I have anticipated writing this post for a long time, and this is the time. I choose my blog topics using the same rationale that motivates the author, David McCullough. “I write the things I would like to read,” to paraphrase Mr. McCullough. The most pleasurable and rewarding post themes inevitably reflect both the writer’s knowledge of and an enthusiasm for the subject at hand. While my knowledge concerning the great trumpet player and jazz/swing pioneer Harry James may be less than complete, my appreciation of his musical talent and his ascent to the top of our popular music culture knows no bounds.
My great interest in and enthusiasm for the Harry James story stems from the fact that I have long been an amateur trumpet player who loves the instrument and who finally recognized, later in life, the unsurpassed talent of Harry James. I am always fascinated by greatness and its root-sources, no matter what the venue: science, music, whatever. And the life of Harry James has all the lure of a rags-to-riches story, including life-lessons on handling overwhelming fame and fortune.
The Greatest Trumpet Player of All Time?
The life of Louis Armstrong is another trumpet player’s rag-to-riches story, even more so. I attach a link to my earlier post on him at the end of this post. Louis appeared on the scene some ten years prior to Harry James. Armstrong, more than anyone else, pioneered the music and the style of playing that led to the popular groundswell called swing/jazz that swept depression era America in the early nineteen-thirties. Along with his uncanny innovation, Louis was a decidedly better player than the rest of the competition in his time, and that competition was heavily centered on black musicians who were hearing Armstrong’s musical message early-on. One white cornet player did come along closely riding Armstrong’s innovative coattails. His name: Bix Beiderbecke. He was the first white player whose style not only echoed the avante-garde movement of the best black players but added a unique flavor that was all his own. Armstrong watched with amusement as his peers attempted to copy Beiderbecke’s appealing style…and could not! It led to a famous comment by Armstrong: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”
The same is true of Harry James, even after all the years. Unlike Bix Beiderbecke whose short career ended at age 29 when he died alone in a Bronx apartment from rampant alcoholism, James set musical standards for swing and jazz playing for over forty years. And no one combined the technical proficiency and musicality that James possessed. He was not only the best soloist, he also formed and led bands and smaller ensembles for most all his active career – no small feat.
As for Harry James, I maintain that: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet!”
Louis Armstrong and Harry James knew each other well and held great respect for each other as musicians. I believe Louis would agree about Harry’s overall genius.
Fame and Life in the Fast Lane
As much as I am a fan of his trumpet talent and the musical legacy he forged as a pioneering musician in the era of swing and jazz, that regard is not based on any presumption that Mr. James led a thoroughly admirable life. Who does? On the contrary, Harry James seemed bent on squandering his remarkable talent via his penchant for alcohol and women. Even so, his love of vodka and the lure of willing women could not derail his dedication to music nor his remarkable talent for playing the trumpet. Doc Severenson, the well-known trumpet player and band leader for the late Johnny Carson, once remarked about his pal Harry that James was the only trumpet player he ever knew (and he knew a lot of them) whose playing on the bandstand actually got better as his alcohol intake increased over the course of an evening. Harry’s talent on the horn was so great that he neither feared the possible effects of alcohol on his playing nor needed any boost from it while on the bandstand.
As for beautiful women, “beautiful” seems an inadequate description of the many women Harry James bedded as bandleader of the nation’s premier swing/jazz band. A beautiful face and figure were not requirements for Harry, although they certainly helped. Some of his trysts were so plain of face, even homely, that his band joked that a paper bag would be an appropriate sex-aid for their leader. Harry basically loved the attention of women, and he was not always too particular.
At the peak of his popularity, James had his pick of the lovelies who made themselves clearly available in front of the bandstand.
While playing with the Art Hicks band early in his career, Harry fell in love with the band’s fine young vocalist, Louise Tobin. They were married in May of 1935 and experienced a few lean years, initially, as Harry’s career started to gain traction. The marriage ended in 1943.
