Help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration
The works of two of the twentieth century’s most important composing ensembles can be considered the greatest examples of collaboration in music history. One, Duke Ellington – marketed as a genius and often referred to as “The Duke” – was not known for creating melody, but as a skilled arranger crafted enduring compositions derived from collaborations with musicians in his orchestra, frequently on the spot during rehearsal. As a result, he elevated the role of the featured soloist, while naming and packaging the composition as if it were his own entirely, regularly taking sole credit when it wasn’t entirely his, reluctant to publicly acknowledge his collaborators.
The other ensemble, the Beatles – affectionately called “The Boys” – relished their public image of transparent collaboration, achieving unparalleled success in a model where main composing partners. John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote songs for each other as the primary audience, each subsequently augmenting and enhancing the piece — in Paul’s case, its musical range, and in John’s case, its lyrics.
In Help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration (W.W. Norton & Company), Duke University musicologist Thomas Brothers – author of two essential studies of Louis Armstrong – tells a fascinating account of how creative cooperation inspired two of the world’s most celebrated groups.
The following interview with Mr. Brothers about his book — hosted and produced by Jerry Jazz Musician. publisher Joe Maita — was conducted on December 10, 2018.
“Ellington and the Beatles worked at the nexus of vernacular practice, where creativity from all participants was welcomed, and commercial pop, which required a single-minded focus on compositions that can be filed for copyright. You could say that these groups shared an ability to impose compositional vision on collaborative music-making. Or to put that in a slightly different way, they each found ways to tap into creative fields opened up by collaboration and to use that resource in the service of compositional definition.”
JJM . Let’s begin with this basic question, Tom. What is the goal of your book?
TB . Well, there are parallel goals, at different levels. One goal is just to get the record straight about how these groups accomplished what they did, and my argument is that they did so through collaboration. Secondly, my argument is that there’s a parallel process going on in the history of these two groups – as there is in the history of jazz and rock, really – in that they both start very close to what I call the “African American vernacular” and then Ellington and the Beatles both take that music and make it much more compositional and much more like art. So, in that sense they are parallel, and they do this through collaboration. Those are basically my main arguments.
JJM . You wrote, “The Ellington problem…is simply this: we cannot assume that Ellington composed the material that he claimed. The default assumption of giving him credit is not sustainable. It makes more sense to assume collaboration than not.” Do you expect that statements like this will provoke any kind of controversy within the world that studies the music history of Ellington?
TB .Well, it certainly could. Ellington is a legendary cultural hero, so it is hard to say that he actually didn’t do what he said he did – which is the basis for his hero status – but that statement you read is not going to be shocking to many scholars because they know what was going on, and people have known this for a long time. Basically, the evidence has been accumulating and there’s been increasingly honest assessment of the whole phenomenon, especially, as I emphasize in the book, since the important studies of Billy Strayhorn done around the year 2000 by David Hajdu and Walter van de Leur. Those books really made it clear what a force Strayhorn was. Since then there have been biographies of Juan Tizol and Ben Webster, for example, and the writers of those biographies tried to document very precisely what was going on. So I don’t think this is a revolutionary point of view that I am taking, but people have a lot invested in Ellington’s status, and those people who have the most invested will put up the most resistance.
JJM. Why did you start the book about music collaboration in Port Royal, South Carolina in 1863?
TB .As I was thinking about the parallels between Ellington and the Beatles, it occurred to me that nothing like this ever existed in classical music. One of the reasons that the details of Ellington’s collaborations got suppressed is because they wanted to elevate Ellington’s status to be an elite composer in the classical music model, and that’s how he was understood for many decades, and maybe still is understood in that way by a lot of people. On the other hand, why is it that classical music never has anything even close to this kind of give-and-take that is just routine with these bands? The reason, of course, is that the history of this music comes from the African-American musical vernacular, which was designed to promote social interaction.
