He stood five feet, two inches tall, and his musical colleagues dubbed him “Swee’ Pea,” after the little character in the Popeye cartoons. But Billy Strayhorn ranked with the giants that composed enduring standard popular music. He was also nobody’s cartoon character. The handle was a reverent tease, applied by Strayhorn’s musical associates in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
The Duke summed up Strayhorn’s talents with typical Ellington eloquence: "Billy Strayhorn successfully married melody, words and harmony, equating the fitting with happiness." The band members concurred, because they knew the genius of Ellington and Strayhorn kept the band ever-popular, and thereby secured their jobs.
Strayhorn’s full name was William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn. His middle name could have been “Precocious” instead of Thomas, because, while still in his teens, he composed and put words to one of the most sophisticated pieces of popular music, ever written—“Lush Life.” The words to the song are worthy of the urbane writings of Noel Coward and Cole Porter. A few years later, when the song went public and became a hit, the critics were in awe and wondered how this inexperienced, shy young fellow, who hadn’t been anywhere and hadn’t done much of anything, would know to write about ennui—bored and jaded from experiencing too much high living.
Billy Strayhorn was born November 29, 1915, in Dayton, Ohio, but his family soon moved to Pittsburgh. He did not receive much in the way of a formal musical education in his early years, but made up for it when he attended high school where he received instruction from the same teacher who had taught Errol Garner and Mary Lou Williams.
His first love was classical music, until he heard the likes of Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, and the music of Duke Ellington, whom he met in 1938. He impressed Ellington by showing him how he would have arranged one of Duke’s songs in a different manner. Another meeting was arranged, and 21-year-old Billy Strayhorn was hired. Thus began one of the most fortuitous associations in the history of modern music. It lasted 29 years and contributed mightily to the pages of the Great American Songbook.
Ellington had written some gems prior to Strayhorn’s arrival, and continued to do so, often with the help of his new writing partner. They wrote independently and they collaborated. So close were their writing styles that music critics often could not decipher whether a song was another Ellington masterpiece or a Strayhorn work of art.
In his third year with the Ellington Orchestra, Strayhorn composed the band’s signature song “Take the A Train,” and went on to compose the melodies, “Chelsea Bridge,” “Lotus Blossom,” “Rain Check,” and Blood Count.”
In praise of Strayhorn and their musical affinity, Ellington once said, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brainwaves in his head, and his in mine.”
And before Ellington made that statement, Strayhorn was heard to say, “I’m certain that Duke has influenced me. He says I’ve influenced him, but I don’t know…I’m not sure he knows.” He added, “…[T]here are also no restrictions on my writing—that’s why I like working with Duke. “
It has also been revealed that Lena Horne loved Strayhorn’s abilities, and had a much more than platonic liking for him personally. It was known that he was openly gay, but it’s been said many times over that Horne still wanted to marry him, even though Strayhorn had a longtime male mate.
Billy Strayhorn passed away May 31, 1967, at the age of 51, the victim of esophageal cancer. Ellington recorded an album of Strayhorn compositions shortly after his death, and titled the collection And His Mother Called Him Bill.
The former Regent Theater in Pittsburgh now bears the names of two of its native sons: Billy Strayhorn, and dancer/actor Gene Kelly.
A Pennsylvania Historical Marker was placed at Westinghouse High School in the Homewood section of Pittsburgh, highlighting Strayhorn’s accomplishments, and marking it as the school he attended But even after his successes as a legendary arranger and composer, it continued to remain a mystery how little “Swee’ Pea”—while in his teens—could have composed such a worldly standard as “Lush Life.”
This article is from the May 2014 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.