by David Hajdu
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
William Thomas “Billy” Strayhorn, born in Dayton and raised in poverty in Pittsburgh, grew up yearning to live in Manhattan—as he imagined it from copies of The New Yorker that he bought with earnings from his paper route, a dreamscape of penthouses and Cole Porter music, jazz and cocktails. By the time he was nineteen, Strayhorn had written a song about the world of his fantasy: “Lush Life.” As sophisticated as a Porter song, but distinctively the work of an original talent, “Lush Life” would become one of the most enduring and respected works in the great American songbook, recorded by more than fifty artists from Nat “King” Cole (who introduced the song in the late 1940s) to Lady Gaga (who recently called it her all-time favorite song).
Trained in classical music at a conservatory in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn wrote music—often, words and music, as in the case of “Lush Life”—that brought together the harmonic richness of the French impressionists, the swing and bite of big-band jazz, the mourning of the blues, and the distingúe elan of cafe society. In addition to “Lush Life,” he wrote the companion masterpiece, “Something to Live For,” which Ella Fitzgerald always called her favorite song, as well as dozens and dozens of works closely associated with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, including the band’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” A quiet, unassuming man, unconcerned with fame or glory, Strayhorn often worked behind the scenes with Ellington, playing a pivotal but under-recognized role in the making of much of the most venturesome and ambitious music in American musical history, including film scores, a Broadway musical (Beggar’s Holiday), works for the ballet, and song suites.
When he died, of esophageal cancer accelerated by his fondness for cigarettes and alcohol, Duke Ellington gave the eulogy. “He had no aspirations to enter into any kind of competition,” Ellington said. “Yet the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture.”
Category: Hall of Fame