Untitled drawing of African American slaves dancing
As you go back in history, especially in the 19th Century during the period of slavery, you have lots of reports of rituals like “the ring shout,” which are designed to have people gather and make music together in a spontaneous way, and to have the individual actively participating in a group experience – not just passively appreciating music but actively contributing music and dance. This is the basis, really, for jazz and for rock, so I’m just making this connection to why these groups are so intensely collaborative. Ellington’s was not the only collaborative jazz group, and the Beatles are not the only rock group that were collaborative – those idioms and others that derive from African-American music have a lot of collaboration in them, and I don’t think it is shocking to say that.
JJM .What are some of the parallels between how the Ellington collective of musicians and the Beatles collaborated?
TB .They both use lots of different methods, actually, and this is a key to their success. They do things like, for example, one person will mainly compose the piece and then everybody else will tinker with it – both groups do that. Or, they do things like co-compose; one section of the song is composed by one person, like Duke Ellington, and another section of the tune is composed by another person, like Billy Strayhorn. You can transfer those methods to Lennon and McCartney, which are very standard techniques. Or, they just sit around the studio and brainstorm, where everybody’s ideas fly back and forth and they gradually gel into a piece of music. The famous Beatles sessions from January, 1969 – the “Get Back” sessions as they are known today – are great examples of that, and Ellington talks about how a number of his pieces were generated in this way as well. So, there are a lot of parallels.
JJM . It is interesting that they collaborated similarly but their public image that came out of it was quite different. For example, you wrote that “Ellington skewed a communal image and promoted the idea of his own genius; he was known as ‘The Duke,’ whereas in Britain, the Beatles were known as ‘The Boys.’”
TB .Yes, the Beatles embraced this image of an egalitarian collective, and they did a lot of things to promote that image. The most spectacular thing to promote it may have been the movie A Hard Day’s Night, where they were really scripted to be seen as this group of very tight friends – basically a group of equals. Of course, it wasn’t exactly a group of equals, there was a very well understood hierarchy within the Beatles. The hierarchical dimensions and the understanding of it helped to promote collaboration because it gave everybody a sense of how things were going to work, who was going to make decisions, which made it easier to facilitate interaction.
But yes, the Beatles promoted this image of an egalitarian collective, and I think that that’s really important for their success, and for the way people heard their music. For example, “Hey Jude” – which in many polls was proclaimed the number one song of the decade of the 1960’s – is heard as a song of consolation sung by the world’s most famous group of friends, and the long nonverbal mantra at the end that is sung by the whole group is understood as warmth, as a radiating compassion within the group. So, this identity of the group is really imbedded in the reception history of the Beatles, just as the identity of Ellington as the elite, genius composer is embedded in the reception history of his music.
JJM . Regarding “Hey Jude”… This song was recorded at a time when fans of the Beatles think of Lennon being separate from the group due to his heroin use and his relationship with Yoko Ono and his fascination of her ideas, but even with these challenges there was the ability for the group to connect collaboratively…
TB . Yes, that’s true. Lennon was very heavily involved with Yoko Ono in the summer of 1968, and there was considerable tension at this time. People have often heard the White Album – which comes from the summer of 1968 – as a marker of that tension, with them going in individual directions. While there is an aspect of that, I think it’s a big mistake to say that the Beatles have abandoned collaboration – they are still benefiting from the synergy that they’ve had for a long time, and that really is a big part of the White Album’s success. I argue that a lot of that has to do with their retreat in India from February and March of 1968, where they were basically together by themselves for a month or so, with their acoustic guitars, hanging out and meditating a lot and really enjoying each other’s company. They all said that it was a tremendously fertile time, especially for Lennon and McCartney, the two main composers. The over 50 songs they generated in India lasted well through the White Album, into Abbey Road and beyond that, into their solo albums. So, if you think of it that way, it’s a tremendously synergistic time with a lot of collective energy.
JJM . Returning to the comment earlier about how the Beatles were viewed as “The Boys” and Ellington was seen as “The Duke”…Was there a racial component to that that fed the need for Ellington to be “in charge” instead of being seen as working collaboratively?
