Harry James

One of the most popular bandleaders of the wartime era, Harry James is best remembered today for his colorful trumpet playing and his marriage to actress Betty Grable. Nicknamed “the Horn,” James rose to fame with Benny Goodman’s orchestra in the late 1930s and formed his own band in 1939. Though jazz fans adored his early group, it failed to win popular acceptance, and James struggled financially until switching up his formula in the early 1940s to include a string section.

Born in a run-down hotel next to the city jail in Albany, Georgia, James grew up traveling with the Mighty Haag Circus, where his mother was a trapeze artist and his father was the bandleader.[1] Young Harry began playing drums at age seven and took up the trumpet at ten, performing with the circus band. The family eventually settled in Beaumont, Texas. While in high school, Harry played for local and regional dance bands, including those of Joe Gill, Hogan Hancock, Ligon Smith and Herman Waldman. In 1934, the 18-year-old James met 15-year-old singer Louise Tobin, a fellow Texan, and the two married on July 18, 1935. Soon after, they left for Chicago, where he joined Ben Pollack’s band. James remained with Pollack until December 1936 when Goodman wired him on Christmas Day and offered him a position.

During his time with Goodman, James became popular with the jazz crowd for his colorful, ear-shattering, trumpet playing. In late 1937 and early 1938, while still part of Goodman’s orchestra, he tested the waters with several well-received recordings under his own name for Brunswick, with a band comprised of Goodman pianist Jess Stacey and seven members of Count Basie’s orchestra, using then-unknown vocalist Helen Humes in her recording debut. His popularity continued to rise, and he finally decided to leave Goodman in December 1938 to form his own band, with Goodman himself financing the outfit.

Early Band

James and his new orchestra debuted in February 1939 at the Benjamin Franklin Hotel in Philadelphia. Bernice Byres served as its first female vocalist.[2] Byres remained with the band until at least early April, with Connie Haines having taken over by June. James had heard Haines rehearsing at a music publishing office and hired her. He soon became dissatisfied with Haines, however, and she was gone by September, replaced by Marie Carroll, who herself was gone by the end of that month. James didn’t immediately hire anyone to replace Carroll, telling Down Beat magazine “we do not use a girl singer because everyone we’ve had yet has been unsatisfactory, and until we find one who stacks up as strong as the band, we won’t worry.”

On the male vocal front, Jack Berg and trumpet player Jack Palmer handled novelty numbers in the early orchestra, and by the end of June 1939 James had hired crooner Frank Sinatra. Sinatra had been working as a singing waiter and emcee at the Rustic Cabin night club in New Jersey when Tobin reportedly heard him on the radio and told James he should listen. The orchestra made its first recordings with Brunswick, where James would also record with three members of his band as Harry James and the Boogie Woogie Trio. The orchestra signed with Columbia later that year.

New York audiences loved the James band, but its high-swinging sound wasn’t well-received outside the city. A trip to Los Angeles proved financially disastrous, and on the way back east the orchestra struggled to make it through a booking at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago during January 1940. Tommy Dorsey was in Chicago at the same time and having problems with his male vocalist, Allan DeWitt. He offered Sinatra a job. With Sinatra’s wife expecting and the band’s financial future uncertain, James let him go.

In immediate need of a new vocalist, James turned to Canadian Fran Hines. Hines, who lived in Toronto, had received word from a friend in Buffalo, New York, that James was in town and looking for a singer, and Hines took a chance and wired the bandleader, who called him that night and asked if he could come for an audition. James hired him that same day.[3] James quickly grew unhappy with Hines, however, and in March when aspiring songwriter Dick Haymes came to pitch his wares James offered him the position of vocalist. The addition of Haymes would prove a boon to the band, with the young singer coming to rival Sinatra in popularity.

