Called “a major figure of the swing era” by John S. Wilson in the New York Times, Harry James struck a resounding chord with the public of the late 1930s and remained a popular bandleader for over 40 years. He built a reputation as one of the hottest trumpet players in the nation, then skyrocketed to fame after forming his own band and offering listeners a mix of romantic ballads and fast-paced jazz numbers. The New Grove Dictionary of American Music called him “a fine jazz improviser, possessing a verve that enhanced many small and large band recordings.”
James grew up “on the road” with the Mighty Haag Circus, of which his father, Everette James, was director and star trumpet player. His mother was the trapeze artist, and she reportedly kept performing her high-wire routines until a month before Harry was born. Harry demonstrated his musical talent at an early age and was eagerly trained by his father. The young James played drums by age four, mastered the trumpet by eight, played solos by ten, led the second band for the Christy Brothers Circus at 12, and won a state contest for trumpet playing in Texas at 14. As a teenager he began performing in bands around Beaumont, Texas, where his family had settled. After failing an audition for “champagne” bandleader Lawrence Welk, he was hired in 1935 by Ben Pollack, who had heard James play in Dallas. Before long the lanky Texan with the southern drawl was recording jumping boogie-woogie numbers with the top musicians of the day, including Buster Bailey and Johnny Hodges.
“King of Swing” Benny Goodman found out about James through his brother, Irving, and hired him to play in what was then the most popular swing band in the country. James’s sizzling horn became known nationwide as he played alongside such greats as Gene Krupa on drums, Ziggy Elmah on trumpet, Teddy Wilson on piano, and Lionel Hampton on vibes. His contribution was a key element of the success of such rocking tunes as “Sing Sing Sing,” “One O’Clock Jump,” and “Life Goes to a Party.” Perhaps most notable about James at the time was the sheer force of his playing. “In his early years James was a brashly exciting player, attacking solos and abetting ensembles with a rich tone and what was at times an overwhelmingly powerful sound,” described the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music.
In the late 1930s James reportedly took a $40,000 loan from Goodman to start his own band. The fledgling outfit struggled, however, and lost money in its early years. That all changed in May of 1941, though, when James recorded a cover version of “You Made Me Love You,” a hit for Judy Garland that he had especially liked. The tender ballad was a smash, with the flames of
Born Harry Haag James, March 15, 1916, in Albany, GA; died of lymphatic cancer, July 5, 1983, in Las Vegas, NE; son of Everette (a trumpeter and circus director) and Mabel (a trapeze artist) James; married Louise Tobin (a singer), May 4, 1935 (divorced, 1943); married Betty Grable (an actress), July 5, 1943 (divorced, 1965); married Joan Boyd; children: (first marriage) Harry, Timothy; (second marriage) Victoria, Jessica; (third marriage) Michael.
Mastered the drums, c. 1920, and the trumpet, c. 1924; led second band for Christy Brothers Circus, c. 1928; worked as contortionist and led band in father’s circus, 1920s; won state contest for trumpet playing, Texas, 1930; performed with bands, Beaumont, TX, early 1930s; member of Ben Pollack band, 1935-1937; member of Benny Goodman orchestra, 1937-1939; formed own band, 1939; recorded “You Made Me Love You,” 1941; appeared on weekly musical radio program, 1940s; recorded series of million-selling records, 1940s; featured singers Frank Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest, and Kitty Kallen in his band; played and recorded with Teddy Wilson, Buster Balley, Johnny Hodges, Corky Corcoran, Buddy Rich, Willie Smith, among other musicians; recorded charts by Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti, 1950s; appeared in films, including Hollywood Hotel 1937, Springtime in the Rockies, 1942, Two Girls and a Sallor, 1944, and The Benny Goodman Story, 1955.
listener approval fanned by extensive play on the popular Make-Believe Ballroom radio program on WNEW in New York City. From there James went on to seal his popularity with a repertoire of easy-listening tunes and swinging instrumentals, shifting with ease from blues and boogie-woogie to Viennese waltzes. Many of his songs, such as “I Cried for You” and “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” addressed the sadness of separation caused by World War II. Churning out hits like “I Had the Craziest Dream,” “Ciribiribin,” “I’ve Heard That Song Before,” and “Velvet Moon,” the Harry James Band scored a series of million-selling discs. At one point the band was actually held responsible for a shortage of shellac, which was rationed during the war, as so much of it was required to press James’s records.
