Monday, September 11, 2006

Billy Strayhorn

Quick, think of a Duke Ellington composition. Did you think of "Take the 'A' Train"? Or maybe "Satin Doll," or "Something To Live For," or "Day Dream"? Those are indeed some of the best-known songs associated with Ellington and his orchestra, but Ellington didn't write them. They were written by his lesser known counterpart, and musical soul mate, Billy Strayhorn.

Strayhorn wrote and arranged hundreds of compositions for the Ellington Orchestra, but was content to mainly stay in the background while Ellington received the lion's share of the acclaim. As David Hadju points out in his biography of Strayhorn, his decision to work in Ellington's shadow was no doubt in part influenced by the fact that he was an openly gay black man in an era less tolerant of homosexuality than our own. (BTW, I highly recommend Hadju's Strayhorn biography, Lush Life, one of the best musical biographies I have ever read).

The Peaceful Side, released by United Artists in 1961, is the only album I am aware of that was credited to Strayhorn alone during his lifetime. It sounds very different from anything recorded by Ellington, with a pronounced easy-listening feeling. Vinyl copies are extremely difficult to find. I own a Solid State reissue with grotesquely manipulated cover art. I'd like to find an original, but they tend to be pricey. The album was reissued on CD by Blue Note, but it too is out-of-print and hard to find.

Here is a version of Strayhorn's signature tune, "Lush Life" from The Peaceful Side. This is the composition most associated with Strayhorn, perhaps because it was never recorded by an Ellington band, or perhaps because it matches the image of Strayhorn as a world-weary sophisticate so well. He was a teenager living in Dayton, OH when he wrote it. I love this version of the song with its wordless sighing chorus and strings. It's perfect.


BROWNBOX said...

Is this "painted" image of Billy Strayhorn by you? If not, do you know who the artists is?

Pete Bilderback said...

No, it's not by me. When the Solid State label reissued this album sometime in the 70s this is the cover artwork they used (the UA original had a B&W photo). I don't know who painted it, the album does not credit anyone.