Friday, October 28, 2016

Harry James - Cornet Chop Suey and Jazz Connoisseur - Part 3

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The following posting continues and concludes the George T. Simon portion of our planned, extended profiles on Harry James as drawn from the 4th edition of his pioneering work on The Big Bands.

“The new formula of Harry's schmaltzy horn and Helen's emotional voice, with swing numbers interspersed, was certainly beginning to pay off. In the spring of 1942 the band broke records on two coasts—at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and at the Palladium in Hollywood, where it drew thirty-five thousand customers in one week and eight thousand of them in a single evening!

To those of us who had been enraptured by the band's tremendous free-swinging drive, the change in musical emphasis was disappointing. In a review of a radio program during its record-breaking Palladium stay, I concluded, after deploring the band's muddy-sounding rhythmic approach, that "it would be a shame to discover that the Harry James band had really lost that thrilling drive that sparked its performances for such a long time."

But the band just kept going on to bigger and bigger things. In the summer of 1942 it won Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom" poll, unseating what most people considered the number-one band in the country, Glenn Miller's. And then, when shortly thereafter, Glenn enlisted in the Army Air Force, his sponsor, Chesterfield cigarettes, selected James to replace him. By then, the band was appearing on commercial radio five nights a week— three times for Chesterfield, once for Coca-Cola and once again for Jello as part of "The Jack Benny Show" emanating from New York.

While in the East the band again played the Meadowbrook. And it also repaid a debt to Maria Kramer, owner of the Lincoln Hotel, where it had spent so many of its earlier nights, by playing the spot at quite a loss in income.

But it left the engagement early when it was summoned to Hollywood to appear in the movie version of Best Foot Forward.

Barry Ulanov, who preferred jazz to schmaltz, summed up the reason for the James success in a December, 1942, Metronome review that began:

Rarely has the public's faith in a band been so generously rewarded as it has in the organization headed by Harry James. Of the number one favorites of recent years, Harry's gives its fans the most for its money. . . . His taste is the public's taste, and his pulse runs wonderfully right along with that of the man in the street and the woman on the dance floor. . . .

Whether or not you agree with or accept Harry James' taste doesn't matter in appraising this band. It's not the band of tomorrow. It's not an experimental outfit. It's not even the brilliant jazz crew that Harry fronted a couple of years ago. It's just a fine all-around outfit that reflects dance music of today perfectly.

One further indication of the band's commercial success: the day it was to open a twelve-thousand-five-hundred-dollar-a-week engagement at New York's Paramount Theater was a nasty, rainy one. The doors were to open at a quarter to ten. At five in the morning the lines began forming, and if a batch of extra police hadn't arrived, there could have been a riot.

And still another sign: Columbia Records announced in June, 1942, that it was running into a shellac famine because of James. That band's version of "I've Heard That Song Before" had become the company's all-time biggest seller at 1,250,000 copies! "Velvet Moon" and "You Made Me Love You" had passed the one million mark. And "All or Nothing at All" and "Flash," the former featuring Sinatra, the latter a James original, a coupling that had sold 16,000 copies when it had been released three years earlier, had been reissued and had sold 975,000 copies to date!

Meanwhile the band was signed to appear in two more movies, Mr. Co-Ed with Red Skelton and A Tale of Two Sisters, as Harry kept growing closer and closer to the movie scene, and particularly to one of its most glamorous stars. She was Betty Grable, who occupied a table every night at the Astor Roof when the band appeared there in the spring of 1943.

During that engagement it became increasingly obvious that Harry was far more interested in pleasing his public, and in Miss Grable, then he was in playing any more outstanding jazz. The band performed its ballads as well as usual, but the men seemed to be blowing listlessly. "The stuff instead of sounding solid, sounds stolid, on the pompous side," I noted in my July, 1943, review. "You get the feeling that the men are plodding through the notes. . . . I don't know whether it's because they are living too well, or because they just aren't capable of playing more rhythmically. . . ."

Perhaps my thoughts were going back too much to those early days when the band had such tremendous spirit, when it was filled with laughs and good humor and ambition and a healthy desire to play and swing and succeed. Now success had come, but the inspiration seemed to have disappeared.

Harry, himself, seemed far less interested in his music. Of course, with someone like Betty Grable around, most of us could hardly blame him.

But Harry had worries, too. The armed services were taking some of his best men. And, what's more, they were constantly beckoning in his direction too.

On July 5 in Las Vegas, Nevada, Harry James married Betty Grable. One month later his draft board classified him 4-F.

But his draft problems were by no means over. Rumors kept persisting that he would be reclassified I-A. On February 11, 1944, he took his pre-induction physical. Then Harry put his entire band on notice with an invitation "to stick around and see what happens." There really wasn't much to stick around for because his radio series sponsor announced that the band would be dropped from the program in March.

