Best remembered for her baby-talk singing voice, modern audiences seem fascinated by Ida James, much more so than her contemporaries. James was at best a minor celebrity. She rarely recorded, never had a hit song, and didn’t have a presence on radio. Though black journalists of the time praised her achievements, she remained a second-tier entertainer within her own community, and she failed to catch on with white audiences who often saw her as a novelty act due to her chirping voice, which limited her effectiveness on a range of material. White critics sometimes panned her, calling her act tepid.
James grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and made her professional start as part of the The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour on Philadelphia radio station WCAU in the 1930s. She sang with Earl Hines’ band in 1937 before joining Erskine Hawkins in 1939, where she stayed through 1942.
After leaving Hawkins to go solo, James spent time on the West Coast, where she played clubs around the Los Angeles area and performed in the The New Meet the People revue. She made two soundies, “Who’s Been Eating My Porridge?” and “Is You Is, or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” with the King Cole Trio for RCM before heading to New York in June 1944 to begin an engagement at the Cafe Society. While there she made two more soundies, “His Rockin’ Horse Ran Away” and “Can’t See for Lookin’,” both for Filmcraft in late 1944.
In early 1945, James appeared on Broadway twice, in the Olsen and Johnson revue Laffing Room Only and in the all-black musical Memphis Bound. Neither show lasted long. In late 1945, she headed to the South Pacific with her own USO unit.
Back in the states by mid-1946, James hit the theater and night club circuit before landing a long residence at the Savannah Club in New York’s Greenwich Village from late-1947 to mid-1948. She released two songs on Decca with the Ellis Larkins Trio in mid-1946 and signed with the Manor label in late December 1947, making four sides just before the recording ban of 1948 was due to begin. She also appeared on the Adventures in Jazz television program in 1949.
James made only a few film appearances, the first in the 1939 all-black horror film The Devil’s Daughter, widely considered one of the worst films ever made, and later in Republic’s 1944 second-tier musical Trocadero, where she performed her signature tune “Shoo Shoo Baby.” In 1947, she starred as Cab Calloway’s manager in the Calloway vehicle Hi De Ho.
In January 1950, James opened on Broadway in another short-lived production, the social justice drama How Long Till Summer? As the 1950s rolled around, she turned towards rhythm and blues, recording two sides on Columbia in 1951 and signing with the new Nickelodeon label in 1953. She continued performing through the mid-1950s but by that time had drifted into obscurity and eventually left show business.