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Harry James is regarded by music aficionados  as  being  among the  most naturally talented musicians of the big band era. A gifted trumpet player, and talented composer. James sprang to prominence during the mid thirties, with his popularity and talents  keeping his band afloat during the troubled years of the forties.

James was among the most successful in  adjusting to the changing  face of music, as it related to the fortunes of big bands in the immediate post war years. It was well into the fifties before Harry started winding down his activities, preferring to spend as much of his time pursuing his passion for horses, developing his own racing stables.




Harry James was born in 1916,the son of circus performers. His father a bandleader and trumpet player , while his mother was a trapeze artist, of all things.  Living a life on the road and constantly in front of a crowd, provided the  young Harry with  a natural self confidence that was to stand him in good stead all of his life.


 From an early age, James showed that he had inherited all and more of  his father’s trumpeting talents, making solo appearances in front of adoring crowds from the age of four upwards.  Even before reaching his teens, Harry James had developed significant leadership skills and musical talents that he was handed the leader’s baton at a well known circus that toured all summer throughout Texas in the late twenties. 

During the winter months, when the circus was not on tour, the young James continued his education at a grade school in Beaumont, Texas, where the family was based.


So developed were James’ talents that when he was just fourteen years old, he became the Texas state music champion as a trumpeter.  Like so many of the youth of these times, with the depression beginning to bite deep, James decided to  quit high  school and set off to follow a career that might offer him a better future, while at the same time providing some form of support for his family.


Harry was not slow in finding work, initially playing for a few dollars in local bands in depression-hit Texas. His first breakthrough came when he had just turned twenty in 1935, when he was picked out by a one of the America’s leading bandleader of that time,  Ben Pollack to join the brass section of his band. James  remained with them for just a year or so, appearing on some of the band’s  first recordings.



It was around about then that Harry caught the ear of Benny Goodman, leader of one of the most successful big bands in the US at that time.  Goodman didn’t have to do too much enticing to convince James to join up with him in early 1937, when he was just twenty years old.


Tommy’s burning ambition was such that he was not to remain with Goodman for long, as he made  the bold decision to leave the warmth and security of being part of a major band to form his own.


Goodman had his own concepts of how a swing band should sound and throughout his time at the top, he always preferred to have a strong lead vocalist rather than concentrate on instrumentalists only, even though his trumpet playing at that time was regarded as being the best in the county. Harry had the good sense or good fortune to pick put an up and coming vocalist by the name of Frank Sinatra, who he promptly signed to appear with the band.

Unfortunately the Sinatra/  James combination  was a little ahead of their time and when the larger and more financially established Tommy Dorsey band came in with an offer, James let the young Frank out of his contract without a murmur, earning him Sinatra’s lifelong appreciation and friendship. 

It would take a couple of years for James’s sound to evolve, with his first commercial success coming only  in the early forties.

The Harry James Orchestra’s first chart hit was an instrumental, after which he succeeded in charting regularly either with Dick Hayne, Sinatra’s replacement or  talented female vocalist Helen Forrest singing. The band also charted with a few instrumental numbers. Whatever the format, the common denominator in all these hits was Harry’s outstanding trumpet playing.  


When America entered the Second World War in late 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour, the leading band at that time was the Glenn Millar Orchestra, with Harry Jmaes close by in a second.  However Glen Miller and most of his band volunteered to join the army, leaving James, who was unable to take the same path due to chronic back problems, gradually slipped into the number one spot as well taking over  a number of Miller’s permanent bookings.


James experienced serious problems when the musicians’ union strike began in August 1942, which  seriously limiting the band’s recording activities. With tour action severely limited, the entrepreneur in James found another source of income and a lucrative one at that- the movie industry. Harry  appeared in cameo roles  in several films during the war years, as well as meeting and marrying the most famous of his three wives, the wartime icon Betty Grable in 1943. 


After the war drew to a close in mid 1945,  James began to wind down his activities as well as reducing the size of  his orchestra, disbanding his string section and reverting to just brass with more of a jazz sound.  This  brave change in style was  well accepted,  earning the orchestra regular bookings, particularly in the fast burgeoning entertainment center of Las Vegas.

Harry James will be remembered as one of the most hard working and ambitious figures to grace the swing music scene at its peak, as well as being one of its fairest. Although he and Sinatra were never to work again, they were to remain firm friends. It was significant that when Harry James passed away in 1983, it was Frank Sinatra who was the only choice to deliver the graveside eulogy. 

 Please take a moment to click through the links below. Maybe you will see a particular Harry James song that you recognize. It may even be one that you may have not heard before. Take a moment to remember the band leading skills of one of the leading lights of the " golden age of swing."



  Can't it Listen to this song on You Tube  
  I've heard that song before Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Jubilee Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Life Goes to a Party Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Little White Lies Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Lullaby in Rythm Listen to this song on You Tube  
  One o' Clock Jump Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Out of Nowhere Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Sweet Georgia Brown Listen to this song on You Tube  
  Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams Listen to this song on You Tube