Harry Hagg James was born in Albany, Georgia, on 15th March, 1916. His mother was a trapeze artist, his father a bandmaster first with the Mighty Haag Circus then with the Christy Brothers. Both parents encouraged Harrys musical talent and at seven he was already a skilled drummer in his fathers band. During his childhood his family settled in Beaumont, Texas, where Harry attended school and at 10 took his first trumpet lessons. He won a state-financed trumpet contest and was soon well on the way to becoming a popular virtuoso; inspired primarily by his idol Louis Armstrong, he strove always to maintain and develop his own individual style.
In his teens Harry played gigs and dances in Texas and in 1935 joined the orchestra of the Chicago-born drummer and vocalist Ben Pollack (1903-1971). With Pollack he honed his dazzling, aggressive playing and also earned a certain status for composing a handful of bespoke boogie-woogie numbers and "Peckin", which started a dance craze. Featuring Jamess trumpet, the Pollack recording of this number caught the attention of Benny Goodman (1909-1986) and, by 1937, Harry had quit Pollack to join the clarinet ace with whose outfit for almost two years he was to enjoy star trumpeter status. In 1938 Goodman loaned him $42,000 to form his own big band and by 1939 he had acquired as his vocalist the up-and-coming Frank Sinatra (1915-1998). Frank broadcast and recorded several sides with James, most notably All Or Nothing At All, a song by Jack Lawrence and Arthur Altman which in 1939 elicited no real response (it then sold, reputedly, only 8,000 copies) but, following its reissue in 1943, provided Sinatra with a No.1 hit and subsequent million-seller.
During the early 1940s, following the instant success of "One OClock Jump" (at No.7, his first US charted hit in February 1938, this spawned a twin in Two OClock Jump a year later), "The Flight Of The Bumble Bee" and other similar showpieces and a million-selling recording of Ciribiribin (his US No.10 signature-tune which had started life back in 1898 as a popular Italian love song), James became a household name in the USA: perhaps not so much as a hot jazzman but more unequivocally as a populist showman and darling of mass audiences. Opting for a cool, laid-back trumpet style he augmented his string-section and, alongside the obligatory blues and boogies, featured Viennese waltzes and semi-classical novelties specially adapted to emphasise his verve and technical prowess.
By 1941, his popularity extended by hits like "You Made Me Love You" (US No.5) and with new vocalist Dick Haymes in harness (Sinatra having by this time departed to join Tommy Dorsey), James was an international celebrity with a film career (with RKO and MGM) ahead of him. The repertoire he had recorded up to and including this time reflected his populist and commercial leanings: a mixture of the light-classical novelties described and several of his own dazzlingly virtuosic creations, many with quirky titles, including Jesse (clearly a juxtaposition of James and the notorious bandit), Flash, Concerto For Trumpet, Night Special, Back Beat Boogie, Music Makers and Flatbush Flanagan.
In terms of record sales, James remains one of the undisputed major players in jazz history and the band which during its lifetime boasted so many players of real calibre (Vido Musso, Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and their likes) is now enjoying a merited reappraisal. Throughout the James repertoire as reflected on disc, traditional jazz and certain rather dated populist elements which, to some may now be an acquired taste are unashamedly interwoven. More specifically, early jazz standards in competent arrangements (in this context J.R. Mortons King Porter Stomp (1906), Spencer Williams I Found A New Baby (1921) and Maceo Pinkards Sweet Georgia Brown (1925) spring readily to mind) lie next to smooth, forward-thinking jazz-revivals of the pop songs those of his own generation grew up with. In this last category, Ernest R. Balls A Little Bit Of Heaven (1914), James F. Hanleys Indiana (1917) and Richard A. Whitings Sleepy Time Gal (1925) share equal billing with film-songs, such as "Easter Parade", "Moonlight Becomes You" or Im In The Market For You.
Peter Dempsey, 2002
The Naxos Historical labels aim to make available the greatest recordings of the history of recorded music, in the best and truest sound that contemporary technology can provide. To achieve this aim, Naxos has engaged a number of respected restorers who have the dedication, skill and experience to produce restorations that have set new standards in the field of historical recordings.
A tenor singer of wide range and performing experience, Peter Dempsey specialises in Victorian and Edwardian genre ballads and art-song, and has recorded various CDs, including Loves Garden Of Roses for Moidart. Quite apart from his personal enthusiasm for music in the broadest sense, through his assiduous collecting and study of 78s over many years, Peter has acquired not only a wide knowledge of recorded musical performance but also a heartfelt awareness of the need to conserve so many "great masters" who were it not for CD might now be lost for future generations. A recognised authority on old recordings, Peter now regularly researches and produces CD albums from 78s.