McCracken's earliest musical experiences were singing in his church choir as a child. While he was in the US Navy during World War
II, he sang in the Blue Jacket Choir. He studied music at Columbia University and with Elsa Seyfert in Konstanz, Germany.
McCracken made his professional opera debut in 1952 with the Central City Opera in Colorado as Rodolfo in La bohème.
He sang minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera from 1953 to 1957, while he was still a student.
In Norfolk, Va., in 1954, he sang in a concert performance of "Samson et Dalila" with the mezzo-soprano Sandra Warfield,
and the two were married not long after. Soon Miss Warfield had a Met contract also – slightly better than the tenor's, but
On December 3, 1955, they had four roles between them: they sang Nathanael and the Voice of Antonia's mother
in the matinee of "Les contes d'Hoffmann", then the Judge and Ulrica in the evening's "Ballo in maschera".
In 1957, he moved to Europe. He built up valuable experience singing big roles repeatedly in Bonn, then in Zürich,
gradually coming to the attention
of the larger European houses. He made his debut at the Vienna State Opera and also replaced
Del Monaco as Otello in Paris during the Palermo season at the Théâtre des
Champs-Elysées due to the car accident suffered by Del Monaco. (He sounded very tired
as he was alternating between Paris and Vienna at that time.)
Otello was one of his signature roles. Starting in 1963, he became one of the Met's principal dramatic tenors.
New productions that starred James McCracken were Otello (1963 and 1972), Carmen (1972), Aida (1976), Le prophète (1977)
and Tannhäuser (1978, his only leading Wagnerian role).
Feeling slighted about being passed over for the September 1978 telecast of Otello, McCracken walked out on the Met,
only to return to a rousing ovation in October 1983 for the Centennial Gala, during which he performed Otello's Act 3 soliloquy,
"Dio, mi potevi scagliar".
The following season, he took part in a live telecast of Verdi's Aida, on January 3, 1985, which was historic in that
it was Leontyne Price's farewell to the operatic stage.
He performed with his wife Sandra Warfield (a much better singer), "Samson et Dalila," at the Met
(also in Zürich where they also sang together in
Le prophète). He returned to the MET only weeks before his death at the age of 61.
He was a member of the Metropolitan Opera's final U.S. tour, where he sang the role of Canio in Pagliacci.