The son of a music teacher, Michael ‘Jimmy’ James became part of the Kingston (Jamaica) music scene at an early age, working with the producers Coxsone Dodd and Clancy Eccles, and recording numerous singles for Lyndon Pottinger at Tip-Top Records on Orange Street.
The single Come To Me Softly was enough to tempt him away from a secure job at the Inland Revenue into a full-time music career, hooking up with The Vagabonds – at the time a Jamaican dance band led by Colsten Chen and in need of a star singer.
Chen’s idea that they all decamp to Britain in 1964 was timely, for Millie Small‘s My Boy Lollipop had just introduced Jamaican rhythms to the UK charts.
Based in Notting Hill, they began by playing town halls for London’s Caribbean community, but that changed when, at a gig at the Overseas Visitors Club, they met mod manifesto-shaper Pete Meaden.
Meaden got the smart-dressed Vagabonds a date at the Marquee supporting The Who for a month but the response was so positive that they were soon headlining and filling the place.
In December 1965, Melody Maker featured the group in a list of “up and comers” on the London club scene. The Pye album, London Swings, Live at the Marquee Club (1967) paired them with another perennial of the period, The Alan Bown Set, and caught The Vagabonds in their prime.
But as impressive as all their material was, there was not a sniff of a hit until the summer of 1968 when James put the soulful spirit into Neil Diamond‘s hitherto understrength Red Red Wine which reached #50.
Disappointed at the lack of chart and radio success, the original Vagabonds fell apart. Count Prince Miller scored a reggae hit with the amusing Mule Train and Phil Chen became a top-ranking bass player for the likes of Rod Stewart and The Doors.
James formed a new Vagabonds and headed for cabaret, where things got moving again at the turn of the 70s when Indian writer, arranger and producer Biddu got him to put a vocal over an already-recorded track. The result, A Man Like Me, became a monster on the Northern Soul circuit.
Biddu and James teamed up again in 1975 cutting two albums of disco-orientated material. About a decade overdue, the affable singer finally had his first Top 10 hit with I’ll Go Where Your Music Takes Me, soon followed by the even bigger Now Is The Time.
Since the 1970s, James has kept the flame alive by appearing in cabaret and on cruise ships, as well as soul weekenders and gigs with the likes of PP Arnold and Geno Washington.
Count Prince Miller