TB . Certainly some people from the 1930’s talk about it that way, as if Ellington was “exceptional within his race,” because “he alone is a great composer.” This was abhorrent racial mythology. People like Louis Armstrong were not thought of as composers but just embellishers of music that came from whites. It is a very old racial mythology that goes back well before this, so yes there was that dimension.
JJM . Ellington’s work was in the midst of W.E.B. DuBois vision of the “Talented Tenth,” and, as you wrote, “his skills as a manager, leader, entrepreneur, arranger, composer, performer and cultural visionary put him within that realm.”
TB . Definitely. That was an ideology of the first half of the 20th Century, that the “Talented Tenth” was the cream of African-American society, and this educated elite was going to be responsible for leading the entire race forward. Ellington falls exactly into that ideology.
JJM . How was Ellington able to keep his band’s collaborative contributions out of the public eye to the extent that he was?
James “Bubber” Miley
TB .Well, partly it’s a matter of stealing [laughter]. Co-composer credit was often not given, either on sheet music, record labels or copyright filings. Publicity campaigns were relentless – we now know that from basically 1930 and beyond, his manager Irving Mills had a very well-focused publicity campaign designed to elevate Ellington’s status as a composer, and that that would separate him from the pack and be his mark of distinction in all of jazz. This campaign was extremely successful. An example of this are the great Bubber Miley collaborations on “East St Louis Toodle-oo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “Creole Love Call,” and when people wrote about these pieces Miley’s name was never mentioned at all. Ellington was given credit, and there was a little tip of the hat to the musicians for playing his tune so well. But of course Ellington didn’t write the tunes that made those pieces so successful – the musicians who did were really eliminated from the discourse.
JJM . Miley was a major character in your book. So, please talk a little about his contributions to Ellington’s band, and also what the “Miley Method” is.
. “Bubber” Miley
“East St. Louis Toodle-oo”
TB . Miley was a creative powerhouse who unfortunately died very tragically at an early age due to alcoholism in 1932, but between 1926 to 1930, he was basically the creative center of the band, which Ellington acknowledged. He said that Miley was the one who turned the band away from playing “sweet music” and totally committed it to jazz, and he got notices in the press for his playing.
What I call the “Miley Method” came out of the 1926 composition of “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” when Ellington decided to utilize one of Miley’s trumpet solos as the starting point for the creation of the composition. Believe it or not, no one had really done something like this before – improvised solos were just basically dropped into a performance for contrast, variety, and, as they said at that period of time, for “spice,” and it didn’t really matter if they were integrated too much with the rest of the performance. So, Ellington was going to completely reverse that and take this great solo that Miley has created and then build a piece around it – everything is going to work towards highlighting that solo. The results of that are these tremendous Miley successes.
JJM . Which Miley never received adequate recognition for…
TB. Some people have recognized it. Gunther Schuller, one of the great writers in jazz, as well as on Ellington, certainly recognized the importance of Miley in the late 1920’s. Others have been less charitable. One great musicologist, Mark Tucker, called Miley “Ellington’s Muse.” Tucker understood what was happening but, for him, the success of the music depended on Ellington’s vision as a composer, and not on the quality of Miley’s playing. So, it can get very subtle the way you line the analysis up.
JJM .Was Jimmie Lunceford’s band, or Count Basie’s band collaborating similarly?
TB . Well, that’s interesting. Basie is famous, actually, for ear-based, head arrangements that were generated a lot by the band. So with Basie you have this complex riff texture – a sort of mosaic of interlocking riffs that are bouncing off of each other with very complex textures. A lot of that was invented by the players in the band, who would sort of compete with each other to create new riffs and find ways to put them together.
Jelly Roll Morton is another important precedent for Ellington. The way Morton is working with the Red Hot Peppers series in the late 1920’s, working with balance between compositional elements and improvisational elements and getting energy from the way the two fit together. So, Basie and Morton are two good examples.
JJM . Ellington was greatly influenced by Fletcher Henderson…
TB . Yes, and especially in the sense of arranging details, polished ensemble playing, and also in the way of packaging the music so it appeals to white audiences. When Ellington started to admire him the most, in 1925 – 26, Henderson was playing at an elite white ballroom in midtown Manhattan and recording on white-owned record labels. So his success was pretty strong, and he was probably the most successful African-American bandleader of the time.
