Take the "A" Train
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|"Take the 'A' Train"|
|Music by||Billy Strayhorn, 1939|
|Lyrics by||Joya Sherrill, 1944|
|Original artist||Duke Ellington|
|Recorded by||Ella Fitzgerald|
"Take the 'A' Train" is a jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn that was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It is arguably the most famous of the many compositions to emerge from the collaboration of Ellington and Strayhorn.
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The use of the Strayhorn composition as the signature tune was made necessary by a ruling in 1940 by the American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP). When ASCAP raised its licensing fees for broadcast use, many ASCAP members, including Ellington, could no longer play their compositions over radio, as most music was played live on radio in those days. Ellington turned to Billy Strayhorn and son Mercer Ellington, who were registered with ASCAP competitor BMI to "write a whole new book for the band," Mercer recalled." 'A' Train" was one of many songs written by Strayhorn, and was picked to replace "Sepia Panorama" as the band's signature song. Mercer recalled that he found the song in a trash can after Strayhorn discarded a draft of it because it sounded too much like a Fletcher Henderson arrangement. The song was first recorded on January 15, 1941 as a standard transcription for radio broadcast. The first (and most famous) commercial recording was made on February 15, 1941.
The title refers to the then relatively new A subway service that runs through New York City, going at that time from eastern Brooklyn (opened in 1936) up into Harlem and northern Manhattan, using an express track section (opened in 1932) in Manhattan.
"Take the 'A' Train" was composed in 1939, 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.
Although Strayhorn said he wrote lyrics for it, the recorded first lyrics were composed by, or for, the Delta Rhythm Boys. The lyrics used by the Ellington band were added by Joya Sherrill, who was 20 at the time (1944). She made up the words at her home in Detroit, while the song played on the radio. Her father, a noted Detroit Black activist, set up a meeting with Ellington. Owing to Joya's remarkable poise and singing ability and her unique take on the song, Ellington hired her as a vocalist and adopted her lyrics. The vocalist who most often performed the song with the Ellington band was trumpeter Ray Nance, who enhanced the lyrics with numerous choruses of scat singing. Nance is also responsible for the trumpet solo on the first recording, which was so well suited for the song that it has often been duplicated note for note by others.
Based loosely on the chordal structure of "Exactly Like You", the song combines the propulsive swing of the 1940s-era Ellington band with the confident sophistication of Ellington and the black elite who inhabited Sugar Hill in Harlem. The tune is in AABA form, in the key of C, with each section being a lyric couplet. (The Ellington band's version begins in C and rises to the key of Eb after the second chorus.)
Ella Fitzgerald sang and recorded this song many times from 1957 onwards; for a live version with Ella scatting, see her 1961 Verve release Ella in Hollywood. Midwestern Rockers, Chicago added their version in 1995 on their back-to-the-roots-disc, Night & Day Big Band. Jo Stafford recorded a comedy version of the song under the pseudonym, Darlene Edwards.
In 1999, National Public Radio included this song in the "NPR 100", in which NPR's music editors sought to compile the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century.
The Cherry Poppin' Daddies used the song's opening piano lick (albeit in a different key) to open their song 'Ding-Dong Daddy of the D Car Line'.
The opening number to the musical In The Heights includes a brief homage to this song when Usnavi sings, "You must take the 'A' Train / Even farther than Harlem to northern Manhattan and maintain / Get off at 181st and take the escalator / I hope you're writing this down, I'm gonna test ya later."
In 2009, the PBS series History Detectives aired an episode  revealing that an original set of publishing plates for the song were in the possession by Garfield Gillings of Brooklyn, NY. Gillings stated that he found the plates at least twenty years earlier in a dumpster. Reporter Tukufu Zuberi brought the plates to the Smithsonian Institution, where curator John Hasse, who oversees the Duke Ellington collection, certified that the plates were most likely used for the first publications for Ellington's Tempo Publishing Company. Archived copies of the published sheet music were nearly identical to prints that had been made from the publishing plates.
Over the years the lyrics have contained many variations, as is not unusual for songs of this era. Those below are representative only, and may not be the original Sherrill lyrics:
- If you miss the A Train
- You'll find you've missed the quickest way to Harlem
- Hurry, get on, now, it's coming
- Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
- Get on the A Train
- Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem
Seminal performances of the song
- Duke Ellington, instrumental version, Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird, 1941 performance)
- Duke Ellington, Joya Sherrill, vocal, first vocal version, The Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1946 (Prestige, 1946 performance)
- Duke Ellington, Betty Roche, vocal, The 1950s: The Singers (Columbia, 1952 performance)
- "Take the 'A' Train" at jazzstandards.com
- Joya Sherrill at the PBS Jazz history page
- "How Ellington Took 'The A Train'", audio feature at npr.org
- "Duke Ellington Plates, PBS History Detectives
- "Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Jazz Composers: Take the "A" Train" http://americanhistory.si.edu/documentsgallery/exhibitions/ellington_strayhorn_6.html