Lifelong Parkites entertained a generation
Kat James is a living legend who’s left her musical and creative stamp on an entire generation in Park City. Over the last three decades this talented songstress and artist has woven herself into the fabric of this place and wears the town like a comfortable old sweater. She retired this week after a distinguished, 17-year career with The Park Record. It’s a milestone, a fitting time to profile her rich, artistic life so far.
Kathleen (Kat) James was born in Alameda, California, the only daughter of Shirley and Bill Patten. She has a younger brother, Rick. James grew up and went through school in the San Francisco Bay area. She says she garnered a straight "A" record through 8th grade with the exception of one "B" from Mrs. Reid, a 2nd grade teacher she didn’t like.
She recalls vividly her first trip to Disneyland in 1956, just a year after the park opened. "I went on the Grand Canyon ride on a live burro, the jungle cruise, the Peter Pan ride and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride all the great ones I don’t think are even there anymore!"
She enjoyed many camping and water skiing trips to Lake Tahoe, a favorite family destination.
In 3rd grade James wanted to play the violin. Her mother, cringing, convinced her daughter that the guitar would be a better choice. She was already a good singer, a genetic gift from her mother, who had been a big band singer in the 1930s. James sang songs and toyed with the guitar through high school.
The die was cast when, at age 11, she won a talent contest while on a camping vacation at Lake Tahoe. "I played and sang ‘e Bye Love," she recalls. "The only other contestant played "Lady of Spain" on the accordion, ugh! I remember I won three real silver dollars." James was officially a paid musician.
She graduated from Alameda High School in the early 1960s and attended San Jose State College. While there, she and three Chi Omega sorority sisters formed the "Dull Skulls" quartet. The group, which took its name for the skull and crossbones emblem of the sorority, played popular folk songs on campus and won a trophy at the "Homecoming Hootenanny" in Spartan Stadium.
After two years at college, James married her college sweetheart and the two soon had a son, Eric. James was a stay at home mom for the next few years. No fan of exhaustive housework, she honed her guitar, singing and song-writing skills at home. The marriage dissolved after four years.
While working day and night jobs to make ends meet, James stubbornly continued her musical journey through the Bay area night spots. These were the heady 1960s, fertile ground for a fledgling folk singer.
She still recalls her declaration of independence from the drudgery of "real" work. "It was July 4, 1969," she notes with irony. "It was my first paid gig. I began playing music full-time for a living and never looked back," she says.
James performed solo for a few years before pairing up with Mickey James, another popular Bay area performer. The two married, and embarked on a long road tour that took them all over the country. James’s son, by then a teenager, moved in with his dad.
The popular duo arrived in Park City in early 1978 when it was still a sleepy mining town/ski resort. They got a steady gig and James has lived here ever since.
She credits her second husband with teaching her to be an entertainer, not just a singer. "I was always shy while Mickey was very outgoing and had a real stage presence," says James.
Park City suited them well, but the marriage ended. The two remained partners and performed together at local nightspots until 1983, when Mickey left town seeking fame and fortune.
"I really liked Park City and didn’t want to leave," says James. "I was playing at the old Claim Jumper restaurant and bar. Lloyd Stevens, the owner, took a chance on me as a solo act and it paid off for both of us."
After over a decade as the pre-eminent singer-songwriter at several Park City clubs, James reluctantly bowed out of performing in 1990. "I was kind of burned out," she says. I’d been playing professionally for over 20 years and I’d worked about everywhere in this town." James was also battling crippling arthritis that made it almost impossible to play the guitar.
She’d gone back to college in the early 1980s, eventually earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Utah in 1987.
On a whim, she applied for an entry level, part-time job at The Park Record and got it. She started as a typist but rose steadily through the organization. At retirement, she was in charge of page layout for an array of sections. "I think my record produced for any one issue was 13 pages," she recalls proudly. James also wrote concert reviews for the paper.
"I’m going to miss being around that office," she predicts. "It was kind of like having a finger on the pulse of the town, all the reporters had their big stories and you heard about everything that was going on before anyone else."
James plans to remains as active as she can during retirement, despite her ongoing battle with arthritis. She hopes to travel and is looking forward to a trip to Panama soon to visit her ex-husband Mickey. "We buried the hatchet and began an e-mail correspondence after 20-plus years apart." James explains. "I’ve become friends with him and his current wife and they invited me down."
James also enjoys doing crafts and acting as a tour guide when friends and family come to town. She a big fan of the summer concert series and the arts festival as well.
Although she’s a Park City "lifer," James admits to a couple of pet peeves. "Traffic for one thing, although I guess I’m part of the problem. Litter is also getting to be a problem. I wish people had more respect for this beautiful place," she concludes.
She remains passionate about two things, her granddaughter Emily and her friends. "I feel extremely fortunate to have found this little piece of the world. I appreciate all the people I’ve gotten to know, those I’ve helped and those who have helped me," she says.
James doesn’t dwell on bygone fame or years gone by. "Some people still remember me though," she says. "It’s always flattering when someone recognizes me on the street or in a restaurant. They say, ‘Kat James, I remember when,’ and that’s nice. I never had the ambition to be a big star in L.A. or Nashville. Here, I kind of made my own niche. People recognize me and it’s like, wow, I did have a little taste of stardom in this town."
Although James seldom picks up the guitar these days, she can be coerced to play and sing on occasion. "A couple glasses of wine at a party and I’m still good to go," she quips. On those rare occasions, listeners are treated to James’s still throaty, soulful voice and an impressive trip down memory lane.
James remembers when she was the subject of the second Park Record profile ever written back in the mid-1980s. Nostalgia blends with anticipation as she begins yet another chapter in her life. The big wheel keeps on turning and the circle is unbroken. Keep on rolling Kat.
Born in Alameda, California in the same hospital where her mother was born.
Favorite foods: European, Mexican, Chinese. Any seafood served in Park City’s great restaurants. Adolph’s seas bass tops the list.
Favorite things to do: travel, attend concerts, visit friends, "sit on my deck in the morning with a cup of coffee and a book."
Favorite authors: James Patterson, Greg Iles, Nelson DeMille, "mysteries, best seller stuff." She also confesses to being a Harry Potter fan.
Favorite performers: Judy Collins, Emmy Lou Harris, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, "all the musicians I learned from."
Pets: Bailey, a nine-year-old cat. Her 17-year-old cat disappeared a month ago. "I’ll start browsing at Furburbia, but not right away. I like dogs, as long as they’re someone elses’s."
HEAD: Longtime Parkite Entertained a Generation
DECK: Singer Kat James performed in Park City nightspots throughout the 1980s.
QUOTE: "July 4, 1969 was my first paying gig. I began playing full-time for a living and never looked back."
CAPTION: Kat James retires from the Park Record after 17 years. The talented songstress and artist is treasured by friends and colleagues.
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The Summit County Council delayed a decision on Basin Rec’s proposed tax increase until next Wednesday.