The Show Went On

Harry James

Program for Rancho Bernardo Concert On the Green, July 9, 1983. Courtesy Rancho Bernardo Historical Society archives.


Maybe it’s something about show business. I’ve read so many show-must-go-on-kinds of stories about entertainers. I don’t know why I’m almost as fascinated by stories about show business as I am about history. Notice I said almost. I sometimes rationalize it to friends and family by saying, “hey, it’s part of social and cultural history, right?”

Anyway, I ran across an instance where San Diego history and the often unique personalities of show biz people came together, in the person of trumpet great Harry James and the Rancho Bernardo Concert On the Green Series.

The Concert On the Green Series began as the brainchild of one of the leaders of AVCO Community Developers, which had taken over development of the then-new community of Rancho Bernardo in 1968. A group of dedicated community volunteers took the idea and ran with it, staging annual concerts by the San Diego Symphony and other popular musical acts every summer on the driving range of the Rancho Bernardo Inn’s golf course.

Was it a popular idea? Well, the first concert, in 1972, sold 6,275 tickets at a time when the total population of Rancho Bernardo was just over 10,000. It would continue as a popular and beloved community event until 1993.

The series was at its peak in 1983 when the announced theme was “Summer of the Big Bands,” with James’ band leading off a season that also included other great Swing Era outfits like Les Brown and His Band of Renown and Bob Crosby and the Bobcats.

Harry James was one of the giants of the Swing Band era, as both a trumpet virtuoso and a bandleader whose musical alumni included singer Frank Sinatra and drummer Buddy Rich, among others.

James was a trouper in the classic show biz sense. Driven by his own personal demons, he lived to perform, according to a biographer. In the spring of 1983, 67 years old and suffering from years of one-night stands–musical and otherwise–and hard living, he was diagnosed with cancer. Yet even after surgery and chemotherapy James was still playing gigs, including concerts in Denver on June 10 and 11 and a private party in Los Angeles on the 26th.

He was booked for dates on July 8 in Hemet and then July 9 in Rancho Bernardo. But he didn’t make it. James died in a Las Vegas hospital on Tuesday, July 5.

Ray Anthony, another swing band trumpeter and bandleader, agreed to take James place, and included a tribute to the music of the Harry James band in his repertoire that night. Bob Crosby, who lived in La Jolla and was scheduled to appear elsewhere in San Diego that week, paid tribute to James in an interview with the San Diego Union on July 6.

“He was unique,” said Crosby. “He started out in a circus band, and when you’re playing all day for a circus the way he did, you’re going to wind up with an iron lip. It’s my feeling that music should be conversational…James said things musically.”

Sources for this post included the archives of the Rancho Bernardo Historical Society, historic San Diego newspapers, and the book, Trumpet Blues: The Life of Harry James, by Peter J. Levinson.

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