Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
James, Harry (Haag)
Trumpeter and bandleader Harry James forged a reputation as one of the hottest horn blowers in Swing, and scored some of that era's biggest hits. His powerful, brassy tone was a combination of technique, endurance and taste, which overflowed with creative excitement. These attributes are reflected in his ability to pull back for ballad work as well.
Born into the world of entertainment, James led a successful big band for the bulk of his more than forty-year career, and also worked memorably in small groups with Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday and Lionel Hampton. He discovered Frank Sinatra and married Betty Grable, Hollywood's most famous pin-up girl. But for all the fuss and fame, he is best remembered for his strengths as a trumpet player, his improvisational skills and brilliant performance style.
Harry Haag James was born on March 15, 1916 in Albany, Georgia to a family of traveling circus performers. His mother, Mabel, was a trapeze artist and it is reported she continued to soar on the high wire up to a month before the birth of young Harry. James’ father, Everett, was the bandleader of the circus and more importantly, a trumpeter.
His son started out on drums, becoming quite proficient on the trap kit, before beginning trumpet lessons with his father at age 10. His father insisted on a rigorous daily practice schedule, the completion of which was required before the youngster could pursue any other boyhood interests. The circus life seemed to aid in focusing on his musical studies, and by the age of 12 he was leading the Christy Brothers Circus’s second-line band. By one account, he also found work as a contortionist.
By 1931, the family made their home in Beaumont, Texas where the young musician won a statewide solo trumpet contest. Soon afterwards he started playing with some area dance bands including The Old Phillips Friars and the bands of Logan Hancock and Herman Waldman. He also ventured to New Orleans with a group led by violinist Joe Gill.
After not cutting the mustard in an audition for Lawrence “Champagne Music” Welk’s band, he began working for drummer Ben Pollack in 1935. This proved to be a major turning point as James made some of his first recordings and started to network with some jazz greats on and off the bandstand.
In January of 1937 clarinetist Benny Goodman, who was also an alumnus of the Pollack band, received a tip about James from his brother Irving and hired him away. At that time the “King of Swing” led one of the most popular bands in the land and the up and coming trumpet star found himself in some musically fast company. On stage, in the chair next to him, was Ziggy Elman on trumpet, along with Hymie Schertzer on alto sax, Teddy Wilson on piano, Lionel Hampton on vibes, and the great Gene Krupa on drums.
Goodman also called on James skills as a composer and arranger. Early in his in his tenure with Goodman, he brought his original composition “Peckin’” to the band. He’d previously recorded it with Pollack and did the same for Goodman in July of 1937. “Life Goes to A Party” is another great example of James’ writing from the same year.
One of the highlights of his work with Goodman’s band was the leader’s famous concert at Carnegie Hall on January 16, 1938. This appearance was groundbreaking for also including members of the Basie and Ellington Orchestras as star soloists but more importantly as a milestone for the culture of jazz. To play in America’s premier classical music art house heralded the arrival of this homegrown music. One of the highlights of that concert was "Sing, Sing, Sing," which became a hit when it was recorded later that year at a live appearance in Hollywood.
James’ signature style had come into full flower by this time and his spirited, forceful solos were a highlight of this version of the Goodman organization. But it wasn’t just technical mastery and bravura the youngster exhibited in his playing but bona fide improvisational skills and contagious excitement. James’s horn was a hit with fans and musicians alike.
Throughout his time with Goodman the trumpeter also recorded in several small band situations, often utilizing members of the Count Basie Orchestra, including Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Walter Page, and Jo Jones, to name a few. He also worked with Teddy Wilson and Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton and the Boogie Woogie Trio.
In December of 1939 the 22-year-old James decided to venture out on his own. Armed with both a blessing and a loan from Goodman, which he gave in exchange for a piece of the band's profits, the trumpeter assembled an orchestra and Harry James and His Music Makers debuted at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia in February of 1939.
While the band did well in the New York area, things weren’t quite so smooth once they started out into the hinterlands. The band actually lost money in those early years, which seems even more remarkable in light of what came after.
In June of 1939 things took a turn for the better when James’ first wife, the singer Louise Tobin, told him to check out the MC and vocalist featured on a live radio broadcast from the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. James liked what he heard and drove out to talk to the kid. It was there he first met the young, and relatively inexperienced, Frank Sinatra and signed him to up as the Music Makers boy’ singer. It was the first “name“ big band gig for one of the greatest singers in pop music history. James tried to get Sinatra to change his name to “Frankie Satin” but the Hoboken native refused.
But a great singer was not enough to change the tide for the James band. After suffering a disastrous engagement in Los Angeles, the dejected band limped its way to Chicago where Tommy Dorsey was able to hire Sinatra away. Despite there being time left on his contract, James gracefully let his great discovery go, and the two men remained friends for the rest of their lives.
