For many jazz fans, trumpet player Harry James was at best superfluous and at worst a sellout: a musician of formidable technique who abandoned the fiery style that made him a star of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, only to adopt a much more schmaltzy, flashy, commercial manner that led to a remarkable number of hit records throughout the 40s.
Born in Georgia in 1916, Harry James learned to play the trumpet at age eight and became one of the most admired jazz musicians of the big band era. He was so popular in the early 1940s that Columbia Records couldn’t press enough of his records to meet demand.
To dance music lovers, James was the leader for three decades of consistently satisfying big bands whose earliest incarnation gave Frank Sinatra his start and whose 1950s version found its most lucrative gigs at the casino hotels in Vegas and at Tahoe.
But most of America knew Harry James simply as the husband of movie star Betty Grable, the blonde pinup who caused World War II G.I.s to croon, “I want a gal, just like the gal, who married Harry James…”
There were a number of different Harrys – jazz player, big-band leader, celebrity husband (as well as a promiscuous womanizer, unrecovered alcoholic and ruinous gambler). Harry James was both one of the most essential trumpeters and bandleaders in the history of American music, and a man who lived a sad and misguided life.
Born to circus performer parents (his father was a bandmaster, his mother a trapeze artist and horse rider), Harry Haag James was reared as a prodigy and learned that performing well was the price of approval. He became a performer himself as early as the age of four when he began working as a contortionist. By age 5, he was a featured drummer; by 9, he played trumpet; at 12, he took over leadership of the second band in the Christy Brothers Circus, for which his family was then working. Schooled by his father, a stern taskmaster, James studied the classic trumpet repertoire and developed the iron chops and bravura technique of a circus musician; but he also soaked up the jazz and blues of his native Texas and loved Louis Armstrong‘s playing.
After a stint with the influential Ben Pollack Orchestra band in 1936, James joined the wildly popular Benny Goodman in 1936 at the startlingly early of 20 and an early first marriage, he rapidly gained notice in the band, and by December 1937 he had begun to make recordings under his own name for Brunswick Records (later absorbed by Columbia Records).He was an instant sensation, and the rest of his life was lived in the spotlight.
By 20, too, his bad habits were formed: heavy drinking, incessant gambling, and compulsive promiscuity. In his decades of success, James found no reason to change, remaining (in the words of one of his band members) “a perpetual teenager as a man,” someone who “served all his appetites and all his desires. He wasn’t terribly concerned with other people.” Indeed, his dark sides had a tendency to eclipse his skill on the silver trumpets.
In early 1939, he left Goodman and launched his own orchestra, premiering it in Philadelphia in February. That spring, he heard the then-unknown Frank Sinatra on a radio broadcast and hired him. The band struggled, however, and when the more successful bandleader Tommy Dorsey made Sinatra an offer at the end of 1939, did not stand in his way. In later years, Frank bankrolled a number of different Harry James’ Orchestras. Around the same time, he was dropped by Columbia and switched to the tiny Varsity Records label.
After two years of difficulties in maintaining his band, James changed musical direction in early 1941. He added strings and turned to a sweeter, more melodic style, meanwhile re-signing to Columbia Records. The results were not long in coming. In April 1941, he first reached the Top Ten with the self-written instrumental “Music Makers.” (His band was sometimes billed as Harry James and His Music Makers.) A second Top Ten hit, “Lament to Love,” featuring Dick Haymes on vocals, followed in August, and late in the year James reached the Top Five with an instrumental treatment of the 1913 song “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It).” This was the record that established him as a star. But with its sweet style and what was frequently described as Harry’s’ “schmaltzy” trumpet playing, it was also, according to jazz critic Dan Morgenstern (as quoted in the 1999 biography Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James by Peter J. Levinson), “the record that the jazz critics never forgave Harry for recording.”
