“Good background, but it is not for listening to”

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1970s / Biographies and Memoirs

James Last by Bob Willox

Everest Books, 207pp, 1976

For this, the opening post in The Pop Music Library, it seems only fitting that Last should be first.

I bought Bob Willox’s 1976 biography of James Last at the secondhand bookshop in Blickling Hall, a National Trust property in Norfolk. It cost £1.80. I may be one of the few people who has not just read the book recently, but actually re-read it. And even though I wanted to feature it on the blog, it’s a book I could easily have read for a second time simply for the pleasure of it. Rather unexpectedly – given the subject of the work is the German crown prince of easy listening, and therefore rather a conservative proposition – the book is a heady delight of booze, birds and backing musicians, rich with period detail about life on the road and the pains and pleasures of being a session musician.

50p funk: James Last’s Hair.

The name James Last is a less evocative one than it used to be. For anyone growing up in the 1970s, it was difficult to ignore the presence of the blonde, bearded Last smiling enigmatically from a hundred album covers as he introduced us to another selection for Non-Stop Dancing or the delights of a Beach Party. As anyone who’s gone hunting for records in charity shops will know, his albums continue to clog up the nation’s Oxfams and Salvation Armies, and to his detractors, the contents are thoughtlessly dismissed as ‘music for people who don’t like music’. But for those with a certain refined taste, there are plenty of groovy musical outings to be enjoyed: the LPs Hair (1969), Voodoo Party (1972) and Well Kept Secret (1975) all enjoy a reputation today with beat-diggers and fans of crisply performed, funky lounge.

Even at the time of the book’s publication, James Last was breaking as many records as he was making – and given his phenomenal output, this was no mean feat. Willox notes that in May 1976, Last had sold over 40 million LPs worldwide and was the proud owner of 125 gold albums. The discography at the front of the book reveals that Last issued 28 LPs in the years 1968-1971 in the UK, ten of them in 1971 alone. The book lists various triumphs in the area of performance, too: his gigs in Britain in the seventies selling out instantly, playing to 60,000 in the centre of Berlin, and a series of 20 concerts in the former Soviet Union in 1972 (a tour which Willox recounts in grim detail).

(From the book) An appropriately chaotic photoshoot for the Moscow tour.

(From the book) An appropriately chaotic photoshoot for the Moscow gig in ’72.

But the book is much more than a list of facts and figures. Take this description of the James Last Band’s drummer, caught in full flight during an extended funky work out on (of all things) ‘Greensleeves’:

A drum beat breaks the hush, with a rhythm that would guide redskins safely round a totem pole. This hide-beater sure bends the pan – which is the Dixie way of saying that the drummer grimaces, distorts the face, screws the fizzog, as the energy runs from every muscle of his body to his hands, fluttering like wasps’ wings, sticks stinging the skin ten-a-second. Sweat-matted black locks cling to his creased forehead, a head cocked for balance, its hair-encrusted mouth opening for breath to reveal misaligned teeth.

“From England – BARRY REEVES,” shouts Last, and leaves his drummer to the spotlight.

It’s rich stuff to be sure, if not actually overripe, but in this early section of the book (which is cutely divided as a whole into two ‘Sides’, or halves, and nine ‘Bands’, or chapters) Willox is striving to describe the energy of Last’s euphoria-inducing gigs. And there can be no doubting the impact these gigs have on their audience. Last is clear-sighted about what he’s trying to do with his life’s work.  At one point he’s quoted as saying, “It pleases me to know that I can make so many people happy with my music. That really is my one and only ambition.” And as presented in the book, those people tend to be the middle-aged and the older generation. Willox describes the atmosphere at his gigs as “mature mania. . .You saw the Smiths and the Joneses, and the cross-sections, the Mr Averages and your men-in-the-street, the passers-by, onlookers, ghouls and spokesmen, housewives and househusbands. Everybody – anybody – happybody.” Check out the audience’s reaction from the clip below (about 1’ 48” in) of his 1978 Royal Albert Hall show to see what this actually looks like.

Willox doesn’t appear to have interviewed Last directly, but his assistants have certainly done their research in collating a wealth of decent quotes from the man. What is very valuable too is that the author has had close access to the musicians in the band, and they’re very open about their feelings towards their employer. Bandleaders are not known for their generosity, but Last has an excellent reputation for being good to his musicians, and the book notes his all-expenses-paid outings for his entourage in Las Vegas and Hamburg. At the same time, the band members grumble (anonymously) about the fact that their pay hasn’t gone up in three years and that they’re being asked to stump up for more of their hotel bills each year. They have mixed feelings about the music they play, too. Needless to say, they play it brilliantly because they’re professionals, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it. Trumpeter Rick Kiefer says, “I think Last’s music is good background, but it is not for listening to.” Trombonist Georges Delagaye is more outspoken still: “I go to a job, play the notes and I pick up the money. I have no scruples about what I perform. I’ll play anything as long as the money is good. All I can say about it is that it will be well-played.”

Still, when they’re not grumbling, the band seems to have a very good time. The details of Last’s rise to fame from playing jazz in post-war Bremen and leading the North German Radio Dance Orchestra are interspersed with his band members’ drinking games and occasional illicit liaisons. The Germans don’t just call Last ‘The Party King’ for his music; he also just likes a party. As well as the paid-for trips for the musicians, he builds a leisure complex in Fintel, a village 60 miles south of Hamburg, and throws it open to his band and friends, many of whom have their own keys to come and go as they please.

(From the book) Bearded men on tour: a pitstop for the James Last Band. Carnage almost certainly followed.

(From the book) Bearded men on tour: a pitstop for the James Last Band. Carnage almost certainly followed.

Willox’s book paints a picture of an inexhaustibly driven and creative man, who works hard to create happiness through his work and in those around him. But in its picture of a hairy, sweaty, boisterous band of jazzmen at the peak of their powers and having fun, the book goes well beyond a simple character portrait.

Of course, Last himself is still going strong: still covering the pop hits of today (including on his most recent tour the songs of Lady Gaga), and still releasing albums. But let’s go back to the James Last Band of an earlier period and enjoy a thumping version of ‘Gonna Fly Now’, better known as the theme from Rocky. This clip features Barry Reeves, he of the famously misaligned teeth, together with other stalwarts of the band featured in the book, including trumpeter Bob Lanese and bassist Benny Bendorff.

4 Comments

  1. At Last! A balanced account of the man whose face haunts my dreams. You really must check out the segue of Love Child/Fox on the Run/Blackberry Way on “Non-Stop Dancing 69” – truly err…satz entertainment! But I wonder if those revellers in Last hats and Last kilts got beaten up on their way home from the Albert Hall in 1978? Or did they have the Last laugh?

    • D Furman, I’m always delighted to receive recommendations from Herr Last’s back catalogue and I’ll certainly check this out. I suspect the Albert Hall party continued unabated into South Kensington tube station and all the way to the end of the District Line (Southbound). No hoodlum would dare tussle with a crowd of Hansi’d-up revellers.

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