I’m not sure how long I’ve known James, probably somewhere between 25-30 years. I first met James when Frank Pellegrino hired him to play with us at the Monday night blues jam at the Kingston Mines. He was not particularly talkative, but it was obvious that he not only was a very experienced musician, but that he took it seriously. So my first impression of James was something like, “I’d better not piss this guy off.” It took me years to understand that he had a sense of humor.
A few years later, I did my first tour with Otis Rush, along with James, Sumito (Ariyo) Ariyoshi, and Sam Burton. And I felt then like I knew him a little better, and that maybe he thought I could play. And came slowly to realize that he actually liked it. When he called, he would greet me with a hearty “Harleone!” When the opportunity came to work with him in another jam setting, this time at Rosa’s, I was glad to get on board.
A couple of years ago Frank Pellegrino had James and me nominated for a Chicago Music Award. We didn’t think we would win, but James was a good sport, and we went to the ceremony and had a good time watching, and shared a few laughs.
James WAS a serious musician. I liked playing with him because he was a disappearing breed. He liked chords and chord changes. He could be patient, but he wanted his stuff played right. He wasn’t shy about correcting you, and if you persisted in not getting it, you might get an eye roll or two. It was good to know he approved of what you were doing. He especially was fond of Ariyo, and it is sad to see that mutual admiration broken up. If you watch his last Rosa’s jam on gigity.tv, you can see that at the end of the night, James pulls out a list of songs he wants to try. He was always writing down song ideas or lyrics and whatnot. He was not one for sitting around doing nothing. He told me that he actually had enough stuff for 3 CDs. We started working on the first one in 2013, and I know he wanted to get it finished. I hope we can do that for him.
Rest In Peace