Harry James

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Harry James
Harry James Billboard 4.jpg
James c. 1942
Harry Haag James

(1916-03-15)March 15, 1916
DiedJuly 5, 1983(1983-07-05) (aged 67)
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
Louise Tobin
(m. 1935;div. 1943)

Betty Grable
(m. 1943;div. 1965)

Joan Boyd
(m. 1968;div. 1970)
Musical career
  • Musician
  • bandleader
  • trumpeter
Years active1933–1983
Associated acts

Harry Haag James (March 15, 1916 – July 5, 1983) was an American musician who is best known as a trumpet-playing band leader who led a big band from 1939 to 1946. He broke up his band for a short period in 1947 but shortly after he reorganized and was active again with his band from then until his death in 1983. He was especially known among musicians for his technical proficiency as well as his tone, and was influential on new trumpet players from the late 1930s into the 1940s. He was also an actor in a number of films that usually featured his band.

Big band Music ensemble associated with jazz and Swing Era music

A big band is a type of musical ensemble of jazz music that usually consists of ten or more musicians with four sections: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and a rhythm section. Big bands originated during the early 1910s and dominated jazz in the early 1940s when swing was most popular. The term "big band" is also used to describe a genre of music, although this was not the only style of music played by big bands.

Tone and sound are terms used by musicians and related professions to refer to the audible characteristics of a player's sound. Tone is the product of all influences on what can be heard by the listener, including the characteristics of the instrument itself, differences in playing technique, and the physical space in which the instrument is played. In electric and electronic instruments, tone is also affected by the amplifiers, effects, and speakers used by the musician. In recorded music, tone is also influenced by the microphones, signal processors, and recording media used to record, mix, and master the final recording, as well as the listener's audio system.


Early life

Texas Historical Commission's marker at the childhood homesite of Harry James in Beaumont, Texas. HarryJamesTxHistoricalMarker.jpg
Texas Historical Commission's marker at the childhood homesite of Harry James in Beaumont, Texas.
From left: Stan "Cuddles" Johnson, Fraser MacPherson, Bob Smith, Harry James, Al Johnson, Stew Barnett. (The Cave Supper Club, May 1970) Harry James 1970.jpg
From left: Stan "Cuddles" Johnson, Fraser MacPherson, Bob Smith, Harry James, Al Johnson, Stew Barnett. (The Cave Supper Club, May 1970)
From left: Harry James, Lucille Ball, Betty Grable. (The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show, 1958) Lucy wins racehorse 1958.JPG
From left: Harry James, Lucille Ball, Betty Grable. ( The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show , 1958)

Harry James was born in Albany, Georgia, [1] the son of Everett Robert James, a bandleader in a traveling circus, the Mighty Haag Circus, and Myrtle Maybelle (Stewart), an acrobat and horseback rider. He started performing with the circus at an early age, first as a contortionist at age four, then playing the snare drum in the band from about the age of six. [2] It was at this age that James was almost trampled by the circus trick horses after he wandered onto the circus track as they were performing their stunts, but fortunately he was protected by his mother's pet horse, who stood over him until the other horses rushed by. [3]

Albany, Georgia City in Georgia, United States

Albany is a city in the U.S. state of Georgia. Located on the Flint River, it is the seat of Dougherty County. Located in southwest Georgia, it is the principal city of the Albany, Georgia metropolitan area. The population was 77,434 at the 2010 U.S. Census, making it the eighth-largest city in the state.

Circus Commonly a travelling company of performers

A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, unicyclists, as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists. The term circus also describes the performance which has followed various formats through its 250-year modern history. Although not the inventor of the medium, Philip Astley is credited as the father of the modern circus. In 1768 Astley, a skilled equestrian, began performing exhibitions of trick horse riding in an open field called Ha'Penny Hatch on the south side of the Thames River. In 1770 he hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to fill in the pauses between the equestrian demonstrations and thus chanced on the format which was later named a "circus". Performances developed significantly over the next fifty years, with large-scale theatrical battle reenactments becoming a significant feature. The traditional format, in which a ringmaster introduces a variety of choreographed acts set to music, developed in the latter part of the 19th century and remained the dominant format until the 1970s.

