It’s impossible to discuss the career of Harry James, one of the biggest Big Band leaders of the classic movie era, without mentioning — Benny Goodman.
The so-called King of Swing led perhaps the most popular big band of the period, who exploits are covered 1956’s biopic, Universal’s The Benny Goodman Story. Like Artie Shaw, Goodman was a superb musician, a clarinet soloist equally at home in popular and classical formats.
He also was a huge benefactor of drummer Gene Krupa (subject of his own biopic, 1959’s The Gene Krupa Story) and, especially, Henry James. He joined the Goodman ensemble in late 1936, when the trumpeter/actor was just 20. And he flourished.
James became such a hit with Goodman that after three years on the job, he left to form his own band. Hollywood soon followed where James, unlike Goodman, proved to be an adept performer as well as band leader in front of the camera. He also married into top-shelf movie stardom.
When Goodman’s movie biography was released, James made an impressive splash in a featured role. This, in turn, recharged his musical career (he had been semi-retired at the time). James reorganized in band on a more permanent basis, and began touring far and wide. The James ensemble, more or less borrowing a page from the style of Count Basie, was regarded as one of the best bands in the U.S.
James died of cancer in Las Vegas in 1983. He was 67. Now on to the answers to our Harry James Quiz. 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.
1) Answer: c) James married Betty Grable, his second wife, in 1943. (That’s the happy couple above.) The marriage produced two children, and lasted a full 22 years sparked by their shared interest in raising horses. Grim note: James died to the day on what would have been his 40th anniversary of marriage to Grable.
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.
2) Answer: James said his two biggest influences as a trumpet stylist were (a) Louis Armstrong and (b) Muggsy Spanier, a lesser known big band leader and cornet player who flourished in the traditional Dixieland style. Tellingly, Spanier said he too was influenced by Armstrong.
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.
3) Answer: Okay, we admit it. This is a trick question. All of the above sang at one time or another with the James band.
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) Answer: As noted in today’s intro, James appearance in The Benny Goodman Story turbocharged his bandleading career into a more contemporary and successful phase.
5) Question: What do Harry James and Al Jolson have in common? (Hint: It relates to the title of James’ biggest single hit.)
5) Answer: James biggest single hit — You Made Me Love You written in 1913 — was introduced by Al Jolson in he Broadway review “The Honeymoon Express.” We prefer the James version.