James Armstrong is one of a very few seasoned artists who manages to honor the sound of traditional blues while giving it the contemporary grit to which fans love to groove. Born in Los Angeles, California, his mother was a blues singer, his father played jazz guitar. At the age of eight James started performing around town in a duo with his father. At fourteen he formed his own band and was performing at local events in Santa Monica, California. At seventeen, while still attending high school, he was performing six nights a week with a country band. Before graduation the band hit the road and James had his first cross-country tour experience.
One of Armstrong’s first teachers, after his dad, was his father’s life-long friend, Irving Ashby, guitarist for the Nat King Cole Trio. As a teen James’ musical tastes were on the rock side. Then, one day, while listening to ‘Stormy Monday Blues’ by the Allman Brothers Band he realized- it all comes from the blues. His passion for the blues increased by listening to Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, which in turn, led him back to Albert, Freddie and B.B. King, the music that played in the home he grew up in with his dad. For James it was ‘like coming back home’.
In his twenties James got plenty of exposure to the blues by working with some of his musical heroes, including Albert Collins, who spent quality time with James and taught him a few tricks. James was also the youngest guitar player to play in both Roy Brown and Smokey Wilson’s bands. Shortly after that he was discovered and signed by HighTone Records. Bruce Bromberg, the president of the label, who discovered Robert Cray and Joe Louis Walker, decided to sign James after seeing him one night at ‘a funky little bar’ named Mr. B’s.
Then, just as he was about to tour with his critically acclaimed first album Sleeping With A Stranger, tragedy struck. The events surrounding a home invasion left Armstrong without the use of his left hand and arm, and threatened to end his career forever. But, thanks to the support of friends, fans and the blues community, Armstrong came back with a second album, Dark Night. The album has an introspective take on life and survival, but it also reveals more of Armstrong’s trademark affection and humor with cuts like Lil’ James (about his first son) and Slender Man, which, when performed live, is a huge crowd pleaser and manages to charm “the ladies” and amuse ‘those big guys” all at the same time!
What Armstrong lost in the tragedy he gained in “a whole new respect for the music itself…it’s subtleties and moods, the power in slow blues, how the silences between the notes are as important as the notes.” While working to recover the use of all his fingers, Armstrong turned his efforts to perfecting his slide guitar. The results were a third album, Got It Goin' On. The title came from James’ decision that the worst is behind him and he’s back on track and ‘got it goin’ on.’ The cd garnered two WC Handy award nominations for best blues guitar and for best song of the year with Pennies and Picks, a song about the hardships of the road. Got It Goin’ On, with its new grooves and surprises, was praised by critics not only for Armstrong’s solid slide playing, but for its larger part in redefining the blues and keeping the genre alive.
As both a performer and storyteller, James works with mood, humor and atmosphere, a skill that has not gone unnoticed by filmmakers. Several of his songs have been chosen for movie soundtracks. Bank of Love was used in the Martin Sheen-Marlee Matlin film "Hear No Evil" and the James Belushi-Luke Perry movie "The Florentine." Two Sides to Every Story is featured in "Speechless,” starring Michael Keaton and Geena Davis. Two Sides to Every Story is also the theme song for an ongoing soap opera in Europe.
Over the years Armstrong has performed in many countries including North America, Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East. He has worked beside Albert Collins, Keb Mo’, Coco Montoya, Roy Brown, Shemekia Copeland, Chaka Khan, Charlie Musselwhite, Ricky Lee Jones, Joe Louis Walker, Tommy Castro, Jan & Dean, Mitch Michell (Jimi Hendrix's drummer), Peter Tork (The Monkees), just to name a few.
His about-to-be-released fourth CD promises more authentic 21st Century blues songs, including among them: a funk-driven tribute to Sam Taylor, a musician who mentored him in the early Santa Monica days; a mysterious and courageous bit of biography; and a funny, yet painfully accurate rant about border crossing post-9/11. Expect more searing slide, engaging grooves, soulful singing, a touch more grit and even more confidence as he continues to draw on his unique personal history, raw instincts and seasoned skills.
Seen live, Armstrong has a confident stage presence that combines grace with mischief. Few blues artists know how to play the crowd as James can, shifting dynamics from a whisper to a growl. Wherever he travels around the world his magnetism continues to hush a noisy rabble or entice a crowd to follow him out into the street or down the length of a beach. Little wonder he’s been dubbed:
“The Ambassador of the Blues.”