Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


JAMES, Harry

(b Harry Hagg James, 15 March '16, Albany GA; d 5 July '83, Las Vegas) Trumpet, bandleader; father was a circus bandmaster. Played drums at seven, trumpet lessons from age ten, became one of the most popular trumpet players of the century. With Ben Pollack '35--6 he wrote 'Peckin'', which became a dance fad; then a star in the Benny Goodman band '37-- 8, leaving Goodman with his help and blessing to start his own band. He recorded as a leader late '37--early '38 with Count Basie sidemen (eight tracks now on Basie Rhythm on Hep); among the best things he did were small-group records with Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, others: especially beautiful was the two-sided 78 'Just A Mood' '37, with just Wilson, John Simmons on bass, Red Norvo on vibes (Wilson compilation Blue Mood on Hep). But after a slow start his big band was a huge success: his tone was clear and pretty and his technique absolutely secure; in Texas trumpet players were said to quake at the mention of his name, but more to the point he was a good leader, and although he could always swing he saw nothing wrong with sentimentality as long as it was honestly felt. As with many bands, the biggest hits were vocal numbers, and James used vocalists properly rather than as mascots, having arrangements written for them. He famously gave Frank Sinatra his first big break, taking him out of a roadhouse '39 only to lose him to Tommy Dorsey.

His theme 'Ciribiribin' (written in Italy in 1898) was recorded twice '39, once with a Sinatra vocal; other trumpet show-pieces incl. 'Flight Of The Bumble Bee'/'Carnival Of Venice'. The hits began '41 with instrumentals 'Music Makers' (the band was billed as Harry James and his Music Makers) 'You Made Me Love You' (with his beautiful open horn you didn't need the words), two-part 'Trumpet Rhapsody', vocals incl. 'Lament To Love' with Dick Haymes. He hired a string section '41 and for the rest of the decade there were plenty of hits: 'I Don't Want To Walk Without You', 'I've Heard That Song Before' and many more with Helen Forrest; during the musicians' union strike against the record companies '43--4 the Sinatra records were reissued and 'All Or Nothing At All' was big, while 'I'll Get By', recorded '41, was no. 1 for six weeks with Haymes, who had also gone solo by then. From '45 Kitty Kallen sang, hits incl. 'I'm Beginning To See The Light' (an Ellington song; James got a co-writing credit), 'I'll Buy That Dream', 'It's Been A Long, Long Time' (Kallen, b 25 May '22 in Philadelphia, later had a solo career; her lovely 'Little Things Mean A Lot' was no. 1 for nine weeks '54). Further instrumentals incl. 'Strictly Instrumental', 'Velvet Moon', 'Cherry', many more. First married to vocalist Louise Tobin (who heard Sinatra on the radio and tipped Harry off), then to glamour queen Betty Grable '43 (breaking the hearts of countless GIs): she sang on 'I Can't Begin To Tell You' '45 (billed as Ruth Haag), they did a vaudeville act together '53, divorced '65. He played on the soundtrack for Kirk Douglas in film Young Man With A Horn '50; he had appeared in films with Goodman, then several in '40s with his own band, finally The Benny Goodman Story '56. Ray Conniff arranged for him late '40s; Willie Smith on alto sax and trombonist Juan Tizol joined mid-'40s, Louie Bellson '50; they all left to join Duke Ellington '51, known as the Great James Raid (James is said to have asked, 'Can I come too?' Tizol and Smith came back '54).

From the mid-'50s he organized bands for tours and long engagements, hiring good people (often featured Buddy Rich), more jazz-oriented (no strings) with arrangers like Ernie Wilkins and Neal Hefti. Three albums direct-cut to master disc '70s by Sheffield Labs were Still Harry After All These Years, The King James Version and Comin' From A Good Place, reissued on CD and in a set as The Sheffield Collection. PeeWee Monte had been Benny Goodman's band manager, switched to James '40 and stayed for the rest of his life (without a contract: James was one of the nicest and most trustworthy people in music). The Monte family recorded the band off the air on transcription discs, and Bandstand Memories 1938 To 1948 is part of the result, three-CD set on Hindsight in amazingly good sound, incl. seven air checks with young Sinatra. Harry James And His Orchestra Featuring Frank Sinatra incl. studio tracks and airchecks, Harry James And His Great Vocalists incl. Haymes, Forrest etc, The Essence Of Harry James tops it up, all on Columbia Legacy.