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Sophisticated Lady



They say into your early life romance came
And in this heart of yours burned a flame
A flame that flickered one day and died away
Then, with disillusion deep in your eyes
You learned that fools in love soon grow wise


Sophisticated Lady was composed by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills in 1932 and words were subsequently added by Mitchell Parish. The origin of the melody is sometimes a point of contention with Lawrence Brown claiming credit for the first eight bars and credit also being given to Toby Hardwick. However, it is said that Ellington's original conception for the piece was inspired by three of his grade school teachers: 'They taught all winter and toured Europe in the summer. To me that spelled sophistication'.

Here is a video from the late 1960s of Duke Ellington's Orchestra playing Sophisticated Lady in Copenhagen featuring Harry Carney with a beautiful baritone saxophone solo and whose circular breathing shows how to hold a note.




Duke's school was in the U Street District of Washington D.C., commonly known as the U Street Corridor. Apparently, until the 1920s, when it was overtaken by Harlem, the U Street Corridor was home to the nation's largest urban African American community. 'In its cultural heyday, it was known as "Black Broadway", a phrase coined by singer Pearl Bailey.' During his childhood, the Ellington's lived on 13th street between T and S Streets. For many years, U Street has been central to Washington's music scene, with the Lincoln Theatre, Howard Theatre, Bohemian Caverns, and other clubs and historic jazz venues.

Watch this estate agent's interesting summary video which describes the area and its history.




Wikipedia tells us that 'While the area remained a cultural center for the African American community through the 1960s, the neighborhood began to decline following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The intersection of 14th Street and U Street was the epicenter of violence and destruction during the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots. Following the riots, and the subsequent flight of affluent residents and businesses from the area, the corridor became blighted. Drug trafficking rose dramatically in the mid-1970s, when the intersection of 14th and U Streets was an area of drug trafficking in Washington, D.C.'

Now, sophistication is returning to the Corridor as more than 2,000 luxury condominiums and apartments were constructed between 1997 and 2007.

This short video about U Street from a Washington Post video series 'exploring how D.C. denizens show their sense of style. On D.C.'s historic U Street, "everyone is a style star."





The years have changed you, somehow
I see you now
Smoking, drinking, never thinking of tomorrow, nonchalant
Diamonds shining, dancing, dining with some man in a restaurant
Is that all you really want?
No, sophisticated lady,
I know, you miss the love you lost long ago
And when nobody is nigh you cry


Duke Ellington and His Orchestra first introduced Sophisticated Lady in 1933 with an instrumental recording of the song featuring solos by Toby Hardwick on alto sax, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Lawrence Brown on trombone and Ellington on piano. The recording entered the charts on the 27th May 1933, and stayed there for sixteen weeks, rising to number three.

Listen to the 1933 version by Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra that starts with Lawrence Brown's trombone introduction.




Ellington’s vocalist Adelaide Hall recorded two versions of ‘Sophisticated Lady’. In 1928, Adelaide had starred on Broadway with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the show Blackbirds of 1928. It became the most successful all-black show ever staged on Broadway at that time and made Hall and Bojangles into household names. Adelaide Hall's part was originally cast for Florence Mills, but she died of pneumonia in 1927 before rehearsals started. Adelaide was chosen to take her place and the show became the hit of the season. Adelaide's performance of Diga Diga Do, created a sensation. When her mother went to see the show she was disgusted to see her daughter performing what she termed 'risqué dance moves', tried to stop the show and banned Adelaide from appearing in any future performances. Fortunately, mum was persuaded to change her mind and Adelaide returned the following day. Even so, it is reported Adelaide Hallthat Lew Leslie, the show's producer was 'so concerned about race violence connected with the controversy surrounding Adelaide's performance that he took out a hefty insurance policy to cover the cast; the most heavily insured were the principals, Adelaide Hall and "Bojangles" Robinson.'


Adelaide Hall


Unfortunately I have been able to find either of the two versions Adelaide Hall recorded of Sophisticated Lady, but we have a video of her singing the song much later that we'll come back to. However, to get an idea of Adelaide in those early years, here she is singing and dancing in 1935 in a video short in which she follows an acrobatic act The Three Whippets and she in turn is followed by very young Nicholas Brothers - I am unable to embed this video so unfortunately you have to leave the page and come back again (click here).

A year before Blackbirds of 1928, Adelaide Hall recorded Creole Love Call with Duke Ellington. They were both touring in a show called Dance Mania. The story is told that Duke had a new number, "Creole Love Call", which he included in his set. Adelaide later said, "I was standing in the wings behind the piano when Duke first played it. I started humming along with the band. He stopped the number and came over to me and said, 'That's just what I was looking for. Can you do it again?' I said, 'I can't, because I don't know what I was doing.' He begged me to try. Anyway, I did, and sang this counter melody, and he was delighted and said 'Addie, you're going to record this with the band.' A couple of days later I did". In David Bradbury's book on Duke Ellington he writes, 'When Duke was recounting the incident to a reporter he explained, "We had to do something to employ Adelaide Hall," and then added, "I always say we are primitive artists, we only employ the materials at hand … the band is an accumulation of personalities, tonal devices."

The British Film Institute has this brief video of Adelaide Hall singing Swing Low Sweet Chariot in 1948. You can see why she could have sung Sophisticated Lady. This excerpt is taken from an unfinished film called 'A World is Turning', that was 'intended to highlight the contribution of black men and women to British society at a time when they were struggling for visibility on our screens. Only six reels of rushes remain, including scenes of Hall performing at London's Nightingale Club; filming appears to have been halted due to the director's illness.'





The only video I can find of Adelaide Hall singing Sophisticated Lady is this one where she appeared on the Terry Wogan TV show in 1984.





A bit of a mystery surrounds information on the IMDb (International Movie Database) that records a documentary called Sophisticated Lady filmed in 1989 by directors David Mingay and David Robinson. It was a profile of Adelaide Hall and starred Adelaide and Benny Waters, but no information about the film seems to exist (click here). It would be interesting to know more about it.

As another miscellaneous 'factoid', according to William Zinsser in his book, Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs, the song Laura was born out of a disagreement between composer David Raksin and director Otto Preminger. Preminger wanted to use Sophisticated Lady as a theme in the film Laura, but Raksin felt it was wrong for the movie and wrote Laura in a weekend as a replacement.

For two different takes on Sophisticated Lady, here is tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller playing the tune in 1986 during the Cork Festival in Ireland. Yank Lawson introduces Eddie for a feature as part of a festival concert by the Bob Cats. Bob Haggart is on bass, Lou Stein on piano and Nick Fatool on drums. Eddie Miller had a tenor sax style similar to that of Bud Freemen. He started playing professionally in New Orleans when he was sixteen and went on to play with Ben Pollack and then Bob Crosby.


Now watch and listen to Thelonious Monk in this video of his Sophisticated Lady solo at the Berliner Jazztage, Berlin, Germany, on 7th November 1969. As one commentator says: 'Monk plays so perfectly, capturing the potential for dissonance in a piece without sacrificing elegance.'




Let's end with this version of Sophisticated Lady by bass player Christian McBride from a video made at the 2009 Festival de Jazz San Javier. The piece starts with a great bass solo before pianist Peter Martin takes his solo. They then work the tune out between them. Ulisses Owens is on drums.




'Elegance is the only beauty that never fades.' (Audrey Hepburn)


Audrey Hepbun


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