Monday 26 September 2016

Obituary: James Last, big band leader

Born April 17, 1929, died June 09, 2015

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

James Last: A great lover of Ireland, he is most renowned here for Jägerlatein, the much loved theme music of RTE's The Sunday Game
James Last: A great lover of Ireland, he is most renowned here for Jägerlatein, the much loved theme music of RTE's The Sunday Game

James Last, the German big band leader, who has died aged 86, was the acknowledged master of "easy listening", specialising in swirling, foot-tapping orchestral and soft vocal takes on classical and pop favourites.

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There were two schools of thought on Last's string-heavy brand of "happy music". He never won a Brit or troubled the Grammy voters, and in general musical cognoscenti, both classical and pop, considered him irredeemably naff - the "Emperor of Elevator Music" - to be ranked alongside Mantovani and listened to with a Babycham topped with a maraschino cherry.

Yet "Hansi", as he was affectionately known by his legions of fans, was phenomenally successful, selling well over 100 million albums and winning 17 platinum and 206 gold disc awards - more than any other artist.

The always smartly dressed Last was ubiquitous on German television, conducting his musicians for an audience of millions.

He filled enormous concert halls and toured, playing more than 2,000 gigs in the course of his career.

A great lover of Ireland, he is most renowned here for Jägerlatein, the much loved theme music of RTÉ's The Sunday Game.

He was particularly successful in Britain, where he had 52 hit albums between 1967 and 1986, making him second only to Elvis Presley in UK chart history; one British critic described him as being to music "what Harold Robbins is to literature".

He also had extraordinary staying power, continuing to perform at sell-out concerts until earlier this year.

Last composed some original melodies, including 'Happy Heart', which became a hit for Andy Williams and Petula Clark, and 'Games that Lovers Play' ('Eine Ganze Nacht' in German), which was recorded by Eddie Fisher. But his true forte was rearranging the compositions of others. His formula was simple.

He would take a popular chart hit (or well-known classical piece: Strauss the Johanns) and Mozart were favourites) and orchestrate or reorchestrate it, smoothing off the harder edges and introducing a disco-friendly beat.

"I just take songs that I like, make new arrangements and millions of people from China, Australia, America and Britain like what I do," he explained.

Last was born Hans Last in the north German city of Bremen on April 17, 1929 to an English father and a German mother.

His father was an official in the city's postal and public works department and a keen amateur musician.

Hans took piano lessons from the age of 10. At 14 he was sent to the Wehrmacht's Bückeburg Military Music School, where he added the double bass and tuba to his repertoire, though his studies were interrupted when the school was bombed by the Allies.

After the fall of the Nazis, Last played the double bass at gigs in American GI clubs, which exposed him to new jazz styles, and in 1946, with his brothers Werner and Robert, he became one of the first members of Hans Günther Oesterreich's Radio Bremen Dance and Entertainment Orchestra. Two years later he co-founded the Last-Becker Ensemble, which performed for seven years, for three of which (1950-52) he was voted the best bassist in the country by a German jazz poll. Afterwards he became the in-house arranger for Polydor Records, as well as for a number of European radio stations. In the early 1960s Last began to release some albums of his own - initially with little success.

His breakthrough did not come until the middle of the decade, when he found his "happy sound" and began performing with his own orchestra under the stage name James Last.

His Non-Stop Dancing (1965), a recording of brief renditions of popular songs, all linked together with an insistent beat and atmospheric background "party noises", made him a major European star.

"My idea was that you open the door and hear the party sounds," he explained. "You think there is a party going on even if there are only two people in the room."

Once his albums started to fly off the shelves, Last began touring and became an even bigger success. Recreating the party atmosphere in the concert hall, he managed to get audiences on their feet and dancing in the aisles; in Hamburg they became positively delirious.

He gave his first concert in Britain in October 1971 at the New Victoria Theatre in London; when he returned in 1973, the tour included three sell-out concerts at the Royal Albert Hall.

By 1973 Last had already racked up 100 golden records, sold 80 million LPs and had toured most of the world: "He has been to Russia and created scenes of ludicrous Western cultural decadence in Moscow's grand stadium of sport," a Billboard critic reported. "He has been to Canada, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Music fans in Outer Mongolia need not get too perturbed. He's bound to find time to visit them soon."

But it was not just the post-war generation that took Last to their hearts. When one of his tracks, 'The Seduction', was used as the theme tune in the 1980 film American Gigolo, he found a new audience, and when the film director Quentin Tarantino used his recording of 'The Lonely Shepherd' for Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003), his credibility was assured into the new century.

Last ended his performing career in April this year with two concerts at London's Albert Hall - his 89th and 90th at the venue, and a final performance in Cologne.

By his own admission, Last played as hard as he worked and his memoirs, My Autobiography (2007), revealed a man whose workaholic lifestyle and enthusiastic partying (including struggles with alcohol and serial womanising) blinded him to the demands of his family for many years. He always enjoyed a close relationship with his orchestra, many members of which had been with him from the beginning to the end of his career.

When his first wife Waltraud, whom he had married in 1955, died in 1997 he moderated the more excessive aspects of his behaviour, eventually marrying his second wife Christine, with whom he divided his time between homes in Hamburg and Florida.

She survives him, with two children of his first marriage.

© Daily Telegraph

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