By 1943 James was grossing well over $40,000 a week and was at the top of a number of bandleader popularity polls. Key to his rise in fame was a move away from pure jazz. Although James irritated his hard-core jazz fans with what they considered lightweight trumpet solos on recordings of “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” and “The Carnival of Venice,” Wilson attested in the New York Times that his “success as a band leader only came when he added to his repertory romantic ballads played with warm emotion and a vibrato so broad that at times it seemed almost comic.”
America swooned at a celebrity match seemingly made in heaven when James wed leggy actress Betty Grable in July of 1943. Grable was the designated favorite pinup of G.l.s overseas, and the marriage prompted new lyrics to an old song, which resulted in the ditty “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Harry James.” The Grable connection further enhanced James’s image, and he also appeared in a few of his wife’s movies for Twentieth Century Fox. Further aiding his band’s prominence during its wartime heyday was James’s ability to recruit top-drawer singers. At his microphone during the 1940s were legendary vocalists Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest, and Kitty Kallen. James had even discovered Frank Sinatra in the late 1930s, but Sinatra had left his band to sing for Tommy Dorsey.
When the Big Band sound began to fade toward the end of the 1940s and many of the swing orchestras folded, James was among the few to keep his band going. He settled in Las Vegas but also toured abroad, bringing his entire entourage of 21 with him wherever he went. He continued to attract great performers, among them saxophonist Willie Smith, who had played in the Jimmie Lunceford band, and Juan Tizol, onetime trombonist for Duke Ellington. Other greats sharing the stage with James over the years included trumpet player Nick Buono and drummers Buddy Rich, Sonny Payne, and Louie Bellson.
James served as technical adviser and played the trumpet parts for actor Kirk Douglas in the 1950 Warner Bros. film “Young Man with a Horn.” In the mid-1950s, he reassessed his career and turned toward more serious musical pursuits, assembling a group to play charts by Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti. The Guinness Encyclopedia called this particular James crew “one of the outstanding big bands.” Still, it has been suggested that the bandleader’s skills on the trumpet may have been best demonstrated outside of the big-band format. The Oxford Companion to Popular Music allowed that James “was sometimes inclined to over-emphasize his technique in the big-band context and was at his best in his occasional small group recordings.”
James continued to perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, shuttling between long-term gigs at major hotels and casinos. He also developed a stable of racing horses. Some considered the music of James’s later career among his best, tapping as it did the best of both serious jazz and popular music and leaving behind the indulgence of earlier years. Touring to the end, James gave his last performance on June 26, 1983, in Los Angeles—little more than a week before his death. He is remembered by many as the wizard whose horn could blast listeners into a jitterbugging frenzy with one song, then soothe their souls with the next.
(With Benny Goodman) Jazz Concert No. 2, Columbia, 1937-1938.
Harry James and His Great Vocalists, Sony, 1976.
Harry James and Les Brown, Ranwood, 1985.
On the Air, Vol. II (recorded 1942-45), Aircheck, 1986.
Big Band Recordings, Hindsight, 1987.
Harry James Plays the Songs That Sold a Million (recorded in 1946 and 1954), reissued, Columbia, 1988.
Best of the Big Bands, Columbia, 1990.
Best of Harry James and His Orchestra, Curb/Cema, 1990.
Young and Swinging (recorded 1936-39), Zeta, 1992.
Young Man With a Horn (soundtrack), Sony Music Special Products.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Vol. II, edited by Colin Larkin, Guinness, 1992.
The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. II, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, Macmillan, 1986.
The Oxford Companion to Popular Music, edited by Peter Gammond, Oxford University Press, 1991.
Life, May 10, 1943.
New York Times, July 6, 1983.
Stereo Review, June 1992.
Time, September 28, 1942.
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