Take the “A” Train

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Take the “A” Train (Billy Strayhorn)  – Duke Ellington and his Orchestra introduced Strayhorn’s song in 1941. It was a hit that summer, charting for seven weeks and reaching #11 according to jazzstandards.com, and also in 1943.

From WICN.org’s Song of the Week feature:

At the end of 1940 a long-running negotiation between the radio networks and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) regarding increases in licensing fees reached a crisis. The radio stations refused to increase their music broadcasting payments to ASCAP and, during a 10-month period in 1941, ASCAP members could not broadcast their songs on the radio. At the time, that was tantamount to banning all popular music from radio and was a disastrous situation for Duke Ellington, who, as a member of ASCAP, virtually lost his repertoire. He needed radio broadcasts to promote record sales in order to pay his orchestra’s salaries, but, as of January 1, 1941, his music was banned from the radio. He turned to Strayhorn and son Mercer, who were not ASCAP members, for a new set of songs. The young composers took full advantage of this unanticipated opportunity to write for the Ellington Orchestra; within a few days Strayhorn produced songs that included “Take the ‘A’ Train, “Chelsea Bridge” and “Daydream”, and Mercer wrote “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” and “Blue Serge”. The prolific songwriting during this short period kept the Ellington Orchestra solvent during the radio ban.

However, Wikipedia notes that the music of “A” Train was composed a few years earlier:

duke-ellington-and-billy-strayhorn-1-f20“Take the ‘A’ Train” was composed in 1938, after Ellington offered Strayhorn a job in his organization and gave him money to travel from Pittsburgh to New York City. Ellington wrote directions for Strayhorn to get to his house by subway, directions that began, “Take the A Train.” Strayhorn was a great fan of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements. “One day, I was thinking about his style, the way he wrote for trumpets, trombones and saxophones, and I thought I would try something like that,” Strayhorn recalled in Stanley Dance’s The World Of Duke Ellington.

Another version of the story of the song’s composition is found at Answers.com

Duke Ellington first heard the young pianist Billy Strayhorn when his band passed through Pittsburgh in 1938. The bandleader promised to stay in touch, but neither called nor wrote. Finally, Strayhorn called Ellington’s office and was told the band was playing in Harlem. The directions to the club were very specific: “Take the A train to Sugar Hill.” In 1939, Strayhorn made the trip from Pittsburgh to New York and took the A train up to Harlem. Ellington was impressed both by the young man’s initiative and his musicality, and put him on the payroll. At the end of 1940, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) called for the radio networks to increase their royalties. The networks refused and ASCAP called a strike, forbidding any ASCAP compositions to be played on the radio. Overnight, the Ellington band, along with every other band in the country, was unable to play any of its hits on the radio. Strayhorn and Ellington’s son Mercer spent a couple days holed up in a hotel in Chicago and wrote an entirely new set of songs for Ellington. Among these were “Take the ‘A’ Train,” with its very specific directions to Harlem set to an instantly memorable melody, and arranged for the Ellington band’s suave blend of trumpets and reeds. Ellington was so impressed by Strayhorn’s song that he made it his band’s theme song. ~ James Leonard, Rovi

The Delta Rhythm Boys, 1941 Soundie

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Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, lead vocal: Betty Roche in the film Reveille With Beverly (1943)

The words sung here by Roche and a chorus are not those reportedly written by teenager Joya Sherrill and later adopted by Ellington for his vocalists. However, some of the lines are identical or nearly so. While many authorities claim Sherrill wrote the lyrics at age 17 in 1944, allmusic.com gives her birth date as 20 August 1924. Allaboutjazz.com and Wikipedia say she first worked with Ellington in 1942 (when she may have been 17) though neither mentions when her lyrics to A Train were written.* She became a member of the orchestra, as a vocalist in 1944. Side-stepping such complications, jazzstandards.com avoids mention of the lyrics entirely in their profile of the song.

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Duke Ellington and his Orchestra with Ella Fitzgerald, 1956

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Duke Ellington and his band – Newport Jazz Festival, 1956

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Betty Roché — title track from her 1956 LP

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Dave Brubeck Quartet — University of Rome, 1959

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Billy Strayhorn with the Paris String Quartet May 1961

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Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, featuring Billy Strayhorn on piano, perform “A” Train as an encore to a 1965 concert

Presently unavailable

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Dave Brubeck Quartet —  Germany, 1966

Dave Brubeck – piano
Paul Desmond – alto sax
Eugene Wright – bass
Joe Morello – drums

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Duke Ellington Trio 1967, from a Denmark TV production — The combo consists of Ellington (piano), John Lamb (bass), and Rufus Jones (drums)

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Oscar Peterson and Michel Petrucciani – live 1994

The provider says:

Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) gives a characteristically upbeat and energetic take on this jazz standard, whilst Michel Petrucciani (1962-1999) explores the material at greater length and with greater sobriety. The latter’s achievements seem all the more remarkable when one considers the severe physical handicap that his musical will and determination had to overcome. This performance provided the climax to a 25-minute medley which was broadcast live in 1994. ‘Take the A Train’ was written by Billy Strayhorn for the Duke Ellington Big Band in 1941.

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Dave Brubeck & Billy TaylorLegends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis Season One – Volume Two, 2006

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The Diesel Bodine One Man Orchestra

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*Many sources say that 17 year old Joy Sherrill wrote the lyrics later adopted by Ellington while she was listening to an Ellington recording on the radio at home. There are a number of problems with this story including the following:

  1. ASCAP credits only Billy Strayhorn as the songwriter.
  2. None of the sources that I’ve seen which credit Sherrill get her age correct for the claimed year of composition. They say she wrote the words at 17 in 1944, but she was born in 1924, and consequently would have turned 20 years old in 1944.
  3. The recording of The Delta Rhythm Boys in a 1941 Soundie contains some of the same lines later used by Ellington. Although the first video above is dated 1942 by the provider, the short is dated 1941 by weirdwildrealm.com. I found no mention of the short at IMDb. If she wrote the words in 1944 as many sources claim, how does one account for versions featuring some identical lines having been recorded in 1941 (by the Delta Rhythm Boys), and in 1943 (by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra in Reveille with Beverly)?
  4. If she wrote her version of the lyrics in 1942, 1941, or earlier why isn’t this confirmed by any of the sources I’ve seen? Some say she began working for Ellington in 1942, indicating only that she was employed briefly by Ellington during that year, yet providing no clue as to what her employment at that time entailed.

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