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The editorial staff at JazzProfiles concudes it extended feature on the life and music of Harry James with a series of reviews on the biography written by Peter Levinson which he entitled Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.
At the time of its publication in 1999 by Oxford University Press, Mr. Levinson was one of the foremost Jazz publicists for over two and a half decades. He would go on to write biographies of Nelson Riddle and Tommy Dorsey.
He knew Harry personally for 24 years: "I first met James in the fall of 1959 when I was a young MCA talent agent. During the next twenty-four years, or until his death in July 1983,I spent considerable time with him in New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood—on the road, at personal appearances, and during recording sessions. I also wrote several magazine articles on him over the years.
Through knowing him, I discovered the other side of stardom in the music business. Here was a musician who combined both extraordinary talent and dashing good looks, who could play a romantic ballad like no other trumpeter, which had enabled him to achieve enormous success; yet this was also a man who ruined his life through serious addictions to alcohol and gambling."
The title of the book is obviously drawn from these serious addiction [and, of course, by the composition with the same title that Harry co-wrote with Jack Matthias].
More about Peter Levinson can be discerned from the following obituary written by Douglas Martin that appeared in The New York Times [November 15, 2008] which is followed by three reviews of Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James.
Peter Levinson, Publicist and Biographer of Jazz Greats, Is Dead at 74
“Peter J. Levinson, a music publicist who parlayed his close familiarity with jazz personalities into rich and sometimes intimate biographies of them, died on Oct. 21 at his home in Malibu, Calif. He was 74.
The cause was injuries suffered from a fall, said Dale Olson, a publicist and his longtime friend.
Nearly two years ago Mr. Levinson received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the neurodegenerative disease popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the aid of his talking computer he was able to write and carry on business until the day he died.
Mr. Levinson handled publicity for stars including Dave Brubeck, Rosemary Clooney, Stan Getz, Woody Herman, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Mel Tormé. He publicized the hit television series “Dallas” and the film “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), which won an Academy Award for best picture. He helped to orchestrate the campaign to issue a postage stamp honoring Duke Ellington.
In an interview in 2004 with Tom Nolan on the Web site januarymagazine.com, Mr. Levinson said he had never planned to become an author. “I can’t say that I set a path for myself to do this,” he said. “It just occurred to me.”
“If you work as a publicist,” he added, “you’re working not only with artists but with managers and agents and so forth. You get an understanding of what careers are all about.”
Mr. Levinson’s first book was “Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James” (1999), a biography of the trumpeter and bandleader. Mr. Levinson mined his reminiscences from 24 years of knowing James, as well as from 200 interviews with musicians and James’s friends, to paint a portrait that pulled few punches.
“Long before there was sex, drugs and rock and roll, there was sex, alcohol and big-band swing,” People magazine said about the book. “And as this surprisingly absorbing biography suggests, trumpet player Harry James could have been the role model for Mick Jagger.”
Mr. Levinson next wrote “September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle” (2001), about the arranger known for his work with Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. Variety praised Mr. Levinson’s detailed description of the artistic and personal relationship between Sinatra and Riddle, again drawing from his experiences with both. But the review also complained that mountains of “mundane detail” got in the way of the Sinatra story.
His next book was “Tommy Dorsey: Livin’ in a Great Big Way” (2005), which told how Sinatra patterned himself after Dorsey, the trombonist and bandleader, in everything from his way of breathing while singing to his wardrobe to his dashing self-assuredness.
A fourth book, “Puttin’ on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache — a Biography,” is scheduled to be published in March.
Mr. Levinson was born on July 1, 1934, in Atlantic City and graduated from the University of Virginia, where he began writing about jazz artists and producing jazz concerts. He continued to produce concerts while serving in the Army in Korea. He then took a job as a music publicist with Columbia Records, after a brief stint as a freelance writer.
He eventually started his own publicity firm in New York and later expanded it to Los Angeles.
Mr. Levinson is survived by his wife, Grace Diekhaus, and a brother, Dr. John Levinson, of Wilmington, Del.
