It’s pretty difficult to talk about Harry James without mentioning his famous wife, Betty Grable, and indeed they were a well-known couple for over twenty years, a union that also produced two children. But this is a place for musical discussions, and although Betty did make a number of movies that included lots of singing and dancing, we’re going to focus mostly on Harry.
I think I began noticing him about the time I was first becoming a fan of swing music, although he didn’t grab my attention the way the bigger names such as Goodman, Ellington, Dorsey and Miller did. But Harry was part of a landmark musical event that always fascinated me – Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert – so I did notice him. When Benny put together the all-star group for that event, he included many of his former band-mates who’d gone on to form their own successful bands, and Harry was a prime example. He was featured as soloist on several songs in that concert.
He was probably the most talented former circus musician to ever hit the big time, but it didn’t happen right away for him. His mother was an aerialist and his father was the bandleader for the Mighty Haag Circus, which certainly prepared young Harry for the life of a musician, but he still had to work his way into mainstream music. His biggest break occurred in 1936 when he was hired by Benny, who was a big star by then. Harry soon gained fame himself and left Benny’s band to form his own group.
His band struggled at first, and that lack of success contributed to losing vocalist Frank Sinatra to the bigger and more successful Tommy Dorsey band. Even though Harry had given Sinatra his start, he understood the move and it just made him more determined to make his own band a success. After a couple of years of continued struggles, he finally softened and sweetened the sound of his band, even adding a string section, and began to build a following. (Although he lost some jazz fans.)
This began a period of top ten hits that included “Music Makers” and “Lament To Love”, which featured his new vocalist, Dick Haymes. Following that were the classic “You Made Me Love You”, which became his biggest hit at that time, but is also the tune that jazz purists most hate. From then on, it was hit after hit as Harry and his band reached star status. Songs such as “It’s Been A Long, Long Time”, featuring vocalist Kitty Kallen, “Sleepy Lagoon” and “Ciribiribin” were big sellers for him.
He also began appearing in movie musicals – as did many bandleaders – and in 1943 married Grable, with whom he’d co-starred in Springtime In The Rockies. He worked extensively in films while continuing to lead his band and issue recordings, but as the war ended there was a decline in the popularity of the big bands. Eventually he dissolved his group, but within a year or two decided to try it again, and was fairly successful. He also moved back closer to his original jazz roots, leaving behind the schmaltzy sound that so irritated the pros.
During the 1950’s he continued actively working, recording with a number of singers, including Frank Sinatra, and even had his own TV show for a while. He was also said to be the inspiration for the Kirk Douglas film Young Man With A Horn, for which Harry provided the sounds emanating from Kirk’s trumpet. He also played himself in the 1955 movie The Benny Goodman Story, which included a recreation of that famous Carnegie Hall concert.
Harry inevitably slowed down through the years but always continued performing as much as possible, until the early 1980’s and his death at age 67 from lymphatic cancer. He was a talented performer, probably one of the best-remembered of the trumpeters, and hopefully has by now been forgiven for straying into commercialism for many years. After all, a guy’s gotta make a living.
