(d London, c1745). English organist and composer. Having unsuccessfully competed for various London church jobs, on 12 March 1730 James was elected to the organist's post at St Olave, Southwark. His annual salary of £25 was reduced in 1732 to £20 and then restored to the original amount in April 1734. Nevertheless, two years later, on 27 April 1736, he informed the members of the vestry that he intended to resign. He then moved on, it appears, to St George-in-the-East (in 1738), but there is no surviving documentary evidence to confirm this.
James's curiously undistinguished career is explained by the character of the man himself: according to Hawkins, James not only ‘paid very little attention to his interest’ but was ‘so totally devoid of all solicitude to advance himself in his profession, as to prefer the company and conversation of the lowest of mankind to that of the most celebrated of his own profession’; his manners too ‘were to so great a degree sordid and brutal, that his associates were butchers and bailiffs, and his recreations dog-fighting and bull-baiting’. Even worse, he ‘indulged an inclination to spirituous liquors of the coarsest kind … even while attending his duty at church’. It has not been possible to establish whether the John James buried at St George-in-the-East on 25 July 1746 was the organist. A son, Handel James, was a Thames waterman.
As a player and extempore performer on the organ James was evidently admired by his contemporaries, but seemingly very little of his own music was actually written down, and apart from three songs — Ye mortals that love drinking (c1735), Ye thirsty souls (c1735) and Celinda (c1740) — none of it was published during his lifetime. A funeral anthem, written for himself, also survives (in GB-Lbl) and there are a number of organ voluntaries in a variety of manuscript sources (chiefly Bu Shaw-Hellier 812, Lco (5 ed. H.D. Johnstone, Oxford, 1986), Lbl, Ldc, Mp and the private collection of Guy Oldham). There are also at least five (possibly seven) pieces composed for the Microcosm, a huge astronomical clock with attached barrel organ built by Henry Bridges of Waltham Abbey. Four of these were published anonymously in A Collection of Voluntaries in 1770 and were later included (together with a double fugue in C to be found in Lco) in a so-called ‘Microcosm Concerto’ printed in Edward Jones’s Musical Remains (1796) where they were arranged for the harp and attributed to Handel. Completed in 1733, the clock was widely exhibited in Britain and in colonial America; its central mechanism (but not the organ) is preserved in the British Museum.