In his 2004 interview, he said his publicity background not only helped him gather material for books but also helped him promote them. When publicists for the Harry James book failed to get him radio appearances, he said, he personally set up 23 interviews with disc jockeys.
Peter J. Levinson - Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James
Reviewed by Tom Nolan for the January Magazine
For many jazz fans, trumpet player Harry James was at best superfluous and at worst a sellout: a musician of formidable technique who abandoned the fiery style that made him a star of the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the late 1930s, only to adopt a much more schmaltzy, flashy, commercial manner that led to a remarkable number of hit records throughout the 40s.
To dance music lovers, James was the leader for three decades of a consistently satisfying big band whose earliest incarnation gave Frank Sinatra his start and whose 1950s version found its most lucrative gigs at the casino hotels in Vegas and at Tahoe.
But most of America knew Harry James simply as the husband of movie star Betty Grable, the blonde pinup who caused World War II G.I.s to croon, "I want a gal, just like the gal, who married Harry James..."
None of these versions of James would necessarily warrant publishing a major biography at century's end; but Peter J. Levinson, a long-time music publicist and first-time author, has produced one in Trumpet Blues. And in putting together all the Harry Jameses -- jazz player, big-band leader, celebrity husband (as well as promiscuous womanizer, unrecovered alcoholic and ruinous gambler) -- he's not only made James a much more interesting figure than might have been imagined, but written one of the most engrossing and compelling jazz biographies in many years.
As shown by Levinson (whose own professional acquaintance with his subject is woven discreetly and effectively throughout the book), Harry James was both "one of the most essential trumpeters and bandleaders in the history of American music," and a man who lived "a sad and misguided life."
Born to circus performer parents (his father was a bandmaster, his mother a trapeze artist and horse rider), Harry Haag James was reared as a prodigy and learned that performing well was the price of approval. By age 3, he was a featured drummer; by 9, he played trumpet; at 12, he was leading a band. Schooled by his father, a stern taskmaster, James studied the classic trumpet repertoire and developed the iron chops and bravura technique of a circus musician; but he also soaked up the jazz and blues of his native Texas and loved Louis Armstrong's playing. After a stint with the influential Ben Pollack Orchestra, and an early first marriage, James joined the wildly popular Benny Goodman band in 1936 at the startlingly early age of 20. He was an instant sensation, and the rest of his life was lived in the spotlight.
By 20, too, his bad habits were formed: heavy drinking, incessant gambling and compulsive promiscuity. In his decades of success, James found no reason to change, remaining (in the words of one of his band members) "a perpetual teenager as a man," someone who "served all his appetites and all his desires. He wasn't terribly concerned with other people."Indeed, his dark sides had a tendency to eclipse his skill on the silver trumpets.
James' self-centered existence had its colorful aspects. A great sports fan, he was very serious about his band's baseball team and often hired band members as much for their athletic prowess as their musical abilities. A lover of Western movies, he eventually arranged to star in one (Outlaw Queen, 1957). And as a big-band leader for much of his life, he participated to an expected degree in the antics and merriment that punctuated the dullness of life on the road.
But antics aside, Harry James was aloof. "Harry never got close to people," one of his drummers said. "I don't think anybody really liked him." His first of three wives, singer Louise Tobin (one of the hundreds of subjects Levinson interviewed), spoke of James' "inhuman side," his "cold, icy stare" and his "absolute indifference to his own children."
Levinson traces the roots of James' stunted personality -- his "deeply ingrained loneliness and insecurity" -- to a childhood in which he received no proper nurturing: "It appears... he grew up not... knowing the meaning of love." From boyhood on, Levinson writes, "[James] needed an audience to feel alive, special, important, and loved. Without it, he believed he really wasn't worth very much." Lacking any real education, he "wouldn't allow people to get close to him -- they might find out he was a fraud." Only on the bandstand did James feel fulfilled and safe, according to singer Helen Forrest: "He was at peace and he knew he was loved, when he was playing the trumpet.... He knew nobody could hurt him." Another singer, Marion Morgan, thought that James "gave all his warmth and love through his trumpet. There just wasn't much left."
