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Bob James Releases An Album Of His Early Work Recorded 55 Years Ago

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Bob James is one of those musicians you may not have heard of but who you've likely heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB JAMES'S "NAUTILUS")

KELLY: That's his song "Nautilus," just one of his songs which went on to become building blocks of hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAYTONA 500")

GHOSTFACE KILLAH: (Rapping) Say peace to cats who rock mack knowledge. Knowledgists (ph), street astrologists, light up the mic, God, knowledge this. Fly joints that carried your points, Corolla Motorola holder...

KELLY: Bob James is also a studio musician. Here's his work on Roberta Flack's "Feel Like Makin' Love."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL LIKE MAKIN LOVE")

ROBERTA FLACK: (Singing) Strolling in the park, watching winter turn to spring.

KELLY: James has made plenty of music in later years, too, music which you might call smooth jazz. But when we asked him to speak with us, we wanted to start back in 1965. That is when a young Bob James made a jazz trio album that was never released until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB JAMES' "SERENATA")

KELLY: It's called "Once Upon A Time." And Bob James joins us now.

Welcome. Good to have you with us.

BOB JAMES: Hi, Mary Louise. It's very good to be here. And yes, it seems like such a long time ago.

KELLY: Well, take me back. I mean, it was a long time ago, 1965. You're in New York. You're trying to make it as a musician. You cut this album. Just set the stage for me. What was going on? What was inspiring you?

JAMES: I had just moved to New York about a year and a half before this happened. And I was not expecting to get any work playing jazz at that time, let alone make an album. That was the furthest thing from my mind. I had some optimism, but I was so interested in avant-garde music at that time that I didn't think anybody wanted to pay for it. But there was a young guy named George Klabin, an engineer who was wanting to record something. And he had heard about my trio and invited me to make some recordings. We weren't even anticipating an album at that time. And after I did the sessions, I kind of forgot about it. And many, many, many, many years went by. And lo and behold, he contacted me to tell me that he had found these tapes and that they were still in pretty good condition.

KELLY: Wow. Had you forgotten all about them by this point?

JAMES: Totally - had no idea that they still existed. The idea that he wanted to release them was also kind of a miracle to me because my style had changed a lot. The timing that was happening at that time with avant-garde music was so different that I wondered whether there would even be anybody that would be interested in it.

KELLY: You nodded to that you'd been playing around with some avant-garde music stuff. And there are some songs on this that get a little weird, if you'll forgive me for saying. I'm thinking of "Lateef Minor 7th."

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB JAMES SONG, "LATEEF MINOR 7TH")

KELLY: Talk to me about what's going on in this song.

JAMES: Well, first of all, it's a great piece that was composed by Joe Zawinul when he played with the great saxophonist Yusuf Lateef. And I think I was trying to take my listeners on a different direction from what they would expect. And my trio was going back and forth between playing straight ahead, bebop-flavored jazz, and then we would suddenly go in this opposite direction into the avant-garde world. But I always had the feeling of wanting to bring them back home having felt that they were on an interesting adventure.

KELLY: Well, let me turn us in the direction of what seems like the most unlikely of career turns, pivoting from that early beginning of your career to - you started moving into making music and songs that have since been pored over, sampled, idolized by hip-hop producers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PETER PIPER")

RUN-DMC: (Rapping) Like the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, he's a maker, a breaker and a title-taker. Like the little old lady who lived in a shoe, if cuts were his, he would be you. I'm not lying...

KELLY: Talk to me about what that pivot was like for you.

JAMES: It's another example of some crazy thing happening that I didn't have any idea about nor would have ever expected it to happen. When I first had my music being sampled by the hip-hop artists, I wasn't listening to hip-hop or rap at that time at all, so I had to have somebody else tell me about it. And when they did, I thought it was a mistake. They can't possibly be listening to my music. So I was very, very shocked.

KELLY: Do you remember what that first moment was, when somebody said, hey, Bob, you got to listen to this; this is your music being sampled?

JAMES: Well, the first one that I remember was a recording by Jazzy Jeff and Fresh Prince, and they had taken my song "Westchester Lady."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HERE WE GO AGAIN")

DJ JAZZY JEFF AND THE FRESH PRINCE: (Rapping) Loyal fans and newfound followers, what's up, y'all? Hello. How are you doing out there? You're chilling? I'm with it. Oh, by the way, the album's out. Go get it.

JAMES: It was me playing my song "Westchester Lady," and it was pretty shocking. And I learned that if I was going to protect my copyrights, if nothing else, I had to sort of fight back and say, wait just a minute. That's me playing on that. And somehow or other, I'd like people to know about it.

KELLY: I should just clue people in who are listening and can't see you. You are white. You are - what? - 80 years old now. Is that right?

JAMES: Yeah. That was a pretty good guess.

KELLY: (Laughter) OK. Well, I keep reading articles that refer to you as the godfather of hip-hop, and I wonder how that sits with you.

JAMES: I'm not going to say uncomfortable because I have gotten a lot of respect from not only the hip-hop artists but the fans in a way that has made me feel humble and realize the power that music can go into places that you'd never dream of.

KELLY: It's a lovely way of thinking about it, that you have been welcomed into this field of art that's dominated by Black Americans. Is it in this particular moment, in this summer of racial reckoning, is it awkward at all?

JAMES: Not at all awkward for me. In fact, looking back on my life - and I even kind of went public with this during all of the discussion, debates, conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement - that we all need to be accounted for one way or another. And in my career, it was very obvious from the beginning when I first started listening to jazz and trying to play it that it was a genre of music that was dominated by Black artists. And I was not at all sure that I could fit in or definitely not sure that I would be accepted. And when that gradually started to happen, I was thrilled. And whether I belong in it or not, that's for the world to decide, not for me. I'm just trying to do my part to be open and not display prejudice.

KELLY: Well, Bob James, it has been a pleasure. Thank you for speaking with us.

JAMES: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB JAMES'S "INDIAN SUMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.