One of the central figures of the No Wave movement of the late '70s, James Siegfried was born and raised in Milwaukee and Brookfield, Wisconsin, attended Michigan State University, then the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee, dropped out and moved to New York City in 1976.
Under the name of Chance, James quickly became active in both the Free Jazz and No Wave Punk Rock scenes. While he was professionally and romantically linked with No Wave musical luminary Lydia Lunch, the duo created seminal No Wave group Teenage Jesus & The Jerks, whom Chance soon left.
He formed The Contortions, with Pat Place (guitar), Jody Harris (guitar), George Scott III (bass), Don Christensen (drums), and Adele Bertei (organ), who fused jazz improvisation and funk rhythms, with live shows often ending in violence when Chance would confront audience members. By 1978 The Contortions reached a wider audience with their contribution to the Brian Eno-compiled « No New York » collection of No Wave acts.
James Chance & The Contortions signed to ZE Records in 1979. Chance was noted for engaging in physical confrontations, from pushing contests to fisticuffs, with his New York City audience, including rock critic Robert Christgau. At first this was just an attempt to engage the passive New York audience, but this practice is reported to have somewhat diminished after audiences came to expect the physical confrontations
In 1979, Under the name of « Pill Factory » Chance collaborated with Arto Lindsay, Bradley Field, and George Scott on the soundtrack to Diego Cortez's film Grutzi Elvis. A 12 inch Single « Grutzy Elvis Soundrack » was released on ZE.
James Chance and The Contortions released on ZE their debut album « Buy » in 1979, but frictions between Chance and band members eventually led to a breakup of the Contortions in 1980.
Then Chance moved on to a new project under the name of James White and the Blacks, releasing in 1980 the album « Off White », featuring Lydia Lunch under the pseudonym Stella Rico.
« Contort Yourself » was remixed by August Darnell and became a Dance Cult Classic.
Aside from a few live recordings, the original Contortions lineup didn't release much more material. Although James continued to lead versions of the Contortions through the early '80s, the original lineup split up in 1980. Place went on to join the acclaimed Bush Tetras, while Harris, Scott, and Christensen formed the Raybeats.
Chance's stage and musical persona were finalized by romantic partner and agent Anya Philips, who died of cancer in 1981.
The first version of the Blacks was set up by Joseph Bowie. Shortly after, Defunkt emerged out of the Blacks. In 1982 Chance toured with his brother David « Tremor » Siegfried and his band David and the Happenings from Carbondale, Illinois, playing Chicago, their hometown Milwaukee, and much of the Midwest.
Chance relocated to Paris, returning to New York City in 1983 to record his third album on ZE « James Whites Flaming Demonics ».
« Buy » and « Off White » are considered to be James's best work. James' two combos the Contortions or the Blacks where the most important and influencial bands from the New York's short-lived No Wave movement, playing a noisy, clattering avant-funk that drew from punk and free jazz.