Entertainment & Arts

James Last: The party king critics loved to hate

James Last in 2002 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption James Last, pictured in 2002, kept performing until several months before his death

For 50 years, James Last's legions of loyal fans adored his joyful big band versions of pop and classical standards. To musical purists, however, he was the epitome of naff.

James Last, who has died at the age of 86, was the king of the non-stop party, who had crowds dancing in the aisles for decades with his relentlessly upbeat arrangements of tunes by everyone from The Beatles to Beethoven.

He reworked favourites from every genre, using orchestral instruments alongside electric guitars and drums, boiling down the arrangement and melody of each song before moving swiftly on to the next.

It was a winning formula. Estimates put his album sales at between 50-100 million.

Sixty-five of his albums charted in the UK - tied with Sir Cliff Richard and second only to Elvis Presley - and he became a star around the world.

He played 90 concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall, released two albums per month at his peak, and was credited with keeping Polydor Records afloat.

And he achieved it all with little endorsement from music critics, radio stations - or anyone outside his devoted fanbase.

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Media captionDavid Sillito spoke to James Last in March, ahead of his final British concerts

To the detractors, he was "the emperor of elevator music" who made "music for people who don't like music".

They said he watered down great compositions until they lost all depth and emotion, rendering everything too simple and similar, and making easy listening just too easy.

And the sight of Last's bushy moustache and luxuriant hair on his LP covers - not to mention his white suits and patterned ties - made him an easy target for anyone looking to boost their credibility.

But that did not bother him or his fans.

Jazz awards

James Last was born Hans Last in Bremen, Germany, in 1929, to a musical family.

Despite being described as totally unmusical by his first piano teacher, he was offered a place in the Army music school in Frankfurt at the age of 14.

He narrowly avoided being called up for military service during World War Two, being too young by 17 days. "Seventeen days saved my life," he said.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption His record company changed his name from Hans to James without consulting him

After the war, he lapped up the previously forbidden American swing and jazz music, and was voted the best jazz bass player in Germany for three years in a row.

His ensembles would listen to GI radio broadcasts by day and play the music they had heard by night.

After performing with the Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra and his own Becker-Last Ensemble, he worked for Polydor Records and the German Radio Dance Orchestra, helping to arrange hits for artists like Caterina Valente and Freddy Quinn.

The German Radio Dance Orchestra offered him a guaranteed job for life. But he said: "I did not want to be doing the same thing for the next 35 years.

"I was very shy but I put my heart in my hands and went to the record company, and asked: 'Do I have a chance to do something for myself after arranging so many records for other artists?'

"They just said: 'Do something then.' I didn't know it was that easy. That was 1965 and I have been making my own music since."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Last has received more than 200 gold and platinum discs

His debut album was the first in his long-running Non-Stop Dancing series, in which a couple of dozen pop hits would be given his treatment and sequenced in quick succession.

He would invite people to his studio to clap, cheer and whistle in between songs - which he would add to the recordings to provide his trademark party atmosphere.

Polydor decided to change his name for his debut LP to make him appear less German - but they neglected to ask him first.

"The first time I saw my new name was when an envelope arrived through the post containing the first record, Non-Stop Dancing," he said.

"When I opened it, the name was James Last. I said: 'What? They don't even know my name. What is going on here?' I phoned the record company who said they had changed the name because this was a record of international dance music for the international market.

"For a moment I was cross, but then I thought, 'Why not?'"

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Media captionA look back at the long career of James Last

Other LP titles were equally self-explanatory and showed his musical range - Polka Party, Hammond A-Go-Go, Classics Up To Date, Violins In Love, The Greatest Songs of the Beatles, Pop Symphonies, Viva Espana, Plays Abba...

And while he spent more than eight years in the UK album chart in total, he never had a hit single under his own name.

Although he was best-known for re-arranging existing compositions, he also wrote original songs.

Games That Lovers Play was his most popular self-penned tune and film director Quentin Tarantino used The Lonely Shepherd on the soundtrack for Kill Bill Volume 1.

He also wrote for other artists, composing Fool for Elvis Presley and Happy Heart for Andy Williams.

Off stage, he was renowned for his generosity to fans and the 40-odd members of his orchestra, even building a holiday home and leisure centre for his entourage.

But behind the scenes, he was a heavy drinker, had affairs and admitted his regrets at putting his work before his family.

That was the price for the global success which made him, whether you liked him or not, a musical phenomenon.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Last retired from the stage after becoming seriously ill last year

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