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Duke Ellington Tuesday, 27 April, 1999, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Musical trip: Take the A Train
Take the A Train is one of the Duke Ellington Orchestra's best-known pieces. But how the work came into being is less well reported. It is an intriguing tale of pure chance and circumstance.

Duke Ellington
In the late 1930s, a budding young composer called Billy Strayhorn met Duke Ellington and made a fine impression on the seasoned band leader. Duke told him he would be in touch again in the near future.

But weeks after their meeting in 1938, the young Strayhorn had heard nothing. He got in touch with Ellington's office and found out the band was playing in Harlem.

It was January 1939. Strayhorn travelled up from his home in Pittsburgh to New York. He was making the journey to impress Duke Ellington but fearing that might not be enough he had also written a composition using the travel instructions Ellington's office had given him to get to the band's venue. It was called Take the A Train.

The tune was duly played to Duke who must have liked it. There and then he decided to take Strayhorn on to his payroll.

But the band didn't record the song until nearly a year later. In December of 1940 a long-running spat between American radio networks and the music publishing organisation known as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) came to a head. The radio stations refused to increase their music broadcasting payments.

To solve the problem the radio networks set up their own publishing organisation, BMI, to rival ASCAP. They also announced they would not play any ASCAP music. It was akin to banning all popular music of the time.

It was bad news for Ellington. His repertoire was virtually wiped out overnight. He needed a completely new set.

While staying for a few nights at a hotel in Chicago, both Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's son, Mercer, got to work.

After only a couple of days the two men had written an impressive array of numbers including a brushed up version of Take The A Train, which until then had remained firmly under wraps.

Suitably impressed, Ellington was to use it as his new theme tune on radio broadcasts. It became his greatest commercial success.

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Take The A Train: Recorded 1941, in Hollywood
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