Casey James

Biography by Eugene Chadbourne

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Just like a miner who comes straggling out of the hills is a survivor of the Gold Rush, this artist is a survivor of the glitzy late-'70s disco era. James was primarily a songwriter and studio artist,…
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Artist Biography by Eugene Chadbourne

Just like a miner who comes straggling out of the hills is a survivor of the Gold Rush, this artist is a survivor of the glitzy late-'70s disco era. James was primarily a songwriter and studio artist, specializing in that decade's phenomenon of musical technology -- the synthesizer -- at which he was one of the smoothest proponents. And for a minute, Casey James was on the charts as a member of the duo Bell & James. This duo, known for disco with a touch of jazz, rang the hit parade chimes with one of the great party songs, "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)." It was an anthem for letting it all hang out in the winter of 1978, but inevitably came to be understood as one of those situations where, in terms of a career, the party in question was a funeral event and not the start of something big. The song was the only hit for the duo, which had first formed out of Portland, OR, in 1977. Bell & James made records that could have been used to serve breakfast on, in terms of sonic cleanliness. The pair specialized in a smooth sound that was the result of spic-and-span production work. Bell was the envy of many others in the soul music game as he had a leg up in the business. His uncle was famed writer and producer Thom Bell and it turned out to be a bell that could be rung for help at key times in the younger man's career. Bell nabbed James, at that point best-known as a synthesizer player on sessions for the Spinners and the O'Jays, to form a black and white "salt and pepper"-style soul combo. Did they play up this angle? Did they ever. The duo's 1981 A&M album was entitled Black and White. Drummer and guitarist Bell had met James -- at that point a triple threat on guitar, bass, and keyboards -- while both were members of the Philadelphia band Special Blend. They hit it off and following a band breakup and the decision that this blend wasn't so special after all, the two began a songwriting partnership. Thanks to ringing the Bell family connection, the duo was signed to a music publishing contract with Mighty Three Music, a company co-owned with the writers and producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Along with many noxious trends in '70s pop music, Bell & James were particularly influenced by the latter musical visionaries and what came to be called the "Philly sound." Perhaps the best-known of the Philly soul groups were the O'Jays, a group that bubbled in the cauldron for a long time before becoming one of the public's favorite soul soup choices. The group had roots as far back as 1958, got singles on the charts five years later, and really struck gold once they joined forces with the Philadelphia International label, with Gamble and Huff in the mix. To many soul music listeners, the group signaled doom, Philly soul being judged as a watered-down combination of elements from '60s Motown, although certainly romantic. James contributed much synthesizer to the Philly sound and continued his involvement with this branch of Philly soul even after tasting the big time with his party song. In 1987, Bell & James were heavily involved with the latest O'Jays record, the shameless Let Me Touch You. Biographers of the band were not kind to the contributions of James and his associates on this project, but Elton John didn't seem to agree with these appraisals of the pair's songwriting ability, as he jumped to record some of their selections, such as "Are You Ready for Love" in 1979. This track and others done at the same session have been collected on the Complete Thom Bell Sessions CD reissue. Of course, many recording artists would have been interested in the duo's possibilities as songwriters following the hit record, resulting in enough contacts to keep them going for nearly another decade. Their songs were covered by MFSB, L.T.D., Gladys Knight & the Pips, the fine singer Freda Payne, and the rhythm & blues group the Pockets. A song by the duo was included in the 1979 basketball movie The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Love was an obvious fascination in the duo's songwriting, at times seeming to be an obligatory word in their song titles, including the previously mentioned Elton John recording, as well as "Mama Can't Buy You Love," "Three Way Love," and "Give in to Love," the latter advice recorded by the superb jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. Other titles by the songwriting team include "Only Make Believe," the incomprehensible " K.Y.A.C. 1250 (I.d.)," "Shakedown," and the philosophical "You Never Know What You've Got." James used all his studio contacts when the duo recorded their own projects, bringing in hot-shot session men, including Jeff "Skunk" Baxter of the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan fame, as well as the busy, ferocious sax player Ernie Watts. In periods when the duo's discography languished in the out of print zone, the hit "Livin' It Up (Friday Night)" held steady on lots of disco and funk compilation CDs. In the meantime, James collaborated with easy listening trumpeter Chuck Mangione in the late '80s and appeared playing organ on several projects by the group Unwritten Law in the following decade.