Harry James was one of the most renowned trumpet players and band leaders of the swing era. He gained even greater popularity as a Hollywood actor and the husband of actress Betty Grable.
Born on March 15, 1916, in Albany to a bandmaster and a trapeze artist traveling with the Mighty Haag Shows circus (which was passing through town), Harry Haag James began performing music at a young age. He started out playing drums and switched to trumpet, under his father’s tutelage. Living in a circus environment gave James free reign to focus on learning the instrument, and as a young teenager he led the second-line band of the Christy Brothers Circus.
James got his first job playing jazz with Joe Gill’s Phillips Flyers, which led to brief stints in a number of groups before drummer Ben Pollack hired him. In Pollack’s band, James wrote his first arrangement, made his recording debut, and met other important jazz sidemen, like Glenn Miller and Charlie Spivack, who would both go on to greater fame. Benny Goodman, a clarinetist who had also played for Pollack, hired James in 1937, about a year after Goodman’s group became the dominant big band of the time and Goodman had become known as the “King of Swing.” James played with Goodman’s band at the height of its popularity and in its most famous concert at New York City’s Carnegie Hall in 1938. While with Goodman, James also recorded with Miff Mole and Lionel Hampton, and he made his recording debut as a band leader.
In early 1939 James left Goodman to start his own big band, Harry James and His Orchestra. James hired Frank Sinatra, then unknown, as his vocalist, the first in a long string of gifted singers that included Helen Forrest, Connie Haines, Dick Haymes, and Kitty Kallen. In an attempt to produce hit records, James and his orchestra began to feature more songs that showcased his singers, and the group moved away from the traditional swing sound. Hence the group became well known as a “sweet” band that performed popular hits of the period. In 1941 James added strings to the orchestra and began acting in Hollywood movies for the first time, and the following year he started broadcasting his own national radio show.
James’s time in Hollywood led to a romance with and subsequent marriage to the movie star Betty Grable; the two became the most celebrated Hollywood couple of the time. Grable was the second of three wives James would have over his lifetime.
Swing and big band music began to lose its audience in the years following World War II (1941-45), and James disbanded his group in 1946. He reformed the band in late 1946, and they continued playing until 1951. In the ensuing years James fronted bop, sweet, swing, and small combos in order to stay employed. Though none of his later bands attained the success of his 1940s-era orchestra, James continued as a bandleader for many years at the Flamingo and at the Frontier in Las Vegas, Nevada. He died of lymphatic cancer in 1983 in Las Vegas and was inducted posthumously into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame that same year.