Harry Haag James (March 15, 1916 – July 5, 1983) was an American musician who is best known as a trumpet-playing band leader who led a big band from 1939 to 1946. He broke up his band for a short period in 1947 but shortly after he reorganized and was active again with his band from then until his death in 1983. He was especially known among musicians for his technical proficiency as well as his tone, and was influential on new trumpet players from the late 1930s into the 1940s. He was also an actor in a number of films that usually featured his band.
Harry James was born in Albany, Georgia, the son of Everett Robert James, a bandleader in a traveling circus, the Mighty Haag Circus, and Myrtle Maybelle (Stewart), an acrobat and horseback rider. He started performing with the circus at an early age, first as a contortionist at age of four, then playing the snare drum in the band from about the age of six. It was at this age that James was almost trampled by the circus trick horses after he wandered onto the circus track as they were performing their stunts, but he was protected by his mother's pet horse, who stood over him until the other horses rushed by.
In 1924, his family settled in Beaumont, Texas. It was here in the early 1930s that James began playing in local dance bands when he was 15 years of age. James played regularly with Herman Waldman's band, and at one performance was noticed by nationally popular Ben Pollack. In 1935 he joined Pollack's band, but left at the start of 1937 to join Benny Goodman's orchestra, where he stayed through 1938. He was nicknamed "The Hawk" early in his career for his ability to sight-read. A common joke was that if a fly landed on his written music, Harry James would play it.
James' band was the first high-profile orchestra to feature vocalist Frank Sinatra, who signed a one-year, $75 a week contract with it in 1939. The James band's featured female vocalist was Helen Forrest, and his later band included drummer Buddy Rich and bassist Thurman Teague. James' orchestra succeeded Glenn Miller's on a program sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes in 1942, when Miller disbanded his orchestra to enter the Army. In 1945, James and his orchestra had a summer replacement program for Danny Kaye's program on CBS.
After James left Benny Goodman's band in 1939 to form his own band, he soon found that leading a commercially viable musical group required a broader set of skills than those needed to be a gifted musician playing in someone else's band. The James band ran into financial trouble, and it became increasingly difficult for James to pay salaries and keep the band together. In 1940, James lost his contract with Columbia Records (he returned in 1941), and Frank Sinatra left the band that January. It was not long after this that James made a pivotal decision: he would adopt a "sweeter" style that added strings to the band, and the band would deliver tunes that were in more of a "pop" vein and less true to its jazz roots. From a commercial standpoint, the decision paid off as James soon enjoyed a string of chart topping hits that provided commercial success for him and his band. Indeed, a U.S. Treasury report released in 1945 listed Harry James and Betty Grable as the highest-paid couple in the nation.
James was married three times, first to singer Louise Tobin on May 4, 1935, with whom he had two sons, Harry Jeffrey James (b. 1941) and Timothy Ray James (b. 1942). They divorced in 1943. Later that year he married actress Betty Grable. They had two daughters, Victoria Elizabeth (b. 1944) and Jessica (b. 1947), before divorcing in 1965. In December 1967 James wed Las Vegas showgirl Joan Boyd. The couple had a son, Michael (b. 1968), before divorcing in 1970.
James owned several Thoroughbred racehorses that won races such as the California Breeders' Champion Stakes (1951) and the San Vicente Stakes (1954). He was also a founding investor in the Atlantic City Race Course. His knowledge of horse racing was demonstrated during a 1958 appearance on The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour entitled "Lucy Wins A Racehorse".
James was a heavy smoker. In 1983 he was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, but continued to work. He played his last professional job, with the Harry James Orchestra, on June 26, 1983 in Los Angeles, dying just nine days later in Las Vegas, Nevada on July 5, 1983 at age 67. Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy at his funeral, held in Las Vegas.