This article is about the song by Billy Strayhorn. For the live album by Dexter Gordon, see Take the "A" Train (Dexter Gordon album).
For other uses, see A Train.
"Take the 'A' Train" is a jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn that was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington orchestra. It is arguably the most famous of the many compositions to emerge from the collaboration of Ellington and Strayhorn.
The use of the Strayhorn composition as the signature tune was made necessary by a ruling in 1940 by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). When ASCAP raised its licensing fees for broadcast use, many ASCAP members, including Ellington, could no longer play their compositions over radio, as most music was played live on radio at the time. Ellington turned to Billy Strayhorn and son Mercer Ellington, who were registered with ASCAP competitor BMI to "write a whole new book for the band," Mercer recalled. "'A' Train" was one of many tunes written by Strayhorn, and was picked to replace "Sepia Panorama" as the band's signature song. Mercer recalled that he found the composition in a trash can after Strayhorn discarded a draft of it because it sounded too much like a Fletcher Henderson arrangement. The song was first recorded on January 15, 1941 as a standard transcription for radio broadcast. The first (and most famous) commercial recording was made on February 15, 1941.
The title refers to the then-new A subway service that runs through New York City, going at that time from eastern Brooklyn, on the Fulton Street Line opened in 1936, up into Harlem and northern Manhattan, using the Eighth Avenue Line in Manhattan opened in 1932.
"Take the 'A' Train" was composed in 1939, after Ellington offered Strayhorn a job in his organization and gave him money to travel from Pittsburgh to New York City. Ellington wrote directions for Strayhorn to get to his house by subway, directions that began, "Take the A Train". Strayhorn was a great fan of Fletcher Henderson's arrangements. "One day, I was thinking about his style, the way he wrote for trumpets, trombones and saxophones, and I thought I would try something like that," Strayhorn recalled in Stanley Dance's The World Of Duke Ellington.
Although Strayhorn said he wrote lyrics for it, the recorded first lyrics were composed by, or for, the Delta Rhythm Boys. The lyrics used by the Ellington band were added by Joya Sherrill, who was 20 at the time (1944). She made up the words at her home in Detroit, while the song played on the radio. Her father, a noted Detroit Black activist, set up a meeting with Ellington. Owing to Joya's remarkable poise and singing ability and her unique take on the song, Ellington hired her as a vocalist and adopted her lyrics. The vocalist who most often performed the song with the Ellington band was trumpeter Ray Nance, who enhanced the lyrics with numerous choruses of scat singing. Nance is also responsible for the trumpet solo on the first recording, which was so well suited for the song that it has often been duplicated note for note by others.
Based loosely on the chordal structure of "Exactly Like You", the song combines the propulsive swing of the 1940s-era Ellington band with the confident sophistication of Ellington and the black elite who inhabited Sugar Hill in Harlem. The tune is in AABA form, in the key of C, with each section being a lyric couplet. (The Ellington band's version begins in C and rises to the key of Eb after the second chorus.)
Ella Fitzgerald sang and recorded this song many times from 1957 onwards; for a live version with Ella scatting, see her 1961 Verve release Ella in Hollywood. Midwestern Rockers, Chicago added their version in 1995 on their back-to-the-roots-disc, Night & Day Big Band. Jo Stafford recorded an intentionally inept interpretation of the song under the pseudonym, Darlene Edwards.
The Rolling Stones used the song as the introductory track on their 1982 live album Still Life.
The improvisational rock band Phish often performed the song early in their career. The last known performance by them was on April 13, 1994 at the Beacon Theatre.
In the 1984 film, Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams plays saxophone with a Russian circus, but wants to be a jazz musician. He is seen in the film playing "Take the 'A' Train."
In 1999, National Public Radio included this song in the "NPR 100", in which NPR's music editors sought to compile the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century.
The Voice of America Jazz Hour, hosted by Willis Conover, used this song as its theme.
The Cherry Poppin' Daddies used the song's opening piano lick (albeit in a different key) to open their song 'Ding-Dong Daddy of the D Car Line'.
The opening number to the musical In The Heights includes a brief homage to this song when Usnavi sings, "You must take the 'A' Train / Even farther than Harlem to northern Manhattan and maintain / Get off at 181st and take the escalator / I hope you're writing this down, I'm gonna test ya later."
In 2009, the PBS series History Detectives aired an episode  revealing that an original set of publishing plates for the song were in the possession by Garfield Gillings of Brooklyn, NY. Gillings stated that he found the plates at least twenty years earlier in a dumpster. Reporter Tukufu Zuberi brought the plates to the Smithsonian Institution, where curator John Hasse, who oversees the Duke Ellington collection, certified that the plates were most likely used for the first publications for Ellington's Tempo Publishing Company. Archived copies of the published sheet music were nearly identical to prints that had been made from the publishing plates.