Mighty Haag Circus

Mighty Haag Circus was started by American entrepreneur Ernest Haag in Shreveport, Louisiana. His circus toured continuously for over 40 years, from 1891 to 1935. During these years, the circus used a variety of types of transport: boat, carts, trains, horse-pulled wagons, and trucks. It was one of the largest traveling circuses in the United States.

James started taking trumpet lessons from his father at age eight, and by age twelve he was leading the second band in the Christy Brothers Circus, for which his family was then working. [2] James's father placed him on a strict daily practice schedule. At each session he was given several pages to learn from the Arban's book and was not allowed to pursue any other pastime until he had learned them. [4] While still a student at Dick Dowling Junior High School, he participated as a regular member of Beaumont High School's Royal Purple Band, and in May 1931 he took first place as trumpet soloist at the Texas Band Teacher's Association's Annual Eastern Division contest held in Temple, Texas. [5]

<i>Arban method</i> book by Jean-Baptiste Arban

The Arban Method is a complete pedagogical method for students of trumpet, cornet, and other brass instruments. The original edition was published by Jean-Baptiste Arban sometime before 1859 and is currently in print. It contains hundreds of exercises, ranging in difficulty. The method begins with basic exercises and progresses to very advanced compositions, including the famous arrangement of Carnival of Venice.

Temple, Texas City in Texas, United States

Temple is a city in Bell County, Texas, United States. As of 2018, the city has a population of 76,600 according to a US census estimate.


In 1924, his family settled in Beaumont, Texas. [6] It was here in the early 1930s that James began playing in local dance bands when just 15 years of age. James played regularly with Herman Waldman's band, and at one performance was noticed by nationally popular Ben Pollack. [7] In 1935 he joined Pollack's band, but left at the start of 1937 to join Benny Goodman's orchestra, where he stayed through 1938. He was nicknamed "The Hawk" early in his career for his ability to sight-read. A common joke was that if a fly landed on his written music, Harry James would play it. His low range had a warmth associated with the cornet and even the flugelhorn, but this sound was underrecorded in favor of James' brilliant high register.[ citation needed ]

Beaumont, Texas City in Texas, United States

Beaumont is a city in and the county seat of Jefferson County, Texas, in the United States, within the Beaumont–Port Arthur Metropolitan Statistical Area. Located in Southeast Texas on the Neches River about 85 miles (137 km) east of Houston, Beaumont had a population of 117,267 at the time of the 2010 census, making it the thirtieth-most populous city in the state of Texas.

Ben Pollack American musician

Ben Pollack was an American drummer and bandleader from the mid-1920s through the swing era. His eye for talent led him to employ musicians such as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Glenn Miller, Jimmy McPartland, and Harry James. This ability earned him the nickname the "Father of Swing".

Benny Goodman American jazz musician

Benjamin David Goodman was an American jazz clarinetist and bandleader known as the "King of Swing".

With financial backing from Goodman, [8] James debuted his own big band in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in January 1939, but it didn't click until adding a string section in 1941. [9] Subsequently, known as Harry James and His Music Makers, [10] it produced the hit "You Made Me Love You", which peaked in the Top 10 during the week of December 7, 1941. [11] He and his band were featured in three films, Private Buckaroo , Two Girls and a Sailor and Springtime in the Rockies . He toured with the band into the 1980s, and as of July 2018 the Harry James Orchestra, led by Fred Radke, was still very much in business. [12]

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania

Philadelphia, known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2018 census-estimated population of 1,584,138. Since 1854, the city has had the same geographic boundaries as Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

You Made Me Love You (I Didnt Want to Do It) song

"You Made Me Love You " is a popular song. The music was written by James V. Monaco, the lyrics by Joseph McCarthy and the song was published in 1913. It was introduced by Al Jolson in the Broadway revue The Honeymoon Express (1913) and used in the 1973 revival of the musical Irene.