6 thoughts on “Harry James – More Than Just Betty Grable’s Hubby”
I had the great joy of being the last chosen vocalist of Harry James. Harry hired me in February 1979. After a couple of weeks, learning all the vocal charts, I performed my first gig with Harry in March of 1979. (I traveled the entire year of 1979 with Harry until taking a leave to go home to my 3 year old baby girl in December of that year. Not too long afterwards I would be called back by Harry to sub many more times with the band from 1980-82. In January of 1984, 6 months after Harry’s death, I went back to work with The Harry James Band was the ONLY female vocalist to remain with Harry’s “ghost” band until 1990). I got to know Harry James pretty well. *All Harry’s girl singers sat right across from him on the bus. But my fiance, soon to be husband, sat right in back of me as he was Harry’s lead trumpet! (My husband remained lead trumpet with the band for 27 years!) The point I want to make here is Harry was a most sensitive & caring man. Harry James was so giving and such an equal opportunity employer, it was simply beautiful! From the beginning of his career, if you could “deliver the goods” Harry didn’t care what the color of your skin was, if you were male or female, overweight, etc. He even adopted young Corky Corcoran who played fabulous sax! Corky stayed with the band for many years. Harry James also discovered so many great vocalists! What bandleader EVER could boast a greater roster of singers, beginning with Frank Sinatra, Connie Haines, Helen Forrest, Dick Haymes, Kitty Kallen, Buddy DeVito, gosh, I know I’m leaving out many more! There is not enough room here for me to continue with all my examples, but if any of you know a blog or place somewhere on the net where I could go to sing the praises of Harry, please let me know. Harry treated me with the upmost respect and made me feel totally like an equal! So adorable to me, and to my fella. The man went to bat for me on many occasions, even taking me along and placing me into shows that only he’d been hired to perform in, because he believed in me so very much. He also tried so very hard to get someone to record me, on and on. I also witness many a sweet moment in 1979 with Harry and his boys in the band. On one unforgettable night, just before a date, we heard that 2 of Harry’s sidemen were spreading a rumor that Harry was not going to pay them for doubles during the run of a show we were doing. This was an out and out lie! Harry took all the guys into a room, seriously got to the bottom of it, and before we left the theater that night, brought us all back into the room, and with tears in his eyes, spoke of his great love for all of us, how he would never do such a thing to any of his men, we were everything to him… wow, it was sincerely beautful. I’ve never seen such generosity or support from any band leader to his men and I worked with dozens of orchestras for over 17 years of my life. Harry told me that his whole life was was about music. His Father was exceeding obsessed that he learn trumpet. He had to play his trumpet before he could go outside and play baseball or do anything else. He probably had little or no religious type of training, not much formal schooling, but he was a child prodigy at the trumpet and was leading the circus band by age 12! Harry had a nature that was very deep in feeling. He could be very moody as he would literally absorb the vibes within each place we went. If people were straight with him, friendly, and real, Harry would be in good spirits. If he witnessed something negative, or heard about something dreary, it might really affect him and he could go right down. He had struggles like all of us do, but what a giant talent and fine friend he was to me. I want to publicly thank him for providing me with some of the grandest times of my life. I miss him very much! Thank you for your time, Sincerely, Cheryl Morris
I was born in 1947. My Mom, who was a girl in the 40’s, taught me about the music of that era. When Mom was doing housework or cooking we’d hear her singing to Harry James band music and of course, the other band leaders. I love the music and movies of that time. I want to thank you for your insight into the this man’s soul Now, when I listen to his music I also listen to his soul. Glenda Baker Hawkins
And thank you, Glenda, for bringing some well-deserved attention to Cheryl’s original comment, which still stands as one of the best we’ve ever received.
Without a doubt, one of the best and most heartfelt messages we’ve ever received. Sharing your memories and your insider’s viewpoint was very generous. Thank you, Cheryl.
PS Readers, you can add comments below here if you have any ideas to fulfill Cheryl’s request for additional places to post her comments. I know that Tuxedo Junction is being revamped at the moment.
PPS There’s a forum for big band/swing music at SwingMusic.net.
i was inspired at age 7 or 8 yrs old listening to him almost every day , so i asked my pop for a trumpet and instead he handed me a saxophone which he had bought from one of his friends for $ 35 bucks ,, i played alto into high school and also bought a tenor later on to become alto sax soloist for the 319th army band stationed at ft hamilton bklyn ..but when harry james came to town my band and i would go down the the band box and listen to harry play with willie smith on alto sax .. i enjoyed him and as for his commercialism ? he was great no matter what he played and a very sophisticated gentlemen .
my brother who is a piano player was hired to play oppisite harrys band at a place on long island ny around the late 70s or early 80s and
said what a shame it was that a small band with all the electonics and technitions could make a five piece band sound louder than harrys 18 piece band .
perhaps louder but never better than harry james ,, my hero growing up in bklyn and definetly my inspiration to be a musician .
Some great info, Bob. Thanks for sharing with us.