Commercial Years

Dropped by Columbia in early 1940, James began recording on the small Varsity and Hits labels. Although his records weren’t selling well with the public, he was greatly admired by other musicians. James, however, wasn’t content with his financial picture and decided to adopt a new sound. He announced he was adding a string section. Horrified reactions from the jazz crowd convinced him to abandon the idea. However, in 1941, when he signed with Columbia once again, the label’s A&R director made the same suggestion. James followed through, adding three violins to the orchestra, recording with them in February and using them on stage at least by April.[4] He then recorded several schmaltzy ballads and semi-classical selections, including the instrumental “You Made Me Love You,” the band’s first hit. Though jazz fans cringed, the new sound proved popular with the public, and the band found itself on the way to stardom, breaking attendance and box office records across the country in 1942.

James began to use female vocalists again in 1941. Cleveland singer June Hart reportedly joined the band in March 1941 but didn’t remain long, and in May James hired Helen Ward for recordings. Dell Parker then briefly joined and was replaced by Lynn Richards in July. James finally found the perfect female singer in Helen Forrest, who joined in late October 1941, replacing Richards. Forrest turned out to be one of the band’s most valuable assets, and during her tenure it reached its peak in popularity and began to receive film offers.

In December 1941, Haymes left to start a solo career. Jimmy Saunders replaced him, joining the band on December 27.[5] In July 1942, James hired sax player Johnny McAfee, who also sang and became featured male vocalist after Saunders departed in August. McAfee and Forrest remained the core of the band’s vocal department until late 1943.

In early 1942, James bought out Goodman’s ownership of the band. He and Tobin also separated. In early 1943, while working in Hollywood on the film Springtime in the Rockies, he met actress Betty Grable and fell in love. He requested a divorce from Tobin, and he and Grable were married in July. The film also produced the band’s biggest hit, “I Had the Craziest Dream,” sung by Forrest.

In March 1943, James added Buddy Moreno to his vocal team for novelty numbers. Late 1943 saw major turnover in the vocal department when James lost both McAfee to the draft and Forrest to a solo career. When Forrest left at the first of December, Helen Ward was announced as her replacement, but just as the contract was about to be signed the deal fell through for unrevealed reasons. Judy Williams ended up with the job instead.[6] Williams sang a third lower than Forrest, and James planned to develop new arrangements for her, giving many of Forrest’s numbers to Moreno, who could sing in the same range as Forrest. Williams, though, was out of the band by the end of the month, and James once again turned to Ward, who finally came aboard as female vocalist in January 1944. Moreno fell victim to the draft in early February 1944, finding himself in the army. Buddy Di Vito replaced him.[7]

Draft Threat and Reorganization

At the time that Ward and Di Vito came aboard, uncertainty surrounded the orchestra’s future as James, who had been originally classified 4-F, was in danger of being reclassified as fit for duty. When he passed his physical in February 1944, he put the band on notice. The orchestra’s last date was April 9 in San Bernardino. Soon after, though, James was unexpectedly classified 4-F again, and he quickly rebuilt the band. Instead of Ward, however, he brought in Kitty Kallen as female vocalist with Di Vito returning as male singer. Ward had signed a year-long contract with James in January 1944, and when he hired Kallen for the new band in May, Ward sued him for $8,250, claiming that she was fired without due cause with seven months still to go on her contract. They settled out of court, with James paying Ward an undisclosed but “sizeable chunk of dough.”[8]

Di Vito felt the draft in November 1944, with Billy Usher briefly taking his spot in the band. Reclassified 4-F, however, Di Vito returned, and Usher was out. The orchestra landed a spot on Danny Kaye’s popular radio program in January 1945, with James himself given solo features and a prominent place in the script. When Kaye went on summer vacation, the band filled in the time slot with a summer replacement show. Rumors that James would break up the band circulated that summer but were denied. The band went off the Kaye show in September when it moved to New York. James had commitments in Hollywood, with the orchestra regularly appearing in films, and they couldn’t go east. In October, Grable entered the recording studio with the band to sing “I Can’t Begin to Tell You” under the pseudonym Ruth Haag, a combination of her and James’ middles names. Grable couldn’t use her real name as 20th Century Fox discouraged its stars from working for recording companies.

