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.