Welcome! Fridays are the day when we at the McElrath Cabaret Blog are going to present blog posts in our Cabaret Through Time series. We are going to present historical cabaret singers, venues, writers, and musicians, and will begin to compile a cabaret timeline. We hope that you find it informative, and that you enjoy it!
Billy Strayhorn–Songwriter extraordinaire
Today’s focus is on the greatest composer that didn’t always get all of the acclaim that he deserved in his life, Billy Strayhorn. Much has already been written about today’s subject such that a short blog post cannot do him justice. I choose instead to mention a very few of the highlights of his productive but too-short life. His works are performed to this day by cabaret singers, due to their beauty and subtlety.
I am reading a biography of Billy Strayhorn at present that was written by David Hajdu, entitled Lush Life, after one of Strayhorn’s most famous compositions. This is a wonderful book that gives insight not only into Strayhorn’s most creative years in terms of writing music for use by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, but also talks about his personal life, and gives perspective into the life experiences that went into his view of the world. The great singer, Lena Horne, who was in some ways a protege of Mr. Strayhorn in her early career, recommends this volume. I am using this book as a reference source for this blog post. There is also a wonderful Billy Strayhorn website that also has a wealth of information listed.
Mr. Strayhorn’s early life was not particularly easy. His parents, both coming from cultured families, nevertheless were poor. This distressed his father, which led to Pater Strayhorn’s drinking problem. His mother sent him to stay with his grandparents for extended periods in his childhood. It was from his grandmother that he became exposed to music, and he would play her piano and listen to music on the Victrola.
He had early success in writing songs that were used in school productions at his high school, and went on to meet and play for Duke Ellington when he was twenty-three years old. This began the association of Ellington and Strayhorn, who eventually went to New York and for a time lived with Ellington. Ellington paid all his living expenses, so Strayhorn wanted for nothing. In exchange, Strayhorn wrote music and arrangements for Ellington to use with his Orchestra.
Strayhorn was openly gay during a time when it was difficult to be so (Hajdu 79). Hajdu recounts that a gay black musician friend of Billy Strayhorn’s said about him that “Billy could have pursued a career on his own–he had the talent to become rich and famous–but he’d have had to be less than honest about his sexual orientation [due to 'social bias forc[ing] many men and women to keep their sexual identities secret’]. Or he could work behind the scenes for Duke and be open about being gay. . . . It really was truth or consequences, and Billy went with truth. It was just incredible.’” (79-80).
For cabaret performers, Lena Horne talks about what it was like to work with Strayhorn as an accompanist. She gives Strayhorn a compliment when she stated that “‘He [Strayhorn] was a great accompanist for me because he understood me and loved me . . . . But he was also musically great for me; he had a trick of hearing the breath. When you sing, you need air, and he made a soft little bed right there to support the structure, so while you’re taking your breath, nobody knows. It takes an awful lot of sensitivity.’” (Hajdu 132).
Strayhorn’s life was clipped short due to cancer. He died at age fifty-one.
Ellington said that ” . . . . Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes
in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine” (from Billy Strayhorn website)
A very brief timeline for Billy Strayhorn (please see the Billy Strayhorn website for more information)
1933–Strayhorn begins writing “Something To Live For” and “Lush Life”
1938–Strayhorn meets Duke Ellington
1939–Strayhorn finishes writing “Something To Live For” and “Lush Life”
1939–Ellington offers Strayhorn the job of being his collaborator, and Strayhorn moves into Ellington’s home
1941–Strayhorn begins writing a number of his classic songs recorded by Duke Ellington and his Orchestra, most notably “Take The A Train” and “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing”.
1946–Wrote “Lotus Blossom”
1950s–Strayhorn records on various projects with Johnny Hodges as well as Duke Ellington
1953–Strayhorn, along with Ellington and lyricist Johnny Mercer, write “Satin Doll”
1955–Strayhorn accompanies Lena Horne on several of her recordings, including her rendition of “You Go To My Head”
1961–Strayhorn records first solo album called “The Peaceful Side”
1964–diagnosed with esophageal cancer
What I like about Billy Strayhorn is that he said “yes” at the right times during his life, and it worked well for both his life and career. Mr. Strayhorn is depicted as a stylish man: He and his partner, Aaron Bridgers, had a wonderful apartment together that contained “a long bar . . . along it, they placed a row of tube-steel stools with red leather cushions. To complete the cocktail-hour ambiance, they arranged a couple of round bar tables and chairs in the center of the [living] room and brought in an upright piano . . . . Strayhorn hung some prints, including a blue-themed Monet floral, and he splurged for . . .an amateur record-cutting machine to make recordings of their singing and playing. Behind the apartment, glass doors opened onto a patch of garden where Strayhorn planted some flower seeds” (Hadju 67). I think that Strayhorn “planted some flower seeds” in the world of popular music in terms of the amazing songs he wrote and arranged, and the impact he had on jazz music. His songs are perennial favorites among cabaret performers.
Sarah Vaughan singing “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn.
What is your favorite Billy Strayhorn song? Leave us a note in the comments below—we always love to hear from our readers!
If you liked this post, then Like us on Facebook and Follow us on Twitter!
Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:
Tuesdays: Cabaret Tip Tuesday
Wednesdays: Ask A Cabaret Question
Thursdays: Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer
Fridays: Cabaret Through Time