It’s pretty difficult to talk about Harry James without mentioning his famous wife, Betty Grable, and indeed they were a well-known couple for over twenty years, a union that also produced two children. But this is a place for musical discussions, and although Betty did make a number of movies that included lots of singing and dancing, we’re going to focus mostly on Harry.
I think I began noticing him about the time I was first becoming a fan of swing music, although he didn’t grab my attention the way the bigger names such as Goodman, Ellington, Dorsey and Miller did. But Harry was part of a landmark musical event that always fascinated me – Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert – so I did notice him. When Benny put together the all-star group for that event, he included many of his former band-mates who’d gone on to form their own successful bands, and Harry was a prime example. He was featured as soloist on several songs in that concert.
He was probably the most talented former circus musician to ever hit the big time, but it didn’t happen right away for him. His mother was an aerialist and his father was the bandleader for the Mighty Haag Circus, which certainly prepared young Harry for the life of a musician, but he still had to work his way into mainstream music. His biggest break occurred in 1936 when he was hired by Benny, who was a big star by then. Harry soon gained fame himself and left Benny’s band to form his own group.
His band struggled at first, and that lack of success contributed to losing vocalist Frank Sinatra to the bigger and more successful Tommy Dorsey band. Even though Harry had given Sinatra his start, he understood the move and it just made him more determined to make his own band a success. After a couple of years of continued struggles, he finally softened and sweetened the sound of his band, even adding a string section, and began to build a following. (Although he lost some jazz fans.)
This began a period of top ten hits that included “Music Makers” and “Lament To Love”, which featured his new vocalist, Dick Haymes. Following that were the classic “You Made Me Love You”, which became his biggest hit at that time, but is also the tune that jazz purists most hate. From then on, it was hit after hit as Harry and his band reached star status. Songs such as “It’s Been A Long, Long Time”, featuring vocalist Kitty Kallen, “Sleepy Lagoon” and “Ciribiribin” were big sellers for him.
He also began appearing in movie musicals – as did many bandleaders – and in 1943 married Grable, with whom he’d co-starred in Springtime In The Rockies. He worked extensively in films while continuing to lead his band and issue recordings, but as the war ended there was a decline in the popularity of the big bands. Eventually he dissolved his group, but within a year or two decided to try it again, and was fairly successful. He also moved back closer to his original jazz roots, leaving behind the schmaltzy sound that so irritated the pros.
During the 1950’s he continued actively working, recording with a number of singers, including Frank Sinatra, and even had his own TV show for a while. He was also said to be the inspiration for the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With A Horn, for which Harry provided the sounds emanating from Kirk’s trumpet. He also played himself in the 1955 movie The Benny Goodman Story, which included a recreation of that famous Carnegie Hall concert.
Harry inevitably slowed down through the years but always continued performing as much as possible, until the early 1980’s and his death at age 67 from lymphatic cancer. He was a talented performer, probably one of the best-remembered of the trumpeters, and hopefully has by now been forgiven for straying into commercialism for many years. After all, a guy’s gotta make a living.