The joint was packed and jumping. It was shoulder to shoulder on a hot Rochester night when McKinley James took the Harro East Ballroom stage. The crowd came on like a groundswell. There was nothing standing between James and the nearly 1,000 voracious spectators except for his red guitar. He had missed freshman orientation at Webster Schroeder High School for this.
James looked left, he looked right, he licked his lips, and tore into a killer version of Link Wray's "The Black Widow." The crowd went bananas. James settled into the groove with Eddie Cochran's "My Way." From there on it was a rapid-fire blur of roots-rock tinged with swinging rockabilly, blues, and stompin' R&B. James and his drummer — and dad — Jason Smay did nothing to soothe the savage beast, but rather, they set its ass on fire.
You see, most kids starting out in the rock 'n' roll racket, with a guitar and a dream, wind up playing sub-par gin-mills and juke joints to less than attentive fans. This gig opening for JD McPherson at the Harro was a start at the top, a trial by fire. James was nervous as hell.
"It was very nerve-wracking," says the 14-year-old guitar slinger. "I had to start with an instrumental because I'm less nervous when I just play. It's like, 'Okay, I got this going. I just hope not to screw anything up."
James says he really started playing when he was 10.
"I started on Hammond organ first," he says. "I took lessons for a little while, but I got bored with the organ." It was apparent to his dad: there was a guitar player in his midst.
"Two or three years ago, he learned Link Wray's 'Rawhide.'" Smay says. "And it was like, 'Oh my God, he's gonna be a guitar player.' I didn't want him to be a play guitar. I wanted him to play the Hammond. I wanted him to be a Hammond player."
At first it was guitarist Steve Cropper from Booker T. and the M.G.'s that got James heading down the six-string highway — a band he devoured during his Hammond days. But before long, he was spending hours with his guitar, parked in front of a record player, devouring the signature sounds of players like Jimmie Vaughan, Eddie Angel, Nick Curran, and Link Wray, to name a few. And the boy can sing, too. He cites Ritchie Valens as his vocal hero.
James's tone and attack are raunchy and strong as he navigates through a yesteryear of classic styles and influences.
And he can add "video vixen" to his blossoming resume. Country musician Eric Church included James in his recently released video for the song "Mr. Misunderstood" after Church's manager saw James with his ever-present guitar while James and his family were on vacation in Nashville. The video has had well over one million hits.
"We shot it at an old school house in Nashville," he says. "It was pretty fun." But was it as fun as playing to a huge crowd? This young man was born for the live stage and jumps at the idea of tour dates. Though Smay is a drummer and knows the thrills and call of the road, he helps keep it real.
"I'm not sure how much he can do now," Smay says. "He's in the ninth grade. I think it's great he works really hard."
This work includes a single he is recording with JD McPherson, some gigs in the region, and attending high school where he's the only one in the ninth grade with a greasy DA and Buddy Holly glasses.
But he's not jamming with ninth graders. "No," James says. "Because they're not experienced players."
Dad steps in to clarify, "It's more like you haven't found any that like the music you like."