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.