James Oppenheim, from Lowell, Massachusetts, performed for the first time in an extremely busy Music City this past Friday night at the Schermerhorn. The ruckus didn¹t deter a packed house. The Nashville Symphony Center was rocking. Oppenheim, aka Boney James, provided his audience with a whale of an experience. The four time Grammy nominee and Soul Train Award winner brought along a few of his friends as well, including keyboardist, composer and producer Brian Simpson.
James’ appeal is easy to understand. Accessible beats and tunes strong on melody make his work well suited to the Adult Contemporary market. What he does best is take a bass line and make a whole pop opus out of it. Speaking of bass lines, James and Dwayne ‘Smitty’ Smith performed several duets throughout the night, awing spectators. Call them ‘crowd pleasers,’ because that alone was worth the price of admission. Dwayne even showed off his vocal talents at one point.
Engaged as ever with his astonishing ability to connect with the audience, the saxophonist sprung through the viewers and listeners, dancing and interacting with fans until he ran out of breath.
James’ influences have largely determined his direction, i.e., Jethro Tull, Allman Brothers, Kirk Whalum, Michael Brecker, Joe Farrell, Grover Washington Jr., L.A. Express, Ronnie Laws. As a kid, he loved Barry White & the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
“Then I heard Chick Corea’s ‘No Mystery’. I like stuff that’s much more song-oriented, melody-based stuff with phrases that are eloquently stated,” James has been quoted as saying.
Boney is very familiar with the difficult life of a touring musician. In fact, it was during a low-paying overseas stint that he picked up his nickname. He spent a number of years in the ’80s toiling for the likes of the Isley Brothers, Sheena Easton, Bobby Caldwell and Teena Marie. It was during a 1987 European tour with vocalist Randy Crawford that the name he now carries surfaced. The name stuck, becoming his performing name when he cut his first album. A lot of his musician friends thought of him as Boney.
The record company at the time didn’t think Oppenheim was very catchy. They loved the nickname. The rest is history.
“I think it actually intrigues people,” said James. James started playing the clarinet at eight and the saxophone at 10. He auditioned for Prince associate Morris Day’s band as a keyboardist in 1985 and got the gig. Once on the scene, his fame began to spread.
\He was called for a number of funk and pop gigs, doubling on sax and keyboards. In the meantime, he was making demo tapes in his home studio in the hopes of establishing a solo career. While James was on the road in Japan with multi-instrumentalist Caldwell, the chance came.
The result was Trust, released by Spindletop Records in 1992, an album that got substantial radio play and worked its way onto the Billboard Contemporary Jazz chart. However, the success proved to be short-lived. Spindletop went bankrupt and the record just disappeared. It kept getting airplay, but people couldn’t find it to buy. However, it didn’t take long for James to land another, bigger deal. Warner Bros. picked up Trust and reissued it. The label also released the saxophonist’s Backbone, which featured guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr. and percussionist Lenny Castro. The disc spent 25 weeks on the Billboard jazz chart.
Boney has done rather well. Though he still does the infrequent session supporting other players, his commitment is to his own career. He has definitely made himself a viable solo performer.