Di Vito was drafted again in January 1945. Expecting him to be reclassified to 4-F, James hired Jimmy Cook to sub until Di Vito returned the following month. In October 1945, Kallen announced she would leave the band the following month to go solo. When Kallen left in November, Anita Boyer became the orchestra’s female vocalist but didn’t stay long, leaving in January 1946 when James announced a six-week vacation. James attempted to hire Kay Starr to replace Boyer, but they couldn’t work out a salary agreement. Once the band resumed in February, Ginnie Powell became female vocalist. When the band went East in June, she resigned to stay on the West Coast with husband Boyd Raeburn. Marion Morgan replaced her. African-American sax player Willie Smith sang jazzier numbers in 1945 and 1946.

James continued to remain popular after the war, but a downturn in the band business began to cause problems. In summer 1946, after Charlie Barnet had become the first of several big name bandleaders to call it quits, James cut his guarantee for one-nighters in half so as to improve his chances of landing bookings. James had also grown less interested in the band since his marriage to Grable, focusing more on the couple’s race horses and his own Hollywood acting ambitions. The band toured only sporadically in 1946, and in late November James put it on hold for two months, stressing that he wasn’t breaking it up but simply taking an extended vacation. The move was partly a cost-cutting measure. During the break, members who weren’t already part of Los Angeles musicians’ union Local 47 were expected to change their affiliation so when the band resumed activity it would not be considered a traveling band while in its home territory. Union rules required bandleaders to pay musicians extra while traveling.

Later Bands and Career

During the break, in February 1947, James used a studio orchestra to record with vocalist Art Lund, who had just left Goodman’s band to start a solo career. The band’s two-month vacation turned into almost six months, with the new group finally debuting on April 11 in San Bernardino as it embarked on a series of one-nighters to the east that lasted until early June. The local union, however, prevented James from using his star sax player Corky Corcoran and a few other key members from his old band. The Los Angeles local was quite hostile to newcomers. Hollywood jobs could be lucrative for musicians, and the union did its best to discourage outsiders from taking those opportunities away from resident musicians. Importing musicians into a territory was against union rules. They ruled that the ex-James band members were imports, and since James had declared his band a local band, he couldn’t hire them. The union ruled that they had to wait another three months before they could be considered local musicians.

The new band did well, drawing large crowds on its initial cross-country tour. Di Vito returned as male vocalist. Morgan had initially planned to return after the break but had pursued other opportunities as the vacation period extended and was unavailable. Pat Flaherty took the female vocal spot. Flaherty did not stay long, however, and Morgan rejoined in July as the band began a return tour east. Di Vito left in December, with Vinni De Campo taking his place. Willie Smith rejoined the new band at the same time as Morgan, with guitarist Tiny Timbrell also singing novelty tunes. Kay Little also likely sang with the band prior to Morgan’s return.

James dropped his string section in early 1948 and returned more to his swing roots. The new sound impressed critics in late 1948, with James adding in light bop tunes from arranger Neal Hefti. Ray Conniff also provided arrangements. James and the band appeared on Dinah Shore’s radio program in the 1947-1948 season.

James reorganized in January 1949, with several musicians being replaced. Hefti took on an active role as trumpeter in addition to his arranger duties. Morgan and De Campo were, in the words of Down Beat, “dumped,” with James bringing in vocal group the Skylarks.[9] James took another vacation in the summer of 1949 and reorganized in November of that year, marking another change in style. Though Hefti had departed, the band continued to use his arrangements. The Skylarks returned on vocals.

James continued to lead bands off and on until his death. He gave his last performance in Las Vegas just nine days before dying of lymphatic cancer in July 1983.


