Relive the 1930s when New York City’s A express train to Harlem was shiny and new. Even today you can take the same speedy trip from 59th Street to 125th Street, where Harlem’s full musical history awaits. Just minutes away, you’ll see the famed Apollo Theater, where performers at Amateur Night hope to break in.
The title refers to the then-new A subway service that runs through New York City, going at that time from eastern Brooklyn, on the Fulton Street Line opened in 1936, up into Harlem and northern Manhattan, using the Eighth Avenue Line in Manhattan opened in 1932.
“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”. Strayhorn was a great fan of Fletcher Henderson’s arrangements. “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,” Strayhorn recalled in Stanley Dance’s The World Of Duke Ellington.
Although Strayhorn said he wrote lyrics for it, the recorded first lyrics were composed by, or for, the Delta Rhythm Boys. The lyrics used by the Ellington band were added by Joya Sherrill, who was 20 at the time (1944). She made up the words at her home in Detroit, while the song played on the radio. Her father, a noted Detroit Black activist, set up a meeting with Ellington. Owing to Joya’s remarkable poise and singing ability and her unique take on the song, Ellington hired her as a vocalist and adopted her lyrics. The vocalist who most often performed the song with the Ellington band was trumpeter Ray Nance, who enhanced the lyrics with numerous choruses of scat singing. Nance is also responsible for the trumpet solo on the first recording, which was so well suited for the song that it has often been duplicated note for note by others.
Based loosely on the chordal structure of “Exactly Like You”, the song combines the propulsive swing of the 1940s-era Ellington band with the confident sophistication of Ellington and the black elite who inhabited Sugar Hill in Harlem. The tune is in AABA form, in the key of C, with each section being a lyric couplet. (The Ellington band’s version begins in C and rises to the key of Eb after the second chorus.)
Ella Fitzgerald sang and recorded this song many times from 1957 onwards; for a live version with Ella scatting, see her 1961 Verve release Ella in Hollywood. Midwestern Rockers, Chicago added their version in 1995 on their back-to-the-roots-disc, Night & Day Big Band. Jo Stafford recorded an intentionally inept interpretation of the song under the pseudonym, Darlene Edwards.
You must take the “A” Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem
If you miss the “A” Train
You’ll find you’ve missed the quickest way to Harlem
Hurry, get on, now, it’s coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)
Get on the “A” Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem