How Ellington Took 'The A Train'

"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.

'Take The A Train'

Duke Ellington in 1971. i i

Duke Ellington in 1971. Louis Panassié/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons hide caption

itoggle caption Louis Panassié/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Duke Ellington in 1971.

Duke Ellington in 1971.

Louis Panassié/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Trains, cars and planes have all inspired popular songs, but how did a New York City subway line lead to one of the greatest jazz anthems of all time? The answer is the story behind "Take the 'A' Train," part of the NPR 100 — our list of the 100 most influential American musical works of the 20th century. NPR's Brooke Gladstone has this report.

You live in New York, you don't own a car, you ride the subway. And if you're really unlucky, you have to ride the A train, which ranks at the bottom of the 20 subway lines in the city. It's the line most prone to breakdowns, dirt and delays. But it has one advantage over all the other lines: It's the quickest way to Harlem and the district of majestic mansions where Harlem's royalty once reigned, called Sugar Hill.

"Take the A Train" was written by a kid who lived in Pittsburgh named Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn was a soda jerk and drugstore delivery boy by day, a musician by night, and a composer all the time.

In 1938, Strayhorn was introduced to Duke Ellington, who asked the young musician to play for him after a show.

"And Strayhorn did the gutsiest thing imaginable," author David Hadju says. "He played 'Sophisticated Lady,' and he said, 'Well, Mr. Ellington, this is the way you just played it in concert,' and he showed that he could mimic Ellington perfectly. Then he said, 'Well, this is the way I would play it.'

"Right there, the whole dynamic between the two of them was established through the course of their whole life," Hadju adds. "And Strayhorn proceeded for 30 years to take what Ellington did and add to it himself."

Click the audio link above to hear more about the story of Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington and "Take the 'A' Train."

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