In 1943, as Harry and his “Harry James Music Makers” were enjoying national attention, he wooed and won Betty Grable, the favorite pin-up girl of GI’s during World War II. Alas, even the union of the country’s most famous swing/jazz musician and Hollywood’s blond bombshell with the gorgeous legs could not consummate, for all time, what initially seemed a fairy-tale romance. Harry never lost his roving eye while on the road with the band traveling between musical gigs. Nonetheless, in 1943, Harry James found himself and his new wife directly in the celebrity spotlight – perhaps the most famous and envied couple in the country. He, the hot new trumpet player/bandleader with the swinging band and a recent million-seller recording of You Made Me Love You, and she, one of the most beautiful and glamorous young stars in Hollywood.
A Circus Background and an Eighth Grade Education
But let us go back in time to the unlikely beginnings and ultimate journey of this young man named Harry Haag James. Haag? What kind of middle name is Haag? James’ middle name was chosen in honor of Ernest Haag the personable owner/promoter of “The Mighty Haag Show,” essentially a traveling circus which toured the south and southeast in the early nineteen-hundreds. Traveling with the Haag Show meant elephants, performers, and circus wagons traveling in the dead of night to reach the next town by daybreak in order to erect the tents for the next night’s performance. There was rain and there was mud and inconvenience galore – a truly hard-scrabble existence with bright but fleeting spots of show-biz glamour at show-time. Prior to radio and the appearance of traveling bands, the circus provided the only excitement outlet for most of rural America, so business was good…until radio made its inroads in the mid-twenties.
Everette James first joined the Haag show in 1906 as circus bandleader. He had come to this position with a reputation as a pretty fair cornet player (the shorter, mellower kissing cousin to the trumpet) as well as a strong connection with music. He met soon-to-be wife, Maybelle, a featured aerialist in the show during those early years when they traveled in true circus fashion from town to town. In 1916, they welcomed a new little son to the family and named him Harry Haag James.
The Essence of the Harry James Musical Legend
In assessing the greatness of any unusually accomplished and successful individual, the source of that greatness is often posed in the form of the question: “nature or nurture?” I believe that Harry James turned out to be the musical icon that he was because he had both nature and nurture thoroughly covered. As for nature: his father was clearly talented musically, which included possessing great physical “chops” for playing the cornet/trumpet – a significant factor when talking about greatness on the instrument. Harry’s facial features were very much like those of his father and very well-suited to the trumpet mouthpiece. Vibration of the upper lip within the trumpet mouthpiece is the source of all sound produced on the instrument. Skill on the trumpet is, at the same time, that simple and that complicated. Even a decent level of proficiency is not easy to attain. I can vouch from first-hand experience that the level of ability attained and maintained by Harry James is almost incomprehensible to us mere mortals who “play.” Harry James’ overall musicality, considered apart from his technique on the trumpet, is even more difficult to describe and quantify. Musicality like his is a neurological amalgam of complex ear/brain connections, with excellent small muscle-memory thrown-in to enable fine technique on the instrument. Human experience suggests that these characteristics/capabilities can be inherited to one degree or another.
Benny Goodman on the Nature of Prodigies and Talent
The role that heredity, or “nature,” plays in overall musical talent was best summed up by the man who first propelled Harry James into the limelight – the great clarinetist/bandleader, Benny Goodman. I vividly recall watching a CBS television interview of Goodman conducted many years ago by a (then) very young Diane Sawyer who asked, “What does it take to be a truly great (swing/jazz) musician like yourself?” Benny Goodman barely hesitated before answering, “You have got to be born with it.” He might also have added that you must want it! Goodman knew because he lived it himself, and he was never given to any sense of false modesty when asked about it. Despite the arduous training and practicing on his own instrument when growing up, he knew from his decades of experience that “nature” ultimately dominates as the final factor in the equation of musical greatness – given that the necessary hard work and persistence are present.
As for “nurture,” the influence of outside experiences, guidance, and inspiration, young Harry had the run of the circus grounds, ultimately spending most of his time around and on his father’s circus bandstand. The musicians saw the young, precocious boy as a mascot of sorts for the band and readily took him in. By the age of ten, Harry was capably leading his father’s circus band through its entire repertoire.
