James Last, King of Easy Listening, Dies at 86

James Last
Herbert Schulze

The world's most successful bandleader, whose songs appeared on the 'American Gigolo' and 'Kill Bill' soundtracks, died in Florida.

He was called the King of Easy Listening and the Emperor of Elevator Music. James Last, often called the world's most commercially successful bandleader, who recorded more than 200 albums and sold 100 million-plus discs in his decades-long career, died this week at the age of 86.

The musician had last year said he had an unspecified illness.

Last was as much heralded as he was despised, but there is no questioning his success or his influence. Anyone who has spent time in a hotel lobby (or elevator) knows the Last sound: smooth, jaunty tunes that mix jazz and pop into a seamless, inoffensive whole.

The 1970s were Last's golden years — he was named Billboard Magazine's star of the year in 1976 — but he enjoyed a career rebound in the 1990s when Easy Listening was, briefly, back in style and the German composer of “happy party sounds” was hailed as a cult hero. 

Last's biggest hit was The Seduction, the theme song from Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, composed by Giorgio Moroder. Last's version was a top 40 hit, peaking at 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and at number 22 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1980.

Music obsessive Quentin Tarantino was a fan, picking Last's Einsamer Hirte (The Lonely Shepherd), featuring Gheorghe Zamfir on the pan flute, for the soundtrack of Kill Bill: Volume 1.

Last was born Hans Last in Bremen, Germany on April 17, 1929, the youngest of three sons of a post-office worker and his wife. He started playing music at an early age and had his first professional gig at 15 with the newly formed Radio Bremen Dance Orchestra. He started as a classical musician, but Last came into his own as a jazz musician, playing bass and traveling the circuit of clubs for American soldiers that sprung up across the country following WWII.

He set up his own six-piece jazz ensemble in 1948, which included his older brothers, Robert and Werner, and was named Germany's best jazz bassist three years in a row from 1950 through 1952. He recorded his first album, Tricks in Rhythm, in 1959. But his career really took off when he signed to Polydor in 1964, changing his first name to James.

His 1965 album, Non Stop Dancing, established the Last sound. It included seamless transitions between songs — it can be argued Last invented, or at least perfected, the idea of the music medley — and captured the jaunty, party atmosphere that became his trademark. While the sound never really changed, Last was adept at always including new, modern elements and incorporating pop music tunes — from the Beatles to hip hop — into his non-stop formula.

A hugely successful recording artist, Last was also a tireless live performer, and his happy music continued to sell out concert halls, particularly in Europe, up until the end. He gave 90 concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall, more than any other performer. His final two concerts came on March 31 and April 1 of this year in Germany, part of a “farewell tour” that Last announced after falling ill in 2014.

James Last died at his home in Florida on June 9. He is survived by his second wife, Christine Grundner, and his two children, Caterina and Ronald, from his first marriage to Waltraud Last, who died in 1997.