JJM .So, here you’ve got Ellington who is “stealing” from his band members, and often didn’t give them credit for their collaboration, yet the band pretty much stayed together…
TB .We have to emphasize that this unfortunate method of management taking credit for music that management didn’t create was pretty widespread during the 1920’s and 1930’s, and in fact is still around today. So it wasn’t unusual, it was just taken as a fact of life of the music business really, and with Ellington you have a number of big advantages. One is that it was the most successful jazz band around from the early 1930’s and beyond, and it was also the longest running jazz band around, so you have the stability of employment and nice working conditions. Plus, if you think about it, your music is being presented in the best possible way, treated in this “Miley Method” that means your composed tune is going to get arranged and performed beautifully, and you are probably going to stand out in front of the band and perform it! So there is some recognition in that way. Plus, at a more sly level, Ellington had lots of little tricks and made special arrangements and deals with musicians, the most famous being with Johnny Hodges, who became the highest paid salaried member of the band, and a lot of that had to do with his great playing, but also because he was generating a lot of these “hits” for the band.
JJM . The publicist Helen Oakley Dance described Hodges as “an absolute song factory.”
TB. That’s right. He wrote catchy tunes that people loved to hear.
Ellington with Johnny Hodges
JJM . You reminded us of the story about the “unspoken system of communication” between Ellington and Hodges, “whereby Hodges, the song factory, would recognize one of his own melodies in a new Ellington composition, make a silent little gesture to the leader, and know that his salary was about to jump up a notch.”
TB ..Yes, but things were not always happy. A number of the musicians expressed dissatisfaction with the way things worked in this regard, and how they weren’t credited properly, and the saddest example of this, of course, is Billy Strayhorn, who did not get a chance to go out in front of the band and perform his own pieces because he wasn’t part of the performance, he was behind the scenes. His compositional identity was completely subsumed under Ellington’s identity until the 1950’s. Nobody really knew of Strayhorn’s tremendous achievement that he had come up with.
JJM .Regarding Strayhorn and his and other collaborators’ role with Ellington, he defended Ellington very strongly in a 1962 Downbeat interview with writer Bill Coss, who says; “So many people suggest a question which, I suppose, is the kind you expect when someone gets into a position as important as is Duke’s. What it comes down to is that Duke doesn’t really write much. What he does is listen to his soloists, take things they play, and fashion them into songs. Thus, the songs belong to the soloists, you do the arrangements, and Duke takes the credit.”
Strayhorn responds by saying; “They used to say that about Irving Berlin too. But how do you explain the constant flow of songs? Guys come in and out of the band, but the songs keep getting written, and you can always tell an Ellington song. Anyway, something like a solo, perhaps only a few notes, is hardly a composition. It may be the inspiration, but what do they say about 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration? Composing is work. So this guy says you and he wrote it, but he thinks he wrote it. He thinks you just put it down on paper. But what you did was put it down on paper, harmonized it, straightened out he bad phrases, and added things to it, so you could hear the finished product. Now, really, who wrote it? It was ever thus. But the proof is that these people don’t go somewhere else and write beautiful music. You don’t hear anything else from them. You do from Ellington.”
TB . Yes, when I was talking about the idea that Bubber Miley was Ellington’s muse, leading him to the success of these great compositions, people tend to think that Ellington had the concept for these pieces the way an auteur movie director has the concept of a movie, and that he is the creative force who is calling the shots, and who is just enlisting others to help him along the way. Sometimes Ellington did do things like that, but not very often, actually.
For example, the titles of these pieces come after the fact. “Mood Indigo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” – Ellington becomes very good at titling pieces and creating stories, which can make it seem as if Ellington has this concept that is driving the piece but the song titles also come late in the game. They don’t drive the generation or the conception of the piece.
JJM . He titled a few songs with the word “Concerto” in them, which also would have raised his artistic profile…
TB .Right, so again they are extending the analogy with European classical music, and a lot of those concertos were based on material from the soloist.