In the music industry, the top 40 is the current, 40 most-popular songs in a particular genre. It is the best-selling or most frequently broadcast popular music. Record charts have traditionally consisted of a total of 40 songs. "Top 40" or "contemporary hit radio" is also a radio format. Frequent variants of the Top 40 are the Top 10, Top 20, Top 30, Top 50, Top 75, Top 100 and Top 200.


James' band was the first high-profile orchestra to feature vocalist Frank Sinatra, who signed a one-year, $75 a week contract with it in 1939. James wanted to change Sinatra's name to 'Frankie Satin', but the singer refused. [13] Sinatra only worked seven months before leaving to join Tommy Dorsey's outfit. [14] The James band's featured female vocalist was Helen Forrest, and his later band included drummer Buddy Rich [14] and bassist Thurman Teague. [15] Johnny MacAfee was featured on the sax and vocals, and Corky Corcoran was a youthful sax prodigy.

Frank Sinatra American singer, actor, and producer

Francis Albert Sinatra was an American singer, actor and producer who was one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century. He is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, having sold more than 150 million records worldwide.

Tommy Dorsey American big band leader and musician

Thomas Francis Dorsey Jr. was an American jazz trombonist, composer, conductor and bandleader of the big band era. He was known as the "Sentimental Gentleman of Swing" because of his smooth-toned trombone playing. His theme song was I'm Getting Sentimental Over You. His technical skill on the trombone gave him renown among other musicians. He was the younger brother of bandleader Jimmy Dorsey. After Dorsey broke with his brother in the mid-1930s, he led an extremely popular and highly successful band from the late 1930s into the 1950s. He is best remembered for standards such as "Opus One", "Song of India", "Marie", "On Treasure Island", and his biggest hit single, "I'll Never Smile Again".

Helen Forrest American singer

Helen Forrest was an American singer of traditional pop and swing music. She served as the "girl singer" for three of the most popular big bands of the Swing Era, thereby earning a reputation as "the voice of the name bands."


James' orchestra succeeded Glenn Miller's on a program sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes in 1942, when Miller disbanded his orchestra to enter the Army. In 1945, James and his orchestra had a summer replacement program for Danny Kaye's program on CBS. [16] He also led the orchestra for Call for Music , which was broadcast on CBS February 13, 1948 - April 16, 1948, and on NBC April 20, 1948 - June 29, 1948. [17]


James recorded many popular records and appeared in many Hollywood movies. He played trumpet in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn , [18] dubbing Kirk Douglas. The album from the movie charted at #1, with James backing big band singer and actress Doris Day. James's recording of "I'm Beginning to See the Light" appears in the motion picture My Dog Skip (2000). His music is also featured in the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters . James's recording of "It's Been a Long, Long Time" is featured in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and in Marvel's Avengers: Endgame.[ citation needed ]

Musical style and reception


With James's childhood spent as a musician in a traveling circus, he picked up a flamboyant style that utilized such techniques as heavy vibrato, half valve and lip glissandi, valve and lip trills, and valve tremolos. These techniques were popular at the time in what was known as "hot" jazz, epitomized by James's idol Louis Armstrong, but fell out of favor by the 1950s with the advent of "cool" jazz. [19] James's rigorous regime of practice as a child resulted in an exceptional technical proficiency in the more classical techniques of range, fingering and tonguing. Growing up in the South, James was also exposed to blues music, which had an additional influence on his style. As James explained, "I was brought up in Texas with the blues – when I was eleven or twelve years old down in what they call 'barbecue row' I used to sit in with the guys that had the broken bottlenecks on their guitars, playing the blues; that's all we knew." [20] After hearing James solo on several numbers at a Benny Goodman one-nighter, Armstrong enthused to his friend and Goodman vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, "That white boy – he plays like a jig!" [21]

