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James Last: My Autobiography

Florence Wetzel By

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My Autobiography
James Last
Hardcover; 321 pages
ISBN: 978-1-84454-434-9
Metro Publishing

The German bandleader James Last, still very much with us in 2009, was one of the most successful musicians of the twentieth century. In a career spanning over 60 years, Last has earned 17 platinum and 206 gold records, sold over 100 million records, and given over 2,000 concerts worldwide. He is renowned for arranging pop hits into a big band format, but he has also had great success arranging jazz, folk and classical music—including a Top 10 hit in America in 1980 with "The Seduction," the theme song from American Gigolo.

Born in 1929 in Bremen, Last grew up in a large, middle-class family that was full of love and music. Although Last spent his entire school career under the Nazi regime, he was largely unscathed by the experience, and spent his time focusing on his growing love for music. As a student he played piano, tuba, bass and drums, and while he was learning classical music at school he played jazz on the side. At the end of the war, Last began his musical career as a bassist for American GI clubs, which led to a gig as a member of a radio orchestra. Last's musical comrades included trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff and clarinetist Rolf Kuhn, and he also played with the legendary violinist Stephane Grappelli. Last gained a reputation as an up-and-coming bassist, and in 1950 he was voted Germany's favorite jazz bassist.

By the mid 1950s, Last was arranging for the North West German Radio (NDR) Orchestra in Hamburg. He quickly gained recognition as an arranger, and he started working for the record company Polydor. One of Last's early hits was the 1965 album Non Stop Dancing, a novel concept where pop tunes arranged as musical numbers were backed by party sounds, which were recorded from a real-life party in the studio. Bolstered by this success, Last began releasing records at an astonishing rate. He could arrange almost any form of music—whether polka, Japanese pop tunes, or The Threepenny Opera—and turn it into a hit record. Eventually he started live performances with his own orchestra, and his fame grew steadily as he toured the globe.

Last is an endearing narrator throughout the book. Despite his phenomenal success, he has remained extremely modest, with no signs of a star trip: he describes his gift for arranging by saying, "I am simply lucky enough to be one of the few people in the world who can hear one kind of music and immediately be able to translate it into another without having to think too much about it." Last also has an insatiable joie de vivre, and the book is full of warm anecdotes about his fellow musicians, his fans and his adventures around the world.

Last is also unfailingly honest, and he never shirks the truth, even when it might portray him in a negative light. He is brutally candid about the way he put his work before his family, and how he came to regret this over the years, particularly when his first wife died in 1992. The book even contains a chapter written by Last's daughter, who expressses her love for her father as well as the pain caused by his neglect, his drinking and his womanizing. Last is to be commended for being so forthcoming about this side of his life; his autobiography is not only a success story, but also a cautionary tale about the cost of workaholism and fame.

Last is still recording and performing to this day, and as the times have changed he has not stood still. He writes all of his arrangments on computer, and he has even recorded with a German hip hop group. Full of insight and charm, James Last: My Autobiography is sure to please Last's legion of fans while also earning him new ones.


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