Born in Buffalo, New York, James bounced around the city's meaner streets into his teens, at which point he joined the U.S. Naval Reserves. He went AWOL and found his way to Toronto in the early Sixties, where he started the Mynah Birds, notable for being one of Neil Young's first bands.
In 1978 he signed a deal with Motown as a writer and producer and released his debut, Come Get It that year. The record climbed to Number Thirteen and spent four months on the charts. Two 1979 releases -- Bustin' Out of L Seven and Fire It Up -- also broke into the Top Forty. James best-known, and best-selling, record would be 1981's Street Songs, which reached Number Three that year and remained on the charts for almost half a year.
"It still holds up," James told Rolling Stone in a 2002 interview. "I listen to people talking about ghetto life and the police and marijuana, and all the things that are involved in street living, and Street Songs typifies all of that. And I hear people talking about the police or pimps and ho's and ghetto and all that shit, and I don't think there's been an album out there that really exemplifies that life better than Street Songs does. We talk about it all, and I don't think we missed a beat."
James also found success producing the likes of Teena Marie, and comedian Eddie Murphy's foray into music. James' next two albums - 1982's Throwin' Down and 1983's Cold Blooded -- both broke into the Top Twenty, but they were followed by a drought of hits brought on by changing times and James' own troubled life. In the early Nineties, he was convicted of assaulting two women, one of whom charged that he burned her with a crack pipe. James served more than two years in Folsom Prison for the charge.
Upon his release from prison, James continued to face hard times, including a ruptured artery in his neck that, in 1998, caused a stroke. James continued to work, though, touring and recording and recently overseeing a deluxe reissue of Street Songs, a record that will be the cornerstone of his legacy.
In 2002, when James was asked how he'd like to be remembered, he replied, "As someone who beat the odds, and as a musician who gave up the truth. My music ain't no contrived bullshit. It ain't no sci-fi shit. It's the real fuckin' deal."