“Take the ‘A’ Train” is a Billy Strayhorn compositions from 1939. It quickly became a signature tune of the Duke Ellington Orchestra and is, to this day, one of the most famous compositions of the swing era.
Its origins can be traced back to the beginning of the Ellington/Strayhorn collaboration. The bandleader offered Strayhorn work in his organization in 1939 and sent him money to make the trip to New York City from Pittsburgh. Ellington also instructed Strayhorn to take the ‘A’ train upon arriving to New York City – the ‘A’ train refers to the then new A subway service line running through New York City, going at that time from Eastern Brooklyn into Harlem and Manhattan.
The use of “Take the ‘A’ Train” as the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s signature tune was facilitated by a 1940 ruling by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP), which raised the licensing fees of broadcast use of compositions by its members. This ultimately prevented Ellington from using his own compositions. The bandleader fought back the ASCAP ruling by hiring a number of composers from the rival rights organization Broadcast Music, Inc. (including Strayhorn and his son Mercer Ellington) to write a whole new book of songs.
Thus, “Take the ‘A’ Train” replaced the orchestra’s previous signature tune, the Ellington-penned “Sepia Panorama.” The legacy of this unforgettable compositions was strengthened when lyrics were officially added by Duke Ellington orchestra vocalist Joya Sherrill in 1944.