James was born on September 10, 1940 in Yoakum but spent his early life in Corpus Christi. He came from a musical family with his mother, Mattie M. Polk, singing as a professional gospel singer throughout Texas. He moved to Austin in early 1959 to attend Huston-Tillotson College where he received his B.A. Degree in Music/Education. He pursued graduate study at Texas A & I University in Kingsville and at the University of Texas at Austin.
Polk plays keyboards, bass, drums, saxophone and other instruments. He has taught music education, worked as a club musician and performed throughout Texas with his group, James Polk and Company. From 1978 to 1985, he worked with Ray Charles Enterprises playing concerts, writing and arranging music for the Ray Charles Orchestra.
In 1983, he performed and arranged music for the Sara Jordan Powell gospel album and in 1985, the Ray Charles Christmas album, among others. He received a Grammy Award nomination in 1979 for the best arrangement of a song, Some Enchanted Evening, on the Ray Charles album, Ain’t It So. He was nominated a second time in 1985 for the arrangement of I Wish You Were Here Tonight.
Polk has made a number of television and movie appearances, produced an album titled You Know The Feeling, and continues an active performance and teaching schedule.