HANDS in the pockets of his grey slacks, James Last cuts a figure of studied nonchalance strolling around the vast stage of the MEN Arena as his band wander on, take their seats behind him and begin to tune up.
He exchanges a few words with the hundred or so fans lucky enough to be allowed to sit in on the soundcheck for tonight’s gig, waving his arms around with big, expansive gestures to make up for the gaps in his English.
He glances around the empty stadium, runs his hand through that famously lustrous mane of silver hair, and takes off his tan leather jacket to reveal a crisp powder-blue shirt.
The band seem to take this as their cue and they power through an ass-kicking interpretation of U2’s Vertigo like a finely tuned machine.
The maestro seems satisfied and nods assent that all is well. Easy listening has never seemed more of a misnomer. In a career full of mind-boggling superlatives, Last has been awarded more than 300 platinum, gold and silver discs for album sales somewhere in excess of 100 million.
As he approaches the age of 80, though his career is supposedly winding down (this tour, an addendum to an earlier jaunt, is dubbed ‘The Last Tour, part 2’), the indefatigable composer, arranger and bandleader shows little sign of slowing the pace.
Earlier in the week, for example, Last and his band played a three-night residency at the Royal Albert Hall, bringing his tally of appearances at the prestigious venue over the years to an impressive 85.
“This can only happen when you are getting to my age, you know?” explains the ever-youthful 78-year-old as he pads around his dressing room half-an-hour later. “Other people, they are there for four years and then it’s over. If you are doing this for your whole life, then you have a chance to do a lot of shows.”
The youngest child of a music-loving working class family in the port city of Bremen in north-western Germany, Hansi Last was four when Hitler seized power, and, as he puts it in his autobiography, “the swastika, the marching troops and the uniforms were everywhere”.
He remembers a normal, unremarkable childhood – dodging allied bombs apart – which was “essentially free of ideology”, even after he enrolled in a military music academy (wearing his first pair of long trousers) at the age of 14.
Unable to study his first choice of woodwind instrument, the clarinet – which he’d seen on a poster warning about the dangers of “the swing-Jew Benni Gutmann from Neu York”- he learned to play the double bass, and he and his fellow cadets performed ‘degenerate’ jazz standards in their spare time, out of their tutors’ hearing.
He was lucky enough to avoid combat (he was born 17 days too late for the last, desperate draft which took many of his friends at the Heeresmusikschule) and, though his elder brother died on the Russian front, his family survived the war in better shape than many others.
After the war, he and his brothers entertained the huge numbers of American servicemen stationed in Germany in return for chocolate and cigarettes. In his book, Last remembers collecting the GIs’ cigarette butts to re-use later. He played bass for a variety of local radio big bands and his own jazz quartet, while occasionally composing and arranging music for other artists.
Last noticed that many of the many parties he and his wife Waltraud attended took a while to warm up. He hit upon the idea of creating an album of segued party classics, accompanied by cheering and chinking glasses (predating the house and hip hop DJ mix-tape phenomena by the best part of 20 years).
Last threw a party in the studio to get the right ambience. The first Non-Stop Dancing album was the result. Covering Can’t Buy Me Love and Eight Days A Week at a time when the Beatles were still vaguely threatening to the generation who made up (and continue to make up) much of his audience, he re-imagined them – and other pop hits like Downtown and My Boy Lollipop – as bass and brass-heavy instrumentals with big, big productions.
“If you ask me, what is your sound? I have no answer,” Last tells me as he contemplates a generous tumbler of vodka. “I’m there in the studio thinking, is this really coming out like this? This is the funny thing. I am the luckiest man in the world, ja, ja. I don’t know what my sound is. It’s just the feel.”
Renamed James Last by some bright spark at his record label, over the years he’s put together a staggering number of themed albums, ranging from Hammond A Go Go, Christmas Dancing and Happy Marching to Caribbean Nights, Viva Vivaldi and In The Mood For Trumpets.
No rummage through a charity shop record bin is complete without seeing Hansi in one of his trademark white suits under a carousel, in denims and leather on a motorbike, dressed as a sea captain, a hussar, a cowboy.
The sheer amount is a testament to his popularity in the past but, not to put too fine a point on it, these much-loved, well-cared for vinyl treasures are in a charity shop for a reason. His audience, like Last himself, isn’t getting any younger.
There’s a palpable connection between Last – Hansi Last – and the audience at the gig later that evening. Aged matrons still go down to the front of the stage to dance even if, endearingly, it takes them five minutes to get there and they need the help of a steward’s steadying arm on the way back up.
“They understand what I write down in the music, that this is my life,” he says. “Especially on stage, we will never play songs that I don’t like. It would feel like lying to myself and lying to my audience. So, like this, I can give out my heart, every night.
“Other artists may do that for their audience,” he says, struggling to find the words in English, “but I also do it for myself, I must say. And if people like it – that is great. I go around the whole world, and there are no strangers. It’s really a good life.
“Writing the songs, writing arrangements, it is not work for me, it is fun. You go in the studio with the musicians, and you can record this and everybody say, oh that sounds good, and then you go on stage with them, and everybody is smiling – it gives me energy to go back in my studio and do more of my homework again. It’s not separate, it is one whole thing.”
Relishing the opportunity to see the maestro at work with a full supporting cast of fantastic musicians and singers, his fans still attend his concerts in their thousands, but the world has moved on and Hansi knows it. He is philosophical about working in a sector so tightly focussed on the teen market.
“The record industry is not the same anymore,” he muses. “They don’t make records of us. Nothing happens. We have a new line up and they are only interested in songs I recorded 30 years ago now. They just try to make money and it’s not my world.
“I enjoy what I’m doing and I like that people come to the concerts and enjoy it the same way. Nobody knows better than me that this as a gift from God, and if you cannot see that then you will never see what I am doing.”
Perhaps inevitably, his work has been sampled by artists like Nightmares on Wax who can’t afford to employ their own 12-piece string section, but Last remains characteristically generous – even when talking about his back catalogue being plundered by someone as unforgivably dull as P Diddy.
“That’s okay, for me. Because they take some samples from this and change them a little bit. Like the first hit of Puff Daddy. He had a sample of the trumpet section from The Lonely Shepherd on there and that was okay. I’m proud that he is doing this. He is a world star, I’m a little German.”
All those people coming to the arena tonight think you’re a star.
“People know me, people know the music,” he concedes, but he quietly insists: “I am not a star.”
Four years ago, the original The Lonely Shepherd, a spine-tingling collaboration with pan flautist Gheorge Zamfir, was featured on the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, leading to a minor critical reappraisal and the chance to record with a ragbag of contemporary artists.
While it failed to successfully introduce him to fans of Nina Hagen, Hayley Westenra or RZA from the Wu Tang Clan, They Call Me Hansi showed that James Last still has a few tricks up his well-tailored sleeve.
Though he’s retiring from long tours, Last plans to celebrate his 80th birthday onstage, and has recently been working on music for a film soundtrack. It sounds like, in between rounds of golf in Florida with his second wife Christine, he’s going to be busy.
“Of course,” says Last, with a twinkle in his eye to match that of the single diamond stud in his ear. “For musicians, when you are studying music from the beginning on, and you know what you want in music, you never can stop. It’s impossible.”
“A painter, who paints pictures, they cannot stop. They do it until the end of their lives.” He thumps his chest. “I want this. It is my life.”
[This interview first ran in The Big Issue in the North in October 2007]