In 1941 Duke Ellington’s Orchestra was in Los Angeles, and, according to biographer James Lincoln Collier in Duke Ellington, during a jam session at the home of Hollywood songwriter Sid Kuller, the idea for a Negro revue was born. The idea was to celebrate the banishment of Jim Crow and Uncle Tom by eliminating all stereotypes from the show.
In Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington author Stuart Nicholson quotes Ellington as saying, “Fifteen Hollywood writers and I did Jump for Joy.” The show opened on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles. The material was clever, the performances by such stars as Dorothy Dandridge, Ivie Anderson, Herb Jeffries, and Joe Turner (his first time out of Kansas City) were sophisticated, and the wonderful Duke Ellington Orchestra was in the pit. The songs included “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Rocks in My Bed,” and an instrumental, “Subtle Slough,” which Ellington played on stage and which became “Just Squeeze Me, Don’t Tease Me” when Lee Gaines added the lyric.
Despite the show’s quality it closed after only 12 weeks and 101 performances. According to David Hajdu in his biography of Billy Strayhorn, Lush Life, black audiences loved it, but white critics didn’t: “They didn’t know what to make of it.” James Lincoln Collier further explains, “...The mass of Americans were simply not ready for a show of ‘social significance,’ as the phrase went, promoting the idea that blacks were as good as anybody else.”
It is not known how much Billy Strayhorn had to do with the production. Hajdu says, “As the manuscript score of Jump for Joy illustrates, Strayhorn had a big hand in no fewer than five compositions.” Strayhorn is credited as co-author with Duke and Mercer Ellington on “Bugle Breaks” and as “musical arranger” along with Duke and Hal Borne. But Ellington’s was the name on which the show rested, and Billy seemed delighted to be working along side him.
“Just Squeeze Me, Don’t Tease Me” was recorded by the Ellington band on July 9, 1946. However their version did not chart. It was Paul Weston and His Orchestra with vocalist Matt Dennis that took the song to the charts on December 28, 1946, where it remained for four weeks, peaking at number 21. In 1952 the popular singing group the Four Aces took the song to the charts for two weeks where it peaked at number 20.
The melody is a lively swinger, and Lee Gaines’ simple, staccato lyric fits the tempo perfectly. Gaines, who was the bass singer with the Delta Rhythm Boys, also collaborated with Ellington on “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin’” (1945). “Just Squeeze Me” is both a plea for love and an avowal of love in the absence of the loved one:
I’m in the mood to let you know
I never knew I loved you so
Please say, you love me too
When I get this feeling
I’m in ecstasy
So squeeze me
But don’t tease me
“Just Squeeze Me” was featured in the award-winning Broadway show Sophisticated Ladies which opened in 1981 and ran for 767 performances. It remains a popular song with jazz artists and since 2000 has been recorded by trumpeters Clark Terry and Warren Vache; vocalists Mark Murphy, Tierney Sutton, Carol Sloane, and Jane Monheit; saxophonist Harry Allen; and guitarist Martin Taylor.