Harry James

Photo of Harry James
  • Birth Name

    Harry Haag James
  • Born

    March 15, 1916
    Albany, Georgia
  • Died

    July 5, 1983 (age 67)
    Las Vegas, Nevada

One of the most pop­u­lar band­lead­ers of the wartime era, Harry James is best re­mem­bered to­day for his col­or­ful trum­pet play­ing and as the hus­band of pin-up girl Betty Grable. Born in a run-down ho­tel next to the city jail in Albany, Georgia, Harry’s par­ents were cir­cus per­form­ers—his mother a trapeze artist and his fa­ther the band­leader. James be­gan play­ing drums at age seven and took up the trum­pet at ten, per­form­ing for the Christy Brothers cir­cus band.

James’ fam­ily later set­tled in Beaumont, Texas, and he be­gan play­ing for lo­cal dance bands while in high school. He spent time with Herman Waldman’s re­gional or­ches­tra be­fore join­ing Ben Pollack in 1935, leav­ing Pollack in December 1936 for Benny Goodman. During his res­i­dence with Goodman, James be­came very pop­u­lar with the jazz crowd for his col­or­ful, ear-shat­ter­ing, trum­pet play­ing. He be­came so pop­u­lar that when he de­cided to leave Goodman in December 1938 to form his own band, Goodman him­self fi­nanced the out­fit.

Harry James and His Music Makers de­buted in February 1939 at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia. They made their first record­ings for Brunswick. Connie Haines was the fe­male vo­cal­ist. In June of that year, James hired an in­ex­pe­ri­enced Frank Sinatra as his male vo­cal­ist.

The or­ches­tra did well in New York, but its high-swing­ing sound was­n’t well-re­ceived out­side the city. A trip to Los Angeles proved fi­nan­cially dis­as­trous, and the band strug­gled to make it through a book­ing at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago. Tommy Dorsey was in Chicago at the same time and was hav­ing prob­lems with his male vo­cal­ist. He of­fered Sinatra a job. With Sinatra’s wife ex­pect­ing and the band’s fi­nan­cial fu­ture un­cer­tain James let him go. He was soon re­placed by Dick Haymes, who went on to be­come one of the top male vo­cal­ists of the era.

In early 1940, James be­gan record­ing with Varsity, a mi­nor la­bel. Although his records weren’t sell­ing well with the pub­lic, he was greatly ad­mired by other mu­si­cians. James, how­ever, was­n’t con­tent with his fi­nan­cial pic­ture and de­cided to adopt a new sound. He an­nounced he was adding a string sec­tion. Horrified re­ac­tions from the jazz crowd con­vinced him to aban­don the idea. However, in 1941, when he signed with Columbia, the la­bel’s A&R di­rec­tor made the same sug­ges­tion. James fol­lowed through and recorded sev­eral schmaltzy bal­lads and semi-clas­si­cal se­lec­tions, in­clud­ing the now fa­mous You Made Me Love You.” Though jazz fans cringed, the new sound proved pop­u­lar with the pub­lic, and the band was on its way to star­dom.

Haymes left the band in January 1942 and Johnny McAfee be­came lead male vo­cal­ist in July. James went through a string of fe­male vo­cal­ists, in­clud­ing Haines, Dell Parker, Bernice Byers, and Lynn Richards, un­til he hired Helen Forrest in 1941. She turned out to be one of his most valu­able as­sets. With Harry’s sen­ti­men­tal horn and Helen’s emo­tional singing, the band was at its peak and soon be­gan to re­ceive movie of­fers.

While work­ing in Hollywood, James met ac­tress Betty Grable. Though James was mar­ried to vo­cal­ist Louise Tobin at the time, he fell in love with Grable and di­vorced Tobin. James and Grable were mar­ried on July 5, 1943. Shortly there­after Forrest left the or­ches­tra to be­gin a solo ca­reer. Helen Ward was sup­posed to re­place her but that did­n’t hap­pen. Kitty Kallen took Forrest’s place in­stead. Buddy DeVito was male vo­cal­ist.