Everette had begun giving young Harry formal cornet/trumpet lessons by the time the youngster was six years of age. The show-biz glitz of circus life as seen from the bandstand not only gave the youngster a taste of the bright lights of the entertainment world, it gave him a solid footing in the challenges and rewards of being a professional musician. The fleeting glamour spotlight of show-business offered by traveling “mud shows” like The Mighty Haag circus and, later, the Christy Brothers Circus were but a dim premonition of the piercing, bright-lights of the big-time that young Harry would experience in his early twenties as he burst upon the big-band swing craze that was then sweeping America in 1936.
Everette James: Trumpet Lessons Always Before Baseball
To summarize: the best of “nature and nurture” were possessed by Harry James given his father’s inherent musical talents (called genes) and the complete grounding in musicianship he absorbed by constantly being on and around the circus bandstand with Everette. But the primary factor that cemented Harry’s future greatness and set him far apart from the rest was the father’s recognition of his son’s musical potential and his determination not to let that underlying talent go to waste. Thus, began the regimen of disciplined trumpet lessons at the age of six. Everette James proved to be a talented and demanding cornet/trumpet teacher as well as a fine player. Wanting something better for his son than the musical position he himself held in a second-tier, hard-scrabble, mud-show circus band/orchestra, he began teaching his son the rudiments and the fine points of playing the cornet/trumpet. His instruction, the discipline and the thoroughness of his method, went far beyond the expected, comfortable father/son relationship. Everette informed Harry that he would settle for no less than an all-out effort from his son. Young Harry quickly advanced to the bible of all trumpet instruction: the Arban Method. Mastering the exercises in this thick manual is Mount Everest for even the most technically advanced classical trumpet players (think first-chair trumpet in the Chicago Symphony, for example). Very few if any famous jazz trumpeters ever mastered Arban let alone worked extensively from it. Harry did. On many a fine afternoon, when young Harry wanted to join his friends playing baseball, Everette told him he could not quit music practice that afternoon until he could play, perfectly for his father, the assigned pages in the Arban book of trumpet exercises. Once he demonstrated his mastery of the lesson by playing without error, he was free to go play his beloved game of baseball.
Young Harry reportedly often chafed at this paternal discipline, but he respected his father and the strict practice regimen Everette insisted upon. Harry recalled in one of his late-in-life television interviews that his dad would say to him, “Some day you will thank me for being this way.” The discipline surely took a toll on Harry’s psyche in one way or another, but his father’s tough love ultimately made Harry the star player he became – there is no doubt about it. His ability to play the most intricate and difficult classical trumpet pieces like “Carnival of Venice” or the most demanding, high-register improvised jazz riffs without sloughing or fluffing a single note along the way set him apart from most every other trumpet player on the planet. After many years of listening to both Harry James and Benny Goodman recordings, it dawned on me that I virtually never heard even a compromised note or passage in the many intricate and difficult pieces they performed, whether recorded or live. That is a most remarkable reflection on their artistry!
But Harry James offered much more than complete technical mastery as a player: many classically trained players in large symphony orchestras can demonstrate a similar ability. Harry James’ playing also displayed an inventive musicality which, along with his complete mastery of the instrument, allowed him to improvise and create marvelous music passages – on the spot. This ability gave rise to the distinctive style of James’ playing, a style which reflected the influence of Louis Armstrong and which, along with his technical excellence, set him still farther apart from the other fine players of the day. He could sight-read and play sheet music perfectly, note-for-note, as written, but he could also concoct and insert fabulous jazz riffs on the fly and make them shimmer. The ability to play like that is what made Harry James so unique. That degree of musical/jazz sensibility is not something that can be taught at Julliard: you must be born with it, as Benny Goodman well understood. A perfect example of the “James treatment” can be heard in his jazzed-up version of the classic Carnival of Venice which was another of his early big recording hits. That piece showcases both his technical prowess and the musical inventiveness so crucial to swing/jazz.
Harry James was a very accomplished trumpet player by his early teens. He was, in fact, the epitome of a child prodigy on the instrument. While at Dick Dowling Junior High School in Beaumont, Texas, Harry was already playing (on advance-loan) in the Beaumont high school band. In 1931, while still in junior high, he entered a prestigious, Texas-wide music competition sponsored by the Texas Band Teacher’s Association to be held in Temple, Texas. For his selection, he played Neptune’s Court, an extremely difficult cornet piece made famous by the great Herbert L. Clarke, pioneering cornet player and an idol to Everette James.
