“Hey Baby!” (1956) Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn with Rosemary Clooney

“Hey Baby!”

Music and lyric composed by Duke Ellington; arranged by Billy Strayhorn.

Recorded by Duke Ellington and His Orchestra for Columbia on January 27, 1956 in New York.(*)

Duke Ellington, piano, directing: Clark Terry, Willie Cook, Cat Anderson and Ray Nance, trumpets; Britt Woodman, Quentin “Butter” Jackson and John Sanders, trombones; Russell Procope, first alto saxophone; Johnny Hodges, alto saxophone; Paul Gonsalves and Jimmy Hamilton, tenor saxophones; Harry Carney, baritone saxophone; Jimmy Woode, bass; Sam Woodyard, drums. Rosemary Clooney, vocal.

The story – part one – rapprochement:

1955 was a year of reunification for Duke Ellington. This supreme and individual artist, this most personal of pianists and composers, despite being strongly and irrevocably who he was, nevertheless needed collaborators. In his first 25 years as a bandleader, he had had many collaborators: Sonny Greer, Fred Guy, Otto Hardwick, Barney Bigard, Ivie Anderson, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, Tricky Sam Nanton, Juan Tizol, Ben Webster and Jimmie Blanton among them. By the early 1950s, they had all departed the Ellington band.

Two other of Ellington’s most important collaborators, composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn, and nonpareil alto saxophone soloist Johnny Hodges had also drifted off. Hodges had listened to the blandishments of various businessmen and promoters in the music business who had convinced him that he was too big a star to remain a sideman with Ellington. He left Duke in early 1951 and put together a small band that toured. With that band, he achieved only modest success, but experienced the full panoply of irritants, frustrations and exhaustion that touring with a band can bring. By the summer of 1955, Hodges was ready to return to the Ellington band.

Strayhorn, who for more than a decade had assisted Ellington with myriad musical tasks, his work often going uncredited, or credited to Ellington, by the early 1950s began to assess who he was as a musician. Like Hodges, he had been showered with blandishments in an attempt to persuade him to become an independent performer and bandleader, who would have his own band and tour. But Strayhorn, after much hard thinking, came to the conclusion that he was not cut out to be a bandleader. He disliked touring and all of the other non-musical duties he saw Ellington and his phalanx of agents, managers and assistants handle so well. In fact, he didn’t even like performing, and was uncomfortable in the spotlight. Strayhorn loved composing and arranging music in his comfortable and well-appointed Manhattan apartment. He loved working with musicians in the recording studio. And he loved living the life of a highly cultivated, financially well-off intellectual in Manhattan.

Johnny Hodges returned to the Ellington band around August 1, 1955. Billy Strayhorn, after spending a good amount of time through late 1955 in Paris, a city he loved, returned to active duty with Ellington in January of 1956. Specifically, he resumed working with Ellington on the night of January 12, 1956, at the opening of Duke Ellington and His Orchestra at Cafe’ Society in Manhattan. Strayhorn, who attended the opening with a friend, was holding court at Cafe’ Society, and in a very good mood, regaling those who stopped at his table with stories of the glory of Paris. One person who stopped at Strayhorn’s table made this observation about him: “He was like Noel Coward, a miniature black Noel Coward.”(1)

Duke also came to Billy’s table, and ceremoniously kissed him “on all four cheeks,” as he was wont to say. Then, in his inimitable fashion, he deftly moved the center of gravity around Strayhorn to where he wanted it to be. He was considering returning to Columbia Records after a hiatus of several years. In the audience, probably as Ellington’s guest, was Irving Townsend, a Columbia producer. Duke made sure to introduce Townsend to Strayhorn. Here is how he did that: “Mr. Townsend, you are fortunate to have come tonight because you have the pleasure of meeting the wonderful man I told you so much about, Mr. Strayhorn. Mr. Strayhorn has many wonderful, wonderful ideas for recordings, and if Mr. Strayhorn has an idea, it must truly be wonderful. Why don’t you two get acquainted so we can get started right away with all of Mr. Strayhorn’s ideas.”(2) Strayhorn, silently observing this display with an ambiguous smile on his face, looked at his friend with an arched eyebrow. (Above left: The wonderful Mr. Strayhorn.)

