"Take the 'A' Train" is a jazz standard by Billy Strayhorn that was the signature tune of the Duke Ellington orchestra. The use of the Strayhorn composition as the signature tune was made necessary by a ruling in 1940 by ASCAP. When ASCAP (American Society of Composers and Publishers) raised its licensing fees for broadcast use, many ASCAP members, including Ellington, could no longer play their compositions over radio, as most music was played live on radio in those days. Ellington turned to Billy Strayhorn and son Mercer Ellington, who were registered with ASCAP competitor BMI to "write a whole new book for the band," Mercer recalled." 'A' Train" was one of many songs written by Strayhorn, and was picked to replace "Sepia Panorama" and the band's signature song. Mercer recalled that he found the song in a trash can after Strayhorn discarded because it sounded too much like a Fletcher Henderson arrangement. The song was first recorded on January 15, 1941 as a standard transcription for radio broadcast. The first (and most famous) commercial recording was made on February 15, 1941.
"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. 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' 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 17 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. Due 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 is has often been duplicated note for note by others.
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. Over the years the lyrics have contained many variations, as is not unusual for songs of this era. Those below are representative only, and may not be the original Sherrill lyrics.
In 1999, National Public Radio included this song in the "NPR 100," in which NPR's music editors sought to compile the one hundred most important American musical works of the 20th century.