  1. James’ middle name, Haag, was in honor of circus owner Ernest Haag. ↩︎

  2. 19-year-old Byres, a New Jersey native, had previously sang with Meyer Davis and Emil Coleman and on Martin Block’s radio show. In 1941, she worked with Ford Harrison. ↩︎

  3. Fran Hines recorded one song with the band, on which the label misspelled his name as Fran Heines. ↩︎

  4. James later added three more violins and in November 1943 brought in four more to make a total of ten. By mid-1945, he had sixteen. ↩︎

  5. Jimmy Saunders was previously working as Sonny Saunders. James changed his first name. ↩︎

  6. Judy Williams had been performing under the name Tudy Williams. James changed her first name. She had never worked with a name band before joining James. ↩︎

  7. During his career, Buddy Di Vito’s last name was variously spelled DiVito, DeVito, De Vito, and Di Vito. Neither the press nor record labels could decide on what was the correct version. ↩︎

  8. At around the same time as the Ward settlement, James also settled with ex-wife Louise Tobin, agreeing to pay her $6,000 a year alimony along with setting up a $14,000 trust fund for their children. ↩︎

  9. Morgan later told Down Beat that she wasn’t dropped from the band but instead had quit. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Prigozy, Ruth. The Life of Dick Haymes: No More Little White Lies. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
  3. “Announcing Marriage Of Miss Tobin.” Denton, Texas, Record Chronicle 25 Jul. 1935: 4.
  4. “Former Miss Tobin Singing Over Radio.” Denton, Texas, Record Chronicle 11 Jan. 1936: 4.
  5. Baxter, Danny. “'Amazing' Only Way To Describe James.” Down Beat Apr. 1939: 6.
  6. “Canary of the Month.” Down Beat Apr. 1939: 6.
  7. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 17 Jun. 1939: 22.
  8. “Pertinent Facts On Artists Represented In This Section: Harry James.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1939: 19.
  9. “Mrs. Harry James.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1939: 13.
  10. James, Harry. “Here's Why Louise Tobin Is With BG.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1939: 1, 15.
  11. Delory, Duke. “How to Get a Job With Harry James.” Down Beat 1 Feb. 1940: 16.
  12. Gilbertson, Mary. “Harry James No Match for Kids.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1940: 3.
  13. “Harry James, Boys Take Rest.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1941: 4.
  14. “Strings for James.” Down Beat 15 May 1941: 11.
  15. “Son Born to Harry James, Louise Tobin.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1941: 23.
  16. Kay, Eunice. “Chuck Forsythe Rehearsing a Cleveland Band.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1941: 4.
  17. “Vaudeville Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 10 May 1941: 24.
  18. Kilgallen, Dorothy. “Tales from Times Square.” Lowell Sun and Citizen-Leader [Lowell, Massachusetts] 7 Jul. 1941: 2.
  19. “Forrest to Harry James As Singer.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 1.
  20. “Forrest Hints Hop To Harry James.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1941: 7.
  21. “Haymes Planning To Have Band?” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1942: 4.
  22. “Six Strings for Harry James.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1942: 4.
  23. Dexter, Dave Jr. “I'm Own Boss Now—Harry James.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1942: 1, 20.
  24. “Harry James Rated As Hottest B.O. Attraction.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1942: 13.
  25. “Harry James Takes McAfee.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 6.
  26. “Profiling the Players: Harry James and His Orchestra.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1942: 20.
  27. “James Engages Buddy Moreno.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1943: 7.
  28. “James to Seek Divorce From Louise Tobin.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1943: 2.
  29. “James Baby Due in Spring.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1943: 3.
  30. “Martins and the James' Settle Baseball Feud.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1943: 7.
  31. “Helen Forrest to Solo About Dec. 1.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1943: 1.
