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Lush Life

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Billy Strayhorn, the compositional and arranging genius behind many of Duke Ellington’s best-known songs, such as “Take the A Train,” “C-Jam Blues,” and “Satin Doll.” Strayhorn is said to have written both the music and lyrics to “Lush Life” as a teenager, yet it is a remarkable song whose sadness, glamor, excess and dissipation he seems to have lived out:

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 girls I knew had sad and sullen grey faces
With distingue 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
Ah yes 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 could 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
So 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.

Strayhorn performed the song for Ellington when he tried out for him in Pittsburgh in 1938. Ellington hired him on the spot.

It’s a difficult song to sing. Frank Sinatra took a shot at it in 1958 and gave up. Ella Fitzgerald owned it, at least to my taste. She returned to it many times. In the beautiful video excerpt below, she sings to Ellington’s accompaniment on the piano. (Where is the first half of that performance?)

The lyrics employ devices including assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme and irony to say something old in a new way. The music is something else entirely. The highly unusual song structure divides the song in two. In Stardust Melodies Will Friedwald describes the song as a study in chromaticism. “It’s hard to think of another piece of music that has anything in common with ‘Lush Life,’” writes Friedwald.

Last year my post on Strayhorn and “Lush Life” prompted a torrent of email messages from readers nominating their own favorite versions of the song. Johnny Hartman’s unforgettable version with John Coltrane was probably mentioned by a plurarlity of those who wrote in (see Hartman perform it live in a 1983 television appearance here), but essentially tied for second were those who cited Nat “King” Cole’s and Chris Connor’s.

Friedwald provides a compelling history of the recorded versions of “Lush Life.” He notes that Nat “King” Cole was the first to record the song (orchestrated by Pete Rugolo), years after it was written, in 1949. Cole’s version made a big impact. Others including Strayhorn himself, Sarah Vaughan (twice), Carmen McRae, Billy Eckstine, Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald (once with Oscar Peterson, once with Joe Pass), Dianne Reeves, Ann Hampton Callaway, Kevin Mahogany, Andy Bey and Diane Schuur (with Maynard Ferguson) have also recorded versions of the song.

Listening to all these versions (and a few others) of the song impressed me in several respects. With solo piano or guitar accompaniment, the one-sided conversational nature of the song becomes apparent. “I was wrong,” the singer seems to be saying to his former partner. A derisive response seems to account for the singer’s repetition: “Again, I was wrong.” To some extent the versions of the song with piano or guitar accompaniment fill in the presence of the conversational partner. Cole’s orchestrated version nevertheless has worthy followers in Vaughan, Wilson, Schuur and Callaway, among others.

Listening to all these versions I was most struck by the predominance of the ladies among those who have recorded outstanding vocal versions of the song, but I was also struck by how outstanding all these versions were. From those who are capable of meeting its technical demands, “Lush Life” is a song that elicits respectful, magnificent, moving performances.

Friedwald concludes his discussion of “Lush Life” with a perfect tribute to Callaway’s version: “She just moves right into the world of the song and proceeds to inhabit it, making it seem vividly alive in a way that few singers of any generation have done.” While this is a completely deserved accolade — Callaway’s version, on her first album, no less, is breathtaking — it seems to me to capture the nature of the startling performances the song has inspited in a remarkable variety of artists.

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