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Things Ain't What They Used to Be (1942)

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Origin and Chart Information
“This CD has Duke’s personnel backing vocalist Sherrill. The whole crew swings like mad.”

- Jon Luthro

Rank 92
Music Mercer Ellington
Lyrics Ted Persons

First, a little background information on ASCAP and its function is useful since that Society played a role in how this song was introduced. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers was founded in 1914 for the collection of royalties for the broadcast or public performance of music. In March, 1940, ASCAP proposed a new contract calling for a 100 percent increase in radio’s rates over the previous year.

Anticipating this increase, the broadcasting industry countered by forming its own licensing organization called BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated). By the end of 1940, 650 broadcasters had signed up with BMI and only about 200 radio stations continued to use the ASCAP catalog. By the end of 1941, ASCAP and the broadcasting industry had negotiated a new contract, but the interim ban had a significant effect on popular music.

In 1941, while all this was going on, Duke Ellington was playing at the Casa Manana in Los Angeles and had a nightly broadcast. Due to the ASCAP strike he could not air his compositions, so he turned to his son, Mercer, and to Billy Strayhorn, neither of whom belonged to ASCAP. The strike turned out to be a great opportunity for both Strayhorn and the younger Ellington, during which time Strayhorn wrote such songs as “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Johnny Come Lately,” “Chelsea Bridge,” “Day Dream,” and “After All.” Mercer wrote, among others, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” “Blue Serge,” and “Moon Mist.”


More on Mercer Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

Originally a slow blues composition, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” is most often performed as an instrumental, sometimes with an increased tempo and occasionally as a vocal with Ted Persons’ lyrics. If you haven’t heard the lyrics, listen to the Amazon clip for our Joya Sherrill CD recommendation.

Over the years, “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” became one of the most frequently played compositions for the Ellington band. In Duke Ellington: A Listener’s Guide, Eddie Lambert says that “long versions (of jazz compositions) featuring extended solos became popular as a result of the success of the tenor extravaganzas by such musicians as Illinois Jacquet and Flip Philips with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic.” The Ellington band would play long versions of “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be,” often featuring a Johnny Hodges solo at least once, and even twice, nightly until the 1970’s.


More on Duke Ellington at JazzBiographies.com

- Jeremy Wilson

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