It’s unfortunate that we have to say this, but history is what it is…Edward Kennedy Ellington was the “Jackie Robinson” of American Popular Song. Like Robinson a few years later, the Duke had the temperament, grace, and incredible talent to rise above the national shame known as the Color Line. While Robinson suffered his indignities in the glare of the baseball spotlight, Ellington suffered the indignity of performing as “The Jungle Band” and “The Black Sox Orchestra” for a society he couldn’t be part of, despite his superior social graces. And just as Robinson would outsmart efforts to hinder him, Ellington did the same. He traveled, for instance, in a private railcar to avoid the stupidity of segregation, and confrontations with the stupid. Along the way he put jazz back into American Pop.
Ellington is of course remembered best as an orchestra leader and pianist. But it was his songwriting that separated him from the pack, and certainly what made him wealthy. His songwriting is overshadowed by his status as an icon in the timeline of racial equality, as it should be. But our purposes here are to delve into his significance as a songwriter, and his influence on the song styling of traditional pop.
The genre we call American popular song began when Irving Berlin fused forms of jazz — mostly ragtime — with theatre music, folk music, and a dash of marching band. By the late 1920s the jazz component was waning. That’s not to imply that jazz wasn’t popular, rather the sound of “pop” was now clearly something other than Berlin’s echo of ragtime.
Pop’s subtle move away from its jazz roots coincided with Ellington’s rise to fame. In 1927 Duke was “discovered” by producer/publisher Irving Mills of Mills Music. Mills, on his way to becoming the largest song publisher on the planet, was already a known powerbroker in the business. He offered to handle Ellington in exchange for something approaching a half share (sources differ on the specific percentage), and Duke jumped at it.
Some pundits point to this as a situation that took advantage of Ellington’s talent, but that’s a rather myopic view. In 1927 Mills put Ellington into the famed Cotton Club gig, and got his recordings released and publicized nationally. Without Mills, it’s unlikely Ellington would’ve attained the level of fame — and influence — that he did. It is also important to note that while Mills’ deal may sound draconian, it was no different from the arrangements made with other artists of the day, regardless of ethnicity. In retrospect, Duke likely did a lot better with Mills than he would’ve with any other agent at the time. While many of the great bandleaders of the 1920s and 1930s died penniless, Ellington did extremely well on his royalties throughout his life, thanks to his knack for songwriting…and his arrangement with Mills.
As a promoter and publicist, Mills took a back seat to no one. By 1929 Duke had hit records and even movie roles. By the 1930s, he was an international superstar. Although his influence on American music was lifelong, it was the decade of the 1930s that Ellington composed the majority of his pop standards.
Possibly the first of Ellington’s standards came out in 1930 as “Dreamy Blues” but soon became known as “Mood Indigo.” This song is typical of Duke’s earlies compositions, in that it was built from pieces of older jazz songs. Borrowing from a New Orleans sound called “Mexican Blues,” Ellington turned it into a definitive introspective jazz piece, palatable for the pop world. Mills supposedly supplied the lyrics, although that has been disputed. The song was a sensation when first broadcast; Mills is said to have hurried out the lyrics and renamed the tune. It was then recorded and released as “Mood Indigo,” and has been a quintessential jazz/pop standard ever since.
Chart-wise, Ellington’s version went top five in 1931. A cover version by the popular Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra also charted, as did numerous others over the years. This was most notable almost a quarter century later, when both The Norman Petty Trio and The Four Freshmen put “Mood Indigo” back on the charts in 1954. It’s because of this lasting success that various musicians’ offspring claimed rights to the song, obscuring its significance. Truly the most noteworthy thing about “Mood Indigo” is that it almost single-handedly made regular jazz an accepted segment of pop.
Another of Duke’s earliest standards is quite possibly his best known. 1931 was a tough year in the USA, and the sound of pop music began to reflect the downward spiral. Songs were slowing and the roar of the 1920s was now a whimper. Enter Duke with a simple, driving song mostly based on minor tonality. He talked up the song with publisher Mills, who promptly dashed off some lyrics to flesh it out. The result was “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and the country was immediately hooked. Ellington gave the song a sense of immediacy by having musical parts seemingly “overlap” by shifting gears on the half beat. Unfortunately this sense of timing escapes many otherwise talented musicians, and their arrangements aren’t quite the same as Duke’s original. It’s a testament to the composition that it is still fabulous, despite the pedantic timing treatment it tends to receive.
Chart historians will note that in addition to Ellington’s top ten recording with an Ivie Anderson vocal, The Mills Brothers (no relation to Irving, of course) had virtually equal success with the song.
