Obituary: James Last, big band leader

Born: 17 April, 1929, in Bremen, Germany. Died: 9 June, 2015, Palm Beach, Florida, aged 86.

James Last continued to perform to sell-out audiences even though he knew he had a serious illness. Picture: Getty
James Last continued to perform to sell-out audiences even though he knew he had a serious illness. Picture: Getty

James Last was a German composer and band leader whose work in interpreting pop and rock classics into the relaxed easy listening style brought him huge popularity – particularly in his native country and in the United Kingdom – from the 1960s onwards. So extensive and diverse was his output, arranged across versions of albums released in different countries and under German and English titles, that reports differ as to just how quantifiably ­successful he was.

Yet to say “very much so” would not be a disservice; Last released just over an estimated two hundred albums in total, selling around 100 million copies worldwide. Fifty-two of these records were hits in the UK, making him Britain’s second most successful album artist ever, after Elvis Presley. His sales earned him two hundred gold discs, while he played the Royal Albert Hall in London around 90 times in his career, a significant chunk of the 2,000-plus shows he played throughout his life.

Born Hans Last to parents Louis and Martha, he was raised in suburban, pre-war Bremen as the youngest of three brothers, with his older siblings Robert and Werner also making their later careers in music (Robert as long-serving drummer for both of his brothers; Werner as a band leader in his own right under the name Kai Warner). He also had three half-­sisters from his former seaman turned council official and amateur musician father’s first marriage. Although Last spent most of his teenage years in a Germany under Nazi rule and convulsing its way through the Second World War – his home city Bremen was totalled by Allied bombing in 1944 – he would emerge from the cataclysm unscathed.

In fact, at the time, the war was both the making of and the main hindrance to Last’s musical career. A self-taught pianist before the age of ten who would progress through the use of tutors to the double bass, he entered the military music academy of the German Wehrmacht (army) at the age of 14. There he would add brass to his repertoire, before the Frankfurt campus of the school was destroyed by an air raid. The school moved to Buckenburg near Hanover, which was again destroyed. Last had his training, but he believed that a position at the head of a “serious” orchestra would have come early in his career, were it not for all the upheaval and the loss of his alma mater.

Instead, it was the occupying American GI forces who inadvertently set Last upon the way with his future career, as the young musician came to play first in the jazz clubs frequented by soldiers and then with his brothers in the Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra. The trio teamed with player Karl-Heinz Becker in 1948, and performed as the Last-Becker Ensemble throughout the first half of the 1950s, playing music influenced by Last’s ­heroes Woody Herman and Stéphane Grappelli. When this group ended, Last took the role of player and arranger with the North German Radio Dance Orchestra in Hamburg, a role he held until signing a recording contract with Polydor in 1964.

Rebranded as James Last in order to increase his appeal beyond Germanic markets – and reputedly by someone within the label who didn’t tell him, Hans only finding out he was now “James” when copies of his first album arrived in the post – Last made his first major international breakthrough with the Non Stop Dancing album in 1965. Inspiring follow-up editions for almost the next two decades, it saw Last and his band take popular music tracks such as Millie’s My Boy Lollipop, Petula Clark’s Downtown and a clutch of Beatles songs, and give them a trademark upbeat orchestral makeover. It was a style which Last would call his “happy sound”, and it made his name.

Huge success followed, including experiments in various genres and technologies. Although often seen as the preserve of grandmothers and of non-serious music fans, partly due to his commercial ubiquity through television adverts for his albums and a perception of his songs as “elevator musak”, Last would accrue various footnotes in his career which lent him a more credible standing in retro­spect.

His cover of Hawkwind’s Silvermachine and his 1971 album Voodoo Party have a certain cachet amongst fans of psychedelic and electronic music, for example, while his sole major chart hit single – The Seduction, the love theme from the 1980 Richard Gere film American Gigolo – was composed by disco producer Giorgio Moroder. In later decades Danny Boyle used Andy Williams’ Happy Heart, which was written by Last, on the soundtrack of his film Shallow Grave, while Quentin Tarantino would use Last’s atmospheric pan-pipe composition Einsamer Hirte (The Lonely Shepherd) on the soundtrack of Kill Bill: Vol 1.

A keen golfer, Last would remain working until his final days. Diagnosed with an unspecified serious illness near the end of his life, Hansi – as Last was known to friends and fans alike – booked to play two more sold-out farewell shows at the Royal Albert Hall in early 2015, and fulfilled those emotional bookings barely two months before his death at home in Palm Beach, Florida, surrounded by family.

He is survived by his second wife Christine and his children from his first marriage to Waltraud (who died in 1997, 42 years after the couple married), Ronald and Caterina.