Levinson recounts James' life in straightforward prose, clearly and with a wealth of detail, against a vivid backdrop of the 1940s swing years and the postwar entertainment era of the 50s and 60s. A number of other famous folk necessarily do cameo turns: drummer Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, singers Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, and bandleaders Phil Harris and Glenn Miller.
The good-looking, high-living James -- slickly packaged by record and movie people, quipped trumpeter Pete Candoli, "like a WASP Cesar Romero" -- thought his success ride would never end. Certainly his work never did. His poor gambling luck, which found him losing millions of his own dollars (plus some of Betty Grable's), kept him touring virtually to his dying day. (James said he didn't fear death: "It's just another road trip.")
Peter Levinson's book is sort of the antithesis of his subject's trumpet style: not flashy, not schmaltzy, not full of fireworks. But in its own solid way it swings. Trumpet Blues is the biographical equivalent of a well-produced LP, with not a single weak or wasted track.
Novelist Ross Macdonald once said in defense of biography: "The more we know about a man, the more in a way we can love him." Harry James may not emerge as loveable, even after this thorough and convincing depiction; but he does now seem interesting and understandable. I thank Peter Levinson for so capably and comprehensively telling me a story I never dreamed I'd want to hear. January 2000
TOM NOLAN, a contributing editor of January Magazine, is also the author of Ross Macdonald: A Biography(Scribner).
Peter J. Levinson - Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James
By Jack Sohmer, DECEMBER 1999 JazzTimes
A working associate and friend of Harry James from 1959 to his death in 1983, former booking agent and publicist Peter Levinson offers a no-nonsense look at the trumpeter’s lifetime career in music, from a childhood spent in his father’s traveling circus band, through his many years as a superstar celebrity, to his final decline as both artist and man. Although undoubtedly sincere in his professed love for jazz, Levinson surprisingly says very little about the music itself. Most notably, he neglects to describe in his own words how James differed in style and technique from other trumpet players, how his bands ranked musically in comparison with those of his contemporaries, and finally, how we should reconcile his blatant commercialism in the 1940s and ’50s with his oft-expressed admiration for Louis Armstrong and other jazzmen.
Levinson is especially strong in ferreting out the details of James’ early career as a circus bandsman, but he is too quick in glossing over his first big-time gig with the Ben Pollack band of the mid-1930s. The far more well-chronicled 1937-38 Benny Goodman period is treated better, thanks to already published research and a plethora of personal interviews with such important primary sources as Harry’s first wife, Louise Tobin, who sang with Goodman in 1939, and about 200 other musicians, friends, and business associates. Because of them, we learn much about the man behind the horn. Apparently a lusty guy from puberty onwards, Harry never learned to restrain his impulses, even when married to one of the most popular pin-up girls of the 1940s, top-ranking Hollywood actress Betty Grable. Even his sidemen marveled at his insatiable appetite, endurance, and, especially, his indiscriminate taste. Beautiful or ugly, young or old, they were all grist for his mill. Harry’s legendary exploits in hotel bedrooms were only exceeded by his gargantuan thirst for booze and his self-destructive need to gamble away every dollar he earned, habits that ultimately even consumed Betty’s considerable savings as well. Levinson reports that by the time of her death in 1973, eight years after their 22-year-long marriage had ended, Harry and Betty had lost around $24 million at both the Las Vegas gaming tables and the track. His drinking, however, was by far the more serious of their problems, having eventually led him, on several occasions, to treat Betty like a punching bag. In 1965, Betty finally sued for divorce on the grounds of extreme cruelty. Harry kept his band working in Las Vegas and on the road to pay off his debts, but he had already lost the best meal ticket he was ever to have.