  32. “Helen Ward Soon to Warble with James or Goodman.” Billboard 6 Nov. 1943: 24.
  33. “Helen Ward to Sing For James.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1943: 2.
  34. “Four More Fiddles In James String Section.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1943: 2.
  35. “Tudy Williams Fills Forrest's Spot With HJ.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1943: 3.
  36. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1944: 5.
  37. “Horn Changes Vocalists; Hint HJ Near Draft.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1944: 3.
  38. “Horn Okayed In Army Physical.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1944: 1.
  39. Dugan, Bill. “The Bandbox.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1944: 15.
  40. “Horn Breaks Up Band.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1944: 1.
  41. “Horn Hinted 4-F.” Down Beat 1 May 1944: 1.
  42. “James Shuffles Band Personnel, Kitty Kallen In.” Down Beat 15 May 1944: 16.
  43. “Bands Dug by the Beat: Harry James.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1944: 15.
  44. “Helen Ward Claim Denied By James.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1944: 1.
  45. “Horn And Chirp Settle Dispute.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1944: 15.
  46. “Orchestra Leader Makes Settlement with Former Wife.” The St. Petersburg Evening Independent [St. Petersburg, Florida] 14 Oct. 1944: 3.
  47. “Buddy DeVito Rejoins Horn.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1944: 1.
  48. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1944: 5.
  49. “Billy Usher to Sing for James.” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1944: 1.
  50. “James Grabs Off Prize Radio Spot.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1945: 1.
  51. “James to Take Over Pabst Summer Airer.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1945: 14.
  52. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1945: 5.
  53. “Harry James Breaking Up Band Is Baloney!” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1945: 2.
  54. “Harry James Off Kaye Show.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1945: 1.
  55. “James Vacations 7 Weeks.” Billboard 6 Oct. 1945: 17.
  56. “Kitty Kallen to Leave James.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1945: 1.
  57. “Kitty Kallen Goes East As A Single.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1945: 1.
  58. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1945: 1.
  59. “Anita Boyer Now H. James' Thrush.” Billboard 3 Nov. 1945: 17.
  60. Burns, Johnny A. “Chords and Discords: Out With The Truth!” Down Beat 15 Nov. 1945: 10.
  61. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 1.
  62. “Ginnie Powell James Chirp.” Down Beat 11 Feb. 1946: 1.
  63. “Music as Written.” Billboard 22 Jun. 1946: 25.
  64. “James Cuts.” Down Beat 12 Aug. 1946: 1.
  65. “James Cohorts Are All Smiles.” Down Beat 4 Nov. 1946: 10.
  66. “James Drops Band For Two Months, Boys Stick in L.A.” Down Beat 18 Nov. 1946: 1.
  67. “BG Sells Art Lund To WMA.” Down Beat 26 Feb. 1947: 1.
  68. “Local Rules Fouls James, Brown Bands.” Down Beat 26 Mar. 1947: 1.
  69. “James Launches New Band.” Down Beat 9 Apr. 1947: 8.
  70. “Harry James Draws 6,400 Fans.” Down Beat 21 May 1947: 3.
  71. “James Keeps Band Working.” Down Beat 4 Jun. 1947: 1.
  72. “James To Do Own Movie.” Down Beat 4 Jun. 1947: 10.
  73. “Marion Morgan Returns To James Ork.” Down Beat 2 Jul. 1947: 1.
  74. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 10 Sep. 1947: 13.
  75. “Diggin' the Discs.” Down Beat 5 May 1948: 13.
  76. Ronan, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 14 Jul. 1948: 9.
  77. Ronan, Eddie. “Blazing Brass Sparks James' Band.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1948: 2.
  78. “James Shuffles, Deals New Rhythm.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1949: 2.
  79. Ronan, Eddie. “On the Sunset Vine.” Down Beat 25 Mar. 1949: 9.
  80. “James Boys Vacation.” Down Beat 29 Jul. 1949: 3.
  81. “The Horn Set To Reorganize Band.” Down Beat 21 Oct. 1949: 1.
  82. Holly, Hal. “James Crew Still Shows Strong Neal Hefti Touch.” Down Beat 30 Dec. 1949: 9.