Curious that the Harry James story has never been told before, particularly in the bigscreen biopic format, for this is a life that has it all: sex, booze, glamour, gambling and, most important, redemption. This first biography of the noted big-band trumpeter and husband of glamour queen Betty Grable is a balanced and straightforward portrait of a great showbiz story.
Peter J. Levinson paints an emotion-free picture of the trumpeter, band leader and baseball fanatic in “Trumpet Blues,” consistently favoring facts over interpretation. It truly was a spectacular life that James lived, from his youth spent traveling from town to town in the circus to big-band fame, a 22-year marriage to Grable, gambling and alcohol addictions and a career revival in the casinos of Nevada.
Levinson, a publicist for jazz musicians whose career began as a talent agent for MCA in the 1950s, knew James for more than two decades. But rather than use that personal connection to drive his prose, he uses it as a starting point for investigation. More than 200 interviews were conducted for the book, and the voices echo an admiration for the man; Levinson’s goal, stated in the preface, is only to see James’s place in history reassessed.
To do so, Levinson lets the aspects of James’ life that filled gossip columns dominate the middle of the book — but that doesn’t temper the sizzle with which he lived. James was never out of character, a lifelong womanizer whose skirt-chasing ways were never on hold. But time in and time out in this bio, anecdotal praise is heaped on his ability as a jazz trumpeter, on his ability to get clear and rich tones and his incredible sense of melody. His charm, depending on who’s being asked, either played second fiddle to or was inextricably linked to his musicianship.
Ordered in straight chronology from James’ birth in March 1916 up to Frank Sinatra’s eulogy at James’ funeral on July 7, 1983, Levinson’s bio gives each chapter equal weight to stories that feature bars, ballfields and bandstands, from his youth in Texas to later years in Las Vegas. James’ love of the ponies and trips to the racetrack with Grable, for example, are given as much space as his early years with Benny Goodman.
To his credit, Levinson never gets carried away with any single aspect of James’ life save for baseball, the metaphors from which fill James’ commentary on life for decades.
James’ life intersects with virtually every top-shelf musician and movie star of the 1940s. Even without Grable, he was a magnet for Hollywood talent; she only upped the ante, making them one of the first glamour couples from two different realms of entertainment.
Levinson is fascinated with his subject and seems to find no one with any harsh words for the trumpeter.
Certainly James’ hyperactive libido and the business-first dealings had to break a few hearts and anger some musicians along the way. Then again, he was able to be friends and work with Buddy Rich, one of the most notoriously difficult musicians in the history of jazz. And in the telling of their episodes together in the 1950s, when James rebuilds his career with a Count Basie-inspired sound, we feel James’ real character blossom — as if fame and Hollywood were just a preamble — which in the long run, does indeed provoke a re-examination of the James oeuvre.