James Last – Homage to a Legend

by Dr. Gerhard Schilling

To some people he may have been the uncrowned king of easy listening, to others Bremen’s party master and in the eyes of many he was simply the guy next door whose incomparable knack for making music let them leave all their everyday worries behind.

Describing his audience is something I’ve always found nearly impossible. And that still holds true today. James Last continues to speak to us, all of us, through his music – even three years after his death. From young to old, lovers of classical music to hard rockers, modern performers to mellow hedonists and traditionalists. After all, his music ran the gamut from Bach to Bacharach and from Abba to Zappa; James Last felt at home in every music genre. When listening to any of his CDs or if you ever saw him on tour, it also was obvious that he savoured every bit of it. He was a cosmopolitan of harmonies, someone who understood better than anybody else how to wind his way through a broad range of musical styles with inimitable nonchalance and easy casualness. Hansi used the individual compositions as a kind of “idea pool” from which he borrowed elements to piece together his own world of music.

His line-up was full of earworms. After all, who isn’t familiar with the lilting waltzes of Johann Strauss, the radio hits of an artist like Lady Gaga or even party classics like Orange Blossom Special.

Hansi’s music was fast, dynamic and driven, but also possessed an easy, lay-back-and-chill kind of harmony that was far removed from being mindless sound bites and minimalistic loops of background noise. Yet regardless of how Last’s music might be categorised, whether as music for relaxing, dancing or simply listening – he will always remain a phenomenon. All around the globe. The over 80 million recordings sold express this quite clearly.

His music was always full of emotion because, for James Last, emotions were what dreams were made of. Embedding musical themes into fantastical, incomparable and sometimes even mysterious and picturesque sounds, sometimes all-encompassing and stately, then more rhythmic and intense – that was his world. The unforgettable world of James Last.

That was also due in part to the uniqueness of his orchestra. Each and every musician was an exceptional soloist on his or her instrument. And this was where James Last, in his own grandiose way, knew how to precisely tailor each musician’s part to his or her personal strengths and transform a group of individualists into a homogeneous whole. That is the only way to explain how every song, from one bar to the next and from one phrase to another, came across as a captivating blend of flowing melodies with the tender, delicate sound of woodwinds, a shifting, pulsating rhythmic base and impeccable, harmonious interaction.

With 17 platinum and 208 gold records, this maestro knew what it took. And that’s why his happy sound has always been and will always be understood the world over. Particularly during times of crisis, people long more than ever for warmth, distraction and, quite often, entertainment. James Last made music that met this need. Music that seems timeless, possibly because it always guarantees us a bit of fun and a distraction from our everyday lives in this troubled 21st-century world of ours. Hypnotic grooves and swinging melodies are still a sure-fire way to guarantee great entertainment.

James Last was an export hit when it came to perfect easy listening music. His music was heard in 150 countries around the world and at his countless live concerts, he alone has filled the stately Royal Albert Hall in London 90 times. Those numbers speak for themselves.

Even during his lifetime, experts celebrated him over and over again as a new trendsetter and his loyal fan base responded with frenetic applause at each of his performances – these facts once again underscore James Last’s unfailingly contemporary sound.

Because only he had this extraordinary talent – as a composer, an arranger and a producer – to continuously infuse music from a wide variety of different styles with something new. His marvellous ability to add airy transparency and innovative spectrums of sound to brilliant melodies guaranteed him a fan base that always seemed to be growing over the course of his 50-year career.

This bon vivant, who chose Florida as his adoptive home, loved freedom and outspokenness and these formed an indispensable part of his creative principle. He never let himself be restricted in any way that would have prevented him from experimenting and discovering new ways of expressing himself. That undeniably made James Last one of the greatest band leaders of all times. His distinctive sound was his trademark and, even today, his music is still being broadcast on a daily basis on nearly every radio station.

While the red wine metaphor might have worn pretty thin over the years, James Last truly seemed to be notching up his performance as the years went by and kept getting just a bit more surprising. And that’s precisely why, time and again, up-and-coming music lovers have always found, and will always find, his music so appealing, fascinating and irresistible.

James Last would have celebrated his 90th birthday in 2019 and, in honour of this and thanks to Semmel Concerts, there is a special musical treat in store for us Last fans: original members of his incomparable orchestra will be performing in a series of concerts. James Last has often been copied, yet every attempt has fallen short. Of course that was partly due to his outstanding musicians. They literally inhaled his musical ideas, his vibrant, smooth sound that blended great melodies with compact, flowing and danceable rhythms from a wide range of sources.

Through this upcoming series of concerts, his fabulous melodies will no longer be in danger of languishing in vast music archives and the live feel of his music will not be lost.

And for anybody who has only heard Hansi on the radio or in a recording, it’s about time to take this opportunity to gain some unique insights into his fascinating life and unbelievable career.

It’s certain to be the same as always: a huge rush for the dance floor and the undivided attention of rapt listeners. I’m really looking forward to it!

Dr Gerhard Schilling, born in 1961, is the musical director at Germany’s hr1 radio station.

He first came in contact with James Last’s music as a child, when he was 10 years old. His father and all of his relatives listened to either James Last or Bert Kaempfert. Yet it was James Last’s sound that he found particularly appealing. Since then he has never stopped listening to Last’s music
and attends the concerts whenever an opportunity arises.