Skip James Biography

Nehemiah Curtis James, 9 June 1902, Bentonia, Mississippi, USA, d. 3 October 1969, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. A solitary figure, James was an emotional, lyrical performer whose talent as a guitar player and arranger enhanced an already impressive body of work. His early career included employment as a pianist in a Memphis whorehouse, as well as the customary appearances at local gatherings and roadhouses. In 1931 he successfully auditioned for the Paramount recording company, for whom he completed an estimated 26 masters. These exceptional performances included ‘Devil Got My Woman’, written when his brief marriage broke down, as well as ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ and ‘I’m So Glad’, which was subsequently recorded by Cream.

James abandoned music during the late 30s in favour of the church and was ordained as a Baptist minister in 1942. He briefly resumed more secular pursuits during the 50s, and was brought back to public attention by guitarists John Fahey, Bill Barth and Canned Heat’s Henry Vestine, who discovered the dispirited singer in a Mississippi hospital. James remained a reserved individual, but his accomplished talents were welcomed on the thriving folk and college circuit where he joined contemporaries such as Mississippi John Hurt and Sleepy John Estes. Two superb collections for the Vanguard Records label, Today and Devil Got My Woman, showcased James’ remarkable skills. His high, poignant voice brought an air of vulnerability to an often-declamatory genre and his albums remain among the finest of the country blues canon. Recurring illness sadly forced James to retire and he died in 1969 following a prolonged battle with cancer.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.