The Start of Something Big
The surviving eyewitness accounts of the Texas music competition finals shed light on just how good a trumpet player Harry James was. The reports speak of a performance that literally blew the socks off older competitors and judges alike. One competitor in the contest recalled James’ performance many years later: “I remember it like it was yesterday because it was so outstanding. To hear a kid that young play so excellently, so perfectly, was just earthshaking. There were a lot of good trumpet players in high school, but none of them like that – so completely above every other musician in that whole state concert. He astounded the judges so much that they wanted to give him 100 per cent but they said they never had been able to do that, so they gave him a 98. I knew Harry was really headed for big things.”
Following his graduation from Dick Dowling Junior High, young James began playing regularly with professional dance bands near his parents’ home in Beaumont, Texas. Graduation from Dowling Junior High marked the end of Harry James’ formal education. At best, even his attendance during those eight years of schooling was spotty, given the demands of circus travel schedules. After winning the Texas state championship so convincingly, word of this trumpet prodigy spread quickly. His first step up to a name band came in 1932 when he joined “The Phillips Flyers” band of Joe Gill. He then graduated to the group headed by Art Hicks and, soon, he received an offer from the well-regarded band of Ben Pollack.
In December of 1936, word reached Benny Goodman, via his brother, Irving Goodman, about this great young player named Harry James. Benny wasted no time in checking out the claim and, very quickly, young Harry James received a solid offer of $150 per week to join Ziggy Elman and Chris Griffin, forming one of the all-time great big-band trumpet sections in swing/jazz history. Soon, Harry James was lead trumpet in the Benny Goodman band – about as high-up on the music ladder as possible short of fronting one’s very own band.
“I Feel Like a Whore in Church”
The 1938 Benny Goodman band, was considered by Goodman himself, and just about everyone else, to be one of the all-time best bands ever assembled. The roster was packed with star musicians, and the driving force behind the band’s great output was the duo of drummer Gene Krupa and lead trumpet, Harry James. The date January 16, 1938 represents a significant milestone in not only classical music history, but in the evolution of swing/jazz as “America’s music.” For the first time in its storied history, staid Carnegie Hall would feature a musical program other than classical. Some classicists were aghast at the prospect. The Benny Goodman band would present a program of the latest swing/jazz music, then taking America by storm. Arranging the concert was difficult in the first place, and there was much anxiety over how the Hall’s black-tie/formal audience would receive the program.
Fifteen minutes before the program was scheduled to begin, Harry James nervously peeked around the stage curtain at the formally attired audience settling into their seats and uttered one of the great comments of the age: “I feel like a whore in church!” The Goodman Orchestra started off the program a bit tentatively. Drummer, Gene Krupa, sensing the situation and throwing caution to the wind began to let go on his drum set. The band’s tempo and the audience reaction responded immediately, and the rest of the program rocked the house. It was a smashing success, all told, establishing for swing/jazz a prominent and prestigious position in the national consciousness. Now the horses were truly out of the barn, and the era of swing had formally arrived in America.
Benny Goodman: Another Legendary Great
The Benny Goodman story and his rise to fame is similar to that of Harry James. Benny made his musical mark several years prior to James’ smash debut. Like Harry, Benny had a very long and very distinguished career in music – another truly legendary musician. In 1938, Goodman was dubbed the “King of Swing” by music critics and adoring fans, alike. Benny, like so many of the great swing bandleaders, was one tough customer, but in a more subtle way than most. One thing for certain: Benny was not known for according accolades to other musicians, but when asked many years later about the early days when Harry James played lead trumpet for him, he stated fondly, but succinctly, “Harry could do it all on the trumpet.” That is about as good as it gets coming from Benny Goodman who could do it all on the clarinet, and his comment could not be more complimentary. He and Harry were very different personalities but alike in some key areas. Like Goodman, a master technician on his instrument and a lover of playing classical music (not on the bandstand), Harry also had a classical vein which ran through his musical tastes. Goodman acquired his classical leanings and his impeccable playing technique from his early boyhood German music teacher, Franz Schoepp, and James from his grounding on the fine points of classical training and playing which came from his father – the only music teacher Harry James ever had. Professor Schoepp reputedly had a tremendous aversion to “that jazz music” that young Benny had begun to discover.
