Monday, February 12, 2007
billy strayhorn

I watched the most wonderful hour and a half on PBS' "Independent Lens". It was a beautiful documentary about the great composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn. He was, for those who might not know, the composer of some of Duke Ellington's greatest songs and scores....And if you are unfamiliar with Duke Ellington, well....he was one of our greatest musicians, too, of the 30's, 40's, 50's and 60's....when his 'star' was up there with the likes of Benny Goodman, Count Basie and Artie Shaw, and in a class all his own I might add, and it was very much due to the wonderful unassuming amazing talent of Billy Strayhorn....The songs? "Satin Doll", written by Strayhorn. "Lush Life", written by Strayhorn. "I Want Something To Live For", written by Strayhorn, to name just a few....this unsung musical genius who never really got the credit or money that he deserved, but that was Billy Strayhorn's and Duke Ellington's agreement...and for whatever reason, that's how it worked...This brilliant documentary really goes into depth about the relationship between these two men and their need for one another musically....which produced a huge number of very successful records and songs, recorded by many many people and heard still to this day.You know, sometimes you live through things and even though you are young, you know you are witnessing something quite rare and special....regardless of the fact that you are not sure exactly all the circumstances that made it special. Yet, you know in your deepest deep that you have been witness to and moved by certain unexplainable things that only music can do---and these things stay with you for your whole life.

In 1953, my third summer working at the Sea Cliff Summer Theatre, we did an 'original revival' production of the fabulous musical, "Cabin In The Sky", (Music by Vernon Duke, Lyrics by John La Touche (who was around for this production---a rare and wonderful thing, too....) In those days the accompiniment for these summer shows were just two pianos...and that's all....no drums no bass no other instruments because of the cost. Doesn't sound like much, but, if the arrangements and the piano's are being played by two of the greatest musical arrangers/composers of the day----well, then you've got "magic".

And we had "magic", with a capital M! The two piano's were played by Luther Henderson...one of the greatest of the great arranger/composers working with Duke Ellington and Lena Horne, plus his Broadway credits alone are unbelievable and incredibly impressive, including two coveted Toby Awards, I believe, and that other rare and special genius at the other piano was the brillint Billy Strayhorn. Meeting Luther that summer led me to V.A.M.P. Studio's in New York City, that fall, where one had the complete 'musical service' as a singer: Voice, (Richard Camillucci), Arrangements, (Luther H.), Music & Production, (Buster Newman)....thus VAMP...which just happens to also be a musical term, as I'm sure many of you know, like 'vamp till ready'...I have written about this wonderful place which played such an important part in my personal development a few times before on my blog....like here and here.


The arrangements for this summer revival production of "Cabin In The Sky" were Stunning! Exceptional! Unique! This was an 'all black' show, and I think it was the very first time that the arrangements were rendered by black talent. I can only tell you that you would have thought a whole orchestra was in the pit....an amazing feat, to say the least. It was my introduction to Billy Strayhorn and the sublime beauty of his talent, even when what he was doing was arranging someone elses music....But this was also my introduction to his music and lyrics....And by the way, he wrote "Lush Life" when he was sixteen years old. Sixteen! Such understanding and sophistication, my Lord! And though the credit for the lyrics to "Something To Live For" reads Duke Ellington, it was Strayhorn who wrote both, long before his association with Ellington began....but this 'credit for Ellington was part of the business arrangement the two had made, and it was not uncommon at all in those days, for this to happen....
Here are the Lyrics to this great great song, and it just happens to be one of my favorite songs of all time.....


Verse:
I have almost ev'ry thing a human could desire,
Cars and houses, bear-skin rugs to lie before my fire
But there's something missing,
Something isn't there,
It seems I'm never kissing the one whom I care for.


Chorus:
I want Something To Live For
Someone to make my life an adventurous dream
Oh, what wouln't I give for
Someone who'd take my life and make it seem
gay as they say it ought to be.
Why can't I have love like that brought to me?
My eye is watching the noon crowds
searching the promenades seeking a clue
To the one who will someday be my
Something To Live For.

