“I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So”
Composed by Duke Ellington (music) and Mack David (lyric); arranged by Duke Ellington.
Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on November 26, 1945 in New York.
Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Shelton “Scad” Hemphill, Taft Jordan, William “Cat” Anderson, trumpets; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown and Wilbur DeParis, trombones; Claude Jones, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick and Johnny Hodges; alto saxophones; Al Sears and Jimmy Hamilton, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Oscar Pettiford, bass; Sonny Greer, drums; Al Hibbler, vocal.
The catch-phrase “an attitude of gratitude” is a cliche’. Nevertheless, like all cliche’s, there is a core of truth to this one. I have found that I prefer being around people who have a positive attitude grounded in the reality that no matter how difficult things may be for anyone at any given time, the situation could be worse. Indeed, whenever we seriously think about whatever challenges we may face, if we look around, it usually becomes quickly apparent that we have a lot to be thankful for.
It has always been a painful irony for me when listening to this marvelous performance by vocalist Al Hibbler with Duke Ellington’s band, that while “Hib,” as he was known among his colleagues, sings so convincingly about being lucky, he had to deal with a major disability all through his life: he was blind.
The story of how Hibbler was hired is a quintessentially Ducal one. At the time Hibbler was eventually hired by Ellington, Duke, in one of his flights of fancy, was carrying three girl singers with his band, but no male vocalist. One of the girl vocalists, Betty Roche’, had heard Hibbler singing in a club in Manhattan, was impressed, and mentioned this to Ray Nance, one of Duke’s most popular sidemen. Ray soon went to hear Hibbler and was also impressed. Nance began touting Hibbler to Ellington, but Duke kept brushing him off. “We don’t need (a male singer). We have all these chicks sitting up here singing their songs. They sing everything we need.” (1) Nothing happened. (Unbeknownst to Roche’ and Nance, Hibbler had auditioned for Ellington in 1935, and Duke at that time judged him as not ready to sing with his band.)
Finally, Roche’, Nance and Billy Strayhorn, who had also heard Hibbler sing, conspired to get an audition for Hibbler with the Ellington band despite Duke’s non-action. They arranged for him to sit-in with the band while Duke was offstage in his dressing room.
Between 1935 and 1943, Hibbler worked steadily for a number of bands and honed his craft. He “was free-lancing around New York when Ellington decided (unwittingly at first) to give him a second try. According to Hibbler, during the (Ellington band’s) long stay at the Hurricane Club (in Manhattan) in 1943, he came by one night and sang, and the audience would not let him off until he had sung five or six tunes. (Ellington, who returned to the bandstand after Hibbler began singing, noticed.) Night after night, Hibbler returned to the club, and Duke would call him up to sing. However, nothing was said about whether he had passed the audition. Finally, Hibbler approached Ellington and said ‘Duke, I can’t keep coming down here doing this every night.’ Duke responded, ‘Go get your bread, you’ve been in the band for two weeks.’ Hibbler stayed with Ellington into 1951.” (2)
Hibbler was thrilled to be working with Ellington, and soon, Duke was creating showcases for his talent, including “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.” Nevertheless, the world was sometimes a brutal place for Hibbler. When the Elington band was playing at the Million Dollar Theater in Los Angeles doing multiple shows each day, between shows the band members would either go to their dressing rooms to rest, or step outside the stage door of the theater to get a breath of fresh air. On one such occasion, Hibbler “…was standing in the stage doorway when (band members) heard him screaming.” When they ran to where he was, they found that “…some freak had ground a lit cigarette into Al’s face.” (3) So much for the glamour of show business.
The music: Ellington’s brief introduction for this recording of “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” like so many he played before it (and after), features his piano bringing the band in on the first chorus. The difference here is that Duke has bassist Oscar Pettiford underlining the bass notes he plays. Then we hear the majestic sound of Johnny Hodges’s alto saxophone, which is used to set forth the main melody as only Hodges could. Behind Hodges (shown below left) are the other saxophones, with Harry Carney’s rumbling baritone sound prominent among them. A patented Hodges swoop sets up Hibbler’s entrance perfectly.
Hibbler sings about gratitude with casual ease. Again, Carney is heard prominently in the background of the two eight-bar main melody segments of the vocal chorus. Duke changes the background in the bridge: here he allows the strumming of guitarist Fred Guy to be heard, along with a soft open trumpet obbligato played by Taft Jordan. The lyric is particularly affecting in this sequence, leading to the marvelous line at the end of the bridge “…I’ve got a dream that’s a-pippin.” The last eight bars of this chorus include backing for Hibbler as before, but now with sparkling Ducal piano notes scattered about strategically.
The final chorus features trombonist Lawrence Brown (pictured at right) playing his open horn above richly harmonized reeds and brass. Listen for the little “tails” Brown puts on some of his notes before he takes a breath. The dynamic level of the band, as well as of Brown’s trombone, decrease to a whisper at the end of this memorable performance.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Sweet Man …The Real Duke Ellington, by Don George (1981), 37. Hereafter George.
(2) Duke Ellington by James Lincoln Collier (1987), 247.
(3) George, 82.
Here is a link to another recording by the mid-1940s Ellington band from Club Zanzibar in Manhattan, which was another iteration on the same performance space in the Brill Building which had previously housed the Paradise Restaurant and the Hurricane Club:
And here is a link to another great performance by the Ellington band featuring the singing of Ivie Anderson: