Here comes the Son: Paul McCartney's daughters have embraced the limelight now his 34-year-old son steps out of the shadow
Out of the shadows: James McCartney is to follow in his father's footsteps by playing Liverpool's Cavern Club
For a virtual unknown, being granted the star spot on America’s hugely popular David Letterman Show to launch his debut single was a terrific coup. But though the young singer’s demeanour was a little stiff and shy, his talent shone out.
The powerful voice, the huge vocal range, the accomplished guitar work all commanded attention, as did something familiar about the round, boyish face and mournful, hooded eyes.
At the age of 34, Paul McCartney’s only son had finally, and a little reluctantly, stepped on to the public stage to claim his place as heir apparent to Sir Paul.
But if the eyes and the talent are unmistakable, that is where the resemblance ends. For while Sir Paul has spent a lifetime charming everyone he meets, his son has been withdrawn to the point of being a virtual recluse.
Until now. Suddenly McCartney Junior is everywhere — in the past month alone performing at the Sundance Film Festival, the Viper Room in Los Angeles, Rockwood Music Hall in New York and Asbury Park in New Jersey.
On each occasion, crowds were queuing round the block for tickets to watch a singer-songwriter with a non-existent track record and public profile (such are the colossal benefits of the McCartney name).
Though the music is highly accomplished, James’s delivery is deadpan, emphasising that while he may have high hopes for his debut single, Angel, he is clearly not your average aspiring rock star. The doleful gaze and legendary name may be unmistakable, but the reality is that James has spent his entire life running away from fame.
His older sisters have become fixtures in London society — Mary, 42, as a respected photographer and 40-year-old Stella as a leading fashion designer. His half-sister Heather, 49, is a successful potter.
But James, known as ‘the quiet one’ of the McCartney children, has remained in the shadows.
Painfully shy, for years he struggled to carve out a niche for himself, working as a sculptor and waiting tables at a small restaurant in Brighton.
No longer. To the astonishment of those who have known him since childhood, James has suddenly stepped into the spotlight.
After leaving Letterman’s New York studio, he flew straight to Los Angeles for the unveiling of Sir Paul’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. From there, he jetted home to London, where he posed for photographers outside sister Stella’s gala London Fashion Week dinner.
All you need is talent: James with father Paul and mother Linda in 1981
Quite a departure for a young man who once declined to tell people his surname.
Next up is a tour of London, Liverpool and Dublin, where he is assured of packed houses.
‘This would have been unthinkable a couple of years ago,’ a long-standing friend of the McCartneys told me this week.
‘James has always been a unique kid. He’s what I’ve always called a “watcher”. He’s a lovely guy without a nasty bone in his body, but he prefers to be on the sidelines taking everything in. He’s always hated being the centre of attention.
‘But at the same time, he absolutely loves music. All he really wants is for people to hear his songs, and the only way to do that is to go out there and play.
‘So you have this conflict between the two sides of his personality. I never thought he would pluck up the courage to do this. It’s really quite thrilling that he has — and a lot of the credit has to go to Nancy.’
Nancy SHEVELL, to be precise. Sir Paul’s third wife, whom he married in October after a four-year courtship. She is described by his friends as the polar opposite of Heather Mills, his previous wife, a relationship that ended in a famously bitter and acrimonious divorce.
It is an open secret that James couldn’t stand his first stepmother. When the forceful Heather moved into the family farmhouse in East Sussex, he moved out, renting a room in a shared house in nearby Brighton.
Like father, like son: Paul with the Beatles performing at the Cavern Club
Since the arrival of the supportive Nancy, however, he has slowly gained confidence, to the point where he is finally embarking on the career he dreamed of for so long.
‘Nancy is everything Heather wasn’t,’ says the family friend. ‘She is just like James’s mum, Linda. She’s quiet, thoughtful and kind in a gentle way.