Soon, a discussion of recording ideas began. Townsend, being a producer at Columbia Records, was undoubtedly aware of which Columbia artists were then successfully selling records for the label. Among the most successful was the singer Rosemary Clooney. After a long apprenticeship with bandleader Tony Pastor (early 1946 through most of 1949), Ms. Clooney began appearing on television with Eddie Condon’s jazz band in early 1949. Pastor recorded for Columbia when Ms. Clooney was with his band, and the executives at Columbia noticed that the Pastor records she sang on (often with her sister, Betty), sold well. In 1950, Ms. Clooney began her career as a solo singer. She worked from 1950 until early 1952 building her career, hoping to get back onto Columbia records as a solo artist. Although she recorded a one-off hit for Columbia in mid-1951, she nevertheless was not used by Columbia as a solo artist at that time. In April of 1952, she made a recording with Columbia’s Percy Faith, followed by eight sides in May of 1952 with Harry James’s band, then still on Columbia. During this time, she began appearing successfully on many different television shows. In 1954, she appeared in the Paramount film White Christmas, with Bing Crosby. It was a massive hit in its initial release, and remains a staple on television during the holiday season. That film provided a huge boost to Rosemary Clooney’s career.

Billy Strayhorn was well aware of who Rosemary Clooney was, and knew that despite the material she often had to sing to become and remain a pop vocal star, she was a talented singer who had a sharp jazz sensibility, and knew how to swing.

The story – part two: Strayhorn and Clooney:

Presumably, Irving Townsend contacted Ms. Clooney shortly after his conversation with Ellington and Strayhorn, and explained the ideas they had discussed to her. Strayhorn’s biographer picks up the narrative: Strayhorn flew to Los Angeles and took a taxi to Clooney’s home in Beverly Hills, a Spanish-style split level that she shared with her husband, the actor Jose’ Ferrer, and their three children; she was very pregnant with their fourth child and under doctor’s orders not to fly. Working under a deadline to begin recording in less than ten days and unfamiliar with Clooney’s style (her range, best keys and preferred tempos), Strayhorn set priorities: ‘He made me breakfast in bed,’ said Clooney. The twenty-seven year old singer was suffering nearly constant nausea, and Ferrer was in England directing and acting in a film (The Cockshell Heroes). Sleeping in one of the children’s bedrooms, Strayhorn stayed with Clooney for more than a week to act as nurse and play Ellington Orchestra records, occasionally at the same time. ‘We didn’t know each other at all before that, but we became incredibly close immediately’ Ms. Clooney later recalled. ‘I was having a very difficult pregnancy. I was really suffering and he got me through it. I’d say: ‘Oh God, I’m going to throw up again,’  and he would say ‘Okay now, it’s okay,’ …and he would take care of me. He said, ‘don’t get up Honey,’ and he would bring me crackers and milk. I felt a little better one day, and he baked me an apple pie. He cared about that baby. He cared about the fact that I couldn’t afford to get tired, and he watched out for me. I would just stay in my bedroom, and he would come upstairs, and we’d sit on the bed and talk about things. Most of the time, we didn’t even talk about music. When we did work on the music, it was like I was working with my best friend. I wanted to do my best for him, and I would do anything he wanted.” (1)

I have often wondered how Ellington would have handled this situation. I think it safe to say it would have been different from the way Strayhorn handled it.

After Strayhorn and Clooney chose the songs to be recorded,(1A) Billy went to work, still at Clooney’s home, tailoring each of the arrangements to accommodate her vocal requirements. Billy then had to return to New York where the Ellington band was, and work with Duke and them to record the new arrangements, sans Ms. Clooney. This process was almost unheard of then, and it caused a bit of a problem for the Ellington bandsmen. Trumpeter Clark Terry recalled: “Nobody had ever worked that way before. When we played for a singer, we were used to hear the singer sing with us, and we’d play around that. I said to Strayhorn; ‘Hey Strays, why don’t you sing the songs (with us), and then they can erase your voice? Wouldn’t that be better, if we could hear your voice?’ He looked at me deadpan and said, ‘No, I believe silence would be preferable.'”(2)

