He was the son of Everette Robert James and Maybelle Stewart Clark James. Mr. James was the bandleader and trumpet player for the Mighty Haag Circus, in which his mother performed as an acrobat, aerialist and horseback rider.
If the name of the Mighty Haag Circus sounds familiar, that's probably because it wintered in Marianna for a significant part of its history. From here it traveled out by rail, truck and even horse-drawn wagon on tours that focused largely on the South. Despite its regional emphasis, however, the Mighty Haag was one of the most successful traveling circuses in American history. The James family, which lived in Marianna for a time, was one of the reasons for that success.
Born into a circus family, Harry first performed with the Mighty Haag Circus as a contortionist when he was only 4 years old. When he was 6, he was nearly trampled by his mother's horse during a performance with her, but was saved by performers. At about the same age, he began playing a snare drum with the circus orchestra and by the time he was 10 he started performing on the trumpet after receiving instructions from his father.
The James family relocated to Beaumont, Texas, in 1931 to perform with the Christy Brothers Circus. Harry attended school there during the winter months and won a Texas state music competition while attending Beaumont High School.
He never finished school, quitting to play trumpet professionally. He landed his first job with a national group in 1935 when he was hired by Ben Pollack's Orchestra. The next year he was hired by the famed Benny Goodman.
James quickly became a national sensation and in January 1939, with financial backing from Benny Goodman, he unveiled his own big band at a performance in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The featured vocalist was a then unknown male singer named Frank Sinatra.
Harry James and His Music Makers (known today as the Harry James Orchestra) broke into the Top 10 with "You Made Me Love You" during the week of December 7, 1941, the same week as the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
He performed in numerous movies and his music has appeared in even more, among them "My Dog Skip" and "Hannah and Her Sister."
James was married three times. His first wife was singer Louise Tobin, with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1943 and he married actress Betty Grable that same year. With her he had two more children, both daughters. James and Grable divorced after 22 years of marriage in 1965. He married a third time to Vegas showgirl Joan Boyd in 1968, but the marriage lasted only 2 years.
Despite a 1983 diagnosis of lymphatic cancer, Harry James continued to perform until nine days before his death. He passed away on July 5, 1983, exactly 40 years to the day after he married Betty Grable. The eulogy at his funeral was given by Frank Sinatra. In a strange bit of trivia, Betty Grable was buried 30 years to the day after the death of Harry James and 70 years to the day after their wedding.