© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Harry James was a deep, deep, deep man; he may not have been academically educated guy, but he was street educated. He was as perceptive as anybody I have ever known. His first exposure to life was to circus people. If you want to learn about life, those are the people you want to talk to."
- Joe Cabot, trumpet play in and eventually musical director of The Harry James Orchestra
Continuing now with Part 2 of our extensive feature on Harry James from George T. Simon's seminal The Big Bands, 4th Edition.
“If ever there was a nervous band singer, it was Dick Haymes. The son of a top vocal coach, Marguerite Haymes, he was incessantly aware of all the problems that singers faced: stuffed-up nasal passages, sore throats, frogs, improper breathing, wrong stances, etc. As a result he looked completely self-conscious whenever he prepared to sing. I still have visions of his routine at the Fiesta Ballroom, at Broadway and Forty-second Street, where the band was playing shortly after Dick joined. As he prepared to sing, he'd clear his throat a couple of times and then invariably take his handkerchief out of his breast pocket and put it to his mouth for a second. Then he'd approach the mike with long steps, look awkwardly around him, take a deep breath and start to sing.
And how he could sing! There wasn't a boy singer in the business who had a better voice box than Dick Haymes — not even Bob Eberly, whom Dick worshiped so much and who amazed Dick and possibly even disillusioned him by doing something no highly trained singer would ever do: smoke on the job! Haymes sang some exquisite vocals on some comparatively obscure James recordings of "How High the Moon" (as a ballad), "Fools Rush In," "The Nearness of You" and "Maybe." They appeared on a minor label called Varsity, with which Harry had signed early in 1940 after his Brunswick and Columbia sides (the two labels were owned by the same company) had shown disappointing sales.
But though his records may not have been selling sensationally, James continued to hold the admiration of his fellow musicians. In the January, 1940, Metronome poll he was voted top trumpeter in two divisions: as best hot trumpeter and as best all-round trumpeter.
During this period the band returned to New York's Roseland, where it sounded better than ever, swinging sensationally throughout the evening. But Harry was thinking ahead. He wanted to be able to play more than just ballrooms and in the too few hotel spots that didn't boycott high-swinging bands. "You know what I want to do?" he confided to me one evening. "I'm going to add strings and maybe even a novachord. Then we'll be able to play anywhere."
My reactions, like that of any jazz-oriented critic who couldn't see beyond the next beat, was one of horror. James add strings? What a wild, scatterbrained idea! "You're out of your mind," I told him. A few weeks later he announced he was giving up the idea, explaining that he'd planned it only because he figured that was how he could cop an engagement in a class New York hotel spot. But when the hotel operator insisted upon owning a piece of the band too, Harry shelved his plans.
During the summer of 1940 the band appeared at the Dancing Campus of the New York World's Fair. It had begun to settle into a wonderful groove, with the ensemble sounds matching those of such brilliant soloists as James himself, Dave Matthews on alto and Vido Musso and Sam Donahue on tenor saxes. In a fit of critical enthusiasm that caused Benny Goodman to appear in my office to ask incredulously, "Do you really think so?" I had noted in Metronome that "strictly for swing kicks, Harry James has the greatest white band in the country, and, for that matter, so far as this reviewer is concerned, the greatest dance-bandom has ever known. And that's leaving out nobody!"
But Harry never seemed to be quite satisfied. In the fall he made several personnel changes, explaining that "the boys need inspiration, so I decided to call in some fresh blood." One of the most surprising moves was installing Claude Lakey, who had joined the band on tenor sax and then had switched into the trumpet section, as new leader of the saxes in place of Matthews.
But the most important move was still to come. Harry had finished his contract with Varsity Records (if you think the Brunswick sound was bad, listen to some of the Varsity sides!) and had returned to Columbia, which by now was getting some great results out of its large Liederkranz Hotel studio. The company had a very astute A&R producer named Morty Palitz who, Harry recently said, "suggested I add a woodwind section and a string quartet. I settled for the strings."
Remember how those of us who knew everything had warned Harry against such a move less than a year before? Harry just didn't have sense enough to listen to us, though. He added the strings and recorded such trumpet virtuoso sides as "The Flight of the Bumble Bee," "The Carnival of Venice" and the two-sided "Trumpet Rhapsody" all complete with a string section. And on May 20, 1941, he recorded "You Made Me Love You," his schmaltzy trumpet backed by the dainty sounds of his strings. Despite our grave warnings, the record proved to be a smash hit, and the James band was on the way to stardom.
He recorded the tune for a very simple reason: he loved the way Judy Garland sang the song. I remember his raving about her during those very quiet nights when he and I used to sit in the Blue Room of the Hotel Lincoln, where the musicians would sometimes outnumber the customers. In addition to music, we shared another passion, baseball and, at that time, the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular. (For the sake of the record it should be noted that James eventually became a staunch fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, for whom he still roots today.) It was a curious routine that we followed: we'd sit in the Lincoln all night and talk about baseball and then during the afternoons we'd go out to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers. And what would we be talking about out there? Music, of course.
