Pianist, composer, and arranger Eric James spent two decades as the musical collaborator of silver screen legend Charlie Chaplin, scoring the master's final sound films and later authoring new soundtracks for his classic Little Tramp-era silent shorts. Born Eric James Barker in London on August 11, 1913, he began piano lessons as a child and upon quitting school at age 15 he served as a dance class accompanist before working as a cinema organist at Uxbridge's Savoy Theatre. By accompanying the myriad silent films screened at the Savoy, James essentially taught himself the art of scoring motion pictures, honing the sensitivity and creativity that are the hallmarks of his Chaplin output. However, with the arrival of the sound era he lost his Savoy position in 1931, working as a hotel pianist before landing as a song plugger with the publishing firm Sun. In time James vaulted to a management position with Southern Music, adopting the alias Jack Howard to compose his own material; in 1939 he left the firm to tour behind singer Elsie Carlisle, a gig that ground to a halt two years later when he was called to serve with the Royal Air Force. Following World War II James joined orchestra leader Charles Shadwell and hosted his own BBC radio program, "Piano Playtime." He also accompanied singer Ann Blyth at the 1947 engagement celebration for Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten, served a lengthy stint as the house pianist on a P&O Cruises ship, and toured with Music for You, a stage showcase featuring his wife, singer Phyllis O'Reilly.
In 1956 James was summoned to London's Shepperton Studios, where Chaplin was at work on the feature A King in New York. James was asked to synchronize a performance of the Chaplin original "A Thousand Windows Smile at Me" in time to the onscreen movements of an actor playing a nightclub pianist. Unaware that the tapes were rolling, James delivered a flawless rendition and Chaplin invited him to his home in Vevey, Switzerland, to work on a series of scores the filmmaker intended to accompany the reissue of three of his early silent films. As Chaplin communicated the melodies in his head by humming, singing, or picking out notes on the piano, James expanded the basic ideas on paper, writing complete themes arranged for performance by a full orchestra. Chaplin was so delighted with the finished result that as he completed 1959's The Chaplin Revue for theatrical release, he invited James to devise his own screen credit, which ultimately read, "Music written and composed by Eric James in spite of Charlie Chaplin." James would become Chaplin's sole musical associate in the final years of the filmmaker's career, scoring the 1967 feature A Countess from Hong Kong as well as all the silent productions under Chaplin's ownership, most notably the classic The Kid and The Circus. Chaplin and James were even invited by Milan's famed La Scala to compose an original opera inspired by Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, but the comedian's death on Christmas Day 1977 guaranteed the project would never reach fruition.
James and O'Reilly emigrated to Canada in 1987. Three years later, TV Ontario hired him to compose piano accompaniment to 33 additional Chaplin shorts produced between 1914 and 1918. The project demanded more than eight hours of new music, which James recorded at a breakneck pace in the span of just four days. He also toured concert halls across Europe, conducting live symphonic performances in accompaniment with screenings of The Kid. As restoration tools advanced thanks to pioneering digital technologies, more and more of Chaplin's vintage one- and two-reelers resurfaced on video, almost always with new or re-recorded James scores. In 2000, the composer also published a memoir, Making Music with Charlie Chaplin. A year later, Canadian documentarian Christopher Lane completed work on the feature-length profile Silent Music: The Story of Eric James. The composer remained a busy lecture schedule until his death in Whitby, Ontario, on March 28, 2006; James was 92 years old.