Trumpeter Harry Haag James was born on March 15, 1916 to Everett Robert James and Maybelle Myrtle James in Albany, Georgia. His father played trumpet and was working as a conductor for traveling circus bands. His mother also had a circus background, but as a performer. She had been an acrobat and horseback rider.
Everett had once been associated with the Mighty Haag Circus, owned by Ernest Haag. The company dated back to the 1890s and started out as a circus that moved from place to place first by wagons, then by rails and finally on to trucks. Another group that Everett had been associated with was the Christy Brothers Circus, founded by George Washington Christy. This group dated back to around 1919 and made appearances all around the country, but wintered in Texas, as Christy had acquired a home in Houston. One anecdote about Christy was that on one occasion, the train that the circus was traveling on experienced a train wreck. Undaunted, Christy broke out his tents and other hardware. He and his personnel set up along side the track and gave a show while the rail lines were repaired.
Harry was raised around music. He learned to play the drums at an early age and added the trumpet to his list of instruments a bit later. He took to the trumpet and by his early teens was playing with a circus band. As a result of his early experience, he had endurance and developed the beautiful tone that he became known for.
Everett and Maybelle eventually relocated to Texas around the early 1930s, settling in Beaumont where Everett continued to be associated with regional circuses. The Depression took a heavy toll on the circus business and many of them shut down. The James family elected to stay in Beaumont and Everett began teaching at a local parochial school. Already a prodigy, Harry had been invited to play in the high school band when he was still in junior high.
Harry began playing professionally fresh out of high school, making his first recordings as early as 1936. The following year, when he was eighteen, he was invited to join the Benny Goodman swing band, and he accepted. James quickly rose to prominence in the band, becoming a featured soloist. Harry was with the Goodman band for about two years before launching out on his own. The field was crowded with good bands competing in the same genre, but James’ group slowly gained a following as he was able to add key players and vocalists.
He was first married to vocalist Louise Tobin, later to actress Betty Grable and finally to Joan Boyd. His career continued to be strong, despite the eventual decline in popularity of swing band music, and Harry was able to adapt to later styles. Harry also began to make appearances in film and on television as he continued to perform in music venues. He has a long list of film and television appearances and an even longer list of soundtrack credits. He also continued to record his music.
Harry passed away in 1983 from lung cancer. He is buried in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he resided for many years. His honors include being 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 lists James as a music legend. In addition, he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.