JJM . Your book points out similarities in the way Ellington and John Lennon both evoke visual images around their songs that gave the listener a head start with connecting to the music – Ellington in the way he titled his songs, and Lennon more so through his lyrics…
TB .Yes. It may have had something to do with them having artistic ability and an evocative visual imagery. They were both talented painters – Lennon went to art school and Ellington got a scholarship to go to art school, although he didn’t take it. Ellington was gifted in the visual arts, and other members of his family were as well.
JJM . How did the long playing record (LP) influence the way Ellington and the Beatles collaborated?
Such Sweet Thunder
Far East Suite
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
TB . With the onset of the LP record in the 1950’s, when they really start to become commercially viable, Ellington and Strayhorn start to think of the LP as a creative unit, and ask themselves what they can do that will conform to the LP. So, there you have the suites – Such Sweet Thunder, The Nutcracker Suite, and several others – where they developed this model for composing these suites that actually worked very well for them because they could each go off and write their own numbers and gather them around some kind of imagery. The Far East Suite, for example, provides a sort of loose coherence. It also has the analogy of European classical music, so, it is very successful. It allows them to work independently but sort of together.
The Beatles arrive at a similar kind of model basically beginning with Revolver, with a tremendous diversity of material that is emphasizing the variety of complimentary material as the creative principles start to go in different directions. George Harrison gets interested in music from India, Lennon starts getting interested in psychedelic music and ways to express the psychedelic experience, McCartney is already interested in all kinds of different music, including up tempo rock and roll – “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “Good Day, Sunshine” – as well as traditional ballads. So you have this sense that there is a lot of diversity going on at once.
JJM . You describe the Beatles’ work as being a part of an LP collage that would show up not just with their music but in the album art as well, with Sgt. Pepper being the most obvious example…
TB . Yes. Sgt. Pepper is where this collage principle gets turned into an artistic, psychedelic theme that is very well organized by the famous, Andy Warhol-style cover.
JJM .You wrote, “Relative to early jazz, the rock and roll reset was marked by a different set of instruments, with electric guitars replacing the New Orleans winds, and there was a difference in function: early jazz was dance oriented, while rock and roll was simultaneously a genre of song and dance.” How did this alter collaboration?
TB . Ellington was a dance music composer, which means arranging other people’s tunes a lot and being able to pull in instrumental solos, like Miley’s, which opens up a model for collaboration, whereas Lennon and McCartney don’t do any of that – they just basically think of themselves as song composers. Everything they do is based on songs.
JJM .You write about many Beatles songs, and how their collaboration led to tremendous success that of course continues to endure. Three of the songs stick out for me: “Tomorrow Never Knows”, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life.” Can you talk about these songs?
TB . On anybody’s list, these have to be three of the greatest accomplishments of the Beatles. They have a lot in common, actually, and they are sequential – each one of them builds on the previous one, and extends it. They also have a lot in common in that each one of those songs were started by Lennon that then gets taken up by McCartney and the others. The process here is really from “one-to-two-to-four-to-five-to-six” people. It starts with Lennon having an idea for a song in his head, he then brings it to his partner Paul, who helps him work on it, then the four members of the band works on it, then George Martin gets in on the process, and then the engineers get involved, who are also very creative in the innovations heard in these three songs.
The basic musical material that Lennon starts with on “Tomorrow Never Knows” is extremely simple – it is just one chord and a melody that arpeggiates that chord. In terms of musical content it is about as basic as you can get. McCartney then adds a drum pattern that he instructs Ringo to play. Ringo’s earlier version can be heard on the Beatles Anthology, and then the final version is the one that McCartney told him to do. Then, of course, the famous tape loops that McCartney comes up with based on his explorations of avant-garde classical composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen. McCartney was very much in touch with this – there were lectures in London that we know he went to, and he was hanging out with people who had little electronic studio labs in imitation of what Stockhausen was doing. Those tape loops are really what make the song so effective.