Harry loved his horn first and foremost, with baseball running a close second, and from his youth he was gifted with such great chops that he never even had to warm up before playing, much less engage in routine practicing as most hornmen do. It all came so easily to him. But, as was also the case with Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berigan, that superhuman tolerance for round-the-clock heavy drinking ultimately demanded its prize. Perhaps because of the better medical care available in the 1970s Harry did not die as young as Bix and Bunny had, but all accounts indicate that toward the end there was scarcely anything left of the one-time musical powerhouse. He was only 67 at the time of his death, but he looked much, much older. Additionally, because of cancer and the loss of his teeth, he had not been able to blow a note for some time.
Levinson did a good job of piecing together Harry’s story from those who knew him personally, but in some cases his knowledge of jazz history is way off. For example, he says that in 1937, when Johnny Hodges recorded Harry’s swing instrumental, “Peckin’,” lyrics were added and the title was changed to “Foolin’ Myself.” Actually, “Foolin’ Myself,” a tune that Billie Holiday also recorded, has nothing to do with “Peckin’” except that both were recorded at the same session. Indeed, Hodges’ “Peckin’” was initially rejected and did not surface on record until the late 1970s, when it appeared on a bootleg LP. Elsewhere, Levinson says that Lionel Hampton’s first recording on vibes was Louis Armstrong’s 1931 “Shine,” but the discographies, as well as Louis’ and Hamp’s own accounts, tell us that it was “Memories of You,” which was recorded five months earlier. Perhaps these gaffes are not too important in themselves, but they do cast doubt on the credibility of some of Levinson’s other remarks.
In the course of reading, you may discover things you probably never knew about Harry’s relationship with his most illustrious stars—Frank Sinatra and Buddy Rich—among many other sidemen, singers, and show biz buddies. For example, the late Helen Forrest, who had sung with Artie Shaw and Goodman before joining James, tells of her unrequited love for the very much still married bandleader, who continually romanced his “chirp,” all the while putting off her dreams of marriage on the grounds that his father objected to her being Jewish! Harry was also seeing Betty during this time, and when she got pregnant the busy trumpet player was forced to ask Louise for a divorce. This being 1943, if a hot film property and WWII dream girl like Grable were involved in a sex scandal, it would have wrecked her career, and Harry’s as well. Too much was at stake. Louise was high-pressured into a quickie Mexican divorce by Harry’s lawyer, thus freeing her errant husband to marry Betty and save the day for Hollywood.
Like other pre-rock superstars, such as Sinatra and Rich, whose most supportive fans in the ’50s and ’60s were either big Vegas spenders or their middle-class wannabes, Harry was having the ball of his life. Ever the kid and thinking that the gravy train would never stop, he never even thought of saving or investing his money. It was only a matter of time, then, before his losses put him into serious debt to the mob. In a short time, he was virtually an indentured servant, his expensive ongoing payroll for his band and staff, his unpaid back taxes, and his continuing jones for the bottle and the tables eventually reducing him to financial ruin.
In his prime, a period that lasted far longer for him than it did for most trumpeters, Harry James was the living definition of a celebrity virtuoso, a modern-day Paganini or Liszt. He could swing with great flamboyance and heat, he could play the blues with sincerity, and he could endow ballads with “schmaltzy” romanticism. But, perhaps most importantly, in his latter years he could finally turn his band around to reflect his longstanding love for the Basie sound, which he demonstrated not only in his choice of arrangements by Neal Hefti and the late Ernie Wilkins, but also in his own adaptations of the styles of Buck Clayton and Harry Edison. James was certainly no musical innovator in the sense of a Louis, Roy, or Dizzy, but he was unquestionably the most technically well-endowed, versatile, and influential trumpeter of his time. It’s just a shame that he never grew up.”
Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James by Peter Levinson
By R.J. DELUKE
March 8, 2004 All About Jazz
“Miles Davis thought he was wonderful. Clark Terry said he could do it all. That’s a couple of pretty fair trumpet players talking about another.
About Louis Armstrong?