‘Heather tried really hard to make the children like her, but she’s way too bombastic and noisy for them. James positively despised her and he never made a secret of that. He was always withdrawn, but having Heather around just made things worse. Nancy has taken a totally different approach. She’s been so encouraging and she has really brought James out of himself.
‘James was best man when Paul and Nancy got married, and less than a month later he did a mini-tour of the UK — that tells you everything you need to know.’
James’s entire life has been profoundly influenced by the matriarchal presences in it.
His first two-and-a-half years were spent on the road with Paul and his mother, Linda, as they toured with their group Wings.
The baby of the family, he arrived at the tail end of his parents’ bohemian hippie existence, spending the bulk of his childhood on the family’s farm in Peasmarsh, East Sussex.
A Thirties farmhouse with no gas supply, it was the centre of an unexpectedly basic life for a rock star’s family. Summers were spent piling into a Land Rover to drive up to Paul’s holiday home by the Mull of Kintyre.
It was there, when he was six years old, that one of the definitive moments of his childhood unfolded. A ransom plot to snatch James and his mother was uncovered. After the kidnappers were captured and jailed, Paul insisted on ramping up his family’s security.
The McCartneys tried to ensure their children had as ‘normal’ a childhood as possible by sending them to the local comprehensive.
The Beatles on their 294th appearance at the Cavern Club as the band's profile continued to spiral globally
‘But how “normal” is it to have Paul and Linda McCartney as your parents’ asks the family friend.
‘Their intentions were good, but they babied James and he’s always been an unusual character.’
Always close, the bond between father and son intensified following Linda’s death from breast cancer in 1998. They even slept in the same room for comfort in the weeks after her death.
Amid the tears, there were long, emotional jamming sessions, with James demonstrating beyond any doubt that he had become an accomplished guitarist. Quietly, behind the scenes, he embarked on his own musical path.
James played guitar on two of his father’s records — Flaming Pie and Driving Rain — and had recorded a track, The Light Comes From Within, with Linda a month before her death.
But then came the setback of Paul’s ill-fated marriage to Heather Mills. James moved to Brighton, claiming to study architecture, though it is widely thought he was really a music student and used the cover story to avoid comparisons with his father. It is a tribute to how low a profile he maintained that no one seems quite sure of the truth.
Then came his stint as a waiter, followed by a short-lived custom-made bed business, and eventually he decided to go travelling.
All the while he was quietly making music. His unlikely inspiration was Kurt Cobain, the tragic heroin-addicted lead singer of Nirvana who committed suicide. As James’s sister Stella said when he was still in his late 20s: ‘He’s at the stage where he’s standing back and saying: “Will this create a monster” ’
It was only after his father split with Heather Mills in 2006 that James found the courage to follow his dream.
He moved out of his student digs and into a 1 million flat near his father’s North London house. After accompanying his father’s band on tour, in 2008 he started working on his own music, assisted by Paul and record producer David Kahne.
Getting to the point where James was ready to perform in public took even longer. Encouraged by Nancy Shevell, he played a handful of shows anonymously, with a backing band, under the name Light.
His shows, while musically impeccable and demonstrating James’s accomplishment on the guitar and piano, draw mixed reviews because of his lack of showmanship.
As one New York reviewer said of his Rockwood show this month, James ‘rarely smiled and, at times, looked like he was fighting an impulse to flee’. And, say friends, that’s probably true.
‘Everything James does is compared to his father’s achievements, which is monumentally unfair. But he knows this and he’s relaxed enough to make jokes about it. It informs his music.’
Indeed, throughout his performances and on his debut record, one cover version has cropped up time and again: the Neil Young classic Old Man.
Delivered in James’s pure tenor, the vocals take on a hypnotic tone as he sings, with unmistakable feeling: ‘Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you.’
As a message to his father, it is open and heartfelt. Given the massive shadow in which he stands, many would raise a wry smile at the sentiment.
And, whisper it quietly, but this may just be the year when the talented McCartney Junior steps out of that shadow at last.