The beginning of “Strawberry Fields Forever” is also very simple, although more elaborate than “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but the end result is so dramatically different than anyone could have imagined from the beginning – certainly Lennon never imagined it – and that is the end result of the creative team doing a lot of experiments in the studio.
“A Day in the Life” started as a song by Lennon, but really only one verse – people don’t fully recognize that. He then went over to McCartney’s house and McCartney added the refrain “I’d Love to Turn You On” and eventually McCartney added the whole middle section, which was an independent piece he had composed. They then worked on the remaining verses together. And then of course with “A Day in the Life” you have the orchestral avant-garde effects, influenced by people like Luciano Berio, and that is all happening in the studio. So these three songs are tremendous collaborative achievements that start with Lennon conceptualizing in a very innovative way what a rock song can be, and in this he is very much influenced by Bob Dylan, but then McCartney adding his musical expertise. They are so used to working together that these three songs are sort of a climax of their whole method.
The Beatles (with George Martin) in a Sgt. Pepper’s recording session
JJM . What your book inspired me to do was to actually listen to their complete albums again. Their music has been so chopped up as a way to entice people to re-consume it in different packages and compilations that you are basically left to hearing their music one song at a time, rather than within the context of an album, which is the way it is meant to be heard, and where their great genius resides.
TB .That’s fantastic, and, especially beginning with Sgt. Pepper, .which is really very carefully conceived. I write a lot about the sequence of the tracks on Sgt. Pepper and I don’t think people have fully understood the way that develops, where they start out with this sort of very public and funny fake band performing to the fake live audience, which is humorous but it’s also tremendously musically engaging. Then you retreat inside the band with a “Little Help From My Friends” with the warmth of Ringo singing about how important his friends are to him, and then you retreat even more into Lennon’s psychedelic world view with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” It’s a very effective sequence, going from public, outer, to group dynamics, to very interior, psychological exploration. Then on side two, “Within You, Without You” begins it, and “A Day in the Life” ends it, and both of those songs are really aiming to define the entire album, and even to define the 1960’s, which they do in a way.
So, I agree with you that it is important to listen to entire Beatles albums. I am always talking talk with my students about this, and how the medley on side two of Abbey Road, for example, is all designed to be one continuous stream of music.
JJM .Your book was a great reminder about George Harrison’s role in the band, especially during its 1966 – 1969 phase. Most casual followers of the band I think have always assumed that he was “the third Beatle” – more important than Ringo but way below the stature of John and Paul – who contributed only occasionally to the brilliance of the band. We know that isn’t true – his interest in the music of India and meditation was incredibly influential to the Beatles and inspired so much of the White Album, but it is true that, as you wrote, he “calmly assumed a subordinate position, like a row of children in a family birth order.” Did Harrison and his role share similarities with anyone in Ellington’s band?
TB .Interesting question. In a way, l guess you could say Strayhorn would be similar to that. He was definitely Ellington’s equal as a composer, but he was also definitely Ellington’s subordinate in terms of the hierarchies of the group.
JJM .Harrison’s All Things Must Pass – released shortly after the Beatles broke up and which charted #1 on the charts for quite some time – remains a great album, and it felt like it was recorded in the spirit of a Beatles album, more so than John and Paul’s early post-Beatles work…
TB .I agree, it is a great album. Harrison had been stockpiling his material, waiting for that chance. For example, the song “All Things Must Pass,” was ready to go in January of 1969, and in the book I imagined what it would have been like if they had included that song on Abbey Road. It would have been hard not to call the album All Things Must Pass because the album really was conceived as a farewell album, and even if they didn’t know for sure that they were breaking up, they wanted to go out on top and this would be a way to do it. So, that could have been the name of the album, and that could have pushed it toward being the greatest Beatles album of all time.
JJM . Regarding John and Paul’s legal collaboration, you wrote that Beatles manager Brian Epstein “hired a lawyer to make their partnership contractual and explicit: everything composed by one of them would be credited to both, regardless of the level of joint authorship, even if one of them was working with someone else.” Paul’s success with “Yesterday” may have shaken John’s confidence a bit, and put this legal agreement to the test…
TB .Yes. Part of the reason is that when it was performed live McCartney played it solo with acoustic guitar. So, while they didn’t do it, there was talk of McCartney getting sole credit for “Yesterday,” which wound up being the most covered Beatles song ever, and became an impressive revenue stream for the band.
