For years I have heard it argued that Duke Ellington deserves all the acclaim that is heaped on George Gershwin--that he was the greater innovator and composer, had a deeper body of work, and was only passed over because of skin color. I always reflexively bought it. Until I started researching Duke Ellington for the SongMine and discovered that most of the songs that we all know and love as coming from Duke REALLY came from a shy, uptight homosexual black kid named Billy Strayhorn. Duke himself referrred to Strayhorn like this: [he is] "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine" On another occasion Duke said "Strayhorn does all the work but I get to take the bows."
So even though Duke Ellington is unquestionably a giant of jazz, an amazing composer, a great band leader and pianist, maybe he doesn't deserve the accolades that some would claim for him as a songwriter. Maybe those should go to the guy who actually wrote Lush Life and Take The A Train, and a lot of the other numbers we all associate with Ellington, and who, according to some accounts, never saw a penny of the royalties...Billy Strayhorn. He was a kid from Pittsburgh who wanted to be a classical composer but was blocked by his skin color. Then he got turned onto jazz and realized there was a place for him there. He teamed up with Ellington in 1938 and had the balls to show the great bandleader some new, improved arrangements for his repertoire. He had already written "Lush Life"ten years earlier, at the age of 16. Check it out. This was the best Youtube rendition I could fine, by Natalie Cole--who is not my idea of a great interpretive artist. But then I find this whole exploration is challenging my preconceived notions. Maybe Natalie Cole deserves a second look too...
I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come what may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life
To get the feel of life...
From jazz and cocktails.
The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distant gay traces
That used to be there you could see where theyd been washed away
By too many through the day...
Twelve oclock tales.
Then you came along with your siren of song
To tempt me to madness!
I thought for a while that your poignant smile was tinged with the sadness
Of a great love for me.
Ah yes! I was wrong...
I was wrong.
Life is lonely again,
And only last year everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A troughful of hearts could only be a bore.
A week in paris will ease the bite of it,
All I care is to smile in spite of it.
Ill forget you, I will
While yet you are still burning inside my brain.
Romance is mush,
Stifling those who strive.
Ill live a lush life in some small dive...
And there Ill be, while I rot
With the rest of those whose lives are lonely, too..
And here is Strayhorn himself, diffidently coming out in 1965 to play Take The A Train for the Ellington encore...
The tales of the SongMine just get stranger don't they? Let's all raise a glass to Billy Strayhorn, the very much sung yet unsung hero of the song.