Despite at times being derided by critics and purists as the “king of elevator music” or “acoustic porridge”, his style and music was popular in numerous countries and cultures, including Japan, the former Soviet Union, the USA and UK, and his native Germany, where it became “the archetypal soundtrack of any German cellar bar party”,and made him the “most commercially successful bandleader” of the second half of the 20th century.
Last first released albums in the U.S. under the titles The American Patrol on Warner Bros. around 1964. He also released a series of nine albums in a series called Classics Up To Date which served up arrangements of classical melodies with strings, rhythm and wordless chorus from the mid-1960s until the early 1980s.
Last 1965 album, Non-Stop Dancing, was a recording of brief renditions of popular songs, all tied together by an insistent dance beat and crowd noises. It was a hit and helped make him a major European star.
Over the next four decades, Last released over 190 records, including several more volumes of Non-Stop Dancing. On these records, he varied his formula by adding different songs from different countries and genres, as well as guest performers like Richard Clayderman and Astrud Gilberto.
He also had his own successful television series throughout the 1970s with guests including ABBA and Lynsey de Paul which was screened across Europe. Last’s trademark sound employed big band arrangements of well-known tunes with a jaunty dance beat, often heavy on bass and brass.
Though his concerts and albums were consistently successful, especially in the UK, where he had 52 hit albums between 1967 and 1986, which made him second only to Elvis Presley in charting records, he had relatively few hit singles.
In the UK, his only chart singles were “The Seduction”, the theme from American Gigolo (1980) composed by Giorgio Moroder, and “Biscaya” from the album Biscaya. In the US, where “The Seduction” became a Top 40 hit, peaking at No. 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 22 on the Adult Contemporary chart in May 1980, Last was somewhat more successful on the singles charts.
In 2003, his song “Einsamer Hirte” (The Lonely Shepherd) which features the pan flute of Gheorghe Zamfir appeared on the soundtrack of the Quentin Tarantino movie Kill Bill Volume 1.
He won numerous popular and professional awards, including Billboard magazine’s Star of the Year trophy in 1976, and was honoured for lifetime achievement with the German ECHO prize in 1994.
His song “Music from Across the Way” (recorded by Andy Williams in 1972) is a melody with a classical feeling and was a worldwide hit; it was the only other Last single apart from “The Seduction” to reach the U.S. Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 84 (and No. 18 on the Adult Contemporary chart) in late 1971. (His only other U.S. chart single was a double-sided entry featuring remakes of the Village Stompers’ “Washington Square” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary”, which reached No. 22 on the Adult Contemporary chart in early 1971).
Last was awarded the Carl Alan Award by Princess Margaret for being the leader of the most popular dance band of 1981. In Canada, he had three hits on the RPM Magazine Top Singles charts (“El Cóndor Pasa” at #46, “Music From Across the Way” at #28, “The Seduction” at #32) and four on the Adult Contemporary/MOR charts (“Music From…” at #2, “Heart of Gold” at #17, “The Seduction” at #36, “Reach For A Star” at #20).
Songs composed by Last which achieved success in the US include “Happy Heart” and “Music From Across The Way”, both recorded by Andy Williams, “Games That Lovers Play”, recorded by Eddie Fisher, and “Fool”, recorded by Elvis Presley. By the time of his farewell tour in the spring of 2015, Last was reported to have sold well over 100 million albums.
In February 2015, after almost 50 years on tour, James Last announced that he was finally bidding adieu to the stage. The last concert of his “Non Stop Music James Last in Concert 2015” farewell tour took place in Cologne’s Lanxess Arena on 26 April 2015, ending an era of almost half a century of “happy sound” music.
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