How Ellington Took 'The A Train'



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"Take the A Train," the signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was recorded on this day in 1941. Host Liane Hansen looks at the story behind the song.

"Take the A Train," the signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was recorded on this day in 1941. The song marked the beginning of a decades-long partnership between Ellington and a shy young songwriter named Billy Strayhorn.

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On this day in 1941, Duke Ellington recorded a bunch of new songs in a Hollywood studio and one of them - written by a shy Pittsburgh kid with big eyeglasses - became a big hit.

(Soundbite of song, "Take the A Train")

HANSEN: "Take the A Train" became the Duke Ellington Orchestra's theme song and marked the beginning of a decade's long partnership between Ellington and that shy young songwriter.

Mr. DUKE ELLINGTON (Musician): I'd like you meet and say hello to Billy Strayhorn, my writing and arrangement companion.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. ELLINGTON: Billy Strayhorn, (unintelligible) yeah.

HANSEN: Billy Strayhorn first met Ellington in Pittsburgh in 1938. Duke liked the young pianist and songwriter so much that he invited him to his home in New York. Strayhorn used the directions, take the A train to Sugar Hill in Harlem to show Ellington that he could write a song about anything. The new tune came in handy.

In 1940, the Duke Ellington Orchestra found it couldn't perform its old songs on the radio because of a dispute between radio stations and ASCAP - an organization representing songwriters and music publishers. Ellington brought in Strayhorn and son, Mercer Ellington, who weren't members of ASCAP, to create a new catalogue.

Strayhorn thought "A Train" was too old, but Mercer Ellington saved it from the trash. This is considered the definitive recording of "Take the A Train." Duke Ellington led on the piano and trumpeter Ray Nance would play the best-known solo of his career.

(Soundbite of trumpet solo in "Take the A Train")

HANSEN: Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train," recorded by the Duke Ellington Orchestra, February 15th, 1941.

(Soundbite of song, "Take the A Train")

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.