Today is the ninety-fifth 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 gray 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.
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 heart
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 piano accompaniment. (Where is the first half of that performance?)
The lyrics employ devices including assonance, alliteration, and internal rhyme 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,’” Friedwald writes.
My posts on Strayhorn and “Lush Life” in years past have prompted a torrent of email messages from readers nominating their own favorite versions of the song. Johnny Hartman’s memorable version with John Coltrane was probably mentioned by a plurality of those who wrote (see Hartman perform it live in a 1983 television appearance here).
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, though it should be noted that, according to biographer David Hajdu, Strayhorn (understandably) hated it. Other performers 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 over the years has 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 may account for the singer’s repetition: “Again, I was wrong.” 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.
I have been most struck by the ladies’ performances among those who have recorded outstanding vocal versions of the song, but I have also been struck by the excellence of all these versions. From those who are capable of meeting its technical demands, “Lush Life” is a song that has elicited performances that are both respectful and moving.
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 extraordinary — it seems to me to capture the nature of the startling performances the song has inspired in a remarkable variety of artists.