Gary James' Interview With The Director Of
The Harry James Orchestra
Fred Radke

In the Golden Era of Big Bands, Harry James was one of the big names. He helped launch the career of a young and struggling singer by the name of Frank Sinatra. Harry James died in 1983, but his music will live on forever. Fred Radke is the Band Director for The Harry James Orchestra these days and he spoke to us, not only about his career, but about Harry James.

Q - Fred, I would think the hardest part of your job is to find musicians for The Harry James Orchestra, finding people who are playing the trumpet and trombone.

A - Well, today you have such a pool of great musicians. I'm involved with the University Of Washington and I have the Jazz band there. In fact, it's an endowed position. There's such great musicians out there today that that's really not a problem. They're just outstanding. I've got saxophone players that are 17, 18 years old that I just marvel at. Their playing is amazing. I think with the strong high school problems, the strong college problems, there's always room for them to get out of their studies. So then there's another pool; young musicians like that have another opportunity when they take a break from school to go work on the ships. Then they get great experience and sometimes you'll get young musicians; I think Glenn Miller gets some of his young musicians that come off the boats that have had their education and have played and want to go on the road with the band. That's kind of what I think their pool has been too. To answer your original question, it's not really difficult to find young musicians, to put 'em in the band, that are willing to go in the band and have this great experience because it's a lost art to be able to do this.

Q - That's what I was getting at. So, cruise ships are now taking the place of nightclubs when it comes to a proving ground for musicians.

A - Sure. They go out and they play shows. They play dance music and they play everything. That's kind of the way I started. When I was 18, I went on America Present Lines to the Far East from San Francisco. You had to play everything. You learned thousands of songs. All kinds of songs. It's really a terrific place for musicians to learn that kind of craft.

Q - Do most people walking around today know who Harry James was?

A - No.

Q - That's what I thought.

A - You've got to remember, the audience are World War II guys and gals and if you're a movie buff and know who Betty Grable is. (Harry James was married to Betty Grable) If you've got grandchildren, if you've got daughters and you asked them, this is very funny, if you asked a 14 year old kid, "Have you ever heard of The Beatles?". "No. What are they, a bug?" They haven't even heard of The Beatles. To us, Beatles are the '60s. You gotta figure out, that's a long time ago. Unless the music is brought out and they're aware of it, unless they're exposed to it, they don't know. If there's no P.R. on bands... they don't even know who (Count) Basie is. They don't even know who Duke Ellington is, young people. And it's because of the exposure of the bands. When you stop to think, there's not that many bands working anymore. We're one of the fortunate ones. It's not easy. It's different then when it was five years ago. (2009)

Q - I think with The Beatles, it's hard to escape their presence. McCartney is still out there performing and a new local station has popped up, playing Beatles' music 24/7.

A - To answer that, ask a 14 year old if they listen to that station. See, maybe that's a bad demographic to associate with this. Even high school kids, if we go play a high school and the stage band plays in front of us or something, people say, "I never had any idea that this band sounded this way." This is interesting. We played "Under The Stars" at Lincoln Center a few years ago when they used to have Big Bands. And we played there, outside New York City in July. An absolutely incredible setting. You can imagine, warm, balmy, people dancing and people were in the Opera and they came out on the break and they were mesmerized with the band playing what we were doing. There were a few thousand people that stayed around that place. So, I had a person come up from The Village Voice and he said, "You know, I never had any idea that Harry James sounded like this, this band sounds this way. This is really a very hip, straight ahead Jazz band situation." I said, "Yeah, Harry James changed his whole persona when he hired Ernie Wilinks and Thad Jones and Neal Hefti and all of Basie's writers 'cause he loved Count Basie. So, the whole band took on a different image. But Harry was always a famous Jazz trumpet player. He was one of the "hottest" trumpet players, Jazz players in the history of Jazz. But people go back and remember Harry doing "Sleepy Lagoon" and "You Made Me Love You". That's where he made all his money during that period of time. But his band was just as swingin' as Basie or Duke's or anybody's band. That was interesting to me that a reporter would say that to me, "I've had no idea this band sounded like this."

Q - People forget, music goes from one trend to the next.

A - I grew up in The Bay area. I'm from Oakland. I grew up in San Francisco. It was booming. I still go to San Francisco. There's no music business in San Francisco anymore. And you used to work all the time. You worked six or seven days a week in San Francisco. Now this is forty-five years ago. But what happens is, 'cause I've taught this history of Jazz for forty-five years, it's interesting because I said when I was in Vegas with Harry James, it was nothing to go across the street and see Sinatra there visiting with Harry or you'd see Dean Martin you'd see Johnny Carson or you'd see (Vic) Damone or you'd go through every star you want. Then all of a sudden you go to bed one night and you wake up and it's all gone. It's just something that you just take for granted. You never think it's going to end. Well, it dosen't really end. It changes. Years ago it was, "Isn't it easy to put on a concert! Let's put on a Big Band", and Mel Torme was a great friend of mine, "and put him in front of the band." Male singer. Female singer. What a great show. Easy logistically. Set up the band, lighting is easy. Sound check. Boom. Boom. You don't need all of the audio / visual and all of the stuff concerts are today. That's really simple, wasn't it? But now, today, what do you have? Who are the singers left to do anything like that? They're all gone, that are the famous singers, so to speak, that you can put in front of a Big Band. Buble, he's got his own band. You've got Harry Connick Jr. They're all great. He's got his own Big Band. But to put 'em with a name band today, there's nobody really left if you stop and think about that.

Q - We have a couple of people in our city who sing in that Big Band style. But where do you go with that? Where do you take an act like that?

A - Well see, this is an industry thing. Once again, if they're that type of singer, if there's a salute to Frank Sinatra or a salute to Big Bands or Swing, on the boats, they write a review about it and that person is going to have an edge. Where do they go with that? That's the great question 'cause I'm asked that all the time, being in higher education. I had a young girl singer who was 17 years old that sang great. Got the feel. Sounded just like Peggy Lee. Terrific. Where does she go with that? Okay. What do you want to do? Do you want to go work a lounge? Vegas doesn't have that kind of music anymore. Where you gonna go work? Some Jazz clubs in your home town. You're not going to become rich doing that. This is really eye-opening. My friend that ran all the music for the ship companies, he'd go out auditioning at all the colleges. So, he went to a major university and the pianist had just received his Doctorate in Jazz piano performance and in composition. Okay, pretty impressive. Sat him down, played the heck out of the piano. Turned around and played a beautiful ballad. Great. Then he said, "Can you play The Star Spangled Banner?" Guy couldn't play it. "Can you play Happy Birthday?" Couldn't play it. Now, that's just one point. Now a guy graduates from a major university and he has a degree, a PhD in Jazz trumpet performance. What does that mean? Where do you go with it? What do you do with it? There are no real Big Bands to travel anymore. When we were kids in high school, fifty years ago, you were in high school, you went to a hot shot college that had a big Jazz program. You got out of college, you went with Stan Kenton. Then you went on to the Cadillac bands of Harry (James) or (Count) Basie or Duke (Ellington). Then you went to Vegas. There were bands working all over Vegas. Probably 150 trumpet player jobs in Vegas. Then you were invited to Los Angeles to the studios to do TV shows. Well, first of all, there is no Las Vegas anymore, the way we knew it, with that many guys working. There is no more L.A. anymore. There's a handful of guys working. So, there are no Carol Burnett shows or Dean Martin shows or Tonight shows of what we know with a Big Band. So now, where does that go today? What do you tell him? Well, you become a college professor. You carry on your art form. You teach kids Jazz. But where do they go with that? They go, a major percentage of them, go nowhere. It's sad. I say at the end of every one our concerts, "Remember, support 'live' music. Support your Big Bands. Support your bands in your area. There's a band that rehearses over to the VFW Hall, go over and support them! Someday you'll go to bed and wake up and all this is gonna be gone. There won't be anybody left anymore, doing this kind of music, Big Band music as we know it." It's sad because it is Americana. It's expensive to run a Big Band. The budget to bring in a Big Band is not cheap. So, there's a lot of aspects there. So, it's hard to say what you're gonna tell a young guy that's got great talent. Go to New York. Starve to death. Maybe make it. Good for you. There's only one Wynton (Marsalis). There's only one so on, out of hundreds. A kid that plays great basketball, what's his chances of success of getting with the N.B.A.?

