.

He started playing the piano at age 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.

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 learned to 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."

James initially attended the University of Michigan and began earning his bachelor's and his master's degrees in music. However, during the first semester of his sophomore year, James transferred to Berklee College of Music, in Boston, Massachusetts. During college at Berklee College of Music, James's roommate was Nick Brignola, who became one of the great baritone saxophone jazz artists.

Music career

His first professional music job was when he was eight years old, playing for a tap dance class at Mercy Academy. During his adolescence, James music career proliferated. Early jobs included being a member of the Earle Parsons Dance Band (c. 1952–55) which played various engagements around the Marshall area. During this time, he penned his first dance band arrangement.

During the summer of 1955, at Lake of the Ozarks in 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.

Discovery by Quincy Jones

While in college 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.[4][5][2]

In New York City, James worked as an arranger and was hired as piano accompanist for jazz singer Sarah Vaughan. 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 Gabor Szabo, Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Grover Washington, Jr., and Maynard Ferguson.[4]

Solo albums and collaborations

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.[4] The album was notable for adapting classical music to a modern-day scene, e.g. "In The Garden" was based on Pachelbel's Canon in D and "Night On Bald Mountain" was a cover of Modest Mussorgsky's composition of the same name.

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).[6] 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).[7] 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 of a taxi.

James turned from smooth jazz to classical music to record Rameau (1984), his interpretations of Baroque-period composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.[8] 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.[9] 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). Joined at the Hip will be reissued with a 2019 Remaster on evosound.


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.[4] Fourplay celebrated its 25th anniversary with the album Silver (Heads Up, 2015).[10]

Influence in hip hop

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.[6]

"Nautilus" has been 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)". It appears on the Funcrusher Plus LP from Company Flow and Nangdo's "Nikes". The bassline from "Nautilus" appears 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. It has been sampled by 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",'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.

James's 1981 song "Sign of the Times" was sampled by Warren G and Nate Dogg in their 1994 single "Regulate".

His 1980 song "Snowbird Fantasy" was Sampled by French House Musician and Le Knight Club member Eric Chedeville, also Known as "Rico the Wizard", in his 2009 single "Spell of Love", which was Remixed Later by fellow musician DJ Sneak.

Awards and honors



  • Bold Conceptions (1963)
  • Explosions (1964)
  • One (1974)
  • Two (1975)
  • Three (1976)
  • BJ4 (1977)
  • Heads (1977)
  • Touchdown (1978)
  • Lucky Seven (1979)
  • H (1980)
  • Sign of the Times (1981)
  • Hands Down (1982)
  • Foxie (1983)
  • The Genie (1983)
  • Rameau (1984)
  • 12 (1984)
  • The Swan (1984, reissued 1995)
  • Obsession (1986)
  • The Scarlatti Dialogues (1988)
  • Ivory Coast (1988)
  • J. S. Bach: Concertos for 2 & 3 Keyboards (1989)
  • Grand Piano Canyon (1990)
  • Restless (1994)
  • Straight Up (1996)
  • Playin' Hooky (1997)
  • Joy Ride (1999)
  • Dancing on the Water (2001)
  • Morning, Noon & Night (2002)
  • Take It from the Top (2004)
  • Urban Flamingo (2005)
  • Alone: Kaleidoscope By Solo Piano (2013)
  • Espresso (2018)[13]
  • Joined At The Hip (2019 Remaster)

Live albums

  • 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 (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)


As arranger

With Hank Crawford

With Johnny Hammond

As sideman

With Chet Baker

With Ron Carter

With Paul Desmond

With Jackie and Roy

With J. J. Johnson and Kai Winding

With Hubert Laws

With Don Sebesky

With Gábor Szabó

With Gary Burton


  • 2005 Live at Montreux
  • 2005 Bob James: An Evening of Fourplay Vol 1 & 2
  • 2006 Bob James Live[14]


  1. Yanow, Scott. "Bob James | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved November 9, 2016.
  2. Ma, David (July 10, 2014). "Bob James talks about his first three albums (namely Nautilus and Take Me To The Mardi Gras) on CTI". Wax Poetics. Retrieved November 10, 2016.
  3. Pablo, J. (October 30, 2013). "We Interviewed Bob James, Hip-Hop's Unlikely Godfather". Vice. Retrieved July 3, 2019.
  4. Klopus, Joe (October 8, 2016). "Jazz Town: Missouri native Bob James bringing his music back home". Retrieved November 10, 2016.
  5. Schlesinger, Judith. "Bold Conceptions - Bob James". Retrieved November 10, 2016.
  6. "BOB JAMES | Career". Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  7. "The Genie: Themes & Variations from the TV Series "Taxi"". AllMusic. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  8. Ginell, Richard S. "Rameau - Bob James". AllMusic. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  9. "Double Vision - Bob James, David Sanborn". Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  10. Tauss, Lucy (December 2015). "Jazz Reviews: The New Cool: Bob James/Nathan East". Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  11. "Past Winners Search". The GRAMMYs. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  12. "2016 Grammy Awards: Complete list of winners and nominees". Los Angeles Times. February 15, 2016. Retrieved November 11, 2016.
  13. Bob James Trio, Espresso. Review by Alex Henderson, NYCJR, November 2018 - Issue 199, page 19. Retrieved 24 October 2018.
  14. "Bob James DVD - Live Jazz Concert DVD - Kirk Whalum Jazz DVD - Bob James Jazz DVD". Retrieved April 30, 2010.
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