James Last: Bandleader who rose above the carping of critics to delight fans with his jaunty arrangements for more than 50 years

Last's Non Stop Dancing albums paved the way for disco and dance mixes

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The Independent Online

For more than 50 years James Last had to endure snide remarks from rock fans and music critics, but he took it in his stride. Asked if he minded being labelled the King of Corn, he said, "No, because it is true."

His trademark sound was to present big band arrangements of well-known tunes with a jaunty dance beat, often heavy on bass and brass. His series of Non Stop Dancing albums paved the way for disco and dance mixes and were tremendously successful in their own right. His global album sales exceeded 50 million and yet so many of them have ended up in charity shops. There were those who loved him, and then there were the rest of us.

James Last was known by his birth name, Hansi, to his fans. He was born to Louis and Martha Last in Bremen in 1929, and they encouraged their children's musical talent. "I have to say that it was really my grandfather who was my biggest influence," he told me in 2007, "and I can see now that I am like he was. He liked to play music at the weekends and he liked to make people happy."

From a young age, Last was playing German folk songs on the piano, although he had dreams of being a professional footballer. At 14, he entered the Bückeburg Military Music School and when his country was at war he was conveying messages across Bremen to help with its defences against the bombing.

In 1946 Last joined Hans-Guenther Oesterreich's Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra on double bass and made many public appearances. Two years later he formed a six-man group, the Becker-Last Ensemble, which featured his brothers Robert and Werner, later the bandleader Kai Warner. German jazz fans voted him the bass player of the year from 1950 to 1952. "My bass playing was influenced by Bach's music," he reflected, "I like Bach because his bass line was always going against the melody. I often did that myself."

In 1955 he married his wife Waltraud, joined the North German Radio Dance Orchestra and started as an arranger for Polydor Records. He had Schlager successes with Caterina Valente, Freddy Quinn and Helmut Zacharias.

In 1964 he began releasing his own albums and saw how he could bridge the gap between beat groups and big bands. He instituted Non-Stop Dancing albums on which he featured around 28 hit songs linked with clapping and cheering and the clinking of glasses as though the listeners had been invited to a wonderful party.

At the very time the Beatles were topping the UK album charts with Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band during the Summer of Love in 1967, James Last and his Orchestra were in the same charts with This is James Last, Non-Stop Dancing, Hammond-A-Go-Go and Love, This Is My Song. Although Ray Conniff and Bert Kaempfert ran middle-of-the-road big bands, they could not complete with Last's success, and alongside Beatlemania there was now Hansimania. His biggest-selling UK albums were Make The Party Last (1975) and Last The Whole Night Long (1979). His most successful single was with Giorgio Moroder's composition, "The Seduction", from the film American Gigolo (1980) starring Richard Gere.

Last was also a successful songwriter, writing "Games That Lovers Play" (Eddie Fisher and Donald Peers, 1966), "Happy Heart" (Andy Williams and Petula Clark, 1969) and "Fool" (Wayne Newton, 1969, and Elvis Presley, 1972). He wrote "The Lonely Shepherd", which he recorded with Gheorghe Zamfir, the Romanian pan pipe player, for a TV series, Golden Soak (1979) starring Ray Barrett, but it achieved greater fame on the soundtrack for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol 1 in 2003.

The most remarkable aspect of Last was his productivity. Once he had an idea he would milk it, as the numerous volumes of Non-Stop Dancing and Classics Up To Date testify. He also made albums with Astrud Gilberto and Richard Clayderman.

Last maintained that, "I make happy music and I like to keep the band happy." He owned a mansion in Hamburg with a swimming pool that could double as a dance floor. He built a recording studio with a leisure complex and accommodation which enabled him to make 15 albums a year, often with special issues for particular countries. One of his albums was exclusive to Woolworth's.

Every year he would host a James Last carnival in Hamburg, and his Voodoo Party attracted 10,000 fans in 1972. He toured the UK regularly and earlier this year gave his 90th and UK final concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Over the years he had many UK singers and musicians in his band including Tony Burrows, Lyn Cornell, Madeline Bell and Big Jim Sullivan.

When I asked Last if he minded his music being branded as Easy Listening, he said, "Not at all, why should I? Mozart and Beethoven could be Easy Listening too."

SPENCER LEIGH

Hans Last (James Last), musician: born Bremen, Germany 17 April 1929; married firstly Waltraud (died 1997; one daughter, one son), secondly Christine; died Florida 9 June 2015.

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