Born: January 9, 1920 | Died: February 16, 1999 Primary Instrument: Vocal
Betty Roche’s recording of Take the A Train with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1952 has remained one of the most famous and enduring of Ellington's recordings, and the song with which she is associated.
Born Mary Elizabeth Roche in Wilmington, Delaware on Jan. 9, 1920, she began her career by winning a talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem when she was 17. This led eventually to her joining the Savoy Sultans, the resident band at the Savoy Ballroom, in 1941. Typifying the episodic nature of Roche's career, the band broke up soon after she joined it. She made her first record on the band's last recording session, a song called At's In There. She also sang briefly for bands led by the tenor sax player Lester Young and trumpeter Hot Lips Page.
She traveled to Hollywood in 1942 with the Ellington band to make the film Reveille With Beverly (also featuring Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie and Bob Crosby bands). Roche was to sing Take the A Train. As she sang You'll find it's the quickest way to get to Harlem, the train was shown - typical of Hollywood - racing across the open prairie. The American musicians' union (the AFM) had imposed a ban on recording that lasted throughout Roche's period with Ellington and she was thus denied the fame that would undoubtedly have come to her had she featured on the band's records.
In January 1943 Ellington's became the first black band to give a concert at Carnegie Hall. That evening he gave the first performance of one of his most controversial compositions, his 45-minute Black, Brown and Beige suite. Roche sang the famous Blues section, with its pyramid- like construction of lyrics. The concert was recorded, but the results were not issued until 40 years later. By the time Ellington recorded a studio version in 1944, Roche had left the band.
Roche left Ellington during 1943, eventually joining the band led by the pianist Earl Hines in 1944, with whom she also recorded. Again, she didn't stay long, and left music altogether for a number of years, unexpectedly rejoining Ellington in 1951. In June 1952 she recorded the extended version of Take the A Train with the band, and this became so successful that Ellington repeated it in all his broadcasts of the time. It was to be the high point of her career, and when she left the band again in 1954 Ray Nance, a highly original trumpeter and singer with the band, continued to use the version of the song that Roche had created. The album that included Roche's performance of the song is still a big seller today, and it is this version, rather than the original solely instrumental version that most people remember.
Roche's career remained erratic. She recorded an album for the Bethlehem label in 1956, predictably called “Take the A Train,” and another, “Singin' and Swingin',” for Prestige in 1960. Her last album was done for Prestige the following year.
Although she worked sporadically in clubs, she seemed to be half-hearted about her career, and eventually slipped into obscurity a few years later. Ellington wrote of her in his auto- biography, She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations.
Source: Steve Voce