by Steve Voce
If ever anyone was at the right place at the wrong time, then it was Betty Roché.
Despite the inspiration and sure-footed nature of his music, Duke Ellington's taste in band singers proved controversial, and most of them only found grudging acceptance from jazz fans. But nobody argued over Betty Roché. She had a particularly clear diction, and her style was light and swinging, particularly suited to Ellington's music of the Forties. Her recording of Ellington's signature tune, "Take The A Train," with the band in 1952 has remained one of the most famous of Ellington's recordings. Despite it, Roché slipped through a crack in the floorboards.
Ivie Anderson had been the singer with the Ellington band throughout the Thirties. "Poor health" was the altruistic reason given for her leaving the band in 1942. But in fact she left to oversee the running of her Los Angeles restaurant, "Ivie's Chicken Shack". Ellington replaced her with a trio of girl singers. One of them, Phyllis Smiley, left fairly quickly. Another, Joya Sherrill, had to leave the band at the end of the summer to go back to school. The third girl, Roché, stayed on.
Like so many future stars, Roché had started off by winning a talent contest at Harlem's Apollo Theatre when she was 17. This led eventually to her joining the Savoy Sultans, the resident band at the Savoy Ballroom, in 1941. Typifying the episodic nature of Roché's career, the band broke up soon after she joined it. She made her first record on the band's last recording session, a song called "At's In There". She also sang briefly for bands led by the tenor sax player Lester Young and trumpeter Hot Lips Page.
She travelled to Hollywood with the Ellington band to make the film "Reveille With Beverly" in October, 1942. The film also featured Frank Sinatra and the Count Basie and Bob Crosby bands as well as Ellington's. Roché was to sing "Take The A Train". The A Train was a subway train that famously travelled through New York to Harlem. Roché's lyrics said of the train, "You'll find it's the quickest way to get to Harlem." In a typical Hollywood generalization the train in the film as she sang was shown racing across the open prairie.
The American musicians' union (the AFM) had imposed a ban on recording that lasted throughout Roché's period with Ellington and she was thus denied the fame that would undoubtedly have come to her had she been featured on the band's records.
In January 1943 Ellington's became the first black band to give a concert at Carnegie Hall. That evening he gave the first performance of one of his most controversial compositions, his 45-minute "Black, Brown and Beige" suite. Roché sang the famous "Blues" section, with its pyramid-like construction of lyrics. This piece was designed to express the feelings of black life in the cities of America at the beginning of the century. The concert was recorded, but the results were not issued until 40 years later. By the time Ellington was able to record a studio version in 1944, Roché had left the band.
Roché's attitude to working tended towards the feckless and she left Ellington during 1943, eventually joining the band led by pianist Earl Hines in 1944, with whom she also recorded. Again, she didn't stay long, and left music altogether for a number of years, unexpectedly rejoining Ellington in 1951. In June 1952 she recorded the extended version of "Take The A Train" with the band, and this became so successful that Ellington repeated it in all his broadcasts of the time. It was to be the high point of her career.
When she left the band again in 1954 Ray Nance, a highly original trumpeter and singer with the band, continued to use the version of the song that Roché had created. The album that included Roché's performance of the song is still a big seller today, and it is this version, rather than the original, solely instrumental version that most people remember.
Roché's career remained erratic. She recorded an album for the Bethlehem label in 1956, predictably called "Take The A Train", and another, "Singin' And Swingin'" for Prestige in 1960. Her last album was done for Prestige the following year, and both the albums for the label remain in the current catalogue. Although she worked sporadically in clubs, she seemed to be half-hearted about her career, and eventually slipped into obscurity a few years later.
Ellington wrote of her in his biography, "She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations."
Mary Elizabeth Roché, singer, born Wilmington, Delaware, 9 January, 1920, died Pleasantville, New Jersey, 16 February 1999. This piece appeared in The Independent, Tuesday, March 23, 1999.
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