James, Harry Haag (1916–1983)

By: Alan Lee Haworth

Type: Biography

Published: October 1, 1995

Updated: October 19, 2015

Harry Haag James, jazz trumpet player and big-band leader, was born to Everett Robert and Maybelle (Stewart) James on March 15, 1916, in Albany, Georgia. James began his stage life as the circus contortionist in the Haag Circus, which later became the Christy Brothers Circus. The gimmick was "the Youngest and Oldest Contortionists in the World," because young Harry worked with a seventy-year-old partner. He started his musical education with the drums at age four in the circus band. He learned to play piano and trumpet with his father, the circus bandmaster.

Though thought by many to be a native Texan, Harry James did not arrive in Texas until the 1930s, when he and his parents moved to Beaumont. There he played trumpet and led a band. In 1934 he toured as a trumpet player with Joe Gill. When he joined Art Hicks and His Orchestra in 1934 he met vocalist and North Texas native Louise Tobin. They married in 1935. Tobin, a rising star in her own right, would later be featured with Benny Goodman’s orchestra before relenting to James’s wishes that she give up her career to start a family; they had two sons.

James joined Ben Pollack's band in 1935 and made his recording debut with the group early in 1936. Fame came later that year, when James joined Benny Goodman's orchestra. He made a name for himself with fiery trumpet solos and an appearance in the band's 1938 movie, Hollywood Hotel. After he started the Harry James Band in 1939, his hit song "You Made Me Love You" (1941) sold more than a million copies. Other popular Harry James recordings included "Carnival in Venice" and "Flight of the Bumble Bee." Early in his career as bandleader, James hired an unknown Frank Sinatra upon the recommendation of his wife Louise, but Sinatra soon left his band and accepted an offer to join Tommy Dorsey.

James had a great technique that showed off rich, brassy tones. A true virtuoso, Harry, along with his band, developed the boogie-woogie style for big-band swing. His romantic ballads, the key to his success, shot him to fame as a big-band leader. In 1941 a national poll voted his band the number-one dance band in the country. He appeared on radio shows for Danny Kaye, Coca Cola, and Jack Benny, and also on his own series, sponsored by Chesterfield Cigarettes. Some of the famous musicians who performed with Harry James in the 1940s were Dick Haymes, Frank Sinatra, and Helen Forrest. Into the 1950s and 1960s Harry and the band were joined as well by Buddy Rich, Sam Firmature, Jack Perciful, and Ray Sims.

James continued to be popular, appearing cameo or with Benny Goodman's band in many movies, including Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Young Man with a Horn (1950), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), and Anything Goes (1956). Still an active musician in the 1970s, he was quoted then as saying, "I don't look at people as changing, being old or being young. I just look down from the stand to see if people are having fun."

James divorced Louise Tobin in 1943 and promptly married actress Betty Grable. He and Betty moved to Las Vegas, where Harry played for many years. They had two daughters but were divorced in 1965. Afterward, he married Joan Boyd, a Las Vegas showgirl, with whom he had a son. James died of cancer at the age of sixty-seven on July 5, 1983, in Las Vegas, Nevada. That year he was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame. The Museum of the Gulf Coast’s Music Hall of Fame in Port Arthur also honors James as a music legend, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Charles Eugene Claghorn, Biographical Dictionary of Jazz (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice–Hall, 1982). Peter Gammond, The Oxford Companion to Popular Music (Oxford University Press, 1991). Roger D. Kinkle, The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900–1950 (4 vols., New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1974). Vertical Files, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Leo Walker, The Big Band Almanac (Hollywood: Vinewood Enterprises, 1978).


  • Music
  • Genres (Jazz)

Time Periods:

  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Alan Lee Haworth, “James, Harry Haag,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 17, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/james-harry-haag.

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October 1, 1995
October 19, 2015

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