James was born on April 19th 1900. His full name was Samuel James like his father but he was always known as James. He had two younger brothers called Herbert and Harold. His father was a civil servant and worked as postmaster in Croydon. His mother Alice was a fine pianist and piano teacher. The piano tuner who visited the home noticed that James showed signs of having absolute pitch at about the age of three. Alice trained her son from an early age in keyboard skills to such an effect that by the age of seven she decided to take him to play for (Sir) Henry Wood. At the end of the performance Henry Wood recommended that James apply immediately to the Junior Department of the Royal Academy of Music where he was accepted as the youngest ever junior piano student. He was assigned to the personal care of Tobias Matthay for his piano lessons. He stayed there studying and working at his piano technique until he was due to start secondary education at Whitgift School. Before he left he achieved the honour of being the one junior student to play at the R.A.M concert to mark the opening of the Duke’s Hall. The Royal Academy of Music has a record of a concert on July 14th 1910 in its archives. Among those performing in this concert for scholars and Artist-Students and present members of Mr Matthay’s class at the Royal Academy is Master Jim Ching playing Adagio and Finale from Sonata in D Major Op.28 by Beethoven. He was ten years old and was known in the family as Jim.
In 1914 his father Sam was promoted to the post of Postmaster of Ipswich, so James was transferred to Queen Elizabeth School in Ipswich where the Director of Music was Mr Job who was primarily an organist. James studied the organ under him and soon took on the post of organist at a local village church. In 1917 he won an open organ scholarship to the Royal College of Music and studied under Sir Walter Parratt. He also learnt composition under Stanford, choir training under Sir Walford Davies and conducting under Sir Adrian Boult. Before he reached his eighteenth birthday he had passed both the ARCO and the FRCO and was the youngest student to do this at the time. He also won the La Fontaine and Turpin prizes for organ playing. There is no mention of any piano lessons at that time although he may have met and been influenced by the Head of Piano at that time Thomas Fielden whose book ‘The Science of Pianoforte Technique’ was published by Macmillan in 1927. James’ own book on the subject ‘Piano Technique: Foundation Principles’ (Murdock 1934) may have resulted from the stimulus of some of the ideas in Fielden’s earlier book. During his time at the Royal College James had lodgings at the YMCA building at the south of Tottenham Court Road and was appointed to an organist’s post at Chislehurst Parish Church and later to one at St. Andrew’s Church West Kensington.