The nephew of Temptations vocalist Melvin Franklin, James pioneered a crossover style between R&B and rock in the mid-60s. In 1965, he formed the Mynah Birds in New York with two future members of the Buffalo Springfield, Neil Young and Bruce Palmer, plus Goldie McJohn, later with Steppenwolf. Motown Records signed the band as a riposte to the British wave of R&B artists then dominating the charts, before their career was aborted when James was arrested for draft evasion. Resuming his career in Britain in the early 70s, James formed the funk combo Main Line. Returning to the USA, he assembled a like-minded group of musicians to perform a dense, brash brand of funk, influenced by Sly Stone and George Clinton.
Signed to Motown in 1977, initially as a songwriter, he rapidly evolved a more individual style, which he labelled "punk funk". His first single, "You And I", typified his approach, with its prominent bass riffs, heavy percussion, and sly, streetwise vocals. The record reached the US Top 20 in summer 1978 and topped the specialist soul charts - a feat that its follow-up, "Mary Jane", came close to repeating, though the song's blatant references to marijuana cut short any hopes of radio airplay. James chose to present himself as a social outlaw, with outspoken views on drugs and sex. In a move subsequently echoed by Prince, he amassed a stable of artists under his control at Motown, using the Stone City Band as his backing group, and the Mary Jane Girls as female pawns in his macho master plan. He also produced records by actor Eddie Murphy, vocalist Teena Marie, Val Young, and Process And The Doo-Rags.
James' own recordings, predominantly in the funk vein, continued to corner the disco market, with "Give It To Me Baby" and "Super Freak", on which he was joined by the Temptations, achieving notable sales in 1981. M.C. Hammer sampled the latter track on his huge 1990 hit, "U Can't Touch This". Both tracks came from Street Songs, a Grammy-nominated record that catapulted James into the superstar bracket. Secure in his commercial standing, he revealed that he preferred recording ballads to the funk workouts that had made his name, and his drift towards a more conservative image was heightened when he duetted with Smokey Robinson on the hit single "Ebony Eyes', and masterminded the Temptations" reunion project in 1983.