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Satin Doll (1953)

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Origin and Chart Information
“The critically acclaimed lyrics are clever, hip, and slangy...”

- JW

Rank 45
Music Duke Ellington
Billy Strayhorn
Lyrics Johnny Mercer

Early in 1953, Duke Ellington left Columbia Records to sign with Capitol Records, a company he felt would more effectively promote his music. On April 6, the band had their first Capitol recording session, producing “Satin Doll,” “Without a Song,” and “Cocktails for Two.” “Satin Doll,” with its Ellington piano solo, was a modest hit, entering the pop charts in June and rising to number twenty-seven.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Although Ellington originally wrote the melody for “Satin Doll,” in his biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn, David Hajdu says, “Strayhorn fleshed out an Ellington riff sketch with harmony and lyrics ...” and titled it “Satin Doll,” Strayhorn’s pet name for his mother. Strayhorn’s lyrics were not considered commercially viable, and five years later, lyricist and cofounder of Capitol Records, Johnny Mercer wrote new lyrics, resulting in the song we know today.


More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

More on Billy Strayhorn at JazzBiographies.com

More on Johnny Mercer at JazzBiographies.com

Whether the “Satin Doll” is Strayhorn’s mother or not is up for speculation. In the Mercer Ellington/Stanley Dance biography, Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir, Mercer suspects Beatrice “Evie” Ellis or Evie Ellington, Duke’s common-law wife, is the mystery woman. Mercer is quoted as saying, “... she disclosed that ‘Satin Doll’ was really written for her...” Mercer then supports her claim saying, “...Pop would always be leaving notes in the house addressing her affectionately as “Dearest Doll,” “Darling Doll,” and so on.”

As a rule, Billy Strayhorn is credited with assisting Ellington with the music but not contributing to the Johnny Mercer lyrics. In the early 1990’s, however, a copyright infringement case (Tempo Music vs. Famous Music) was brought against the Strayhorn Estate by the Ellington Estate. Basically the Ellington Estate felt that because Strayhorn’s contribution to the music was only the harmonization of Ellington’s melody and that harmonic progressions are not sufficient to constitute copyrightable expression, the Strayhorn Estate should receive proceeds only from versions published with lyrics.

The court ruled in favor of the Strayhorn Estate, saying, “While we agree that melody generally implies a limited range of chords which can accompany it, a composer may exercise creativity in selecting among these chords...”

Beyond the legal implications to jazz musicians, who routinely reuse harmonic progressions, the above phrase, “should receive proceeds only from versions published with lyrics,” implied the Ellington Estate believed Strayhorn contributed to the Johnny Mercer lyrics, a fact also stated in the book Beyond Category: The Life and Genius of Duke Ellington by John Edward Hasse.

Among Ellington compositions, “Satin Doll” is unique in that it was not written with a particular soloist in mind, Ellington himself taking the introductory piano solo in the 1953 recording. Further differentiating “Satin Doll” from many other Ellington top jazz standards are the critically acclaimed lyrics. Johnny Mercer’s (and Billy Strayhorn’s) words are clever, hip, and slangy, almost beyond belief.

More information on this tune...

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(Author/educator Furia devotes a page to an analysis of the song’s lyric.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

Musical analysis of “Satin Doll”

Original Key C major with temporary false key changes to F major and G major during the bridge
Form A – A – B – A
Tonality Primarily major
Movement Almost completely stepwise; only occasional skips

Comments     (assumed background)

The repetitive “A” section melody sounds suspiciously as if it began life as a “riff” or background figure that section players use as accompaniment to a soloist (similar to an ostinato). Section “B” is a bit more developed, based on a scale pattern that descends a fourth and then ascends back up a fourth.

The chord progression of “A” is interesting because it starts out with a harmonic sequence often used as a “turnaround” at the end of a tune–ii7 – V7 – ii7 – VI7. The fifth and sixth measures of “A” almost defy analysis. If a composer following the classical rules of voice leading had written the harmonic progression here, it would have been II7 (or ii7) – V7(#9)– I (D7 or Dm7 – G7(#9) – Cma7 in the original). Instead, the chords used seem completely coloristic and yet disguise the voice-leading function definitely present when looked at closely. In the fifth measure, the first chord written is Am7(b5)/Eb (which could have been written as an Ebř7–and actually is), which proceeds to the D7 – the II7 we would expect to find there. The next chord, however, is Abm9, which resolves to Db9. Under normal circumstances, one would think of this as a ii7 – V7 – I in Gb, but really what has happened is that the Abm9 has been an embellishment of the “Neapolitan” chord (in the key of C, a Db7) which is nothing more than a tri-tone substitution for V7. Indeed, proper voice-leading technique is still present, albeit disguised almost beyond recognition.

Section “B” is more orthodox sounding: ii7 – V7 – I in F and G major. Transition back to section “A” is accomplished by dropping the middle three voices of the G7 chord a half-step, creating a vii˚7/ii in the original tonic key of C major.

K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

This song was an established instrumental before Johnny Mercer wrote the lyric. He was at his prime of mature capability by 58, and the ease and fluid grace of his writing skills are evident. Mercer was the best at taking the vernacular and putting it into lyrics. His lingo was so hip! --“which wigs me,” “she digs me,” “out cattin’,” etc.--and it was genuine because he hung out with all those jazz musicians. I grew up hearing this song, but the first time I knew it had lyrics was when I was 19 or 20 and heard it performed live by a lovely singer in a slinky dress who sang it very sexily. As Mercer so often demonstrated, his lyrics seemed to be shaped just like the melody and the mood of the song. That’s another mark of great songwriting. Lastly, I have to simply say that this song makes me smile every time I sing it. For God’s sake, the girl “speaks Latin.”

Robert Moore, vocalist, trumpeter, harmonica player, songwriter

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Soundtrack information
“Satin Doll” was included in these films:
  • Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986, The film includes a stripper character named “Satin Doll” played by Paula Kelly)
  • White Hunter, Black Heart (1990, Kevin Mahogany)

And on Broadway:

  • Sophisticated Ladies (1981, Terri Klausner and P.J. Benjamin)
  • Dream (1997, Susan Misner, a Johnny Mercer revue)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "Satin Doll" may be found in:

William Zinsser
Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs
David R. Godine Publisher
Hardcover: 279 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 552 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: Broadway productions, history and performers.)

Philip Furia
Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer
St. Martin's Press; 1st edition
Hardcover: 320 pages

(2 paragraphs including the following types of information: anecdotal and lyric analysis.)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)

David Hajdu
Lush Life: A Biography of Billy Strayhorn
North Point Press
Paperback: 305 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal and history.)
Free Chord Changes for this Tune
Chord changes and downloadable tracks at PlayJazzNow.com
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research
Free Chord Changes

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

Pianist Earl Hines placed an ad in Downbeat magazine wishing Duke Ellington a happy 70th birthday, but in small print was written “remember, I wrote ‘Satin Doll’.” It seems Hines never explained the details about his “composition,” but he did record it several times, including a tribute album of all Ellington numbers.

In the 1950s and ‘60s Ellington alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges recorded many sessions for Verve records. One would think that playing “Satin Doll” every night with Duke’s band would put a sideman like Hodges off of the tune. But in 1958 Johnny did a masterful version of the opus, taken at a slightly slower-than-normal tempo. Hodges stretches out in his typical, elegant way, an approach very different from his boss’.

The Complete Verve Johnny Hodges Small Group Sessions. Mosaic #200. Available through www.mosaicrecords.com

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “Satin Doll.” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Not surprisingly, Ellington’s swinging original recording of “Satin Doll” (Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Duke Ellington) stands out as the most significant version of the tune. Earl Hines, meanwhile, had a special relationship with the tune. He recorded it frequently in his later years, highlighted by a 1973 solo piano performance in New York (Live at the New School). As for vocal renditions, Ella Fitzgerald recorded the tune multiple times and had a particularly special knack for deliviering the swinging melody and silly lyrics. Her recording with Count Basie’s band (Ella & Basie) is an exceptional one.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Duke Ellington
Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Duke Ellington
Original recording 1934
There is no question that Ellington was an immensely sophisticated bandleader and composer. This original performance of “Satin Doll” is a reminder that he and his band were exceptionally swinging as well.
Earl Hines
Live at the New School
Chiaroscuro Records
Original Recording 1973
It is a challenge to single out one Earl Hines recording of “Satin Doll,” given the depth of his relationship to the song. One classic version is this playful solo piano recording from his amazing late-career renaissance.
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella and Basie
1997 Polygram 539059
Original recording 1963
These sessions mark the first of numerous collaborations between Fitzgerald and Basie. Basie always had a knack for playing the music of his rival, Ellington, and Fitzgerald shows with her relaxed vocals why she, too, was such an important interpreter of Ellington’s material.

- Noah Baerman

Jo Jones
The Essential Jo Jones
1995 Vanguard 101
Original recording 1958
Drummer Jones presents one for the ages with this tight, swinging version of “Satin Doll” in a trio with bassist Tommy Bryant and pianist Ray Bryant.
Kenny Burrell
Ellington Is Forever, Vol. 2
Original recording 1975
Burrell, a definitive interpreter of Ellingtonia, teams up with vocalist Ernie Andrews here for a joyous “Satin Doll.”
Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry
Oscar Peterson & Clark Terry
1994 Original Jazz Classics 806
Original recording 1975
A duo of Clark Terry and Oscar Peterson playing a happy tune like “Satin Doll” would seem to be a formula for cheerful music, and their masterful 1975 performance lives up to those expectations.
Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery Trio
1991 Original Jazz Classics 34
Original recording 1959
On the first of his many classic recordings for the Riverside label, Montgomery teams up with organist Melvin Rhyne for a swinging, understated version of “Satin Doll” that shows Montgomery’s innovative style to already be well-developed.
Jimmy Smith
Organ Grinder Swing
2000, Polygram
Original recording, 1965
“Satin Doll”’ gets the Smith treatment as the Hammond organist swings with a measure of bluesy attitude thrown in. Drummer Grady Tate and guitarist Kenny Burrell round out the trio on one of Smith’s most revered sessions.
McCoy Tyner
Nights of Ballads and Blues
1997, GRP 221
Original recording, 1963, Impulse!
Pianist Tyner is inventive yet economical on this laid-back trio outing. Stepping away from his regular gig as a Coltrane sideman, he impresses in subtle ways, rendering the song with heavy yet unruffled emotion.
Victor Feldman
The Arrival of Victor Feldman
1998 Original Jazz Classics 268
Original recording, 1958
While pianist Feldman is leader here it is the interplay with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Stan Levey that is in the spotlight. While endlessly playful, the trio takes their improvisation seriously, and the result is breathtaking.
Dr. John
Duke Elegant
2000 Blue Note 23220
Original recording 2000
Pianist and growler Dr. John puts his indelible mark on the Ellington song, taking it downtown for a little New Orleans earthiness and spice.
Kenny Burrell
Lotus Blossom
1995, Concord 4668

In a beautiful program of standards, guitarist Burrell is sometimes accompanied by bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Yoran Israel. In addition to “Satin Doll” he covers Duke’s “Warm Valley” and Stray’s “Lotus Blossom.” “There Will Never Be Another You” also receives an exemplary treatment.

- Ben Maycock

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer and Billy Strayhorn

Year Rank Title
1953 45 Satin Doll

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