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 re-organized and was active again with his band from then until his death in 1983. He was especially known among musicians for his astonishing technical proficiency as well as his superior tone, and was extremely influential on up-and-coming trumpet players from the late 1930s into the 1940s. He was also an actor in a number of films that usually featured his band.
James c. 1942
|Born||Harry Haag James
March 15, 1916
Albany, Georgia, U.S.
|Died||July 5, 1983 (aged 67)
Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.
|Cause of death||Lymphatic cancer|
(m. 1935; div. 1943)
(m. 1943; div. 1965)
(m. 1968; div. 1970)
Harry James was born in Albany, Georgia, the son of Myrtle Maybelle (Stewart), an acrobat and horseback rider, and Everett Robert James, a bandleader in a traveling circus, the Mighty Haag Circus. According to the Bill Sterns Sports Newsreel broadcast on September 12, 1942, on which James appeared, he was saved from being trampled, at the age of 6, by his mother's horse after performing with the horse. By the age of 10 he was taking trumpet lessons from his father, who placed him on a strict daily practice schedule. Each day, James was given one page to learn from the Arban's book and was not allowed to pursue any other pastime until he had learned that particular page.
In 1924, his family settled in Beaumont, Texas. 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. In 1935 he joined Pollack's band, but at the start of 1937 left 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.
With financial backing from Goodman, in January 1939 James debuted his own big band in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but it didn't click until 1941 when he added a string section. This big band became known as Harry James and His Music Makers. His hit "You Made Me Love You" was in the Top 10 during the week of December 7, 1941. 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 to this day the Harry James Orchestra still exists, now led by Fred Radke.
His was the first "name band" to employ vocalist Frank Sinatra, in 1939, for $75 a week. James signed Sinatra to a one-year contract, of which Sinatra worked seven months before leaving to sing for Tommy Dorsey He wanted to change Sinatra's name to 'Frankie Satin' but Sinatra refused. His later band included drummer Buddy Rich. His featured vocalist was Helen Forrest. Johnny MacAfee was featured on the sax and vocals and Corky Corcoran was a youthful sax prodigy.
His 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. 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.
He played trumpet in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, dubbing Kirk Douglas. In the album from that movie, he backed Doris Day and the album charted at #1. 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 recorded many popular records and appeared in many Hollywood movies.
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 some have called a "hot" jazz style, with James's idol Louis Armstrong providing an example of one who used these techniques, but they later fell out of favor in the 1950s with the advent of "cool" jazz. James's father instituted a rigorous regime of practice for James as a child, and this allowed James to achieve 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 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." Louis Armstrong, after hearing Harry James solo on several numbers while at a Benny Goodman one-nighter with his friend Lionel Hampton, exclaimed to Hampton in the vernacular of the time, "That white boy – he plays like a jig!"
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 make payroll 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 — 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.
What worked well commercially with the public, however, had the opposite effect on those in the circle of jazz critics. Dan Morgenstern, the respected critic and Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, called the 1941 release of "You Made Me Love You" "the record that the jazz critics never forgave Harry James for recording." With James continuing to employ his "hot" jazz style on pop hits through the 1940s, his playing was often labeled as "schmaltzy" and dismissed by the critics, though radio discs from this period reveal James's continued commitment to jazz. A variety of modern arrangements from Neal Hefti, Frank Devenport, Johnny Richards and Jimmy Mundy often inspired his musicians, and as bop surpassed swing by the late 1940s, James was surprisingly open to its influence.
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. 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.
Even after his return to more jazz-oriented releases in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, James never completely regained favor with the jazz critics during his lifetime. More recent reissues, however, such as Capitol's 7-disc set The Capitol Vaults Jazz Series: Gene Krupa and Harry James in 2012, have prompted new, more favorable analyses of James's work. 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."
While in London, Harry James did an interview with the English jazz critic Steve Voce. When Voce asked him if the biggest audience was for the commercial numbers he had recorded, he visibly bristled. James answered, "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."
James was married three times. He married singer Louise Tobin on May 4, 1935, and they had two children, Harry James and Tim James. They divorced in 1943. That same year, he married actress Betty Grable. They had two daughters, Victoria Elizabeth (b. 1944) and Jessica (b. 1947), before divorcing in 1965. James married a third time on December 27, 1967, to Las Vegas showgirl Joan Boyd, whom he would divorce in March 1970. Contrary to some assertions, he did not marry a fourth time. He had five children (two by Tobin, two by Grable, one by Boyd) and (as of his death) 16 grandchildren.
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".
In 1983, James, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, but he continued to work, playing his last professional job on June 26, 1983, in Los Angeles, just nine days before his death in Las Vegas, Nevada. The job had become his final performance with the Harry James Orchestra. Harry James died July 5, 1983 at age 67.
He died exactly 40 years after his marriage to Betty Grable (July 5, 1943), who was buried exactly 30 years after that date (July 5, 1973). 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. 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.[a]   
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|
|Year recorded||Title||genre||Label||Year inducted|
|1942||Trumpet Blues and Cantabile||Jazz (Album)||Columbia||1999|
|1941||You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want to Do It)||Pop (Single)||Columbia||2010|
Metronome magazine conducted annual readers' polls for their readers to choose whom they considered to be the top jazz musician on each instrument for the year. 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 chance to solo for one chorus. Harry James was chosen to play trumpet with the Metronome All-Stars for the years 1939, 1940 and 1941.
In a similar annual poll conducted by Downbeat magazine, James was chosen by Downbeat's readers as the best trumpet instrumentalist for the years 1937, 1938 and 1939, and as favorite soloist for 1942.
In 1983, James was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.