Although the legendary Duke Ellington is remembered for a number of his own compositions, Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A-Train” is considered by many to be the Duke’s signature song. But it’s a piece with an interesting history, one that includes a young singer who seems to have mis-timed the train’s biggest moments.
When Wilmington-born Mary Elizabeth Roché won an amateur contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in pre-war New York, she knew it would give her a chance at a musical career. What she didn’t know was that it would lead to her getting a job a couple of years later with Duke Ellington’s immensely popular and respected orchestra.
Betty arrived just in time to sing at the Duke’s successful Carnegie Hall concert, performing in part of his “Black, Brown and Beige” to great reviews, and was also onboard later when the band appeared in the movie, Reveille With Beverly. It was her first chance to make a statement with “Take The A Train” (video below). The song had already become a standard as an instrumental and had previously been vocalized by others, including Joya Sherrill, who had written some of the original lyrics. (The song’s lyrics often differed from singer to singer, and even from performance to performance, and was a scat-singer’s delight.)
But the timing was off for Betty to make a record of the song, at least in part because of war-time restrictions. She later moved on to jobs with other bands, but she did team up again with the Duke in the early 1950s and recorded a very good version of the song. However, it had by then been covered by a number of bigger stars, including Ella Fitzgerald. Betty would also record an updated version a few years later (below) backed by a group that included vibes master Eddie Costa and trumpeter Conte Candoli, but by then the song was in every vocalist’s songbook.
Betty continued to record with moderate success into the 1960s but eventually retired from music. She didn’t die until 1999, but her epitaph might have been written years before when the Duke described her in his autobiography: “She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue, and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations.”