One superbly popular tune, striking a chord with many, was “Take the A Train”. The song, written in 1938 by Billy Strayhorn, actually refers to the A subway service that ran through New York City, from eastern Brooklyn into Harlem and northern Manhattan, using the express tracks in Manhattan. The jazzy beat of the song became the signature tune of legendary the Duke Ellington orchestra.
Let’s take a closer look into the history of the ‘A Train’s’ composer, Billy Strayhorn:
Billy was born William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn in Dayton, Ohio in 1915. In 1923, his family moved to Pittsburgh, PA where he spent his childhood years. With a natural affinity for music, legend has it, Billy began playing the piano when he was old enough to reach the keys.
By 1939, Strayhorn’s immense talent caught the attention of Duke Ellington, who invited Billy to join his band. Billy he began arranging, composing, and playing the piano and he was the perfect complement to Ellington. It’s often been quoted that it was difficult to determine where one’s style ended and the other’s began. What is certain,…the collaboration between Ellington and Strayhorn created unforgettable sounds and moments in history.
Pictured above: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
A mention of Strayhorn’s contributions to the music world includes…”Chelsea Bridge,” “Day Dream,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “Rain-check, “Clementine” and “Lotus Blossom”.
He also collaborated with Duke Ellington on: 1947’s “Deep South Suite,” the “Shakespearean Suite” or “Such Sweet Thunder” in 1957, an arrangement of the “Nutcracker Suite” in 1960; and in 1962, “Peer Gynt Suite.”
Strayhorn and Ellington composed 1950’s “Jump for Joy,” and 1963’s “My People”, depicting the experiences of blacks in the United States.
In 1945, Strayhorn received the Esquire Silver Award in recognition for his talent as an outstanding arranger, and rightfully so.
After a life of incredible contributions to the world of music, on May 31, 1967, Billy Strayhorn, 51, died of cancer. In his memory, the Billy Strayhorn Scholarship fund at Juilliard was endowed with a concert presented by the Duke Ellington Society at Philharmonic Hall. Guest artists included Lena Horne, Lou Rawls, Tony Bennett, Joe Williams, Duke Ellington, Geoffrey Holder, Carmen De Lavallade, Bunny Briggs, Ray Nance, and Clark Terry.