(The music for this very beautiful song is as complex and beautifully haunting as anything he ever wrote. Oh how I wish I knew how to put music on my blog....)

And here: The Lyrics to "Lush Life", written as I said, when Strayhorn was sixteen years old....talk about sophistication and understanding of the human heart....

I used to visit all the very gay places
Those come-what-may places
Where one relaxes on the axis of the wheel of life --
To get the feel of life
From jazz and cocktails.

The girls I knew had sad and sullen gray faces
With distingue traces
That used to be there --
You could see where they'd been washed away
By too many through the day
Twelve o'clock tales
Then you came along with your siren song
To tempt me to madness...
I thought for a while that your poignant smile
Was tinged with the sadness...Of a great love for me.
Ah yes, I was wrong.
Again, I was wrong.

Life is lonely again,
And only last year, everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again,
A trough full of hearts could only be a bore.
A week in Paris will ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it
I'll forget you, I will
While yet you are still
Burning inside my brain
Romance is mush
Stifling those who strive
I'll live a lush life in some small dive
And there I'll be, while I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely too.

Amazing! And the music is again complex and hauntingly beautiful...he knew and understood so very much....He was a true musical genius.

Billy Strayhorn died in 1967 at 51 years old from esophegal cancer. Such a terrible terrible loss. A true tragedy because we will never know what else he might have composed, had he lived.....And when I think that at the time I met him he was only 37 years old, and had already created so very much that has lasted and will continue to last as long as people love music.....

If you get a chance to see this really special documentary on Billy Strayhorn on PBS' "Independent Lens", you won't be sorry....Included in this 'in depth' documentary are some of the other great songs Billy Strayhorn wrote...with some spectacular artists singing them and playing them, too. Elvis Costello, for one and most particularly, Diane Reeves, who sings quite a few snatches of the Strayhorn 'Canon'....If you are a lover of Music and particularly Jazz of that period in our history, this is not only an informative and faithful account of the little man called "Sweet Pea" by his friends, but also it is so very very touching and deeply rich in musical history, too.....
Billy Strayhorn is worth researching in any way you can....He was a true musical genius and a musical prodigy, too. He had so much heart and so much soul....Just about every important musical performer in the last 60 years or more, weather singer or intsrumentalist, has recorded his songs....and there are some songs that will break your heart...like the two mentioned above. He was a true Artist in every sense of that word. This CD below is the one connected to the documentary and speaks volumes about the man and his fantastic talent. Do yourself a favor and add this to your musical library!




More To Come.....







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19 Comments:
Blogger mar
had this to say:

I will have to check out those songs !!!

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 5:31:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

I've seen his name, lately~ was it on the Grammies, last night?
Or maybe mentioned on this blog?
I can't recall, but I know I've seen his name, very recently.

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 7:12:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

We both posted Music today. I have been sharing my music every Monday. I loved learning about Billy. I looked for a video or music code for you to post but all searches turned up zip. I have another artist that I can't get codes on. I really want to do a post on Claudio Baglioni with the song "a modo mio". Some of the great artists are hard to find.
I wish I knew how to post a song I have on my computer to my blog.

Have a wonderful day!
*^_^
(=':'=) hugs
(")_ (")Š from
the Cool Raggedy one

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 7:25:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

A wonderfully passionate post as ever. What a wonderful talent he was and it's fantastic that you got to actually hear him play and arrange music.

I know of the songs you specifically mention as my Dad used to play Duke Elligton, Count Bassie and Artie Shaw when I was a child.I had not realsise dthey were in fact written by Billy Strayhorn so thanks for enlightening me :-)

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 9:34:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

What a lovely and passionate post about some great musicians. I think at least Benny Goodman have been to Norway a couple of time and they where very popular here and still are among jazz lovers.