The recording sessions with the Ellington orchestra took place on January 23 and 27, 1956 at Columbia’s 30th Street recording studio in Manhattan. Once all of the songs had been recorded, Columbia prepared a tape of them for Strayhorn to take with him to Los Angeles, so he could work with Ms. Clooney in a recording studio in Los Angeles to get her voice synchronized with the band and recorded. What she was required to do was the reverse of what she had done in movies, first record her songs and then lip-synch them while being filmed. “We tried a few takes, and it was a disaster. I couldn’t get used to being separated from the music like that. Billy was studying me very intently. Finally, he said, ‘Listen to me, Honey. You’re in your house and you are sitting in your room. You turn on the radio, and it’s Duke Ellington! So you start singing along to the radio. Okay?’ That did it for me. I was alright from then on.”(3)

The music:

Duke plays the band on in the introduction with some bold, bluesy chords, then the first chorus begins as Strayhorn subtly exploits the ducal sounds of oo-ah trumpets played against an open trombone. The contrasting rhythms here are intriguing. The saxophone quintet, led here by Russell Procope on alto, has a regal sound. Strayhorn reprises the trumpets/trombone scheme and saxophone sequence to finish the first chorus.

Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney (shown at left) steps forward with a robust melodic solo that swings. His saxophone section colleagues join him to finish the second chorus.

Rosemary Clooney then sings, sounding very comfortable working with headphones and no musicians around her. Notice the tasty comping Duke provided for her, inviting her to sing and swing. She was a fine vocalist who had an individual sound, excellent pitch and an ability to swing, seemingly in an effortless way. All of this points up her professionalism, because as we know, she was anything but comfortable during this project. In her later career, she worked almost exclusively with jazz musicians, to their and their audiences’ mutual satisfaction.

Strayhorn uses the brass and then saxophone sequence for the third time and the Duke returns to send the congregation out into the sunshine with smiles on their faces.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.

Notes and links:

(*) Rosemary Clooney with the assistance of Billy Strayhorn recorded the vocal part of this recording in Los Angeles on February 8 or 11, 1956.

(1) Lush Life …A Biography of Billy Strayhorn (1996), by David Hajdu, 146-147. Hereafter: Lush Life.

(1A) It was understood from the beginning that the collaboration between Rosemary Clooney and Duke Ellington for Columbia Records would include a program of only Ellington or Strayhorn songs. That was the “theme” of the long-playing recording that they produced, which was issued on May 21, 1956. The song “Hey Baby” was composed by Duke Ellington in 1946, and first recorded by him with Ray Nance singing on July 10, 1946.

(2) Lush Life, 147-148.

(3) Ibid. 148.

Here are some other inspired collaborations between Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/01/27/flamingo-1940-duke-ellington-herb-jeffries-billy-strayhorn-1953-duke-ellington-ray-nance-paul-gonsalves-billy-strayhorn/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/02/11/chelsea-bridge-billy-and-billy-strayhorn-and-may/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2017/03/18/sepia-panorama-1940-duke-ellington/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2021/02/20/clementine-1941-duke-ellington-and-billy-strayhorn-with-johnny-hodges-and-rex-stewart/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/09/26/johnny-come-lately-1942-and-1943-duke-ellington-billy-strayhorn-with-joseph-tricky-sam-nanton/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2019/04/05/something-to-live-for-1965-ella-fitzgerald-with-duke-ellington-1939-duke-ellington-1975-tommy-flanagan/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/08/31/rocks-in-my-bed-1941-duke-ellington-and-ivie-anderson/

https://swingandbeyond.com/2023/04/24/just-a-settin-and-a-rockin-1941-duke-ellington-with-ben-webster-ray-nance-barney-bigard-and-tricky-sam-nanton-1949-duke-ellington-with-ben-webster-and-tyree-glenn/

Here is a link to Strayhorn’s most famous contribution to Ellingtonia:

https://swingandbeyond.com/2016/03/22/take-the-a-train-composed-and-arranged-by-billy-strayhorn/

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