British musician Roger James represents the frustrating nature of the music business—a talented fellow who knocked around the business for years, playing in a handful of groups, becoming a notable performing side man, recording and touring in obscurity, growing into a fantastic performer and singer, yet never to get his due. In 1973 he released his only solo album, Riding Free, and that is where the story basically ends. RPM’s expanded reissue of that album 45 years later only causes the listener to scratch their head and wonder why things didn’t happen for such a deserving musician with a fine album under his belt.
Riding Free was preceded by a scattershot series of singles, starting in 1968 with the very fine baroque pop of “If I Didn’t Have You,” which finds James heading in the direction of Scott Walker. It is a compelling, mature record that probably seemed ahead of its time, because his follow-up release the following year, ”Faces & Places,” was something of a disappointing step backwards, a funky song that came across as trying to sound like 1965. Even though it is a lovely number, it comes across as a bit too anachronistic for the heady and progressive times of 1969. When he signed to Chapter One in 1970, his debut single would be “Riding Free,” a slice of fine, lushly produced country-pop, sounding not unlike BJ Thomas.
It is that fresh countrypolitan sound that makes Riding Free such a delight. Never too twangy, and with a few flourishes of psychedelia, the album feels both familiar and yet sometimes quite progressive. The upbeat rockers of “I’m Sure That I’m Sure” and “High In The Sky” are tempered with flourishes of West Coast sunshine vibe, while on other songs, the music is absolutely dreamy and otherworldly, such as on ”Sunshine” and “Raindrops.” James’s vocals are often mixed somewhat low into the production, which results in a cinematic vibe that makes Riding Free feel like a movie soundtrack. Overall, the album entices the listener with a sweet, intoxicating mellowness that makes you want to come back for more.
Yet in spite of this high-quality material, Chapter One sat on the album, letting it languish in the vault for two years after its creation. By the time the album did come out, James had formed the Roger James Group, moving beyond the dreaminess of the album’s material straight into no-frills country rock. They released four songs on a compilation album, with “Out Of My Mind Over You” and “She’s Leaving Me Again” showing great promise. Unfortunately, as with everything else he did, it was short-lived in spite of its potential. Eventually, James simply decided to take a low key approach to his career, becoming a songwriter and a session musician for hire.
it really is a shame Roger James didn’t have a more high profile career after the release ofRiding Free, as is it really is a fine album that deserved more attention then it receives. Still, it is better late than never, and it is good to have all of these fine songs in one handy compilation at last.