Move towards pop

After James left Benny Goodman's band in 1939 to form his own band, he soon found that leading a commercially viable musical group required a broader set of skills than those needed to be a gifted musician playing in someone else's band. The James band ran into financial trouble, and it became increasingly difficult for James to pay salaries and keep the band together. In 1940, James lost his contract with Columbia Records (he returned in 1941), and Frank Sinatra left the band that January. It was not long after this that James made a pivotal decision: he would adopt a "sweeter" style that added strings to the band, and the band would deliver tunes that were in more of a "pop" vein and less true to its jazz roots. From a commercial standpoint, the decision paid off as James soon enjoyed a string of chart topping hits that provided commercial success for him and his band. Indeed, a U.S. Treasury report released in 1945 listed Harry James and Betty Grable as the highest-paid couple in the nation. [22]

While James remained commercially successful and personally committed to his music, some critics sought to find fault. In Peter Levinson's 1999 biography, Dan Morgenstern, the respected critic and Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, called the 1941 release of the latter Grammy Hall of Fame inducted "You Made Me Love You" "the record that the jazz critics never forgave Harry James for recording." [23] With James continuing to employ his flamboyant style on pop hits through the 1940s, his playing was often labeled as "schmaltzy" [24] and dismissed by the critics, although radio discs from this period reveal James's continued commitment to jazz. James's jazz releases during this period, while not as numerous, include a variety of modern arrangements from Neal Hefti, Frank Devenport, Johnny Richards and Jimmy Mundy that often inspired his musicians, and as bop surpassed swing by the late 1940s, James was surprisingly open to its influence. [25]

Return to Big Band jazz

After coasting through the mid-1950s, James made a complete reevaluation of where he was heading in his musical career. Count Basie provided the impetus by making a significant comeback with his newly formed "16 Men Swinging" band, and James wanted a band with a decided Basie flavor. [26] James signed with Capitol Records in 1955, and two years later, after releasing new studio versions of many of his previously released songs from Columbia, James recorded ten new tracks for an album entitled Wild About Harry! . This album was the first in a series released on Capitol, and continuing later on MGM, representative of the Basie style that James adopted during this period, with some of the arrangements provided by former Basie saxophonist and arranger Ernie Wilkins, whom James hired for his own band. [27]

While James never completely regained favor with jazz critics during his lifetime in spite of his return to more jazz-oriented releases in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, contemporary opinion of his work has shifted. Recent reissues such as Capitol's 2012 7-disc set The Capitol Vaults Jazz Series: Gene Krupa and Harry James have prompted new, more favorable analyses. In 2014, Marc Myers of JazzWax commented, "[James's] band of the mid-1940s was more modern than most of the majors, and in 1949 he led one of the finest bands of the year." And on James's releases from 1958–1961, Myers noted, "The James band during this period has been eclipsed by bands led by Basie, Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton. While each served up its own brand of magnificence, James produced more consistently brilliant tracks than the others... virtually everything James recorded during this period was an uncompromising, swinging gem." [28]

James felt strongly about the music he both played and recorded. In 1972 while in London, he did an interview with the English jazz critic Steve Voce, who asked if the biggest audience was for the commercial numbers he had recorded. James visibly bristled, replying "That would depend on for whom you are playing. If you're playing for a jazz audience, I'm pretty sure that some of the jazz things we do would be a lot more popular than 'Sleepy Lagoon,' and if we're playing at a country club or playing Vegas, in which we have many, many types of people, then I'm sure that 'Sleepy Lagoon' would be more popular at that particular time. But I really get bugged about these people talking about commercial tunes, because to me, if you're gonna be commercial, you're gonna stand on your head and make funny noises and do idiotic things. I don't think we've ever recorded or played one tune that I didn't particularly love to play. Otherwise, I wouldn't play it." [29]

Personal life

James was married three times. First to singer Louise Tobin on May 4, 1935, with whom he had two sons, Harry Jeffrey James and Timothy Ray James. [30] They divorced in 1943. [2] Later that year he married actress Betty Grable. They had two daughters, Victoria Elizabeth (b. 1944) and Jessica (b. 1947), before divorcing in 1965. In December 1967 [31] [32] James wed Las Vegas showgirl Joan Boyd. The couple had a child before divorcing.