And then it happened: at the very last minute, James was re-classified 4-F because of an old back injury. Quickly he called together some of his old men. He had been featuring Buddy DiVito and Helen Ward (Helen Forrest had begun her career as a single late in 1943) as his singers, but the latter was replaced by Kitty Kallen when the band returned to the Astor Roof on May 22. Juan Tizol, meanwhile, had come over from Duke Ellington's band to fill a James trombone chair.

The band's success continued. After its Astor engagement, where an improved rhythm section was noted, it went on a record-breaking tour, highlighted by a sixty thousand throng at the Rubber Bowl in Akron, Ohio, and terminating in California, where it began another healthy schedule on Coca-Cola's Spotlight Band radio series, and where Harry broke something other than a record — his leg. How? Playing baseball, of course.

The James band had not made any good new recordings for more than two years; the AFM ban saw to that. Finally, on November 11, 1944, the companies and Petrillo ended their war. Immediately James went into Columbia's New York studio to record four sides, including a fine version of "I'm Beginning to See the Light," featuring his pretty, new vocalist, Kitty Kallen, plus his first jazz combo opus in many a year, "I'm Confessing" which spotted the great Willie Smith, Jimmie Lunceford's former alto saxist, who had just joined the band, and a brilliant pianist named Arnold Ross.

When the band returned East to play at Meadowbrook, Barry Ulanov noted a stronger emphasis on jazz, praising James for playing swinging things instead of merely playing it safe. "He has taken advantage of his unassailable commercial position to play good music, to diminish the amount of tremulous trash which formed the bulk of his sets when he was coming up. Now, if he will just drop those meaningless strings. . . ."

But Harry wasn't listening. He increased his string section to two full dozen. "With a section as big as that," I wrote in July, 1945, "somebody ought to be able to produce impressive sounds." But nobody did.

The more I saw Harry in those days, the more I realized he had become less and less interested in his music. He had broadened his career as an entertainer when in January, 1945, he had been signed for the Danny Kaye radio series, where, in addition to leading and blowing his horn, he also acted as a stooge and a comedian of sorts. And he seemed to like his new roles — perhaps even more than his music.

He developed other consuming interests. With his wife, he devoted a great deal of his time to horseracing, running his own nags and spending much time at the tracks. He became so successful that he could choose the spots he wanted to play with his band, and, if he felt like concentrating on affairs apart from music, he'd do so.

But in 1946 the bottom began to fall slowly out of the band business. The big-paying steady dates were disappearing. James, who had refused to play one-nighters for almost two years, ostensibly because he wanted to remain where the action was, announced in February that he would again tour with his band.

His financial overhead was high. But Harry was not drawing his usual big crowds. It must have been a big blow to him and his pride. In December, 1946, just ten years after he had joined Benny Goodman's band, Harry James announced that he was giving up. Ironically, Goodman made a similar announcement that very month.

But then something — nobody knows just what — changed Harry's mind. A few months later, he was back again with a brand new, streamlined band. It jumped. He jumped. And there were just four fiddles, and they had very little to do.

How come the sudden change? A healthy and happy-looking Harry James talked about it in the summer of 1947: "First of all, I've settled a few problems in my mind, problems nobody ever knew I had and which I didn't bother telling anyone about. But when you're worried and upset, you don't feel like playing and you certainly can't relax enough to play anything like good jazz."

It was like the old days in more ways than one. James cut his price in half; he played one-nighters everywhere and on every one of them he blew his brilliant jazz, just the way he had when he first started his band.

And then there was the new group's contagious enthusiasm. "The most important thing that makes me want to play," he said, "is this new band of mine. You know what I've had in the past. Well, now I've got me a bunch of kids and their spirit kills me. They're up on the bandstand wanting to play all the time, so how can I possibly not feel like blowing! I haven't had a bunch like this since my first band."

Harry made that statement thirty years ago. And, with just a few short time-outs, he has been leading a group ever since, at times only a small one, but most of the time a big, swinging band with a booting brass section and a swinging sax section and rhythm quartet to match — and with no strings attached!

It has played mostly in Nevada—forty weeks out of each year, to be precise. In 1966 he brought his band back to New York for a few weeks, and a wonderfully swinging outfit it was, too, with some youngsters, and some veterans like Corky Corcoran and Louis Bellson, who had just replaced Buddy Rich on drums. And there were some of the old arrangements and there were some new swinging ones.

But most of all, there was Harry James, happy, effervescent, boasting without reservations that "this is the best band I've ever had in my life! These young musicians, they're getting so much better training and they can do so
much more!"

It was the Harry James of old, enthusiastic about his music, anxious to please and to be appreciated. He looked about thirty pounds heavier, with a few gray hairs here and there, but he was still blowing his potent horn, still getting and giving his musical kicks via one of the country's greatest bands.

It was quite a sight to see and quite a sound to hear!”

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