June 9, 2015 – James Last was born Hans Last on April 17, 1929 in Bremen Germany, the third son for Louis and Martha Last, and christened Hans. His father, a post-office worker, was a keen amateur musician, competent on both drums and bandoneon. He learned to play piano as child, and bass as a teenager. He joined Hans-Gunther Oesterreich’s Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra in 1946, when he was 17 years old.
The brothers Last, Robert, Werner and young Hans, enjoyed their game of street football and so father Louis was pleased when all three expressed more than just an passing interest in music.
By the age of nine, young Hans could play “Hanschen Klein”, a German folk song on the piano, but his first music teacher, a lady, claimed at the age of ten he was totally unmusical. A year or so later with tutor number two, a gentleman, things started to happen. At the age of fourteen Hans was off to military school in Frankfurt where he studied brass, piano and tuba.
Hans’ parents were pleased with the appointment. It was hoped that he would emerge from the school as classically trained conductor. After passing his first exam, the school was bombed and the students were evacuated to Buckenburg, just outside Hanover, to continue their training.
Later, Buckenburg was also lost to war devastation. Hans claims that if he had stayed at Buckenburg, he would have been a conductor of serious music by the time he was twenty three.
After the war, Hans-Gunter Oesterreich, who organised entertainment for the American clubs, signed Hans Last for his first professional engagements. Later, Oesterreich secured a major post with Radio Bremen, and soon, the Last brothers were all working together.
In 1948, they joined forces with Karl-Heinz Becker, and became known as the Last-Becker Ensemble.
Hans was sold on jazz, Woody Herman and Stephan Grapelli being among his favorites. In 1959 Hans Last was voted Germany’s Top Jazz Bassist, a title held until 1953. In 1955 the Last-Becker Ensemble was on the verge of breaking up. At this stage Hansi considered forming his own band, but lack of funds halted this project. Instead they joined the North German Radio Dance Orchestra in Hamburg.
Soon Hans was arranging music for the NDR, he stayed with the NDR until 1964 when he signed a contract for Polydor. He became a much sought after arranger and was soon scoring hits for Caterina Valente, Freddy Quinn, Helmut Zacharias in Hamburg, he even flew to Nashville to record Brenda Lee singing in German.
It was in 1955 that Hans married the attractive Waltraud Wiese from Bremen and by 1958, the Last household had become four, with the birth of a son Ronald and a daughter Caterina.
Soon a couple of albums hit the market. Hans Last and his Orchestra had arrived, but suddenly the next release on the Polydor label featured James Last and his Orchestra. Somebody somewhere within the record company felt that James had more international appeal than Hans.
Now James Last wanted to unleash upon the Germans his new party sound. His idea was to record the top hits of the day, and them hold a party in the studio to build up the atmosphere. In 1965 the Non Stop Dancing sound of James Last was launched.
In 1967, with seven or eight of his early albums making the German charts, and the launch of the Non Stop Dancing series, Polydor produced a budget price sampler album “This is James Last” and suddenly the Last sound was launched worldwide.
In the United Kingdom, this sampler sold for twelve shillings and sixpence. “This is James Last” entered the British album charts on April 15th, 1967, it stayed for forty-eight weeks and reached the number six position. In the U.K. sales topped 400,000. James Last had arrived.
James Last albums were selling by the thousands in Germany, Holland, Belgium, and here in the United Kingdom. Album after album reached the national charts. Whilst on a crest of the wave in Europe, it is reported that in Canada in 1967, five percent of the total record sales were by James Last. By 1969, the success in the record sales was phenomenal, but the Last band was a studio band, and yet to appear live. During 1969 Hans Last was persuaded to take the James Last Orchestra on tour. A four week tour of Germany had been lined up.
Many artists throughout the music business are great on disc, and terrible on stage, and vice-versa. Hansi wanted to recreate on stage the stereo sound which had been so succesful in the studio.
