Big band leader James Last dies after illness

James Last's brand of middle of the road music proved to have lasting appeal. Picture: AP
James Last's brand of middle of the road music proved to have lasting appeal. Picture: AP
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Big band leader James Last, whose style of light orchestral entertainment appealed to a wide audience in his native Germany and abroad, has died. He was 86.

Last died on Tuesday at his home in Palm Beach, Florida, after a “short, serious illness,” his management company said.

“He was an outstanding and important artist who lived for music and who wrote music history,” Semmel Concerts said in a statement posted on its website.

Yesterday, the musician’s manager said: “Mr Last passed away yesterday in Florida, peacefully and in the presence of his family.

“In him, the world loses a unique ambassador whose expressive and all-encompassing language was music.

“We bid farewell to the man, friend and visionary, who by his impressive strength and openness, his professionalism, modesty and love of life served as a role model and as an inspiration for many generations worldwide.”

Born Hans Last in the north German city of Bremen in 1929, he decided to pursue a musical career in 1943, at a time when Nazi Germany was nearing total defeat. After the Second World War, Last played double bass in several orchestras before signing his first record deal with Polydor in 1964. His record company changed his name to James to make him sound less German when his debut album came out in the UK. He was not consulted about the change – but went along with it anyway.

Known to his friends as “Hansi,” he pioneered what then became known as “Happy Sound” – crowd-pleasing renditions of swing, jazz and pop songs that Last had either rearranged or decided to compose himself.

His illness took a “life-threatening” turn last September and apparently 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”.

That led him to announce his final British shows – his 89th and 90th concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall – which took place in March.

“I can’t talk about goodbye – it’s a terrible feeling,” he said at the time.

During his career, he charted with 65 albums in Britain alone, and at his peak was creating two albums a month.

He gained a large and loyal worldwide fanbase – but was derided by many music purists who did not like his middle-of-the-road versions of classic tunes.

In the course of more than 50 years, Last produced over 100 records, including many chart hits.

The Lonely Shepherd, which Last composed for the pan flute in 1977, featured in Quentin Tarantino’s film Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

Semmel Concerts said a public memorial service would take place in Hamburg, Germany, in the coming weeks.