He was a driving force behind Benny Goodman’s success. He launched the career of singer Frank Sinatra. And during the 40’s he married the most famous “Pin-up Girl” of the Second World War. Trumpeter and Bandleader Harry James began his music career playing in a traveling circus with his father in Texas. Later, Harry joined the Ben Pollack Orchestra (Pollack also gave a start to another famous bandleader, Glenn Miller). By 1937 James had taken a job with Benny Goodman, who was breaking attendance records at major night spots and ballrooms across the country. It is Harry James that can be heard blowing lead trumpet on Goodman hits such as ”Sing Sing Sing,” ”One O’clock Jump” and ”Life Goes to a Party.”
As a child, young Harry traveled with the circus for several years before his parents settled down in Beaumont, Texas. Harry’s father Everette was the featured trumpet player in the ‘Mighty Haag Circus’ and his mother Mabel was a trapeze artist. Harry learned to play the drums when he was four and by the time he reached eight, he was mastering the trumpet. A child musical prodigy, Harry soon began playing solos and two years later began leading the circus band.
As a teenager, Harry played in bands around Beaumont and once auditioned for Lawrence Welk. ”It was just a seven piece group then,” Mr. James recalled. ”He liked my trumpet all right. Then he asked me what else I could play and I told him drums. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted guys who could play at least four or five instruments, so I didn’t get the job.”
Harry’s career really began to take off when, in 1935, Irving Goodman (trumpet player and Benny Goodman’s brother), heard James with the Pollack band and convinced his brother to hire Harry, where he would join the likes of Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffen to form a ”powerhouse” trio, one of the most celebrated big-band trumpet sections in big band musical history.
In just two short years after joining Goodman, Harry’s popularity as a soloist had grown to the point where he decided to launch out on his own. It was in the fall of 1939 when Harry and his new “Harry James Band”, playing at the Paramount Theater in New York, heard a vocalist on the radio singing at a small roadhouse called “The Rustic Cabin” in Englewood, New Jersey. He liked the singer’s voice so much that he later went to hear him. The singer was Frank Sinatra. Harry hired Sinatra on the spot, giving Frank his first “big break” in show business.
Harry James real success as a band leader came as he added to his repertory romantic ballads to his repertoire, thus highlighting both Sinatra’s skills as a vocalist as well as Harry’s ability to play the horn with warm emotion and a vibrato so broad that he was the envy of other trumpet players. One of Harry’s biggest early hits was ”You Made Me Love You,” which he recorded in May 1941, a little more than two years after he started his own band. Using a mixture of swinging instrumentals and soulful ballads such as ”I Cried for You” and ”I Don’t Want to Walk Without You” helped to widen Harry’s popularity across the country.
Sinatra remained with the James band less than a year when he accepted an offer to join Tommy Dorsey (who was more established and able to offer Sinatra more money). Harry replaced Frank Sinatra with Dick Haymes, who as fate would have it later replaced Sinatra when Frank left the Dorsey band to strike out on his own as a soloist. In addition to helping launch Sinatra’s career, Harry proved he had an ear for female vocal talent- hiring Helen Forrest and later Kitty Kallen to perform with his band. He also hired other “soon to be famous” bandleaders, including drummer Buddy Rich.
By the start of World War II, Harry’s band had replaced Glenn Miller on the Chesterfield radio program (Miller disbanded his group and enlisted in the Army). In addition, the James organization landed the envious role as the radio band for Jack Benny’s weekly program. From a commercial standpoint, James enjoyed a string of chart topping hits that paved the way to financial success. (A US Treasury report once listed Harry James and his wife Betty Grable as the highest-paid couple in the nation).
In July of 1943, ”America’s favorite trumpet player” made headlines once again when it was announced that he was marrying ‘America’s favorite pin-up girl’ – actress Betty Grable, whose photos adorned the lockers of G.I.’s all around the world. It was during his marriage to Grable that the tall, handsome, mustachioed James appeared in several films, including ”Do You Love Me?” ”Springtime in the Rockies” and ”Best Foot Forward.” He also was technical adviser and played all the trumpet parts for Kirk Douglas in the movie ”Young Man with a Horn.”
In the late 1940’s as the big-band era was coming to an end, James was one of the few band leaders who continued to perform. By the mid-1950s, Harry underwent a complete revitalization of his career, taking a cue from Count Basie who by then had made a significant comeback with his band. James signed with Capitol Records in 1955 and recorded new studio versions of many of his previously released hits, and produced ten new songs for his album entitled ‘Wild About Harry!’
Relocating from Hollywood to Nevada, Mr. James became interested in racing and developed a stable of thoroughbred racehorses that won races such as the California Breeders’ Champion Stakes (1951) and the San Vicente Stakes (1954). He also was an avid baseball fan, originally a supporter of the Brooklyn Dodgers, later of the St. Louis Cardinals. When he first formed a band, he organized a baseball team among his sidemen, and they played in Central Park whenever the band was in New York.
Sadly by 1983, James, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, but he continued to work, playing his last professional job on June 26 of that year, just nine days before his death in Las Vegas, Nevada at the age of 67. Harry James 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.