First the services of Peter Klemt were secured, he had succesfully mastered and mixed the early recordings. Peter immediately went out and purchased two mixers, one for the Hanover strings, whom Hansi had hired for the tour, and one for the brass section. The rhythm quartet was in front flanked by the English choir. By the end of the tour, Last was well and truly established. Soon plans were in hand to take the Orchestra to Canada for Expo 69 in Montreal.
1969 was a big year for the James Last Orchestra. In Cannes they received the International Midem Prize, the music industry’s Oscar. In Germany they were voted the number one Orchestra. The Germans gave Hansi the title of “Arranger of the Year”.
In 1970 the Last Orchestra were on the road in Germany again, a tour which had to be lengthened because of the demand for tickets. They toured Denmark and the gold discs were arriving thick and fast.
Now Hansi wanted to conquer the British. The entourage finally arrived in October, 1971. The New Victoria Theatre in London, housed the first concert. Whilst records came at the rate of around six a year, 1972, must have been the most productive year on the road. Another tour of Germany was followed by visits to Russia, South America, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. 10,000 fans attended a James Last Voodoo Party in the Hamburg woods.
Last returned to Britain in 1973. The tour included three sell out concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall. By the time the 1973, UK tour was under way, twenty seven Last albums have entered the British album charts. After Britain, another tour of Canada and in December 1973, Hansi received his 100th Gold Record. During 1973, we saw the composition of a leissure centre Hansi built for the band at Fintel on Lumberg Heath. Here the band coudl relax and take a few days break, the complex had half a dozen or so bedrooms, kitchen, lounge, sports equipment. All the members in the band were given a key, and the centre was frequently used by many Last musicians to get away and relax after weeks on the road and in the recording studio.
By the mid-seventies Hansi and the James Last Orchestra were established as a top recording artist and sell out concerts attraction around the world. Hansi, was also scoring as a composer. Most Last albums have included a Last composition. In March 1969 Andy Williams entered the U.S. charts with Hansi’s composition “Happy Heart”, it stayed for 22 weeks and reached number seven. Here in May, it reached number nineteen, appearing in the charts for nine weeks. Elvis Presley recorded Hansi’s composition called “No Words”, words were added and “No Words” became “Fool”. “Fool” reached number 23 in the U.K. charts in August 1973 and stayed for seven weeks.
Without any chart success, probably the most famous Last composition is “Games That Lovers Play”. Over 100 recordings available worldwide including versions by Freddy Quinn, Connie Francis and Eddie Fisher.
Although Andy Williams scored with “Happy Heart” the number has been recorded by Petula Clark, Roger Williams, The Gunter Kaftan Choir, The Anita Kerr Singers, Norrie Paramor and his Orchestra and Peggy March.
Television has played a major part in the James Last success story. In 1968 ZDF Television launched a new music spectacular entitled Star Parade. The James Last Orchestra were residents for the 50 shows produced. The biggest names in music all guested on the show; Abba, Barry Manilow, Cliff Richard, Boney M, Roger Whitaker. Many television specials had been produced here in the United Kingdom. In 1971 on their first British tour the BBC took Hansi and the Orchestra along to the Dorchester Hotel, to record a fifty minute special before an invited audience. Dance Night at the Royal Albert Hall was captured by the Beeb, and in 1976 was recorded a the Shepherd Bush studios.
By 1978, the James Last Orchestra, had achieved virtually what they set out to do. Hansi had noticed that at concerts in Great Britain, the audience would get up and dance when he played his non stop dancing titles. The German audiences loved him too, and so later that year Hansi persuaded ZDF Television to come to London, to record a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. The show was put together over two nights, each of those two nights some 5000 fans attended and had a ball.
The British fans were on their feet long before the interval, dancing and prancing around the Royal Albert Hall arena to their favourite James Last polkas. The second half was a riot, the fans had invaded the stage, they danced, they sang, and when Hansi asked them to sit on the floor, they sat on the floor and listened to “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”.
