The 'king of easy listening' has sold 80 million units worldwide. Bandleader and composer James Last's repertory ranges from Abba to Zappa. He's on his "Last Tour" - but don't believe it yet.
Deutsche Welle: Mr. James Last, we've heard about your definitive "last tour" several times over the past few years. What's the status this time?
James Last: That was a play on words. When James Last tours, it's always a "Last Tour." I turned 85 last year. We thought about it and decided that maybe this tour won't be as good as earlier ones, but what remains is the music, and it's really good. And as long as you can still go onstage…
Tell me what it was like last fall when you had to go to the hospital.
They did two and a half operations in one fell swoop. The anesthetic alone nearly finishes you off. I really thought this is it. Then I felt my wife holding my hand. She sat next to me on that chair all day and all night. Then I just thought: we have to get better! And it worked. It's not over. It's starting all over again.
Your birthday, April 17, falls during the tour you just started. Touring half of Europe at 86: is it really as easy as you keep saying?
Already on a bid tour back then in 1970
If you called it work, it would be. But I've never called it that. I make music and play concerts. The most tiring part is the preparation. Everything has to be lined up just right.
The tour began in Bayreuth, I assume not in tribute to Richard Wagner. And you'll do two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. What's your connection to that venue?
The last time we played there was 50 years ago. British impresarios were difficult by our standards. They wouldn't let anybody into the hall beforehand. So I just said, "These are all my friends, and they've come along for the sound check. That's the way it is everywhere else in the world. So if you don't let us in, we can't play. It's that simple." Ever since, about 500 people have always come along for the sound check to hear us rehearse, including lots of fans.
Do you like to return to familiar places?
Not just that. Whenever people asked me 20 years ago - I was only 60 then - what ideas I had for later on as a musician and what I wanted to do, I'd tell them: "Keep going, keep going."
About the music: which piece by somebody else do you wish you'd composed yourself? A classical work maybe?
So many of them! But as a musician and arranger, it meant a lot to me that we made the Italian charts about 20 years ago or more. The Beatles were No. 1 then, and No. 2 was James Last with a Romance by Beethoven. The Rolling Stones only made it to No. 3. That was great.
You always have a feel for the times and stay open-minded. What's the state of music nowadays?
The music wasn't bad back then. We've all just been getting a lot older. Many older people talk about the good old days. Today, everything's faster, it's a more restless time. But young people have lives of their own. You have to go along with them to stay young yourself, so to speak.
Luck is always part of success. If you were to give a young musician career advice today and tell him how to live from the trade, what would you say?
Stay true to yourself! Lots of people, when they're getting successful, depend on what others tell them to do. Record companies used to be awful that way. It's not quite as bad nowadays because most young people make their music themselves on their computers and just deliver the results to the labels. If they listen to other people and lose themselves in the process, they don't stand a chance. You have to blaze your own path.
The band you're touring with now is a big one. Do you have a special relationship to a particular musician or instrument?
The string section is terrific. Lots of the string players work in different orchestras and save up their days off so they can go on tour with us. Our trumpeter - all the things he's played, and at all the places! Our drummer used to play in a rock band on the side. Lots of different kinds of people in the band. All 48 of them stay at the same hotel, so they get together after the concert and are all excited and like to discuss everything. That’s how it's always been.
Like a big family?
A family might be quieter. But we don't have any disagreements. That might be because of me. I write all the pieces, I know the musicians in the band, and I know who's good at what. And I write everything down. I started working on the program for this tour two years ago, just after the previous tour was over. You're still revved up and can't go to bed, can’t say, "The tour is finished, I need to rest up now." No, I basically relax while touring.
What's it like during the show? Are you completely immersed in the music? How much do you get back from the audience?
"Hansi sees everything and hears everything" is what they usually say. When I'm onstage, I'm up there between the orchestra and the audience and can see and feel both. It's a real experience to have written a good piece of music and the whole world knows it's a success.
Have you ever felt stage fright, or do you get over that at some point?
Everything has to be carefully prepared. All the musicians get the scores from me beforehand. And they can actually hear the material because I play it into their sound equipment. And when it's time for the concert, all I need to do is raise my arm, and they know, "This is the downbeat" - and off we go!
DW's Jens von Larcher spoke with James Last. The "Non Stop Music" tour began on March 22 and takes Last and his band to 21 European cities, concluding in Cologne on April 26.