Cover image for Trumpet blues : the life of Harry James
Trumpet blues : the life of Harry James
Levinson, Peter J.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
xvii, 334 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Reading Level:
1250 Lexile.
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
ML419.J36 L48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



Swing is back in style, and with it a renewed interest in the Big Band Era. And few players dominated that era more than Harry James, whose soaring trumpet solos and romantic hit tunes influenced popular music for a generation. Now, Peter J. Levinson, who knew Harry James personally, haswritten a revealing biography of this jazz icon, based on nearly 200 interviews with musicians and friends. Harry James led a truly colorful life, and in Trumpet Blues Levinson captures it all. Beginning with James's childhood in a traveling circus, we follow the young trumpeter's meteoric rise in the 1930s and witness his electrifying performances with the Benny Goodman Orchestra. We see how Jamesformed his own band in 1939, an incubator for many pop music stars of the 1940s and '50s, including Frank Sinatra, Connie Haines, Dick Haymes, Helen Forrest, and Kitty Kallen. Combined with James's superb musicianship, peerless trumpet technique and talented sidemen, this stellar group dominated thewar years and the immediate post-war period. And James himself, especially after his marriage to film goddess Betty Grable, became one of America's most famous personalities and lived like true Hollywood royalty. Levinson describes their twenty-two-year marriage with insight and sympathy. But heshows how James's marriage--and his triumphant late-1950s comeback in Nevada's casinos--were slowly undermined by his penchant for compulsive gambling, womanizing, and alcoholism. He gives us the nside story of James's sybaritic life style, and probes the profound psychological reasons for James'sdestructive behavior. The first biography ever written on Harry James, Trumpet Blues is a scintillating portrait of Swing's brightest star--his life, his loves, and the music that defined an era.

Author Notes

Biographer Peter J. Levinson was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey on July 1, 1934. He graduated from the University of Virginia and served in the Army during the Korean War. After the war, he worked as a freelance writer before taking a job with Columbia Records as a music publicist. He eventually opened his own publicity firm. He wrote the following biographies: Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James (1999); September in the Rain: The Life of Nelson Riddle (2001); Tommy Dorsey: Livin' in a Great Big Way (2005); and Puttin' on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache - a Biography (2009). He died due to injuries suffered from a fall on October 21, 2008 at the age of 74.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

"Sixteen years after his death, Harry James' musical greatness is almost completely forgotten," Levinson opines. After playing with "Benny Goodman's most formidable orchestra" on its seminal 1938 Carnegie Hall recording, James ran afoul of the critics, if not the fans, as he descended into the highly remunerative playing of "schmaltz." He confirmed his consignment to critical hell with the 1941 release of "You Made Me Love You." But, as Dizzy Gillespie observed, "jazz is too good for America," and sometimes the critics are too critical for their own good. Like the Chicago Cubs, James continued playing to critical derision and huge crowds, and he became Hollywood royalty by marrying Betty Grable at the peak of her popularity. Eventually, he lost Grable and just about everything else due to some serious character and deportment flaws that Levinson details dispassionately. In his well-researched and well-written study, Levinson advances James as an underappreciated musician, but he is as worthy of study as a media superstar, given our media-mad culture. --Mike Tribby

Publisher's Weekly Review

An engrossing, swinging biography of a jazz icon, this book traces the life of Harry James, a trumpeter and bandleader who played in Benny Goodman's Orchestra in the '30s, and who led the country's most popular big band during World War II. Levinson, a jazz publicist who knew James from 1959 until the latter's death in 1983, presents the life of the flashy trumpeter as one of fame, fortune and eventual self-destruction. Born in Georgia in 1916 and raised in Texas, James had an insecure, peripatetic childhood. His mother was a trapeze artist and his father a circus bandleader, and James played in the circus band. Taking Louis Armstrong as his musical role model, James, who was white, was recruited to play in Benny Goodman's band, then left to form his own hugely acclaimed band, marrying film star Betty Grable and acting in movies himself. Over the next two decades, his star waned, but he staged a comeback of sorts in the late '50s, playing in Nevada casinos and continuing fitfully to reinvent his band throughout the next two decades. James's three marriages were ruined by addiction to alcohol, sex and gambling. Grable divorced him in 1965 following a 22-year marriage marked by his constant infidelities, neglect of their two daughters and, according to Levinson, by violent abuse. While many jazz critics dismiss James's romantic bluesy style and wide vibrato as schmaltzy and sentimental, Levinson disagrees. This robust biography offers a heady plunge into the swing era and a vivid portrait of a daring and inventive artist. Photos. (Oct.) FYI: A companion CD from Capitol Jazz, annotated by Levinson, features 16 of James's hit songs. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Levinson offers a well-written, carefully documented book about one of the major figures in the era of big-band music. Levinson's source materials include numerous first-hand accounts of the band leader, the result of interviews the author had with James's friends and band members. Particularly important to Levinson's exposition is his discussion of the relationship between Harry James and his wife, movie star Betty Grable. The list of people who enter and leave the narrative constitutes a literal who's who of the US popular music world, beginning in the late 1930s and continuing until the late 1970s. Excellent candid photographs enhance this fine book. Available separately, the supplemental companion CD--Trumpet Blues: The Best of Harry James--is annotated by Levinson. Recommended for general readers and for all collections of US popular music. C. W. Henderson; Saint Mary's College (IN)

Table of Contents

Prefacep. ix
Acknowledgmentsp. xiii
1 Everette and Maybellep. 3
2 Louise and Benp. 17
3 The Kingdom of Swingp. 31
4 Ciribiribinp. 59
5 You Made Me Love Youp. 81
6 Trees, the Legs, and the Lipp. 105
7 Hollywood Royaltyp. 137
8 The In-Between Yearsp. 163
9 Back to Basiep. 195
10 I Don't Want to Walk Without Youp. 239
Notesp. 285
Bibliographyp. 301
Indexp. 303