Harry James: Started Out in the Circus!

Learning that big band leader and trumpet player Harry James (1916-1983) started out in circuses is like meat and drink (or rather, popcorn and lemonade) to me.

James’ parents were with the Mighty Haag Circus; his father was the bandleader for the show, his mother, Myrtle Maybel Stewart, was an acrobat and horseback rider. In fact, James’s middle name was Haag! The show happened to be in Georgia then, although he was raised largely on the road, and the family later settled in Beaumont, Texas. Harry started out performing as a contortionist at age four, was playing a snare drum in the band at six, and took up the trumpet at eight. Strict daily music lessons were part of his upbringing and he was later renowned not just for his command of his instrument, but his ability to sight read. By twelve he was leading a band with the Christy Brothers Circus. Inspired by Louis Armstrong, he started out playing with hot jazz bands. He was scouted for Ben Pollack’s band in 1935, and in 1937 joined Benny Goodman’s. Goodman backed him in his own band in 1939, and his became one of the most popular in the country during the swing era, especially after he added a string section to “sweeten” the sound in 1941. In 1942, James’s band took over Glenn Miller’s Chesterfield radio show when Miller went into the arm, giving him a weekly national spotlight.

Frank Sinatra sang with James’s band prior to joining Tommy Dorsey, and that’s probably one of the first ways I knew about James, as part of Sinatra’s legend. But he was actually still around when I was a kid, and he went on shows like Merv and Mike Douglas, and my mom was a fan, so I surely knew about him from a young age. James and his band were also in over two dozen Hollywood movies, including Syncopation (1942), Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Private Buckaroo (1942), Swing Fever (1943), Bathing Beauty (1944), The Benny Goodman Story (1956), Jerry Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1956) and The Sting II (1982) with Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis. He was married three times, to big band singer Louise Tobin, to movie star Betty Grable, and to Las Vegas show girl Joan Boyd.

To learn more about the history of show biz, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous