Jesse James, love him or loath him, one thing’s for sure though, you can’t ignore him. The reason why you can’t? It’s simple because he’s so goddam good at what he does.
Right now, that’s handcrafting firearms to competition standard works of art. Some of his top-shelf 1911 .45 custom models made from Damascus steel are the perfect showcase Jesse’s passage from master bike builder to master smith.
But how did Jesse Gregory James start out in life, and how did he gain these awesome skills? His story is an interesting one, and for once, the self-promoter has no delusions of grandeur. Jesse is the first to admit, all he is is a fancy welder.
Born in Lynwood a few miles south of LA, as a kid James’ worked for his father, an antique dealer, and auctioneer. At eight years of age, running his own concession auction stand and helping his dad shift furniture, often until the early hours of the morning.
The solid work ethic and entrepreneurial skill battered into him (Jesse says, at times, literally) steered him through his troubled teens of petty crime. Until eventually, it led him to become one of the biggest and most recognized names in the custom bike world.
‘Although the relationship between me and my dad was abusive at times,’ says James. ‘He taught me one lesson that’s stuck with me all my life. He told me, don’t half-ass anything, go all the way. I still live my life like that.’
As a kid, he loved motorcycles. His natural mechanical aptitude saw him dismantling and re-assembling anything and everything with moving parts. The leap to customizing bikes was an obvious one and soon got him a job with Perry Sands at Performance Machine.
Fitting high-end brake systems and custom parts during the day, Jesse spent nights and weekends in his mom’s garage building choppers. It wasn’t long before the standard of these backyard builds began catching people’s attention.
One important person taking notice of his builds being the biggest name in hot rod cars, Boyd Coddington.
Coddington, a legend in the custom car building world, had assembled 12 of the planet’s most talented mechanics, upholsters, sprayers, and metal workers. Wanting to break into the custom bike world, he knew that James was the perfect guy for the job.
‘I was just a 23-year old punk kid thinking I was ‘the man because I’d built a couple of bikes. Working there opened my eyes; I learned how to spin, shape, and finish metal,’ recalls Jesse.
Jesse’s cast iron work ethic kicked in. Soon he was doing 12-hour days at Boyd’s and going home to work through the night on his own projects. One of which was hand-making wide tire steel fenders, which he then sold to Custom Chrome.
Within a year, he was selling fenders faster than he could make them. The time came to make a decision, and it was one that would change his life forever.
West Coast Choppers had started life in his mom’s garage. But by 2000, Jesse not only moved into his first business premises but also took on staff.
Jesse James’ unique blend of artistic metalworking skill, sheer hard work, and a few seasons on the Discovery Channel resulted in worldwide fame and fortune.
Even though he eventually turned his back on the limelight, the man has now gone full circle back to his roots. For now, Jesse James is doing what he loves most, working metal, whether that’s rad choppers or .45 caliber works of art.