The Irresistible Force of Great Talent and Future Fame
Everette James must have been a man of contradictions, perhaps unwillingly. While recognizing his young son’s unlimited musical potential – and encouraging it – he did not wish for Harry the life of a traveling musician, like his own. That, of course, is precisely the life Harry James lived, only at altitudes well above the mud and inconveniences of circus life. Surprisingly, Everette had visions of his son as a concert musician or even a lawyer or doctor, yet he presumably never encouraged Harry to continue his education beyond junior high! I believe that Everette James could not or would not ignore his son’s great musical talent and potential. After Harry won the Texas State music competition as a junior high-schooler and began playing professionally around the Beaumont area, he came to his father and insisted that it was time for the elderly man and Maybelle to let him take care of them through his earnings as a musician. Undoubtedly, his plan resonated with Everette after he and his wife had traveled for so many years with several circus shows cobbling together a somewhat meager existence. Everette James had also worked for years at non-music jobs in-between circus shows in order to keep food on the table. The inevitable was now happening for Harry James, and it was happening rapidly.
Harry James Discovers Frank Sinatra; Yes, That Is True!
1939 found Harry planning to break away from Benny Goodman and start his own band. Despite the fabulous experience gained playing for Goodman and the numerous musical contacts now available to him, James found the initial months on his own very daunting. When he left Benny, he and Louise had a total of $400 in the bank. Goodman stepped in to help finance Harry, but he did him no favor relative to terms of the financial agreement! Late one evening in June of 1939, while preparing for a train trip to Boston, Harry’s wife Louise was packing a suitcase while Harry napped. The radio was tuned to station WNEW’s Dance Parade, a remote broadcast scheduled from 11:30 pm until midnight. The live music was coming from a little North Jersey roadside steakhouse called the Rustic Cabin.
The Cabin’s small band was playing dance music, and there was an occasional male vocal. Something about the voice and the musical phrasing in those vocals caught Louise’s attention, and she decided to wake Harry for his opinion. “Honey, you might want to hear this kid on the radio!” Harry’s new band was looking for a male vocalist, so Louise took a chance and woke her husband from his nap.
Harry agreed that the vocals had merit, so the next night after his show at New York’s Paramount Theatre, he drove down to this inauspicious little roadside place in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey to check it out. The Rustic Cabin’s manager explained that they had no singer, just an emcee/waiter who occasionally sang with the little band. James sat back and listened. Afterward, Harry James was introduced to a skinny, young kid named Francis Albert Sinatra, currently employed at the Rustic Cabin, earning fully $15 per week and looking for a way out – a pathway to better things. James later related that, after hearing eight bars of Night and Day from the youngster that evening, he felt the hairs begin to stand up on the back of his neck; Harry was convinced that young Sinatra had a great future. A one-year contract for $75 per week ensued and turned Francis Albert Sinatra’s life around: it was not the money; it was the golden pathway to stardom laid at his feet by another legend-in-the-making, Harry James. Sinatra never, ever, forgot what Harry James did for him that night at the Rustic Cabin. After a sparkling year with the Harry James band, Sinatra was seduced away by Tommy Dorsey and his established and very popular band. It was the combined experiences in the James/Dorsey bands that refined Sinatra’s innate talents sufficiently to ultimately make him a superstar. After less than two years with Dorsey, Sinatra left to become his own main attraction in the great music venues of the day. He became arguably the finest male vocalist of all time. The Rustic Cabin is long gone, but the story that unfolded there one night in June, 1939, brims with magic.
The Harry James Trumpet Method: Everette and Harry Collaborate
As Harry’s fame began to skyrocket in 1941, the Robbins Music Company published a book on trumpet instruction and practice exercises that was a collaborative and substantial effort between father and son. That book provides insight into the disciplined approach to playing handed down from father to son. More accurately, perhaps, I should say “from grandfather to grandson” since the book reveals that Everette’s own father preceded him as a cornet player and circus bandleader! Harry James, indeed, had quite the lineage as a player. I just received my own copy of this very collectible trumpet publication. It has been out of print for many decades, now, so I am happy to have a nice copy.
