Like many music artists who have been on the scene for a decade or more, Boney James admits he had his worries about how his career would be affected when music downloading took hold and started crushing sales of CDs.
This change spelled the end for many major brick-and-mortar record stores, and in the smooth jazz genre that had become home to James, there was the additional problem of seeing a shrinking number of smooth jazz radio stations.
Despite such ominous developments, James continues to do just fine these days, thank you very much.
“All I can say is for my business, it’s been nothing but up,” he said in a mid-July phone interview. “You know, I definitely had some anxiety when the recorded music sales business was declining and radio formats were going away. But the internet and the streaming has really come in. Your metrics are a little different.
“You can’t look at your SoundScans and expect to sell, I mean, I had four gold records over 500,000, and even the giant pop stars don’t sell that now. So you just need to look compared to the market how you’re doing, and I’m still the best selling artist in the genre that they list me in in ‘Billboard,’ which is great.
“And my touring has never been better,” said James who will headline the ninth annual John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival in High Point on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1. “My two biggest years have been the last two years. So that’s just crazy to me, and not at all what I expected. I kind of always thought it would eventually fade away, and when the radio started to change I thought, ‘Am I even going to able to keep doing this?’ But it’s been better than stable. It’s been up.”
A resident of the Los Angeles area since his high school years, James, 58, is in his fourth decade on the music scene. He began his career as a sideman, playing sax and keyboards with Morris Day and the Isley Brothers, among others, before starting his solo career at age 30 with the album the 1992 album, “Trust.” It was the first of 16 solo albums.
That album paved the way for a deal with Warner Bros. Records, and soon his mostly instrumental music, which skirts genres by blending smooth jazz with healthy amounts of R&B and soul, as well as occasional dollops of Latin and other world music styles, had made him a perennial favorite in the smooth jazz world.
By the time James left Warner Bros. for the 2006 album, “Shine,” his albums were regularly topping the jazz album charts. He hit a high point with the 2015 album, “futuresoul,” which held the No. 1 slot on “Billboard” magazine’s Contemporary Jazz album chart for 11 weeks, and his most recent album, 2017’s “Honestly,” was No. 1 on that chart for four weeks.
“Honestly” continued to explore the melodic, lively and frequently sensual R&B-infused smooth jazz sound that has become James’ signature with a couple of twists — the use of a full horn section on several songs and a bit more spare production approach.
He believes a main reason for his consistent success is that he simply tries to make great music without worrying about how his albums will fare on the charts.
“The key to that is I’m just trying to make music that I like. I’m trying to make something that I want to listen to,” James said. “That’s something I can always be true to. There’s no bending over backwards to that. And luckily, there is an audience out there that sort of, I guess, has a similar taste as me.”
Considering “Honestly” has been out for nearly two years, it’s no surprise that James has started working toward his next album.
“I’m definitely gearing up to get a little more serious about it,” James said, noting he hopes to return to the studio in November and have the album out mid-year 2020. “I’m getting that sense of ‘Hmm, I’ve got some ideas here. It’s time to maybe start to get more serious about finalizing some of these ideas to songs.’”
But although James has album number 17 in his sights, he is still giving “Honestly” a good bit of focus in his live shows this summer and fall.
“I actually joke onstage that the 2019 ‘Honestly’ tour is completely different from the 2018 ‘Honestly’ tour, and they laugh,” James said. “But it is true because sort of in the (2018) break over Christmas and New Year’s was in my studio and just listening to some of my older records and realizing there were a bunch of those songs — it’s 16 records now — so a lot of those songs have sort of escaped my attention for some years.
“So we’re actually adding some stuff back into the show. Some of it, I haven’t played for 20 years. That’s been fun, but we’re definitely still featuring songs off of what I still refer to as the new record.”