The Harry James orchestra, under the direction of trumpeter Fred Radke, will play at 7 p.m. Friday, May 1, in the Rollins Room at the Dover Downs Hotel & Casino. The band is in its 70th year of existence.
Big Band maestro Harry James probably never got the chance to visit the First State during his band’s heyday in the 1940s. Now, those in love with his music will get a chance to see the James orchestra — live and in full musical bloom — next weekend in Dover.
The Harry James orchestra, now under the direction of trumpeter Fred Radke, will make its Dover debut at 7 p.m. Friday, May 1, in the Rollins Room at the Dover Downs Hotel & Casino.
“The Harry James band always had a mystique about it, and it still does,” Radke said in an interview from his Seattle-area home. “People would come out in droves to see this band. This is the 70th year we’ve been in existence, and that’s really something.”
James established his orchestra in 1939 with money borrowed from his former employer, Benny Goodman. One of his first acts was to hire an unknown named Frank Sinatra, which started a trend away from the era’s swing music and into popular hits. The band flourished during World War II with songs such as “I’ll Get By,” “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” and “Sleepy Lagoon.”
With Big Band music fading somewhat after the war, James disbanded the orchestra in 1951, but continued leading smaller bands afterward. He was a fixture on the Las Vegas strip, where he played hotels until his death from cancer in 1973.
The 14-member band now touring under the aegis of the James estate will feature many of his war-era hits as well as modern fare, Radke said.
“Harry’s band is a brassy, trumpet-player’s band,” said Radke. “We’re a very lively, very edgy sounding band. We’ve got a lot of flair.”
Radke learned much from James himself, having worked with the legendary entertainer in the late 1960s.
“I remember sitting there; he was 52 and I was in my 20s, and I’m thinking, ‘He plays pretty well for an old guy,’” Radke said. “Now they’re saying the same about me.”
Over the course of a few months, Radke learned James was not only a terrific musician but a down-to-earth person as well.
“He liked people who were real people,” Radke said. “He’d rather hire someone who had a great positive outlook about music than someone who was a better player but who had an attitude.
“Harry could walk on stage, put a horn in his face and just play,” he added. “He could do stuff no one else could do. He was just a flawless player.”
Ed Sutor, president and CEO of Dover Downs Hotel & Casino, said the James orchestra — one of three Big Bands to be featured there this year — meant a lot to the wartime generation.
“The rich melodies of 1930s and ’40s Big Bands brought joy to a nation in one of America’s most challenging times,” Sutor said.
“The audience today is made up of not only those who came up in that era, but it is not uncommon to see young couples appreciating the music as well,” he said. “Like the universal sentiments in ‘You Made Me Love You,’ this music is simply timeless.”
“Big Band music is very popular today,” Radke noted. “For example, ‘Dancing with the Stars,’ has made people more aware of the music, and there are Big Band competitions at colleges. They’re studying this music and they’re carrying the torch.”
And just what will lovers of Big Band music experience May 1 with this incarnation of the Harry James Orchestra?
“They’re going to see a great band,” Radke said. “They’ll hear some of the music that made Harry James so famous.
“The sound is so distinct, and people will be thoroughly entertained,” he said.
“This is one cookin’ band.”
Email Jeff Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go...
What: Harry James Orchestra, with Fred Radke
When: 7 p.m. Friday, May 1
Where: Rollins Center, Dover Downs Hotel & Casino
Admission: $10 to $15
Information: Call VIP Services at 800-711-5882 or visit www.doverdowns.com