“Johnny Come Lately” (1942 and 1943) Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn with Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton

“Johnny Come Lately”

(Originally titled “Plain Time”; later “Stomp.”) (*)

Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Victor on June 26,1942 in Hollywood.

Billy Strayhorn, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Ray Nance, trumpet; Rex Stewart, cornet; Lawrence Brown, first trombone; Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, trombone; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Otto Hardwick, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Ben Webster and Barney Bigard, tenor saxophones (Bigard doubles B-flat clarinet); Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Alvin “Junior” Raglin, bass; Sonny Greer, drums. Ellington was present in the studio when this recording was made.

The story:

The summer of ’42. It was a time of great emotional intensity for the United States of America. On December 7, 1941, the U.S., woefully ill-prepared for war, had been attacked by Japan. The next day, Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S. Those in the U.S. who had basically ignored the deeply disturbing developments in Europe and Asia in the early years of World War II (1939-1941), along with all other Americans, now found the nation engulfed in a massive war on two fronts – Europe and the Pacific. The U.S. had a lot of catching-up in war preparation to do in a very short period of time. Through 1942 and well into 1943, the news of the War for the U.S. was basically not good. Consequently, people on the homefront in many instances adopted an attitude of carpe diem. They found that the huge buildup of U.S. military armament, vehicles, airplanes, ships and supplies was fueling a booming economy. People were working, and they were making money. Consequently, they were spending that money enjoying the present, and not placing too much hope in a what was then a very uncertain future.

The world of swing was definitely impacted by the War. Many bandleaders, most notably Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw, entered military service in 1942. Still, many more bandleaders, for a variety of reasons, remained in civilian life, and found that if they could overcome the challenges of wartime rationing and travel restrictions (and a murderous musicians’ union strike against the corporations that made records), they could do very well playing for wartime audiences. Bandleaders who saw their fortunes rise during the War included Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Les Brown, Harry James, Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford and Duke Ellington. Of these, the one who had the longest experience as a bandleader was Duke Ellington. By 1942, Duke had been a bandleader for some 17 years.

Like all bandleaders who achieved large-scale success, Ellington had a very powerful desire to be successful, and he had through his early career learned many lessons about the often brutal ways of show business. In addition, he almost always had very strong management, first from Irving Mills, and then starting in 1939, from various agents in the powerful William Morris Agency. The most profound insight Ellington had developed over 17 years as a bandleader was this seemingly simple notion: that whatever he and his band did workwise each week, the band’s income had to equal or exceed all expenses for that week. Expenses involved in operating a band of fourteen musicians, two vocalists, various arrangers (including the gifted Billy Strayhorn), copyists, equipment managers, road managers, booking agents, publicists, bookkeeping, accounting and legal services, plus the always expensive matter of moving most of these people around the United States for as many as 350 work days a year, were crushing. Duke insisted that his management team negotiate compensation for him and his organization that equaled or exceed his weekly expenses. This became progressively more difficult as 1942 segued into 1943.

Putting aside Ellington’s immense talent as a composer and arranger, Duke was also a most impressive presence in front of a band. Standing over six feet tall, and with a regal bearing and verbal eloquence that no other bandleader ever exceeded, Duke by any measure was an extraordinary human being. But he was not Superman. He had his limits. When Billy Strayhorn serendipitously entered his life in late 1938, Duke quite literally could not take on any more work than what he was already doing. In short order, Ellington masterfully delegated to Strayhorn the duties of working as an arranger, as the de facto musical director for the Ellington small band recording dates, and by late 1940-early 1941, as a composer who either assisted Ellington in finishing various of his musical compositions, or as a composer of his own works for the Ellington band.

The year 1941 was the one during which Billy Strayhorn emerged as one of the leading composers in the world of swing. Among the original compositions Strayhorn wrote for the Ellington band in that year were: “After All,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” “Love and I,” “My Little Brown Book,’ “Passion Flower,” and the most famous of all Strayhorn compositions, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Slightly later, Billy’s compositions “Rain Check,” “Clementine,” “Rocks in My Bed,” “Someone” and “Johnny Come Lately” were being performed by the Ellington band. Strayhorn contributed much more (sometimes credited, sometimes not) to the Ellington band’s music in the early 1940s and after. To draw a parallel with major league baseball, if the Ellington band was like the New York Yankees team of the late 1920s, and Duke was like Babe Ruth, Strayhorn was the analog to Lou Gehrig.

The music:

By the time the Ellington band recorded “Johnny Come Lately” in mid-1942, Billy Strayhorn was quite comfortable in all of the roles Duke had cast him in, including that of pianist in the Ellington band when Duke thought it advisable. Previously, Duke had tapped Billy to play the piano parts on the hauntingly beautiful recording of Strayhorn’s composition “Chelsea Bridge,” made by the Ellington band on December 2, 1941. (A link to the story and music of “Chelsea Bridge” can be found at endnote (1) below.) Once again, Duke ceded the piano bench in his own band to Strayhorn in this performance of “Johnny Come Lately.”