Q - In the original Harry James Band, how many of those musicians went to college and studied music?

A - Some did, but in those days people were in such dire straights coming out of the Depression. Anything they could get a chance to get out of the situation they were in, if they had the talent, they really excelled. Corky Corcoran, who was my very dear friend, joined Harry when he was like 16 years old. In fact, they had to adopt him to keep him on the bandstand, became his legal guardian. I don't even know if Corky finished high school. He might not have. but these guys were so talented. They were such champions. I don't think Sonny Payne, the great drummer, maybe I'm wrong, I don't think he went to college. But these guys were such master players.

Q - They did have to read music at some point, didn't they?

A - Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Q - Somebody had to teach them.

A - Absolutely. They were great talents. You know the story about Billy Joel. Look at Billy Joel. He never finished high school. They finally gave him his diploma 30 years ago or something from his high school. He reluctantly wanted to play the piano, but he wanted to get out of what he was doing. Look at what he became, one of the most famous musical artist next to Elton John in the world today. Probably the most celebrated. Billy Joel is in his 60s. And so is Elton John. We were just with Elton John last year at a private function with him in Europe. He was mind-boggling! Everybody knows who Billy Joel is. When I saw him play, holy cats! I have a whole different respect for this guy. He's a hell of a pianist. He really plays.

Q - There was a lot of thought behind Billy Joel's lyrics.

A - That's right. I wrote back to the hotel. We were in Cannes and we wrote back and his manager was in. So I said, "Tell me, he knew what I did. He knew I had Harry's band and so." His soundman, everybody has been with him since day one. Well, that kind of shows the type of guy he must be and the respect they have for him. The interesting thing is, you gotta remember his hits were 40 years ago too. What happened to the Big Bands? Why were their hits still creating the excitement that these acts did? Was it the age of the band? Was it the age of the band leader? The guys that were re-creating Big Band music of course is Buble. But I just saw him on the Today show and he had kind of a Rock band. So, maybe he is getting away from that. I don't know.

Q - When guys like Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra would stop by to say hello to Harry James in Las Vegas, was that impressive to you?

A - They came by to see Harry. Sinatra loved Harry James. Sinatra got his start with Harry. You know that story. We did the 50th anniversary for Harry James. The band was for Columbia Artists and Joe Graydon. Connie Haines was in the band. So was Art Luund. So, I asked Connie; I was with Connie for three months on this tour, and I learned a lot about Harry. She said, "I wasn't there that night. I went with Harry when he hired Sinatra. I was sitting there at the Rustic Cabin when he asked that question." Was I impressed when those people came by? Of course. You are at a level of musicianship, that as far as I'm concerned, can't get any higher than working with Harry. The first night I was with the band, someone came up and put her arms around me and said, "Welcome to the band." I turned around and it was Betty Grable. I mean, c'mon! (Laughs). I went and told my wife. She's a great singer herself. I told her, "Guess who I've met tonight?" Before the second song, she said "Betty Grable." I said, "It's funny you should say that. Yes!"

Q - There is a video on YouTube of Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass playing the Aragon Ballroom as part of their 1967 TV show. Later, that place became The Cheetah Club, where The Doors played. What a beautiful place! Tommy Dorsey played there. Maybe Harry James did too.

