“Take the ‘A’ Train“ is a jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn….which was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington orchestra….as 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….after which many ASCAP members…. including Ellington….could no longer play their compositions over radio….cuz as most music was played live on the radio at the time….so, Ellington turned to Billy Strayhorn….who along with his son Mercer Ellington….who were registered with ASCAP competitor BMI to “write a whole new book for the band”….as Mercer recalled….and “‘A’ Train” was one of many tunes written by Strayhorn….which was picked to replace “Sepia Panorama” as Ellington’s band’s signature song. In fact, 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….which at that time went from eastern Brooklyn, on the Fulton Street Line up into Harlem and northern Manhattan, using the Eighth Avenue Line in Manhattan.
“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”…..and since Strayhorn was a great fan of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements….he said “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,”….which Strayhorn recalled in Stanley Dance’s The World Of Duke Ellington.
Ella Fitzgerald sang and recorded this song many times from 1957 forward….with a live version with Ella scatting….and seen in her 1961 Verve release Ella in Hollywood….and she performs “Take The A Train” as seen in the video herewith….when Ella performs it at the 1980 Kennedy Center Tribute To Duke Ellington concert.