Creating his own sound, the orchestra leader became a star in Germany and well beyond. His trademark easy listening, big band style made him a party favorite. At 85, James Last is far from retirement.
A family photo album shows him as a first-grader in a sailor uniform - just the right outfit for the blond boy born April 17, 1929, in the Hanseatic city of Bremen. His father, Louis Last, had spent years at sea before settling in calmer waters, taking a job with the city and building a house for his family.
But the elder Last's passion remained music. With accordion and drum set, he gave shows as a solo entertainer on the weekends. Instruments were all over the house. It was an excellent playground for James - who was born Hans and is still known as Hansi among friends - and for his two brothers and three half-sisters from his father's first marriage. The musician-to-be discovered a love that would remain with him throughout his life.
At 14, Last decided to put his talents to the test at a music academy and, after the end of the war, got gigs in American GI clubs, which exposed him to new styles. Bass was the young man's favorite instrument, and he soon found a job in Radio Bremen's newly-founded dance orchestra.
In his free time, he developed a fascination with jazz. At the first German Jazz Festival in 1953, a top-notch group of performers took the stage under the name German All Stars. The group featured Paul Kuhn on piano, Max Greger on tenor sax and Hans Last on bass.
But Last wasn't just in demand as a performer. He also worked as an arranger for the dance orchestras associated with Radio Bremen and fellow broadcaster Northwest German Radio. With a feel for the right sound, he soon found himself arranging hits for post-war stars such as Freddy Quinn, Fred Bertelmann and Caterina Valente.
Raking in millions
In the early 1960s, Last began to release some albums of his own - initially with little success. The breakthrough didn't come until he found his so-called "happy sound" and began performing with his own orchestra under the stage name James Last. The style became a hit all around the country - thanks in part to his device of letting some of the party atmosphere in the studio shine through in the recordings themselves.
Of that style, the performer said, "I compare it with the great names: Debussy will always be Debsusy, Bach always sounds like Bach, and Mozart is always Mozart. In a small way, Hansi Last always has the Hansi Last sound."
By 1973, James Last had already racked up 100 golden records and sold 80 million LPs.
Still not ready to quit: James Last
The smartly-dressed band leader was ubiquitous in German television, conducting his musicians for a TV audience of millions. He filled enormous concert halls and toured around the world. In London, he swept the audience into a frenzy in the venerable Royal Albert Hall. Concerts followed in Japan, the Soviet Union, Australia and Canada, where he received several music prizes. He and his wife enjoyed time spent in the US so much that they built a house in Florida that included a studio where he produced some of his albums.
But James Last seemed not to have much of a head for money. He became known for an extravagant lifestyle, with expensive trips and cars - while bad money managers put the musician on the brink of financial ruin.
No talk of retirement
Last's extensive royalties ultimately kept him above water. Compositions of his used in favorite TV shows, for example, kept fresh money coming in. But by the mid-1980s, his popularity was steadily sinking. Record sales dropped, and he was on television less and less.
He never considered throwing in the towel, however, continuing to tour well past retirement age. The restless performer also kept active in the studio, reinventing himself at age 78 with an album called "They Call Me Hansi." Though it didn't chart tops, it featured young stars from the German music scene and enjoyed cult status.
Last but not least…
The fact that such a well-known and diverse cast from the German scene, including Jan Delay, Xavier Naidoo, Herbert Grönemeyer, Til Brönner and Nina Hagen, took part in the recordings indicates Last's enduring significance in the world of pop in his home country. At 85, Last is planning his next tour with his orchestra, whom he regards as his family.
"I tend to think more about what's coming tomorrow than what happened yesterday," he says. His "Last Tour" in 2013 turned out to a marketing gag - nothing new for the seasoned show biz man, who published an autobiography eight years ago.
"It's been a wonderful life," he says, looking back. "If you have the gift of writing music that millions of people can enjoy, what more could you want?"