Paul performs “Yesterday,” 1965
By 1965, the year this recording was released, Lennon had been introduced to L.S.D. and was starting to become more engaged with the possibilities of it. So, if we are to imagine a scenario where he was shaken by Paul’s success with “Yesterday,” and question how he would fit into this songwriting partnership going forward, I would say his solution is to write psychedelic music, which is something that McCartney never would have come upon by himself, and which really added a dimension to the Beatles that no one else can match. The three songs we talked about earlier — “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “A Day in the Life” – are psychedelic songs, which is what is so brilliant about them. Yes, other people are creating psychedelic songs – the Beatles didn’t invent that – but other people couldn’t do it at the level that Lennon and McCartney could do it because of the skill set and because of the collaborative dimensions. There is this tremendous synergy between the words and music which no other group could do quite like that. Dylan certainly couldn’t do it – he could write lyrics as good as anybody in the world but he was never going to come up with something musically like “A Day in the Life.”
JJM .The Beach Boys were such an inspiration to McCartney, particularly Pet Sounds, but, as you wrote, they “did not have George Harrison, looking to India; they did not have John Lennon, studying Dylan and boldly thinking about how to reconceive song lyrics; and they did not have Paul McCartney, checking out the high-modern avant-garde.”
TB .Yes, they basically had one great composer, Brian Wilson, and a bunch of great singers who were able to come up with vocal arrangements. I would never want to diminish what the Beach Boys created – especially Pet Sounds, which is a breathtaking achievement, and the Beatles certainly understood that – but yes, you are right, they couldn’t compete with the diversity of the Beatles, and they couldn’t mix together all of these one-of-a-kind songs that have no match anywhere, really.
JJM .One last question to close this interview is one that I am intrigued by, and it concerns Ellington and him rarely recognizing the importance of collaboration. In 1941, “Take the A Train” became a best seller, and Ellington started using the piece as his theme number. You wrote, “Over the decades it became the number most associated with Ellington, though he never claimed credit for it. To the contrary, he explained many times to surprised admirers that it was in fact Strayhorn who had composed the most famous of all Ellington pieces.” Why was Ellington so willing to solely recognize Strayhorn for writing this important song?
TB . I really don’t know that answer to that. It is intriguing because with Strayhorn especially, you see all these different sorts of possibilities. Sometimes, Ellington takes total credit for Strayhorn’s music, sometimes he is co-credited even when he doesn’t have anything to do with the song, and at other times he just gives credit solely to Strayhorn. I don’t understand the patterning. I thought about it a little, but I don’t have the answer to what was going on behind the scenes that was guiding the choices they made.
That’s not the only composition, of course, that Strayhorn gets sole credit for, but you are right, it was one of the most spectacular, especially because it becomes Ellington’s theme song, so it is a piece that people really identify with Ellington, and he had to say many times that, no, actually I wasn’t the composer of “Take the A Train,” Billy Strayhorn was.
“Ellington figured out how to compose collaboratively, according to a quirky set of exchanges and relations that made him one of a kind. His principal partners would not be lyricists, in the Broadway model, but the musicians who worked in his band. Collaborative composition turned out to be a perfect way to compensate for his weaknesses and maximize his strengths.”
– Thomas Brothers
“The final analysis of how Lennon and McCartney became the Rodgers and Hammerstein of rock and roll must reassert the importance of unquantifiable collaboration, with more back and forth, more mutual editing and brainstorming than anyone will ever know.”
– Thomas Brothers
Help! The Beatles, Duke Ellington and the Magic of Collaboration (W.W. Norton & Company)
Thomas Brothers is the author of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans and Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A professor of music at Duke University, he lives with his family in Durham, North Carolina
This telephone interview took place on December 10, 2018, and was hosted and produced by Jerry Jazz Musician .publisher Joe Maita