Harry James and His New Band Hit the Big-Time!
By 1942, the Harry James band had arrived. He had rcorded an all-time hit on Columbia Records,You Made Me Love You, and his band was featured with the Andrews Sisters in the 1942 move release, Private Buckaroo. The recording remains an icon of the big-band era as do many others by James. The movie’s only virtue is as a showpiece for the performer’s talents – the only way for rural fans in America to witness these stars. Any sensible plot or movie screenplay is non-existent, here. There is some fine trumpet playing in the film, but the opening scene visible behind the rolling credits is what justified my outlay of several dollars for a DVD. The film’s opening credits roll down the screen in the forefront of images of an intimate nightclub dance floor with Harry James fronting his band and playing his evocative rendition of You Made Me Love You. After the band’s intro, vocalist Helen Forrest strides onstage to do her part, and she does it well. She does not have a vocal on the actual recording of that number, so it is wonderful to see her perform, with Harry and the band, perhaps his greatest hit of them all in this film.
Forging Legends in a Tumultuous Business (Music)
Helen Forrest was, in my opinion and that of many others, the finest of all the many female big-band singers. She recorded many hits with James (and others) – a dynamic instrumental/vocal duo with strong personal overtones. There was a long-term relationship between the two that was far more difficult for Ms. Forrest to deal with than it was for James. It has been written that she was crushed when she learned of Harry’s marriage to Betty Grable in 1943. Ms. Forrest wrote very candidly about her life with Harry and the music business, in general, in her up-front book, I Had the Craziest Dream. The book’s title derived from yet another smash hit she recorded with Harry and the band. When Ms. Forrest walks out on stage in the movie Private Buckaroo to sing You Made Me Love You, the visible body language between the two belies something more than just a music contract between them. Decades later, the two would, on rare occasions, perform together and reminisce for old-times sake. Watching the late-life reunions of iconic performers like these survivors of such an uncertain and impermanent game as the music business, one cannot help but think, “What a lot of water under the bridge, and they are still here and still cooking!”
America’s Music Scene: Constantly “Evolving”
By the late nineteen-forties, the big-band craze which swept the country for slightly over a decade was fast fading. There were three reasons why. First: the economics of traveling bands became untenable. It became increasingly difficult to engage fifteen top musicians for paltry wages like $100 per week given the numerous other opportunities suddenly available to them. Second: in a burgeoning recording market, the best musicians turned to careers as “studio musicians” who worked in and around recording studios. Demand was high and life on the road minimal compared to the traveling band days of extended engagements (if the bands were good enough to get bookings). Third: radio was bigger than ever, and television was just around the corner, so the public had growing entertainment options. The big ballrooms packed with young romantic couples and featuring fifteen-piece bands were headed for oblivion.
There was yet another major factor at play in the music industry: the growing popularity of pop music vocalists, backed by a small ensemble of studio musicians. Guess who started that trend in the early nineteen-forties after leaving Tommy Dorsey’s band to go it alone! None other than Francis Albert Sinatra. In the nineteen-fifties there were names like Eddie Fisher, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore: the list is too long to even attempt. Records were now the profitable game, and publicity venues like fan magazines, radio, and television were suddenly available to popularize individual vocalists and their latest recordings. Even popular hit recordings by vocalists were often woven around the most rudimentary of musical ditties and lyrics – tunes like: How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?. Looking back on the nineteen-fifties (my teen years) and the chart-toppers of those years makes me almost want to cringe when considering the great popular music that was written and performed in the prior two decades. By the late fifties and the decade that followed, rock-and-roll took the country by storm. In the sixties, the pop vocalist music industry was reeling and the trumpet, the iconic lead instrument of the big-band era, had been replaced by the electric guitar.
