Durbin was born in 1989 to Judy Settle-Durbin, a dentist's daughter, and Willy Durbin, a bass player, who died of a heroin overdose when James was nine. He announced during his aired audition on American Idol that he was upset he didn't have the chance to know his father well. He was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome and Asperger syndrome shortly after his father died. He attended Musicschool, a music school run by Dale Ockerman in Santa Cruz instead of a traditional school. Durbin never graduated from high school. Durbin cites popular bands My Chemical Romance and Thirty Seconds to Mars as his inspirations for his music.
In 2006, he performed in a Santa Cruz children's theater group called Kids on Broadway and played the lead role in Grease and Beauty and the Beast. In 2007, he played the leading roles of Tony in West Side Story and Oscar in Sweet Charity—both productions produced by All About Theatre, a Santa Cruz community theatre company. In 2008, Durbin appeared in Alan Parsons' "Art & Science of Sound Recording" educational video series, recording a version of Parsons' "We Play The Game" at Ex'pression College for Digital Arts.
He was the lead singer in a band called Hollywood Scars, where he went by the stage name of Jimmy Levox. Influenced by bands such as Metallica, Pantera, Judas Priest, Dream Theater, Guns N' Roses, Iron Maiden and Mötley Crüe, Hollywood Scars drew their inspiration from the glitz, glam, and decadence of Hollywood's Sunset Strip in the 1980s and early 1990s. The band released a single entitled "Under The Cherry Tree". He was also in a band called Whatever Fits. He has also sung country music.
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- How James Durbin Overcame Tourette's and Asperger's to Enter the Top 24. Wetpaint. Archived from the original on July 18, 2011. Retrieved on March 10, 2011.
- Santa Cruz Fans Try to Reach Out to American Idol Contender James Durbin. Santa Cruz Patch (February 16, 2011). Archived from the original on August 31, 2011. Retrieved on April 18, 2011.
- Wind-Up Records - Official Website.
- The book of James: The amazing journey of James Durbin to 'American Idol. Santa Cruz Sentinel (February 17, 2011). Archived from the original on August 31, 2011. Retrieved on March 10, 2011.
- Go James! ASSR featured singer James Durbin rocks American Idol. ArtAndScienceOfSound.com (February 10, 2011). Retrieved on May 25, 2011.
- American Idol 2011: James Durbin likes to sing about 'sex with women'. Unrealitytv.com (February 20, 2011). Retrieved on March 10, 2011.
- Hollywood Scars MySpace Page. MySpace.
- James Durbin's Bio. American Idol Contestants (April 24, 2011). Retrieved on May 5, 2011.