James Barbagallo was born in Pittsburgh, California, on 3 November 1952. He began formal musical training at the age of nine, an age that had seemed suitable to his maternal grandfather, a piano-maker, who had recommended to his daughter that her children start the piano once fractions were mastered. Barbagallo went on to study at the Juilliard School of Music in New York under Sasha Gorodnitzki, where he graduated in 1974, taking a Master's degree two years later. While at Julliard, Barbagallo was awarded the William Petschek Award. He also won prizes in the Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition, the Gina Bachauer International Piano Competition, the Geneva Competition and the University of Maryland Competition.
Barbagallo made his public debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. A founding member of the Amadeus Trio, Barbagallo toured extensively and made more than ten recordings for Naxos and Marco Polo. He died suddenly of a heart attack in 1996 at the age of forty-three.