Around that time, the band be­gan to suf­fer from the draft. James him­self, who had been orig­i­nally clas­si­fied 4-F, was in dan­ger of be­ing re­clas­si­fied as fit for duty. When he was called to take his phys­i­cal in February 1944, he put the band on no­tice, and his ra­dio spon­sor can­celled his pro­gram. James was re­clas­si­fied 4-F again, how­ever, and he called back to­gether some of his old per­son­nel, in­clud­ing Kallen, who stayed un­til October 1945. Anita Boyer re­placed her, leav­ing in January 1946. Ginnie Powell was fe­male vo­cal­ist by March. She re­signed in June to stay on the West Coast with hus­band Boyd Raeburn when the band went East. Marion Morgan re­placed her.

The new or­ches­tra con­tin­ued to be suc­cess­ful, but Harry’s in­ter­est were turn­ing away from mu­sic. He had be­come a reg­u­lar cast mem­ber on Danny Kaye’s ra­dio se­ries, and he and Betty were de­vot­ing a great deal of time to rais­ing their race­horses. He be­gan to per­form less and less. When the bot­tom fell out of the band busi­ness in 1946, James called it quits. He did­n’t stay away for long how­ever. He formed a new out­fit the fol­low­ing year and con­tin­ued to lead bands off and on un­til his death. He gave his last per­for­mance in Las Vegas just nine days be­fore dy­ing of lym­phatic can­cer in July 1983.

Music

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  • All of Nothing at All
    Harry James (Frank Sinatra), Columbia (1939)
  • Don't Worry About Me
    Harry James (Connie Haines), Radio (1939)
  • All of Me
    Harry James (Connie Haines), Radio (1939)
  • Comes Love
    Harry James (Connie Haines), Radio (1939)
  • I Can't Afford to Dream
    Harry James (Connie Haines), Radio (1940)
  • Daddy
    Harry James (Helen Ward), Columbia (1941)
  • Ol' Man River
    Harry James (Dick Haymes), Columbia (1941)
  • Lament to Love
    Harry James (Dick Haymes), Columbia (1941)
  • Daybreak
    Harry James (Johnny McAfee), Columbia (1942)
  • A Poem Set to Music
    Harry James (Johnny McAfee), Columbia (1942)
  • Moonlight Becomes You
    Harry James (Johnny McAfee), Columbia (1942)
  • I Remember You
    Harry James (Helen Forrest), Columbia (1942)
  • Skylark
    Harry James (Helen Forrest), Columbia (1942)
  • You're Too Good for Good-for-Nothing Me
    Harry James (Helen Forrest), Columbia (1942)
  • I Had the Craziest Dream
    Harry James (Helen Forrest), Columbia (1942)
  • I Cried for You
    Harry James (Helen Forrest), Columbia (1942)
  • I'm Beginning To See the Light
    Harry James (Kitty Kallen), Columbia (1944)
  • 11:60 P.M.
    Harry James (Kitty Kallen), Columbia (1945)
  • I'll Buy That Dream
    Harry James (Kitty Kallen), Columbia (1945)
  • It's Been a Long, Long Time
    Harry James (Kitty Kallen), Columbia (1945)
  • Do You Love Me
    Harry James (Ginnie Powell), Columbia (1946)
  • I've Never Forgotten
    Harry James (Ginnie Powell), Columbia (1946)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Films

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  • Screenshot
    "You Made Me Love You"
    Harry James (Helen Forrest)
    from Private Buckaroo, Universal (1942)
  • Screenshot
    "I Had the Craziest Dream"
    Harry James (Helen Forrest)
    from Springtime in the Rockies, 20th Century Fox (1942)
  • Screenshot
    "I Cried for You"
    Harry James (Helen Forrest)
    from Bathing Beauty, MGM (1943)

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Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.