Alex Blaze

Queer music Friday - Billy Strayhorn

Filed By Alex Blaze | May 02, 2008 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: Billy Strayhorn, queer music, Ralph Burns

Billy Strayhorn was the openly gay song writer behind many of Duke Ellington's hits. He also won the Esquire Silver Award in 1946 for his arrangements. Here's the video for "Take the A Train":

iPhone users: Click to watch

And Ralph Burns, a friend of Strayhorn's, on the latter's gay parties, after the jump.

Billy loved to play host and make sure everybody was eating. That's the kind of party he liked to have. It would be great, because a lot of us had so much in common- a lot of us were in the music business, and we were gay, of course- not that we would stand there and talk about being gay. That wasn't it. It was just really good to be in each other's company. Billy would put these parties together, and they were just a great, easy natural good time.


Update: Here's Billy Strayhorn on the piano about 20 years later with the same song. Thanks, Marla, for finding the link!

iPhone users: Click to watch

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Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | May 2, 2008 5:36 PM

The best! Don't forget the film biography, Lush Life:

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | May 2, 2008 6:42 PM

And compare that classic Ellington "soundie" of the tune with this version with Strayhorn himself at the piano:

Marla R. Stevens Marla R. Stevens | May 2, 2008 7:27 PM

You're most welcome. The comments on the YouTube site are revealing, too, and the assessment that Ellington has the better solo "presence" is, IMHO, accurate -- but ya gotta love the smoothness of Strayhorn's version -- and the humor!


And the lines of the song are true: the A train is the "quickest way to get to Harlem" and runs from 59th Street to 125th Street without a single interrupting stop, and of all the subways it surely must be the rocking A train that clocks in at the fastest speed on its run from 59th to 125th. (And conversely, the A train is the quickest way to get from Harlem to Greenwich Village.)

I love Billy Strayhorn! He is the Langston Hughes of American music. The Independent Lens bio that Marla recommends in #1 is superb, don't miss it!

Unfortunately, "openly gay" is a relative term for anyone in the early 20th Century --- Strayhorn may have be "open" socially, but not professionally. Truth is, Ellington used whatever closet fears Strayhorn had in order to keep Strayhorn in Ellington's pocket. Many of the compositions we now know were by Strayhorn were released and published under Ellington's name --- and Ellington got the royalties, too! Strayhorn wanted a standalone career, but feared he couldn't have one, mostly because of his sexual orientation. The PBS bio makes this clear.

One of the best QMF posts you've done, Alex.

the story is that Billy wrote "Take the A Train" from the directions Ellington had given him to get to his house for a meeting. He came with the song. Strayhorn wrote the masterpiece "Lush Life" when he was a teenager. The man was sheer genius.