If you’re ever asked the pop trivia question, which act has had the most hit albums but not one top 40 hit single, you’d be hard pushed to come up with the right answer, but if you ever are, just reply with James Last and you’ll impress the person asking.
Hans Last was born in Bremen in Germany in 1929 and began studying piano at the age of 10 but his first piano teacher thought he lacked a natural talent so he changed tutors. His second one was much better and after a few years he decided to study the double bass. During the Second World War he assisted the air defence command posts by delivering messages and also took up learning the tuba too.
At the age of 14 he decided to put his talents to the test at a music academy and towards the end of the war he got gigs in American GI clubs, which exposed him to new styles. His favourite instrument was double bass and he soon found a job in Radio Bremen’s newly-founded dance orchestra. In the early fifties he became the leader of the Last-Becker Ensemble and when they disbanded he joined Polydor Records in Germany as their in-house arranger and worked closely with Helmut Zacharias and Caterina Valente.
He began releasing albums with his own orchestra in 1959, the first being Tricks in Rhythm. His breakthrough only came when he found his so-called ‘happy sound’ and began performing with his own orchestra under the stage name James Last. Almost no song could escape the James Last treatment; he proved this in 1972 when he converted Hawkwind’s Silver Machine into a masterpiece by replacing Lemmy’s vocals with a brass instrument.
In the UK he charted 66 albums between 1967 and 2011 with five of them making the top 10. His only hit single came in 1980 when he recorded Georgio Moroder’s tune The Seduction as the theme for the film American Gigolo. It was beautiful, moody and seductive but only reached number 48.
Like Max Bygraves huge amounts of his albums ended up in charity shops, but that’s just an indication of how many people bought them in the first place, but perhaps grew out of them, after all he did spend 435 weeks on the UK album chart. By 1973, James Last had already racked up 100 gold discs and sold 80 million LPs.
As a writer, three songs he penned made it into the UK singles chart courtesy of other singers, Donald Peers was the first in 1966 with Games That Lovers Play followed three years later by Andy Williams who took Happy Heart to number 47 and the final one was Elvis Presley who took Last’s tune No Words and asked Carl Sigman to add lyrics which then became Fool and made number 15 in 1973.
By the 1970s his trademark became big band arrangements of pop songs and he toured relentlessly across the whole of Europe. In 2007 he published his autobiography which he simply called My Autobiography and at the time was quoted as saying, “I tend to think more about what’s coming tomorrow than what happened yesterday.”
In the summer of 2014 he became ill which he stated took a “life-threatening” turn last September. It forced him to face the fact that, “A man full of plans, needs to not just slow down but give up his life on tour altogether. This final tour would give me the opportunity to bid farewell to my fans.” The tour kicked off in February this year and he said, “The main thing is that my fans have the best concerts of their lives and we will make this our ‘happiest’ concert yet,” He said in a BBC interview following his concerts at the Royal Albert Hall, “I can’t talk about goodbye – it’s a terrible feeling,”
Last had two homes, one in Hamburg and one in Florida and whilst at home in Florida on 9th June he died peacefully in his sleep surrounded by his family.
One of his best loved and infectious tunes was called Happy Music which many radio DJs have used as their theme tune. Have a listen.