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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 links on this page for additional references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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

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