Judy Garland may famously have been “born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatella, Idaho,” but Harry James’ 1916 birthplace was said to be in a well-worn hotel next to a city jail in Albany, Georgia.
Really. (Try and make a song lyric out of that.)
James was the son of parents employed by a travelling circus; Mom was a trapeze artist, Dad was a bandleader/trumpeter. It was the latter who taught Harry to play the trumpet, an instrument he mastered sufficiently to win a state championship (the state was Texas where the family had relocated) at the advanced age of 14.
By the time he was 20, James was a full-fledged professional playing with some finest swing bands of the era.
His own band eventually emerged — in 1939, when Harry was just 23 — and was a sensation. James “Music Makers” were a hit with both jazz lovers and dancers. Teenagers flocked to its performances. The ensemble played the biggest venues — New York’s Paramount Theater, the Hollywood Palladium, Frank Dailey’s Meadowbrook in New Jersey — and hired a string of impressive musical newcomers.
His staggering popularity did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. James was one of the very few bandleaders of the Forties to appear — more or less as an acting participant — in some 30 pictures.
For example, MGM paired him with Xavier Cugat (of all people) in the 1944 Esther Williams vehicle Bathing Beauty, notable in that Harry is shown fronting his orchestra AND taking a principal role in an elaborate production number featuring Red Skelton, Jean Porter and Janis Paige. For a bandleader, Harry was a decent dancer.
Ok, on to our Harry James Quiz. As usual questions today and answers tomorrow. Here we go:
1) Question: If for nothing else, James will be remembered in Hollywood for the very big movie star he married in 1943. Which one of the following did he wed? 1) Alice Faye; b) Linda Darnell; c) Betty Grable; or d) Connie Haynes.
2) Question: The Harry James Orchestra was revered not just by Forties bobbysoxers but by more demanding jazz fans, who much admired James’s playing. Which of the following trumpet players most influenced his style? a) Louis Armstrong; b) Muggsy Spanier; c) Bix Beiderbecke; or d) Cootie Williams.
3) Question: Which of the following emerged as stars after singing with the Harry James Band? a) Frank Sinatra; b) Helen Forrest; c) Dick Haymes; or d) Kitty Kallen.
4) Question: Which one of his following movie appearances most benefited James professionally. a) 1944’s Two Girls and a Sailor; b) 1950’s I’ll Get By; c) 1956’s The Benny Goodman Story; or d) 1983’s The Sting II.
5) Question: What do Harry James and Al Jolson have in common? (Hint: It relates to the title of James’ biggest single hit.)