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Life's paths gave James a few turns

Layton "Skip" James is at home at the keyboard and has been the principal keyboard artist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra for 41 years. The Hudson resident will perform at The Phipps Center for the Arts on Sept. 19. Photo by Margaret A. Ontl1 / 2
Fishing has been a part of Layton James life since he was a boy. Last Wednesday he was fishing the upper St. Croix River. Submitted photo2 / 2

Anyone who has met Layton "Skip" James knows his passion for music runs high.

James showed talent early in his life.

"My dad, born in 1910, wanted to be a pianist," said James. "But my grandfather encouraged him to become an engineer." James' grandmother was a professor of music so he was exposed to music from birth.

"When I showed some talent, my father knew enough to encourage me," said James, who went off to the Summit School of Music, four bus stops away from his childhood New Jersey home. During this time he also took private piano lessons. The lessons, always from the same teacher, ended at the age of 17 when his father wanted him to go to college for something practical. James never had another lesson.

"I went to the College of Wooster in Ohio majoring in religion and English," said James. "I did everything musically that was to be done on campus."

The next few years his wandering career path took him in many directions including teaching at a junior college, acquiring a master's degree in Musicology from Cornell University and teaching in California and at the University of Hawaii.

While he was teaching music appreciation and music history in Hawaii, his life crossed paths with Ralph Winkler.

Winkler left the orchestra of Hawaii for a position with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In the mean time, James headed to Stanford. What he learned on the academic path was that to be truly happy, he needed to be at a small college where he could teach both music academics and performance. So he contacted over 200 small colleges that seemed like good fits.

"I got it in my head that I was supposed to be a college professor," said James. At the same time he started to get calls from Leopold Sipe, founding conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

"He did not give up," said James. "The fourth time he called I agreed to visit." That was in 1969. James, who moved to St. Croix Beach near his old friend Ralph Winkler, soon found his way to UW-River Falls to teach music at a summer camp.

"On the way in my green VW bug, I crossed the Kinnickinnic," said James. "I thought 'that looks like a trout stream.'" He didn't realize there were trout streams in this area. It seemed his life was going to be complete.

As a child James was mentored by the postman, who was a friend of his grandfather's. He taught him how to hunt and fish.

"He would come by and borrow me for the weekend," said James. "He taught me how to bait, cast and educated me about reels."

His love of fishing never died; it just grew with his age and experience. As a child he would send for fishing catalogs.

"I would ooh and aah my way through them," said James. "On E-bay I can now buy the stuff I fell in love with as a child."

James is not modest about his abilities, in music or fishing, with good reason.

Some colleagues claim he never forgets a note. Shortly after he joined the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, it needed a harpsichord.

"I told them if they paid for the parts I would build it even though I had never done that before," said James. He has since built four instruments for them. "It helps to have the person who is playing it, know how to service it."

When James joined the SPCO, it had 22 members. Today, there are 33.

"It's been a very successful orchestra and I loved playing with them," said James.

While being a professional musician and an avid fisherman, James has been a church musician since the age of 11 and is currently the music director for Bethel Lutheran Church in Hudson.

"I think our theology is in our hymns," said James, who identified himself as an evangelical Christian. "As an artist I feel really comfortable in the Lutheran church. Luther loved music. It can be a source of revelation. It can open people's eyes and hearts."

In retirement, James will continue as music director, continue to be a guest artist with the SPCO, give pre-concert lectures for the SPCO and hopes to publish a nearly-complete book.

"I am not sitting around looking at the fire (place)," said James. "You can't retire from what you are."

He will be performing at The Phipps Center for the Arts on Sept. 19 at 7:30 p.m. For more information about the concert and tickets, call (715) 386-2305 or visit their website at