This song was written by Billy Strayhorn, who played piano and wrote arrangements for Duke Ellington's band. Strayhorn recalled that the song that became the signature opening piece for Duke Ellington and his Orchestra came to him with very little effort. In fact, he said that the music and lyrics for "Take the A Train," originally recorded on February 15, 1941 by Ellington for Victor Records, came more quickly than the subject of the song itself – the New York subway line to the Sugar Hill District of Harlem. It was so easy for him, he said it was "like writing a letter to a friend." The fact that Ellington used the song as his orchestra's opening theme, making it his signature song, says a great deal about it and his appreciation for Strayhorn. Most bandleaders would not put a song that is not their own composition in the spotlight in this way, but the relationship between Strayhorn and Ellington was not typical. Ellington wrote in his autobiography that Strayhorn "was not, as he was often referred to by many, my alter ego. Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, and the eyes in the back of my head."
Strayhorn had played for Ellington after a show in Pittsburgh in 1938. He mimicked the orchestra's rendition of "Sophisticated Lady," then boldly played his own version. Ellington was so impressed, it eventually led to an invitation to Ellington's home in the wealthy Sugar Hill neighborhood. Using the subway directions that Ellington gave him, Strayhorn wrote, "Take the A Train." He composed it in his head at a party, and then put it all on paper when he was done. He said all of his most meaningful work was written this way. When Strayhorn played the song for Ellington after a show in Newark, a partnership that would last the rest of Strayhorn's life had begun.
Even though Strayhorn wrote lyrics to go with the music, which calls to mind a subway running on its track, the lyrics that were recorded were written by vocalist Joya Sherrill. The song was already receiving radio play as an instrumental when Sherrill wrote lyrics based on what she heard in her home in Detroit.
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