A 2012 episode of the Disney Channel sitcom Jessie is titled "Take the A-Train.. I Think?", where much of the cast gets lost on the A train.
Duke Ellington's recording of the song is featured in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.
Over the years the lyrics have contained many variations, as is not unusual for songs of this era. Those below are representative only, and may not be the original Sherrill lyrics:
You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the A Train
You'll find you've missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now, it's coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem
Seminal performances of the song
- Duke Ellington, instrumental version, Never No Lament: The Blanton-Webster Band (Bluebird, 1941 performance)
- Duke Ellington, Joya Sherrill, vocal, first vocal version, The Carnegie Hall Concerts: January 1946 (Prestige, 1946 performance)
- Duke Ellington, Betty Roche, vocal, The 1950s: The Singers (Columbia, 1952 performance)
- Oscar Peterson – Oscar Peterson Plays Duke Ellington (1953), with Barney Kessel and Ray Brown
- Dave Brubeck – Jazz Goes to College (1954), with Paul Desmond
- Clifford Brown – Study in Brown (1955), with Harold Land, Richie Powell, George Morrow, and Max Roach
- Betty Roché – Take the "A" Train (1956)
- The Delta Rhythm Boys – The Delta Rhythm Boys (1956)
- Ella Fitzgerald – Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (1957), with Duke Ellington and his orchestra
- The King Sisters – Imagination (1958), with Alvino Rey and his orchestra
- Phineas Newborn – I Love a Piano (1958), solo piano
- Ralph Burns – New York's a Song (1960); Ralph Burns and his orchestra and the Sounds of the City
- Charles Mingus – Pre-Bird (1960; reissued as Mingus Revisited in 1964), combined contrapuntally with "Exactly Like You"
- Stuff Smith – Cat on a Hot Fiddle (1960), with Shirley Horn and Red Mitchell; Swingin' Stuff (1965), with Kenny Drew and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen
- Harry James – Harry James...Today (MGM E-3848, 1960)
- Mel Tormé – I Dig the Duke; I Dig the Count (1962), arranged by Johnny Mandel
- Tito Rodriguez – Tito Rodriguez Live at Birdland (1963), with Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, and Bernie Leighton
- Gordon Jenkins & His Orchestra – Blue Prelude (1967), featuring Marshal Royal
- Clark Terry – It's What's Happenin' (1967), with Don Friedman, George Duvivier, and Dave Bailey
- Hank Thompson – The Countrypolitan Sound of Hank Thompson's Brazos Valley Boys (1967)
- Sarah Vaughan – Sassy Swings Again (1967), arranged by J. J. Johnson
- Kenny Burrell – Ellington Is Forever (1975), unaccompanied performance by pianist Jimmy Jones
- Sun Ra – Live at Montreux (1976), tenor saxophonist John Gilmore, drummer Clifford Jarvis
- Ran Blake – Duke Dreams (1982), solo piano
- Chaka Khan – Echoes of an Era (1982), with Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, and Lenny White
- Carol Sloane – Sophisticated Lady (1985), with Roland Hanna and George Mraz
- Chuck Brown & the Soul Searchers – "Take the Go-Go Train" from the 1986 album Go Go Swing Live.
- Dexter Gordon – Take the "A" Train (1989; rec. 1967), with Kenny Drew, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, and Tootie Heath
- Jon Hendricks – Freddie Freeloader (1990)
- Joe Henderson – The Standard Joe (1991), with Rufus Reid and Al Foster; Lush Life: The Music of Billy Strayhorn (1992), with Wynton Marsalis, Stephen Scott, and Christian McBride
- Dave Grusin – Homage to Duke (1993)
- Chicago – Night & Day (1995)
- Clare Fischer – Rockin' In Rhythm (1997), as "O Pato Takes the 'A' Train," combining Strayhorn's song with the similarly harmonized samba, "O Pato"
- Canadian Brass – Take the "A" Train (1999), arranged by Luther Henderson
- The Harlem Quartet – Take the "A" Train (2006)
- Nikki Yanofsky – "Take the "A" Train" (2010)
Duke Ellington in 1971. Louis Panassié/Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons hide caption
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."
NPR 100 Fact Sheet
Title: Take The A Train
Artist: Billy Strayhorn
As performed by Duke Ellington & his Orchestra
Reporter: Brooke Gladstone
Interviewees: David Hajdu, author
Recordings Used: Take the A Train, Duke Ellington & his Orchestra