Harry James responded to these waves of change by spending much of his time in Las Vegas performing with his new band or, often, four or five other musicians playing top lounge dates in the high-priced hotels on the strip. His music was now louder, brassier, and jazzier than in the past, yet his technique on the trumpet still maintained the exacting standards he upheld as a young player. Harry and Betty Grable had divorced in 1963: she died of cancer in 1973. During the marriage, they lived in style, and, together, became heavily involved in horse racing, spending much time at Southern California tracks and much money on a stable of horses. In the end, money was a problem for Harry James, both handling it wisely and having enough of it. After the loss of his ex-wife, Betty, James pushed on, supporting himself primarily via his lounge shows in Vegas and other occasional commitments.
The many years, vodka, and life in the fast lane finally began to take their toll on Harry James in the late nineteen-seventies. He maintained his trumpet playing artistry for many years while fully immersed in the turbulent music business – quite a testimonial for any musician. But Harry was not just any musician. He fell into debt at the end despite his huge lifetime earnings in music and show business. He had been living life in a great big way for a long time, and now the piper had to be paid.
His last professional engagement was to provide trumpet background on an album featuring a young, relatively unknown female singer. Photos taken at the time reveal a man ravaged by a long, productive life in the fast lane, and the onset of the lymphatic cancer which killed him. His playing can be described as rudimentary, at best, with unsteady moments and only an occasional hint of the artistry that was his trademark for decades. I was very saddened when I first saw and heard the reality. Fortunately, he lingered not very long in that musical limbo unlike some who stay around too long performing after they have “lost it.” I always felt that Sinatra should have retired before he began to forget lyrics and sing off-key. Given his own great longevity as America’s finest male vocalist, I suppose he can be forgiven for staying with it too long at the end.
The Final Curtain and a Special Eulogy for Harry James
Harry James died on in Las Vegas on July 5, 1983, precisely forty years to the day of his marriage to Betty Grable in the very same town. The funeral was attended by two hundred people, and the eulogy was delivered by Frank Sinatra who was first in line to request the honor. Present were many long-time friends including Phil Harris who was very close to Harry and who also spoke at the service. Sinatra’s voice wavered at times during the eulogy as he began by saying, “I loved Harry James. I loved him for a long time. He was one of the finest musicians I have ever known. He was a dear friend and a great teacher.” He spoke of the night at the Rustic Cabin back in 1939 when Harry James magically appeared in the audience and ignited Sinatra’s meteoric career. He recalled that James asked him on the spot when he could leave his current employ, to which Sinatra replied, “Right now.” Sinatra also recalled the occasions on the road that year with Harry’s newly formed band when meeting payroll for the group was problematic at times for James. His year traveling with Harry and the band left warm memories which Sinatra never forgot. When he approached Harry to inform him of his significant offer to join Tommy Dorsey, Harry shook his hand and wished him well – no hard feelings and no contractual strings attached. Unlike other bandleaders, Harry was inherently that kind of person. Sinatra closed his eulogy with, “Thanks for everything. So long, ole buddy. Take care of yourself.”
Harry James wrote his own epitaph: “May it simply be said and written of me, ‘He’s gone on the road to do one-nighters with Gabriel.’”
Final Thoughts on Harry James and His Influence
Since this story has ended with Frank Sinatra’s eulogy to Harry James, I wish to add one more memorable anecdote relating to their relationship.
After accepting Tommy Dorsey’s offer to join his well-established and successful musical organization, Sinatra was ready to take a big step in his career. He had learned a lot from Harry in the year performing with his new band, and now he was about to learn still more from Tommy.
Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”
Sinatra’s account is so personal, touching, and evocative that images form in my mind’s eye every time I read it.
Harry James was one of a kind. At once immature and insecure, yet supremely confident in his musical ability – and justly so; formally uneducated in every venue but music, yet very street-smart; an admitted loner, yet widely traveled and well connected and respected in the music business; a womanizer, yet remembered fondly by someone like Helen Forrest who knew him well. He once told his first wife, Louise, “I live in my own world. No one gets in.” So many contradictions and complications in one individual, but in the final analysis:
“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”
and that will likely remain his great legacy.
Here are direct links to a few previous posts of mine re: music and musicians; click on them to see the post:
From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician
From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!
Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard