He was the German orchestra leader who created his own sound, and his records were hits worldwide. James Last died in Florida on June 9.
In a family album, Hans "James" Last, then a first grader, wears a sailor's suit - fitting attire for the blonde boy born in the Hanseatic city of Bremen on April 17, 1929. His father, Louis Last, had gone to sea for many years but now settled for calmer waters, finding a job with the Bremen public utilities company - and building a house for his family in the city. Louis' great passion was music - he worked as a solo entertainer on weekends, carting his accordion and drums to various gigs.
The house was cluttered with various musical instruments - an inspiring playground for Hans, his two brothers and three half siblings from his father's first marriage. Hansi, as he is still known today by his friends, was seized with a passion that would never let up: music.
Marching and all that jazz
At 14, Hans Last set in motion what would become his lifetime profession: the talented musician signed up to the military music school in Germany. After the war he played the many clubs frequented by the American occupying forces and came to know their music - jazz.
The bass became the musician's preferred instrument, and he soon found a job working with the newly formed Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra. However, outside of working hours it was jazz that fascinated the young musician - and in 1953 he performed at the first German Jazz Festival with his group, the German All Stars.
The group featured Paul Kuhn on piano, Max Gregor on tenor saxophone and Hans Last on bass, amongst others. Last worked not only as a musician but also as an arranger for the Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra, as well as the broadcaster then called Northwest German Radio (NWDR). With the right feeling and the right sound, it wasn't long before Last had rattled up a string of hits, arranging Freddy Quinn, Fred Bertelmann and Caterina Valente.
Happy sound, happy returns
In the early 1960s Last released a number of records with little success. Only after he realized his trademark "happy sound," rebranded himself James Last and settled on his own orchestra did he make his genuine breakthrough - with hits such as "Happy Heart." The James Last sound became the archetypal soundtrack of any German cellar bar party. The recordings even came custom-made for a good time, with a party atmosphere sound mixed into the music.
"I liken it to the big names," Last said of his idiosyncratic sound. "Debussy remains Debussy, Bach always sounds like Bach and Mozart is always Mozart. And, on a smaller scale, Hansi Last is Hansi Last." In 1973 James Last collected his 100th gold record - by then he had sold 80 million albums worldwide.
In the television world, the diminutive orchestra leader was omnipresent in Germany, conducting his band for millions of viewers. His concerts filled large halls, and he branched out on a world tour. In London he brought the masses at the venerable Royal Albert Hall to a frenzy. He played in Japan, the former Soviet Union, Australia and Canada - and received a number of awards along the way, including "Billboard" magazine's Star of the Year in 1976. He and his wife enjoyed the US so much they built a house in Florida, which featured a recording studio. Many of his recordings emerged from there.
But the hard-earned money was spent freely - from fancy cars to expensive travel and an extravagant lifestyle. And the rest was lost to an incompetent investment advisor who brought James Last to the brink of ruin.
No talk of retirement
What kept him afloat, ultimately, was his extensive copyright catalogue. With his compositions regularly featuring on television shows, that kept the bank balance flush. From the mid-1980s, however, Last's popularity began to decline, with record sales down and TV royalties drying up. But any thoughts of giving up were short-lived - at retirement age, he continued to tour regularly and remained active in the recording studio.
At age 78, he recorded the album "They Call Me Hansi," featuring many contemporary stars of the German music scene. And while not exactly a hit, it became a cult classic.
Last but not least
Featuring such German music luminaries as Jan Delay, Xavier Naidoo, Herbert Grönemeyer, jazz musician Til Brönner and Nina Hagen, the album was evidence of Last's wide reach in Germany and continuing appeal to successive generations.
Until recently James Last was still performing onstage and was planning further tours with his orchestra, which he considered his family. "I think more about tomorrow than what happened yesterday," he once said of his philosophy on life. In 2006 he reflected in "My Life," his autobiography: "It was a great life. If you've got the gift of writing music that millions of people like, what more could you want?"