James owned several thoroughbred racehorses that won races such as the California Breeders' Champion Stakes (1951) and the San Vicente Stakes (1954). He was also a founding investor in the Atlantic City Race Course. His knowledge of horse racing was demonstrated during a 1958 appearance on The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour entitled "Lucy Wins A Racehorse". [33]

James was a heavy smoker. In 1983 he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, but continued to work. He played his last professional job, with the Harry James Orchestra, on June 26, 1983 in Los Angeles, [30] dying just nine days later in Las Vegas, Nevada [34] on July 5, 1983 at age 67. Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy at his funeral, held in Las Vegas.



The discography of Harry James includes 30 studio albums, 47 EPs, three soundtrack/stage and screen albums, and numerous live albums and compilation albums, along with contributions as sideman and appearances with other musicians. [35] [36] James released over 200 singles during his career, with nine songs reaching number one, 32 in the top ten, and 70 in the top 100 on the U.S. pop charts, as well as seven charting on the U.S. R&B chart. [lower-alpha 1] [37] [38] [39]

  1. At the time of James's charts, Billboard magazine referred to the R&B chart as "The Harlem Hit Parade."

Selected singles

Selected albums

  • Boogie Woogie (Columbia C44, 1941, compilation) [46]
  • Young Man with a Horn (Columbia CL 6106, 1950) [47]
  • Jazz Session (Columbia CL 669, 1955) [48]
  • Wild About Harry! (Capitol T/ST 874, 1957) [49]
  • The New James (Capitol T/ST 1037, 1958) [50]
  • Harry's Choice! (Capitol T/ST 1093, 1958) [51]
  • Trumpet Rhapsody And Other Great Instrumentals (Harmony HL 7162, 1959)
  • Harry James and His New Swingin' Band (MGM E/SE 3778, 1959) [52]
  • Harry James...Today! (MGM E/SE 3848, 1960) [53]
  • The Spectacular Sound of Harry James (MGM E/SE 3897, 1961) [54]
  • Harry James Plays Neal Hefti (MGM E/SE 3972, 1961) [55]
  • Requests On-The-Road (MGM E/SE 4003, 1962) [56]
  • The King James Version (Sheffield Lab LAB-3, 1976) [57]
  • Comin' From A Good Place (Sheffield Lab LAB-6, 1977) [58]
  • Still Harry After All These Years (Sheffield Lab LAB-11, 1979) [59]
  • Snooty Fruity (Columbia CK 45447, 1990) [60]
  • Record Session '39–'42 (Hep CD1068 [Scotland], 1999) [61]
  • Feet Draggin' Blues '44–'47 (Hep CD62 [England], 1999) [62]


Grammy Hall of Fame

As of 2016, two recordings of Harry James had been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."

Harry James Grammy Hall of Fame Awards [63]
Year recordedTitleGenreLabelYear inducted
1942Trumpet Blues and CantabileJazz (Album)Columbia1999
1941 You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It) Pop (Single)Columbia2010

Readers' polls

Metronome magazine conducted annual readers' polls ranking the top jazz musician on each instrument. The winners were invited to join an ensemble known as the Metronome All-Stars that was assembled for studio recordings. The studio sessions were held in the years 1939–42, 1946–53, and 1956, and typically resulted in two tracks which allowed each participant a one chorus solo. Harry James was chosen to play trumpet with the Metronome All-Stars in 1939, 1940 and 1941.

A similar annual readers' poll conducted by Downbeat magazine selected James as the best trumpet instrumentalist for the years 1937, [64] 1938 [65] and 1939, [66] and as favorite soloist for 1942. [67]

Honors and inductions

For his contribution to the motion picture industry James was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6683 Hollywood Boulevard on February 8, 1960. [68]

He was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1983. [69]


See also

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