Rivaled in fame among contemporary flutists only by Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway has earned both runaway popularity and critical respect. He has embraced the flute repertoire of all eras, including contemporary music. Part of his popularity is due to his sparkling, lively stage personality, which occasionally leads observers to compare him to a leprechaun.
In one interview, piqued by this recurrent comment on his Irishness, he pointed out that he came not from idyllic emerald green surroundings, but from the sooty industrial region of Belfast, within sight of the shipyard where the Titanic was built. He began to play the penny whistle when he was two years old, and he often uses the instrument in his encores. At least one of the concertos written for him also calls for him to substitute whistle for flute in several passages. When he started regular flute lessons, he developed quickly and won three top prizes in a local flute contest just two years later.
At that point Galway decided to make flute playing a career. He studied at London's Royal College of Music and Guildhall School. His first professional job was with the wind band at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. He then spent 15 years as an orchestral player, most notably as first-chair flutist in the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan (1969-1975). Finally he decided to give up the security of an orchestral job to become a touring soloist and chamber player. In his first season he made 120 appearances. Soon his charm and the rich yet light tone of his gold-plated A.K. Cooper flute were familiar to concert audiences around the world. He also held a teaching position at the Eastman School of Music in the United States.
Galway's success has been due partly to the wide range of his repertoire. He has performed traditional flute repertoire in both orchestral and chamber settings. He is committed to renewing that repertoire through the introduction of new music and has commissioned works from composers including Henri Lazarof, Thea Musgrave, John Corigliano, and Lowell Liebermann. And, though he once stated that he intended to avoid pops or crossover repertoire, he has often released top-selling recordings of this kind. His personality transmits well over television, and part of his unusually wide popularity for a classical musician has come through broadcasts on the BBC and elsewhere. He has participated in Irish music recordings, often with the famous Irish band The Chieftains (as on 2002's Celtic Spectacular, and in the 1980s he collaborated with the U.S. country singer Sylvia on The Wayward Wind. The late 1990s saw the release of such Galway albums as Unbreak My Heart, consisting of flute-and-orchestra settings of top cinematic hits, and Tango del Fuego, Galway's contribution to the growing tango craze.
In 2001, Galway was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2003, his flute was heard on the soundtrack of the popular film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. His wife Jeanne Galway is also an accomplished flutist who has performed together with her husband and on her own. Galway has also contributed much to the cause of flute scholarship in editing old flute works for publication, for example Theobald Boehm's 1848 12 Grand Studies, Op. 15.