JJ 12/71: Harry James and his orchestra in Birmingham

Fifty years ago Tony Middleton revelled in the return to England of an on-form James band. First published in Jazz Journal December 1971

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Harry James in earlier years as an MCA artist. Photo from JJ archive


I was looking forward to hearing the James orchestra in a club setting but was unfortunately ill during their stay at Ronnie Scott’s club; so I travelled to Birmingham to catch one night at the ‘Opposite Lock’.

This turned out to be a small and friendly place with not quite enough room for a large band – Ernie Small had to sit with the three trombones and John Smith, having no room for his double bass, played the small electric variety all night. The acoustics were brilliant, admis­sion and bar prices very reasonable.

How nice to see familiar friendly faces such as Corky Corcoran, Dave Robbins and Jack Perciful still with the band. Dave had rejoined just for this tour – he has his own band in Canada – and seemed happy to be back blowing in his grand robust style. The other major soloist, apart from Harry, was Corky Corcoran who played some beautiful ballads with his big Hawkins/Webster tone and proved he was certainly no slouch on the uptempo numbers.

The trumpet section were outstanding, with most of the lead work carried by John Madrid who previously sparked the Stan Kenton, Si Zentner, and Buddy Rich bands. His early musical experience was with the Kenton Junior Neophonic Orchestra and he had been with James about four months.

New to me and to the band was Dick Spencer; previously with Kenton and Maynard Ferguson, he played some very modern style alto in Caravan and I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart from the Ellington medley. This also featured Corky Corcoran (In a Mellowtone) and Dave Robbins. Dave has been a James regular on and off for 20 years. He may have lost a little weight since his last trip to England but I was glad to see his happy roarin’ trombone style safely intact.

Another returnee was Ernie Small, who had worked for James eight years previously and includes stays with Charlie Barnet, Skinny Ennis and Frankie Carle plus a six month stint as M.D. for the Beach Boys in his musical life. He is currently on the Johnny Carson T.V. show – in fact the last James gig was on a Monday at Croydon and Ernie was due back on the T.V. show Wednes­day. His main feature was Ultra and he played some nice flute in one of Rita Graham’s vocals. Miss Graham looked good and sang well. Sonny Payne entertained the audience with his usual drumnastics, adding the wall of the club to his kit (watch out Oxo!) as he literally hit every­thing in sight.

James himself was wonderful, leading the band through favourites such as Shiny Stockings, Tuxedo Junction, Opus One, Moonglow, Satin Doll, Take The ‘A’ Train and other swing era titles. He still plays fine hot jazz trumpet, although I thought he was not as mellow as he used to be on ballad numbers; still his style suits this current band very well. The band have not recorded as a unit since 1968 which seems a pity; James himself was in England before the tour, recording, and is due back sometime in January, again on his own, to record with English musicians.

Harry James Band: James (tp/ldr), John Madrid, Walter Pfyl, Bob Hicks, Peter Bellow (tp), Dave Robbins, Robert Payne (tb), Gail Martins (bs-tb), Don Mohr, Dick Spencer (alt), Corky Corcoran (ten/ clt), Rodger Dale (ten), Ernie Small (bari/flute), Jack Perciful (pno/arr), John Smith (fender-bs), Sonny Payne (dm), Rita Graham (vcl).

Tony Middleton also reviewed the James band’s London visit in September 1970.