A - We've played some really interesting ballrooms. There's one in Providence that's really incredible. It's just beautiful. Really something. Two-tiered and a balcony. Big ballroom. We haven't played there in some years. Pee Wee Monty was Harry's manager for years and his brother Sal became Harry's manager after Pee Wee wanted off the road. Sal is on the road with Harry. They are very close. Sal is still alive. He's 95. Just talked to him yesterday. He is in charge of the estate. So he decides to get off the road. He gets off the road and somebody calls him and says, "Sal, you're not working with Harry right now. We've got a favor to ask you. Somebody is looking for a manager. Do you think you could find time to do it?" "Who is it?" "Some guy by the name of Herb Alpert. He's got a band." So, Sal goes with Herb Alpert and of course he's from the beginning of Herb Alpert, right to the end of Herb Alpert. We were talking about this yesterday. The first night he made it so big, the people were mauling at the limousine. Herb looks at him. He's a very nice man. He's a lovely man. He looks at Sal and says, "Is this how it's going to be?" Sal says, "I went through it with Harry, yup. This is how it's going to be. Get used to it." (Laughs). My bass player was with TJB.

Q - What's his name?

A - Bob Matthews. He was with Brazil '66. Then he went with TJB. Then he was one of Herb's record producers at A&M Records.

Q - One of, if not the advantage you enjoy over the other Big Band directors is that you actually knew and worked with Harry James before getting your present job.

A - That's true. I'm the only band leader with a "name" and that was there. Therefore, I know how it's supposed to go. I know what they expect and at what level they expect. Harry always expected 150% and that's what I expect and that's what receive. I take it very seriously. Sometimes when we're playing some of those charts, I can picture sitting up there watching Harry and Corky and Sonny Payne and Ray Simms and Red Kelly. They all flash before me, believe me. So, it's very authentic, let me put it that way.

Q - So, for the guy who follows you, it's going to be a lot tougher.

A - If there's anybody to do that. There's guys doing tributes, which is fine, but they haven't done a tribute to Fred Radke yet. (Laughs) I don't know what will happen. I'm not planning on going anywhere yet.

Q - How much work is there for the Harry James Orchestra? Is it seasonal work where you play festivals and theatres?

A - Well, we play theatres. Usually you're doing like community concerts type thing. We do some dances. We just did a dance in Lake Charles. Mostly we've been doing concerts. You're playing theatres, performing arts centers in cities. An interesting thing too, when we go way up North and the mid-West, a lot of bands never got there. They never went up that far. When we play those places, people say, "It's so thrilling to have the band here. We never saw the band in person. We could never drive to Chicago, three hours away and you're in town!" It's kind of rewarding for those type of things. We do some dates that run in spurts, so to speak. You do what you do today. To go out on the road for six months with the band? No, you don't do that anymore. The only touring band like that is Glenn Miller. That's about it.

Q - When did the last original member of The Harry James Orchestra pass away?

A - Original member. I can't say original member, but guys who were with him in the '40s, De Vito, the singer. He died I think last year (2013). I can't think of his first name. I'm sorry. I didn't know him, but I knew of him of course. There's a lot of guys who were in Harry's band in Vegas from the '60s, like myself. But original band? Everybody's gone.

Q - That's kind of what I thought.

A - There's guys that I used that were with Harry the same time I was, but the original guys are all gone. You gotta figure they'd be in their middle 90s now, the majority of 'em.

Q - What would it take to bring back the era of the Big Bands?

A - I think there's the old saying; You think Big Bands will ever be back? Harry had a phrase one time, "Good Big Bands never left," which they never will. It will never be completely over. It will never be completely over for Harry James or the most famous bands. To bring back Big Bands, it's gotta be exposure. We used to do much more casinos than we do now. They bring in Rock or they bring in Country. They bring in Comedy. Maybe they need to bring in a Big Band once in awhile. It's exposure. Everything is exposure. See, you could do the Letterman show or any of those shows, but you have to be on that show for a reason. What are you doing? Are you on tour? Are you playing for the Queen? Are you going to Russia? What is this band doing right now? See, you have to have a reason why to be on a show like that. It's exposure.

Q - And you hope the right people are watching.

A - Sure.

Official Website:

© Gary James. All rights reserved.