Sunday, 29 November 2015

I'll live a lush life, in some small dive

We have a centenary to celebrate today - that of one of the greatest of all composers from the Swing era, Mr Billy Strayhorn!

Described by Duke Ellington as "my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head", Billy composed many of the Duke's standards, including Isfahan, Passion Flower, Chelsea Bridge and Satin Doll:

And he also composed the Duke Ellington Orchestra's "theme tune", Take the "A" Train:

Mr Strayhorn (whose nickname was "Sweet Pea") was not merely significant for being the linchpin of a three decade professional partnership with Ellington. He was proudly and openly gay during a highly homophobic era (and an early supporter of the civil rights movement in America, to boot). Cultured, intelligent and well-travelled, a friend described him as “a miniature, black Noel Coward.”

As his biographer David Hajdu writes: “In Pittsburgh, who he was had inhibited Billy Strayhorn from doing what he could do; in New York, what he could do enabled him to be who he was.” And what he was was a young gay man who loved the finer things in life, and was able to set up home with his boyfriend secure in the knowledge that - unlike many employers back then - his sexuality, and his openness about it, would not be an issue with Ellington, who treated him as one of the family.

Indeed, it was through the Duke that Billy met his first partner (and fellow musician) Aaron Bridgers, with whom he lived until Bridgers moved to Paris in 1947.

Billy's absolute masterpiece (often considered a "gay standard") - and eternal favourite here at Dolores Delargo Towers - is, of course, the magnificent Lush Life. I have documented my personal favourite version of this song - surprisingly the rendition by Queen Latifah - before. [See my previous blog about Mr Strayhorn for that.]

Today, however, it is to the very first documented recording of this absolute classic that we turn by way of tribute - showcasing the lovely vocals of Kay Davis (and with Billy himself at the piano):

I used to visit all the very gay places,
Those come-what-may places,
Where one relaxes on the axis,
Of the wheel of life,
To get the feel of life,
From jazz and cocktails.

The gals I knew had sad and sullen grey faces,
With distingué traces,
That used to be there.
You could see where,
They'd been washed away,
By too many through the day
Twelve o'clock tales.

Then you came along,
With your siren song,
To tempt me to madness.
I thought for a while,
That your poignant smile,
Was tinged with the sadness,
Of a great love for me.
I guess I was wrong.
Again, I was wrong.

Life is lonely again,
And only last year everything seemed so sure.
Now life is awful again.
A trough-full of hearts could only be a bore.

A week in Paris will ease the bite of it.
All I care is to smile in spite of it.

I'll forget you I will,
While yet you are still
Burning inside my brain.

Romance is mush,
Stifling those who strive.
I'll live a lush life,
In some small dive.

And there I'll be,
While I rot with the rest
Of those whose lives are lonely, too.

Utterly remarkable when you consider that Mr Strayhorn was just nineteen years old when he wrote that.

A documentary about Billy Strayhorn, also titled Lush Life was made in 2008. From it are these two clips:

[2019 UPDATE: Clip #1 gone from YouTube, but available via the Internet Archive]

We unfortunately missed a centennial tribute to Mr Strayhorn that featured the divine David McAlmont at the Cadogan Hall in Mayfair last weekend. Just today New York's Jazz at Lincoln Center marked Billy's centenary with a series of performances - including a surprise pop-up concert on the subway!

He deserves every tribute going.

William Thomas "Billy" Strayhorn (29th November 1915 – 31st May 1967)


  1. i just learned to today that the lyric is, "with distingué traces" not, "with distant gay traces."

    thank god i wasn't sitting around a table of haughty, know-it-all queens who would've ripped me to shreds. i was able to do the ripping myself, in the privacy of my own home.

    1. Ah yes - those queens with "sad and sullen grey faces". Bitches, all...

      Glad to be of help with the lyrics, dear! Jx


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