The next song we’ll examine came in 1935, “In A Sentimental Mood.” Ellington had numerous hits in between, but this is the one most worth focusing on from the mid-1930s. Legend has it that Duke dashed off the song in less than 20 minutes, springboarding as he often did from bits and pieces of earlier jazz themes. In this case, Toby Hardwick is deserving of credit. As for the lyrics, Manny Kurtz supplied those, with credit also for Irving Mills. Kurtz would later go on to pen the words “My Dreams Are Getting Better All The Time,” a number one hit from 1945.
The words and music to “In A Sentimental Mood” combine to create one of the most important love songs in the pop/jazz catalog. Because of Kurtz’ proven prowess, this is one of those tunes that the pundits point to and question the validity of Irving’s claim. It was the practice at the time for powerful publishers and promoters to throw their weight around and put their name or their artist’s name on a label; this continued for decades and is the reason Elvis Presley received co-composer credit on so many records. As for Irving, students of the jazz genre — including jazzstandards.com — point to other songs that Irving was known to have a hand in, and agree that he likely had a hand in it.
Its impact on the charts of the day belies its lasting significance; none of the recordings cracked the top ten. Duke’s recording was the first, in 1935, with a couple of minor cover versions following suit. These were followed within a year by two more top twenty versions, the first by Benny Goodman, and the second by the Mills Blues Rhythm Band. No relation to the Mills Brothers…this was a collection of musicians arranged and produced by (you guessed it) Irving Mills as yet another profit center. This was the same sort of practice later perfected by Mitch Miller, who was best at waving his pen over contracts but wielded a baton for the public.
In 1938 Ellington had his last number one recording, one of two that he was composer. It was called “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart,” and it dominated the charts in ’38. It was mostly the cover recording by Benny Goodman, which also topped the pops and outlasted Duke’s original. When it rains it pours; three additional cover versions also cracked the top ten that year.
At this point, even the most ardent fans of popular song are likely wondering why this is included as a significant Ellington composition. Yes, it was huge at the time, but has had little if any lasting popularity. The interesting thing about it is its role in pop history, and evidence that songs evolve over time. That is, while “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” was tearing up the charts in 1938, it overshadowed another Ellington composition of the day, “Prelude to a Kiss.” Although “Prelude to a Kiss” has proven to be a far more significant standard, even becoming part of the popular lexicon, it was more or less mid-chart fare in 1938.
Later that year Duke was to meet a young man who would forever change his approach to jazz composition and arrangement. Billy Strayhorn was an extremely gifted songwriter and sometime pianist who had already composed a song that would evolve into “Lush Life.” Strayhorn became an assistant, arranger, and collaborator for Ellington, a position he would hold until his death from cancer. Strayhorn’s most important musical impact was that he upped the ante as far as complexity and and artistry in Ellington’s jazz compositions. It was Strayhorn alone who would compose the song that became the Duke’s theme, “Take The ‘A’ Train.”
With Strayhorn, Ellington began to work increasingly on longer, more intricate jazz compositions that would move him steadily away from pop. But he seemed to have an uncanny knack for cranking out those hits, and it continued well into the 1940s. Songs like “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” which scored well for The Ink Spots in 1943 and “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” from 1941 were typical of Duke’s steady pop-oriented output. A special bit of significance for “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” is that a Goodman cover version marked the first chart hit for a young vocalist named Peggy Lee.
1945 would mark one of Duke’s last compositions to enjoy overwhelming chart success. “I’m Beginning To See the Light” scored well for Ellington’s own orchestra, but it was a slightly re-worked piece by Harry James that soared into the stratosphere. With vocal by Kitty Kallen, it went to the top position and seemed to be on radio for most of the year. Another cover version, by Ella Fitzgerald with The Ink Spots, also went top ten.
Ellington as an all-around legend began to grow by this point, and his work with Strayhorn moved him in firmly with the jazz cognoscenti. He continued to compose jazz/pop songs that would become standards, many of which continue to be plagued by finger pointing and lawsuits by various estates clamoring for royalties, in some cases Ellington’s own. “Satin Doll” from 1953 has been the subject of much of this ballyhoo, as heirs of both Strayhorn and Ellington have bickered over the authorship. Duke and Billy — who he called Sweet Pea — elected to share the credit regardless of who did more. The lyrics, interestingly enough, were penned by Johnny Mercer.
Historians, particularly the jazz afficianados, might have you believe that Ellington was a jazz man. Maybe so. But in our assessment of his songwriting contribution to American pop, it’s clear that his contribution was much, much larger. Not only did he pen dozens of standards, he made jazz an acceptable part of pop (as it was originally), helped create “swing” music, and most importantly, broke down barriers in pop music.