In June, James recorded a swinging salute to his favorite team, "Dodgers' Fan Dance." He also tried to emulate them literally by playing ball with his team in Central Park on almost every clear afternoon. There was an unconfirmed rumor that before James would hire a musician, he'd find out how well he could play ball — after which he'd audition him with his instrument. Certainly he had some athletic-looking guys in his band during those days.
"Dodgers' Fan Dance" wasn't much of a hit. But "You Made Me Love You," of course, was, and from then on the character of the James band changed for good. It still played its powerful swing numbers, but it began interspersing them more and more with many lush ballads that featured Harry's horn, blown, as I noted in a Metronome review, "with an inordinate amount of feeling, though many may object, and with just cause, to a vibrato that could easily span the distance from left field to first base."
Ironically, "You Made Me Love You" wasn't released until several months after it had been recorded. Perhaps the Columbia people agreed with some of the jazz critics. But they were wrong, too.
The hit was backed by one of the greatest of all James ballad sides, "A Sinner Kissed an Angel," which proved once again what a great singer Haymes had become. During this period Dick also recorded several other outstanding sides: "I'll Get By," "You Don't Know What Love Is" and probably his greatest James vocal of all, "You've Changed."
With singers like Sinatra and Haymes, Harry apparently felt he didn't need to feature a girl vocalist. Previously he had carried several, Bernice Byers and then Connie Haines during the band's earliest days. And in May, 1941, he had hired Helen Ward, Goodman's original singer to make a recording of "Daddy." Then later, for a while, he spotted a very statuesque show-girl type named Dell Parker, who in July, 1941, was replaced by petite Lynn Richards. But few sang much or sang well. Definitely the best was yet to come.
The best turned out to be Helen Forrest, who'd recorded some great sides with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman but who suddenly quit the latter, "to avoid having a nervous breakdown. Then just on a hunch," Helen recently revealed, "I decided to contact Harry. I loved the way he played that trumpet, with that Jewish phrasing, and I thought I'd fit right in with the band. But Harry didn't seem to want me because he already had Dick Haymes to sing all the ballads and he was looking for a rhythm singer. Then Peewee Monte, his manager, had me come over to rehearsal, and after that the guys in the band took a vote and they decided they wanted me with them. So Harry agreed.
"I've got to thank Harry for letting me really develop even further as a singer. I'll always remain grateful to Artie and Benny. But they had been featuring me more like they did a member of the band, almost like another instrumental soloist. Harry, though, gave me the right sort of arrangements and setting that fit a singer. It wasn't just a matter of my getting up, singing a chorus, and sitting down again."
What James did, of course, was to build the arrangements around his horn and Helen's voice, establishing warmer moods by slowing down the tempo so that two, instead of the usual three or more choruses, would fill a record. Sometimes there'd even be less; many an arrangement would build to a closing climax during Helen's vocal, so that she would emerge as its star.
Helen, who was just as warm a person as she sounded, blended ideally with the schmaltzier approach that was beginning to turn the James band into the most popular big band in the land and that helped Helen win the 1941 Metronome poll. True, there were times when she tended to pour it on a little too thick with a crying kind of phrasing, but then she was merely reflecting the sort of unctuous emotion that Harry was pouring out through his horn.
It may not have been what his real jazz fans wanted, but Harry was beginning to care less and less what they thought and more and more about the money and squarer customers who kept pouring in.
Helen turned out a whole series of excellent ballad sides that helped the band's stock soar. Many of them, beginning with her first vocal, "He's I-A in the Army and He's A-I in My Heart," dwelled upon the-boy-in-the-service-and-his-girl-back-home theme. Thus came such recordings as "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," "He's My Guy," "That Soldier of Mine" and "My Beloved Is Rugged," plus plain but equally sentimental ballads, like "Make Love to Me," "But Not for Me," "Skylark," "I Cried for You," "I Had the Craziest Dream" and "I've Heard That Song Before."
The band personnel began to improve, too. A young tenor saxist, who was still a guardian of another bandleader, Sonny Dunham, joined and became one of the James fixtures for the next twenty-five years. This was Corky Corcoran, a great third baseman, who was released by Dunham upon Harry's payment to him of the costs of the seventeen-year-old saxist's recent appendicitis operation. The reeds had already been bolstered by the addition of two excellent alto saxists, Sam Marowitz in the lead chair, and Johnny McAfee, who, after Haymes left at the end of 1941, contributed some very good vocals. James had also featured another singer, Jimmy Saunders.
An indication of what lay ahead appeared when the band entered the select winner's circle of the Coca-Cola radio show, which spotted the bands with the most popular records. Previous victors had been Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Freddy Martin and Sammy Kaye, all Victor artists. Then, in March, 1942, the James band broke their hold with its recording of "I Don't Want to Walk Without You." What's more, two months later the band and the record copped honors for the show's favorite recording of all!”
To be continued in Part 3 ....