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 11:24:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Oh, those were the days, when musicians was musicians, when you could hear the passion for the instrument and the music. All real.

Excellent post. Thanks for sharing good old memories.

=^.^=

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 1:43:00 PM PST 

Anonymous Lyn M.
had this to say:

I was 19 years old and Duke Ellington was playing to a huge crowd at a dance in New Hampshire. My memories of that evening are vivid because I was an aspiring young singer back then and excited about seeing him in person. The bandstand was crowded with folks wanting to meet him and I still have the autographed picture I took home from one of the best musical nights of my young life. Needless to say, your piece on him and his relationship with Billy Strayhorn was a special treat to read about.

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 3:33:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Strays was incredible. Duke was crushed when he died. He hasn't been fully recognized for his contributions. You're right. That was music.

Thanks for this.

Monday, February 12, 2007 at 7:49:00 PM PST 

Blogger srp
had this to say:

I think what makes your in-depth reviews so wonderful and special are those personal touches you add from having known the artist. The producer of that special should have had you as one of his sources.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 5:36:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

is there anyone you haven't met at least once?? lol..

Great story on him Naomi.. you enlighten many people with your blog letting us all know so many we many not have known about.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 6:24:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

I have never heard of Billy Strayhorn but I have heard of Duke Ellington.

I love those lyrics! I'm so glad you post about these things Naomi. It's always so interesting and pieces of history that we otherwise might miss. You are a jewel!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 8:18:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

Isn't that something? I have never heard of him -- but I certainly AM aware of Duke Ellington and Count Basie -- LOVE both of them! Benny Goodman too! You know... I can understand that he didn't get the 'recognition' he deserved -- but dang - he SHOULD have gotten his share of the money! Of course -- isn't this the way it works in SO many areas of life -- especially in the "arts" - that people are not well recognized or VALUED until after they are dead. It's so sad!

This happend in a MUCH smaller way too, to my grandfather. As an engineer in the military, he DESIGNED the Bazooka gun. It is well known family history. But I went on line to look it up and 'prove' it to one of my kids and some General is credited with it - one that my family has never even heard of! But that's the way it is. My grandfather did this, and it was just part of his job. He never really expected recognition for it -- he was just doing his job! But it's sad that someone else is given the credit for it!

Naomi -- I have a little piece of "local history" posted today! I think you might enjoy it!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 8:35:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

I love Duke Ellington but have never heard of this guy. That is sad because it seems he deserves so much credit for great music! I loved they lyrics you've chosen!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 10:21:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

I missed the documentary but I am wondering if they will play it again and when? I would love to see it. I loved Duke Ellington and many of the musicians of that era.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 11:54:00 AM PST 

had this to say:

I downloaded one of his tracks from iTunes - great stuff!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 2:35:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Sounds like it was a great documentary.
I'm not familiar with his name, but certainly know of the songs he wrote.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 4:28:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

Gosh, I've never even heard of him. That's what I like about your blog, Naomi. You bring so many 'behind the scenes' people to the front. He sounds amazing!

Okay, the cat for Raggedy's icon is just too cute!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007 at 4:52:00 PM PST 

had this to say:

I remember well hearing this musician. Thanks for printing the lyrics of "Lush Life." Like you, I enjoyed that PBS special and hope they air it again in the future.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007 at 3:28:00 AM PST 

Anonymous Kevin Raftery
had this to say:

I've been snooping around reading old posts, and I just read about Mr Strayhorn.
There are certain people that I wish I could have met and had a one-on-one with...some of those people include: Elia Kazan, Dear Natalie Wood and Billy Strayhorn.
I'll never forget the first time I heard "Lush Life" or "Something to Live for"...these are very deep and thought provoking songs... certainly not in the vein of your typical love songs. They really are two of the greatest songs in The Great American Songbook. Thanx, Kevin Raftery

Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 4:11:00 PM PDT 

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