Strayhorn begins this performance by playing a deceptively simple melodic fragment, backed only by Sonny Greer’s closed high-hat cymbals for four bars. Then in two eight bar sequences Ellington’s robust reeds, with the sounds of baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster prominent in the mix, set forth the angular main melody of “Johnny Come Lately,” against syncopated bursts from the open brass. Trombonist Lawrence Brown plays on the bridge (secondary melody), his brash open horn sound contrasting with the low-register reeds surging behind him. The entire ensemble reprises the main melody through the last eight bars of chorus one.

The second chorus belongs to Joseph “Tricky Sam” Nanton, who does his special thing with his pixie-muted trombone and a plunger. Notice the interplay between the writhing reeds and the piquant open brass behind him in his first sixteen bar solo. The open brass and reeds together swing through the eight-bar bridge. Tricky returns for some particularly tasty growling effects in his last eight bars. (Nanton is pictured at left.)

Strayhorn streamlines his writing in the next sixteen bar sequence, with the entire band playing forte, then at a lower dynamic level, an effective contrast. Billy then plays solo piano on the bridge. This solo was almost certainly written out by him, and it provides a brief sonic and dynamic contrast to the muscular ensemble sounds that preceded it and the ensemble roar that follows it.

The final sixteen bars has the band returning to the melodic exposition that began the first chorus.

“Johnny Come Lately”

Composed and arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

Recording made live in-performance by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at the Hurricane Club in New York City on April 4, 1943.

(My thanks to friend of swingandbeyond.com Connor Cole for discovering the date and place for this recording.)

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Wallace Jones, first trumpet; Ray Nance, Harold Baker, and Taft Jordan, trumpets; Lawrence Brown, and Joseph Nanton, trombones; Juan Tizol, valve trombone; Oett M. “Sax” Mallard, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Ben Webster and Jimmy Hamilton, tenor saxophones (Hamilton doubled on B-flat clarinet); Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Fred Guy, guitar; Alvin “Junior” Raglin, bass; Sonny Greer, drums.

For the sake of comparison, here is a live recording of “Johnny Come Lately.”  Note that the solos by trombonists Brown and Nanton are similar to those on the Victor studio recording. The piano solo, which I think was played in this performance by Ellington, is a bit different.  Also, listen for the great drumming throughout this performance by Sonny Greer.

(At right: Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, backstage. Although both men worked incredibly hard, they also loved to party. The two of them had many good times together.)

The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) “Johnny Come Lately” was recorded by the Ellington band on June 23, 1942. It was issued under that title several weeks after that. Paradoxically, when the Ellington band played it at their first Carnegie Hall concert, on January 23, 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, it was called “Stomp.”  When the Ellington band was presented in concert in Boston shortly after that, the same tune was performed as “Little Light Psalf.” I have no idea what the word “psalf” means. If anyone had a more acute fascination with the English language than Ellington, it was Billy Strayhorn.

(1) Here is a link to the story and music of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/11/chelsea-bridge-billy-and-billy-strayhorn-and-may/

Here are links to many other great Strayhorn compositions:









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1 Comment

  1. I’m certain that since the 1920s there hasn’t been a single Ellington band enthusiast not to have been fascinated and/or mystified by at least one title given to a composition by either Duke himself or Billy Strayhorn. Some, here and there, appear to be merely playful, as if the composer simply liked the sound of the word(s); others we must accept as recondite — we’re never going to know what Duke or Billy had in mind! The idiomatic “Johnny Come Lately” title has always struck me as disconsonant with the hard-swinging, minor-hued number to which it was assigned. Paradoxically, the terse “Stomp,” though generic as can be, seems better suited to the feel of the piece. As to “psalf,” I must assume this to be a misprint from its original source. According to the Ellingtonia site, “Little Light Psalm” is, like “Stomp,” among the “Johnny Come Lately” alternate titles. https://ellingtonia.com/discography/titles/ The piece, however, sounds neither light nor psalm-like (albeit to these irreligious ears). Then again, who am I to question Strayhorn?

    In any case, I can’t hear an Ellington band side from the 40-43 period without being powerfully reminded that the orchestra was at its zenith, at least in terms of personnel, during this time. There were key losses here and there throughout the period, but the addition of Ben Webster, the band’s first real tenor star, made a huge difference, turning the aggregation into a powerhouse outfit. Like many swing aficionados, I believe the classic, and long-standing, Ellington trombone section — Tricky Sam, Tizol, Lawrence Brown — to be the finest ever, irrespective of orchestra. Each man was a virtuoso, with a distinctive voice, and we get to hear two of them, first Brown and then Nanton, soloing in inspired fashion on “Johnny Come Lately.”

    I’ve run across “slushy” in application to both the Ellington-Guy-Greer part of the pre-Blanton rhythm section and Greer’s playing in particular, but I have to say, I’ve always considered the underrated Sonny to be a vital part of the classic Ellington sound. He boots the band on both the studio recording and this live take of “Johnny Come Lately” in a manner that is anything but slushy!

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