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Lush Life (1949)

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Origin and Chart Information
“I made two records of only versions of Lush Life! Eventually there will be seven records, yeah.”

- Tony Scott

Rank 36
Words and Music Billy Strayhorn

In 1933 a teenage Billy Strayhorn started work on “Lush Life.” He would fine-tune his composition over the next few years and in 1938, at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, Strayhorn played the piano and sang for Duke Ellington. Ellington’s son, Mercer, would later recall that “Lush Life” and “Something to Live For” were responsible for Ellington hiring Strayhorn in early 1939. It would mark the beginning of their legendary collaboration.


More on Billy Strayhorn at JazzBiographies.com

In 1939 “Lush Life” could boast lyrics but no title. Strayhorn frequently played the song at parties but it was a pet project and was not intended for publication. On November 13, 1948, however, Billy Strayhorn (piano) with vocalist Kay Davis performed “Lush Life” in the last of seven Ellington Carnegie Hall concerts. The difficult-to-find Duke Ellington-Carnegie Hall, November 13, 1948, released in 1991 on Vintage Jazz Classics, contains the first documented performance of “Lush Life” with Billy Strayhorn on piano and Kay Davis singing.

Recording by other artists began soon after that. An initial Nat “King” Cole B-side, rearranged in a Latin impressionistic style, infuriated Strayhorn. To make matters worse, Cole’s misreading of the lyrics irked the usually unflappable Strayhorn and resulted in an angry phone call.

Strayhorn recorded “Lush Life” on piano without vocal (except for a wordless chorus behind him) in 1961 (The Peaceful Side, 1996 Capitol Records). He recorded solo piano and vocal in 1965 (Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, 1992, Red Baron). Ellington himself never played “Lush Life.”

Additional reading on Billy Strayhorn and the origin of “Lush Life” may be found in David Hajdu’s Strayhorn biography Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn.

“Lush Life” was also the title for a 1993 made-for-TV film starring Jeff Goldblum, Forest Whitaker, and Kathy Baker.

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(Friedwald devotes 23 pages to the song’s history, its composer/lyricist, performers, recordings, and analyses of the music and lyric. Eleven other great American songs also receive in-depth treatment in the book.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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