Suave, sophisticated bandleader Harry James grew up in the circus. His father was a bandleader; his mother, a trapeze artist and trick horse rider; and his older sister, an aerialist. Born on March 15, 1916, Harry soon showed talent for the drums and became a feature act at age three. At four he was substituting for the circus band’s drummer, playing two shows a night.
Harry was also a contortionist, performing at age five as “The Human Eel.” But a mastoid operation put an end to that career, and Harry took up the cornet, tutored by his disciplinarian father. By age 11 he was playing trumpet with the main band, and by 12 he was leading the circus’s number two band.
During the Depression when Harry was 14, the James family settled in Beaumont, Texas, where Harry won a trumpet competition, setting him on a musical career despite his talent for baseball. In the early ‘30s he toured the southwest with various dance bands before joining Ben Pollack’s band where he met and married young vocalist Louise Tobin in 1935. In 1936 he was ready to join Benny Goodman’s band.
Goodman’s successful 1935 concerts on the West coast had established him as America’s “King of Swing.” Peter J. Levinson in Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James cites several musicians on Harry’s impact on the band. “...When Harry joined the band, it got looser, much looser. It just totally changed like it had been electrified,” said trumpeter Jimmy Maxwell. Lionel Hampton said, “He had a black sound, and it was obvious he had been raised musically around black musicians. He was completely different from any other white trumpet player of his day.” By 1937 James had won the trumpeter polls in both Down Beat and Metronome magazines, and in 1938 he played Goodman’s famous Carnegie Hall concert.
By 1939 he was leading his own band which was not a monetary success but was named by Down Beat as the best sweet band of 1939. James kept it together with one-nighters and hits such as “Two O’Clock Jump” and his young vocalist Frank Sinatra’s version of “All or Nothing at All.” In 1941 James added a string quartet and the band’s more romantic sound struck a chord with the public. Their recording of “You Made Me Love You” became the most successful recording of James’ career and provided financial security. It was also, according to jazz critic Dan Morgenstern, quoted in Levinson’s book, “...the record that the jazz critics never forgave Harry for recording. This was despite the fact that he continued to play some formidable jazz solos and good music as well.”
James’ charismatic performances and film appearances made him one of the most visible bandleaders of the era. At the same time his personal life was coming apart as a result of his notorious womanizing. He and Tobin were divorced in1943, and he married movie star Betty Grable three days later. Their 22-year marriage, which ended in divorce in 1965, was ultimately fraught with problems as a result of James’ spending habits, gambling, womanizing, and drinking. On the other hand, James was generous with his band members and strongly defended his black members in racial matters.
During harsh economic times in the fifties he occasionally broke up the band to perform with smaller groups, and in 1953 he hired his “dream” drummer Buddy Rich who played with the band intermittently. Harry James and His Music Makers were booked into Las Vegas for extended engagements, and by 1956, in an effort to pay their debts, Harry and Betty added their own act to the bill.
Rich rejoined the James band and from 1962 to 1966, known as “the Rich years,” the hard swinging band enjoyed its prime years. During the ‘70s the band played several extended residencies in Vegas, but by 1980 James showed visible signs of decline and died of cancer on July 5, 1983.