Singer Dick Haymes replaced Sinatra and slowly, the buzz about James started to build. 1940 found him recording for the small Varsity label and while his records weren’t flying off the shelves he was popular with musicians. This wasn’t enough however, and the frustrated leader started talking about adding a string section to the band to expand his commercial potential. Jazz fans quickly raised their objections and James decided against the move. But when he signed to Columbia in 1941 and their A&R man brought up the same idea, he capitulated, recording several sugary ballads and other light pop.
James's big break came in May of that year when James recorded his version of the Judy Garland hit “You Made Me Love You”. James stated that he just loved the song and the public went crazy for his version. The hype was helped along by the ballads regular rotation on the “Make-Believe Ballroom”, a popular radio show coming out of WNEW in New York City.
While fans familiar with James's jazz talents were appalled, the die was cast and his band began churning out one top 10 hit after another. They ranged from easy-listening tunes, to swinging instrumentals, and ballads and hits like “I Had the Craziest Dream,” “Ciribiribin,” “I've Heard That Song Before,” and “Velvet Moon,” were soon the biggest sellers on the charts.
James went through several gifted female vocalists throughout the years, including the likes of Connie Haines, Helen Ward, Dell Parker, Bernice Byers, and Lynn Richards, but a major contribution to his huge popularity in 1941 was the addition of Helen Forrest in the lead vocal chair. The combination of James’s big gushy trumpet and her emotional singing sounded the right notes for “Main Street” music fans and the hits just kept coming.
In the parlance of the day the James band was more often then not, referred to as a “sweet band”. His move away from the jazz of his early years with Goodman and as a leader may have alienated purists, but you couldn’t beat the money. His band started to receive movie offers and in 1942 James began doing his own national radio show. In addition his orchestra’s recording success was second only to Glenn Miller in that year.
By 1943 James was one of the top-grossing entertainers in the country. His July marriage to the actress Betty Grable amped up his celebrity status even further and he began to appear in some of her Twentieth Century Fox features.
When World War ll came along the band began to lose members to the draft and it appeared that James, classified 4F, or unfit for military duty, might even be called up for reclassification. Upon notification to report the bandleader put the orchestra on notice and his sponsors cancelled his radio show. The subsequent affirmation of his 4F status left him scrabbling to reassemble a band and continue to work.
With Helen Forrest embarking on a solo career, Kitty Kallen was introduced as the band's new singer and the James organization continued to perform. Their leader however seemed less and less interested in music. He continued to work in radio as a cast member on Danny’s Kaye’s radio programs and started concentrating on the thoroughbred racehorses his wife and he now owned.
The postwar years signaled the end of the big bands and James announced he was folding up shop in 1946 (the same month as Goodman). The problem was he couldn’t stay away and late in the year he formed another band. The limiting economic conditions constrained James to the size of the band he could take on the road and some say this containment led to a return to form. His streamlined group, and more importantly their leader, seemed to have the old enthusiasm back. James cut his price in half, played smaller venues and really seemed to love what he was doing.
James's ability to amiably roll with the changes of his career seemed to continue for the rest of his life. As the fifties began he found himself working less than the old days and perhaps enjoying it more. He starting working in Las Vegas where extended residencies were the norm, but also took the band to Europe, always bringing the whole twenty-one member ensemble along for the ride.
James continued to seek and attract some great players over the years, at various times sharing the stand with such Ellington greats as Juan Tizol, and Johnny Hodges, trumpet player Nick Buono, saxophone players Corky Corcoran, and Willie Smith and drummers, Sonny Payne, Buddy Rich, and Louie Bellson. He also played and recorded charts by Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti.
In 1950 James was the technical advisor to the actor Kirk Douglas in the 1950 Warner Bros. film “Young Man with a Horn” and also dubbed in the trumpet parts for the movie. A small sampling of films in which he appeared include: “Hollywood Hotel” (1937), “Springtime in the Rockies” (1942), “Two Girls and a Sailor” (1944), and The Benny Goodman Story (1955). He made a lot of television appearances and his music has been featured in countless movies and television soundtracks as well.
The Harry James Orchestra continued to perform throughout the 60s, 70s and early 80s, mostly moving from one major Vegas hotel/casino to the next and doing some light touring as he had for thirty years. He was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1983 but continued to work playing his last gig on the road in Los Angeles on June 26th of that year, a mere nine days before his death in Las Vegas, Nevada on the 5th of July. His great discovery, Frank Sinatra, delivered the eulogy for his old friend.
As a musician and bandleader Harry James’ legacy is secure. The recorded evidence is voluminous and while his more pop-oriented material may alienate some jazz fans, James remained true to his passion and art. While he never duplicated the chart-topping success of his middle career, he continued to work tirelessly and some consider his later work some of his best musically.
The impression that stardom negated James's abilities as a player is shortsighted and just plain wrong. Listening to the music clearly shows him to be a consummate professional as well as a master bandleader and trumpet player.
The Complete Recordings Nineteen Thirty-Nine (featuring Frank Sinatra)
Juke Box Jamboree/Jazz Session
Complete Helen Forrest with the Harry James Orchestra
Trumpet Blues: The Best of Harry James
Benny Goodman: The Harry James Years Vol. 1
Contributor: Frank Murphy