BARRY LEVINE: Remembering the Big Band icon Harry James

OLD ROCKER: Harry James was born in Albany in 1916.

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Long before the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era in 1955 and long before rhythm and blues and country and western music rose in popularity, Americans were listening to Big Band and Swing Era.

For those who have yet to blow out 50 candles on their birthday cakes, a Big Band is a type of musical ensemble associated with jazz and the Swing Era and typically consisting of rhythm, brass and woodwind instruments with approximately 12 to 25 musicians.


Harry James was born in Albany on March 16, 1916, at the St. Nicholas Hotel near the old jail and christened at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, three blocks away.(Special photo)

At the height of the Big Band Era during the 1930s and 1940s, among those with orchestras were music icons Louis Armstrong, Ray Anthony, Count Basie, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Eddy Duchin, Les Elgart, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton.

Also, Woody Herman, Harry James, Stan Kenton, Gene Krupa, Guy Lombardo, Glenn Miller, Buddy Rich, Nelson Riddle, Artie Shaw, Fred Waring and Sy Zentner. Waring, incidentally, was the inventor of the Waring Blender, a staple in today’s kitchens.

The bandleaders played a variety of instruments including the trumpet by Armstrong, Anthony, Dorsey, Elgart, Gillespie and James.

James was born in Albany on March 16, 1916, at the St. Nicholas Hotel near the old jail and christened at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, three blocks away. James was born into a circus family as his father was the bandleader for a traveling circus and his mother was an acrobat and horseback rider.

His father began giving him trumpet lessons when he was 10 years old and, five years later, the youngster started playing with local dance bands. In 1935, James began playing with Ben Pollock’s nationally-known band and, he became a member of Benny Goodman’s immensely popular orchestra two years later.

His band, Harry James and His Music Makers, made their debut in January 1939 in Philadelphia. The band struggled until 1941 when “You Made Me Love You” reached the Top 10 on the charts in December.

From that juncture, James’ orchestra enjoyed tremendous success with 54 of their songs reaching the Top 40, 29 of which made the Top 10. Six of his hits climbed to No. 1 — “Sleepy Lagoon” and “I Had the Craziest Dream” in 1942, “I’ve Heard That Song Before” in 1943, “I’ll Get By” in 1944 and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” in 1945.

In 1939, James’ band was the first to employ a skinny kid from Hoboken, N.J., named Frank Sinatra as their lead singer. Sinatra managed to enjoy a success career as a crooner.

His band later included renowned drummer Buddy Rich. His featured vocalist was Helen Forrest. Johnny MacAfee was featured on the sax and vocals and Corky Corcoran was a youthful sax prodigy.

James disbanded his orchestra in 1946 because it failed to remain profitable.

He then performed in a small jazz group also called Harry James and His Music Makers.

James’ 54 Top 40 singles is a record for a solo performer or group born in the Peach State.

Ray Charles, another Albany native, is second with 33 Top 40 hits and “Little Miss Dynamite” Brenda Lee is third with 29. Both have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James was married three times — singer Louise Tobin from 1935 to 1943, actress Betty Grable from 1943 to 1965 and to Las Vegas showgirl Joan Boyd from 1968 to 1970.

According to our research, James never has been honored for his accomplishments by the city of Albany.

It would be a good idea to commemorate the 100th anniversary of James’ birth and honor him at the Mardi Gras Street Festival in March 2016. Yes, it’s almost two years away, but it would be a well-deserved honor.


Jerry Vale, the Bronx crooner who rose to the top of the charts with “Al Di La,” his signature song, in 1961, died on May 18 of cancer at his California home. The balladeer had several chart hits during the 50s and 60s. Vale had his first chart smash with “You Can Never Give Me Back My Heart” in 1953. He followed that with “Two Purple Shadows,” “I Live Each Day,” “Innamorata” and “You Don’t Know Me” in 1956. He also entered the Top 40 album chart six times between 1963 and 1966.

Barry Levine writes entertainment stories for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at dot0001@yahoo.com.