Harry James was born in Albany, Georgia, the son of a bandleader of a traveling circus, the Haag Circus. His mother was an acrobat and horseback rider. According to the Bill Sterns Sports Newsreel broadcast on 9/12/42, on which James appeared, he was saved from being trampled, at the age of 6, by his mother's horse after performing with the horse. By the age of 10 he was taking trumpet lessons from his father, who placed him on a strict daily practice schedule. Each day, James was given one page to learn from theArban's book and was not allowed to pursue any other pastime until he had learned that particular page.
In 1931 his family settled in Beaumont, Texas. It was here, at 15 years of age, that James began playing in local dance bands. James played regularly with Herman Waldman's band, and at one performance was noticed by the nationally popular Ben Pollack. In 1935 he joined Pollack's band, but at the start of 1937 left 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. His low range had a warmth associated with the cornet and even the flugelhorn, but this sound was underrecorded in favor of James' brilliant high register.
In February 1939 James debuted his own big band in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This big band became known as Harry James and His Music Makers. His hit "You Made Me Love You" was in the Top 10 during the week of December 7, 1941. He toured with the band into the 1980s. He started recording with the minor label Varsity in 1940. To this day, the Harry James Orchestra still exists with Fred Radke as their lead.
His was the first "name band" to employ vocalist Frank Sinatra, in 1939. He wanted to change Sinatra's name to 'Frankie Satin' but Sinatra refused. His later band included drummer Buddy Rich.
He played trumpet in the 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, dubbing Kirk Douglas. James's recording of "I'm Beginning to See the Light" appears in the motion picture My Dog Skip (2000). His music is also featured in the Woody Allen film Hannah and Her Sisters. James recorded many popular recordsand appeared in many Hollywood movies.
He was second only to Glenn Miller as the most successful recording artist of 1942. His orchestra succeeded Miller's on a program sponsored byChesterfield Cigarettes that year when Miller disbanded his orchestra to enter the Army. Another major reason that he disbanded his big band group in 1946 was due to the lack of income and so James decided to call it quits. After disbanding his big band, he continued his career in a smaller jazz group, Harry James and His Music Makers.
James was married three times. On May 4, 1935, he married singer Louise Tobin, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1943. That same year, he married actress Betty Grable. They had two daughters, Victoria and Jessica, before divorcing in 1965. James married a third time in 1968 to Las Vegas showgirl Joan Boyd, whom he would divorce in March 1970. Contrary to some assertions, he did not marry a fourth time. He had five children (two by Tobin, two by Grable, one by Boyd) and (as of his death) 16 grandchildren.
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 onThe Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour entitled "Lucy Wins A Racehorse."
In 1983, James was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer, but he continued to work, playing his last professional job on June 26, 1983, in Los Angeles, California, just nine days before his death in Las Vegas, Nevada. The job had become his final performance with the Harry James Orchestra. He died exactly 40 years after his marriage to Betty Grable (July 5, 1943), who was buried exactly 30 years after that date (July 5, 1973). Frank Sinatra gave the eulogy at the Bunkers Eden Vale Memorial Park in Las Vegas.
In 2007, a personally owned and stage-played custom made trumpet formerly owned by both James and trumpeter Joe Cabot was sold at auction for a mid five-figure amount. It was played by both men while they toured together from 1979–1982 in the musical review The Big Broadcast of 1944.