James started his career as a left winger with Burnley making his league debut in November 1970 against Nottingham Forest.
In 1971 he won his first international cap against Czechoslovakia. Altogether, he played 54 times for Wales and scored 10 goals.
In 1975 he signed for Derby County for a then club record fee of £310,000 before signing for Queens Park Rangers in 1977 in exchange for Don Masson. He made his QPR debut against WBA in October 1977 and went on to play 28 league games, scoring 4 goals.
In 1978 he returned to play with Burnley but left when they were relegated to the third division and signed for Swansea City helping them from the third division to the first division. He had spells with Sunderland, Bury and Newport County before in 1986 he returned to Burnley for a third spell, he became youth team manager as well as playing a bit part role. He retired from playing in 1989 after being sacked as youth team manager.
He currently works as a football pundit for BBC radio and television along with a regular programme on Real Radio. The BBC suspended James for a period due to controversial remarks made in a regular newspaper column regarding Cardiff City.
James' personal life has not been without controversy. In June 2007, the BBC reported that he was given a driving ban for driving while one and a half times over the legal alcohol limit.
He caused further controversy in March 2008 by commenting in his column in the South Wales Evening Post that he would like Cardiff City to lose to Barnsley FC in the FA Cup semi-final 2008. Although the rivalry between the football clubs of Swansea and Cardiff is well documented, James' comments angered some because of his supposed impartiality as a pundit, and also for his staunch attitude that Welsh people should support Welsh teams in whatever sport, an opinion he has discussed at length on radio phone in programmes. As punishment for his comments, the BBC saw fit to ban James from appearing on their programmes for two weeks, before dropping the pundit. James returned on 26 April 2008 to the Wales on Saturday programme.
James' comments about Cardiff City were the subject of the song, "Leighton James Don't Like Us", recorded by Cardiff musician Leigh Bailey.
Away from football, in June 2007 James was named Rookie Lollipop Man of the Year by Swansea Councilfor Penyrheol Primary School, which his nephew Thomas James went to.
James is also a rugby fan, and often comments on rugby on the Real Radio sports phone in. He is an avid Scarlets fan.