Whilst seated, they sang “Cockless and Mussels”, “Daisy, Daisy”, and “Abide With Me”. Back on their feet James Last struck up the band and introduced his version of “Dancing Party”, and what a Dancing Party it was, all taking place at a James Last concert and being captured on film.
The show entitled “Live in London” became available on a single album in Germany, a double album in Great Britain. In Germany on television, ZDF presented a ninety minute special, whilst here the BBC gave us two thirty minute shows. On top of that a year or so later, Polydor released the official video, which they sold by the case load. In fact, sales were so good that several dealers listed this video in their top sellers chart.
On April 23rd, 1978 Hansi received the highest award that can be won in Germany. He was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” by the President of West Germany, for his services to his country.
April 1979, Hansi celebrated his fiftieth birthday in London and the fans presented him with a special birthday cake. In fact, seven cakes shaped into letters and numbers spelling out H-A-N-S-I-5-0. Two days earlier, Hansi’s most successful recording released in Great Britain’s “Last The Whole Night Long” entered the British charts. It reached number two and stayed in the charts for forty five weeks.
The demand for live concerts was as high as ever. Late October 1979, the entourage left Hamburg for a month long tour of Japan. For this special occcasion, Hansi recorded a new album specially for the Japanese market entitled “Paintings”. Last was succesful now almost throughout the whole world. Although Hansi has a home in Florida, success in the U.S. has been limited to one album making eighty in the Billboard Top 100.
In April 1980, “The Seduction” hit the Billboard singles charts. It received air play across the United States, achieved position twenty eight and stayed for six weeks. A month later it made the British charts for four weeks reaching position number forty-eight.
In June 1980, the ZDF Television series “Star Parade” came to a close after 50 minute shows. In September 1980, ZDF launched the “Show Express”, another ninety minute production featuring James Last, but his came to a halt after ten shows.
James Last worldwide album sales cannot be counted – only estimated. However, in Germany, the trade paper Musicmart claimed Last has sold 1,800,000 in Germany in 1979, and an American publication called “They Have Sold A Million” claim estimated worldwide sales in excess of 40 billion. Throughout the sixties and seventies, the Last sound was dominant, hearing a track on the radio, the fans would reply “that is James Last”.
In the eighties, Hansi experimented with some new sounds. His album “Biscaya” strongly featured bandoneon and synthesizer, “Bluebird” featured pan flute and synthesizer, “Deutsche Vita” was mainly electronic. Many fans welcomed the new sounds, sound were disappointed that the Old James Last sound was missing. However, tracks from these albums, became firm favourites and concert show pieces.
Last continued to record around six albums per year. He did not spend so much time on the road, but in the early years of the new millennium he consistently toured the United Kingdom, Belgium and Holland.
In 1987, Last took the Orchestra to East Berlin for four sell out concerts, the East Berliners had a ball. From those four sell out concerts, Polydor released an album “Live in Berlin”, followed by a video. In 1990, James Last joined forces with Richard Clayderman to produce a new album, “Golden Hearts”.
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, however, 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.
Songs composed by Last which achieved success in the US include “Happy Heart” and “Music From Across The Way”, both recorded by Andy Williams, “Games That Lovers Play”, recorded by Eddie Fisher, and “Fool”, recorded by Elvis Presley. By the time of his farewell tour in the spring of 2015, Last was reported to have sold well over 200 million albums.
James undertook his final tour months before his death at age 86, upon discovering in September 2014 that a life threatening illness had worsened. His final UK performance was his 90th at London’s Royal Albert Hall, more than any other performer except Eric Clapton.
He died 86 years old on June 9, 2015.
Writing in The Independent, Spencer Leigh suggested once that Last’s Non-Stop Dancing albums “paved the way for disco and dance mixes”. Asked if he minded being labelled the “King of Corn”, Last had replied “No, because it is true”.