His name was Harry James and his fascinating and somewhat tragic story is told in “Trumpet Blues, The Life of Harry James,” by Peter J. Levinson (Oxford University Press). Levinson lays out a good account of one of America’s classic musicians. A white trumpeter from the swing age, he might be known more for his buttery trumpet solos on some hits from a bygone era, his marriage to Hollywood pinup girl Betty Grable, and his striking good looks in movie appearances. Some may remember he hired a young Frank Sinatra. In the pantheon of trumpeters, from Louis to Roy Eldridge, to Dizzy, on to Miles, Fat Navarro, Clifford Brown and forward, his name rarely comes up.
Levinson points out the error of that omission in the book, illustrating that James had the chops and ability that place him among the all-time greats on the instrument. Indeed, Satchmo had the upmost respect for him. Lionel Hampton said he sounded “black” (a compliment), as did current drummer Kenny Washington who went back to study James on record. “Don’t go to sleep on Harry James. He’s a bad dude,” said trumpeter Terry, getting to the crux of the issue.
Yet at the crux of the book is Levinson’s contention that despite the fact that trumpeters like Arturo Sandoval, Kenny Dorham, Maynard Ferguson, and the aforementioned Miles, Roy, Louis and Diz have all praised his astounding technique and virtuosity, “in line with the way American pop culture has long enjoyed disposing of its musical heroes, sixteen years after his death, Harry James musical greatness is almost completely forgotten,”
His book, he says, is an attempt to document James life and keep it in the public eye.
And what a life! For those who know of James trumpet genius, there is still plenty more to know. He grew up in a traveling circus where he performed as a contortionist and a drummer before switching to trumpet as a young child, eventually leading a circus band, like his father. His mother was an acrobat and taught him some of those tricks. But music became his calling and the book chronicles his meteoric rise, through the bands of Ben Pollak and Benny Goodman, to becoming the nation’s biggest star with the hottest band. There’s far more to his career than the legendary “You Made Me Love You” solo, beloved for decades by so many, and bemoaned by some critics as too “schmaltzy.”
Along the way, his fondness for alcohol, women and gambling are vices that create trouble and eventually help do him in. Nonetheless, the journey is intriguing and Levinson brings it out in great detail.
While it may be tragic to see so many artists who had their personal demons, their lives are extremely colorful. Books about churchgoers who stay home at night are not going to stay open very long.
Despite all the glitz – his womanizing (“Do you have to get laid every night?” roommate and pianist Jess Stacy once asked), his high-profile marriages (Grable was the love of his life, as its turns out), his public displays (he once punched out actor George Raft at the Palladium) and his celebrity status that he so craved – James was an extraordinary player and musician who could play “modern” when he wanted to.
The book is also a good glimpse at the Big Band era and how it rose and fell. James was part of it all, in concert halls, on radio programs, in Las Vegas and later in the new medium of television. Benny Goodman, Mel Torme, Helen Forest, Buddy Rich, Sinatra and many more talents were all part of the James story at one time or another.
And it isn’t the story of just a troubled man, but a person who stood up for blacks, even though he was raised in the south in an era when it was synonymous with racism. (Where Artie Shaw once had to convince Billie Holiday to use the service elevator of the hotel where they were performing because blacks weren’t allowed in the regular elevators, James told his whole band to pack up when told a hotel didn’t have a room for one black band mate. The hotel gave in). It’s about a person who loved music and who was loyal to those in his band. He fought through the bleak times of swing music and survived it all in an industry that has swallowed up lesser men and women.
Levinson did a good job in carrying out his task and the story is compelling. Colorful incidents and anecdotes abound, as one would expect, but the author does a good job of placing it all in historical perspective and painting a good picture of who harry James wanted to be and who he was. It’s a very worthy read and at provides a worthy documentation that musicologists should consider when considering the history of music in America.
James died in 1983 on the 40th anniversary of his marriage to his beloved Betty Grable. In music, he knew all the changes. In life, there may have been a few he wished he could have made but never really did. Those of the world War II generation can still say, “You Made Me Love You,” Harry.”