James was second only to Glenn Miller as the most successful recording artist of 1942. During the year, seven of his recordings peaked in the Top Ten: the Top Five “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” with vocals by Helen Forrest; the number one instrumental “Sleepy Lagoon“; the Top Five “One Dozen Roses,” with vocals by Jimmy Saunders; the Top Five instrumental “Strictly Instrumental“; “He’s My Guy“; the Top Five “Mister Five by Five“; and “Manhattan Serenade,” the last three with vocals by Helen Forrest.
In September, when Miller went into the armed forces and gave up his radio show, Chesterfield Time, he handed it over to James, a symbolic transference of the title of top bandleader in the country. (James was ineligible for military service due to a back injury.) Meanwhile, wartime travel restrictions and the recording ban called by the musicians union, which took effect in August 1942, had limited James’ touring and recording activities, but another avenue had opened up. He began appearing in movies, starting with Syncopation in May 1942 and continuing with Private Buckaroo in June and Springtime in the Rockies in November. His next hit, “I Had the Craziest Dream,” with vocals by Helen Forrest, was featured in Springtime in the Rockies; it hit number one in February 1943. The movie is also memorable for having starred Betty Grable, whom James married in July 1943; they had two children and divorced in October 1965.
He had continued success throughout the 40’s & 50’s, even as the Big Band Era’s popularity was slowly waning, By then, he was deliberately trying to make his band sound like that of Count Basie. He was back onscreen in February 1950, his trumpet playing was heard in the film Young Man with a Horn, though the man fingering the trumpet onscreen was Kirk Douglas, and in November 1956 in the film The Opposite Sex.
He made his first major tour of Europe in October 1957, and in ensuing years he alternated national and international tours with lengthy engagements at Las Vegas hotels. There were two more film appearances, The Big Beat (June 1958) and The Ladies Man (July 1961). James performed regularly through the early ’80s. He was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1983, but continued to play, making his last appearance only nine days before his death at 67. Led by trumpeter Art Depew, his band continued to perform.
No one questioned Harry’s talent as a jazz trumpeter, though after his commercial ascendance in 1941 many jazz critics dismissed him. After his period of greatest success, he turned back to a more jazz-oriented style, which failed to change the overall impression of him, if only because he was no longer as much in the public eye. Nevertheless, his swing hits remain among the most popular music of the era.
James’ self-centered existence had its colorful aspects. A great sports fan, he was very serious about his band’s baseball team and often hired band members as much for their athletic prowess as their musical abilities. A lover of Western movies, he eventually arranged to star in one (Outlaw Queen, 1957). And as a big-band leader for much of his life, he participated to an expected degree in the antics and merriment that punctuated the dullness of life on the road.
But antics aside, Harry James was aloof. “Harry never got close to people,” one of his drummers said. “I don’t think anybody really liked him.” His first of three wives, singer Louise Tobin spoke of James’ “inhuman side,” his “cold, icy stare” and his “absolute indifference to his own children.”
James’ stunted personality stemmed from his deeply ingrained loneliness and insecurity to a childhood in which he received no proper nurturing. It appears he grew up not knowing the meaning of love. From boyhood on, Harry needed an audience to feel alive, special, important and loved. Without it, he believed he really wasn’t worth very much. Lacking any real education, he wouldn’t allow people to get close to him fearing they might find out he was a fraud. Only on the bandstand did James feel fulfilled and safe, according to singer Helen Forrest: “He was at peace and he knew he was loved when he was playing the trumpet…. He knew nobody could hurt him.” Another singer, Marion Morgan, thought that James “gave all his warmth and love through his trumpet. There just wasn’t much left.”
The good-looking, high-living James slickly packaged by record and movie people, quipped trumpeter Pete Candoli, “like a WASP Cesar Romero” — thought his success ride would never end. Certainly his work never did. His poor gambling luck, which found him losing millions of his own dollars (plus some of Betty Garbles’), kept him touring virtually to his dying day, on July 5, 1983, in Las Vegas. Harry James said he didn’t fear death: “It’s just another road trip.”