Though well-remembered today for her work with Duke Ellington, singer Betty Roché never really saw her career get off the ground, partly for reasons of poor timing and partly because of half-hearted interest. Roché’s best work in the 1940s went unrecorded, and it was only later in life that she achieved recognition for her triumphs.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Roché got her start in show business by winning a talent contest at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1941. She soon joined the Savoy Sultans, the house band for the Savoy Theater, recording her first song with them. The group broke up shortly thereafter, and she found work singing with bands led by Lester Young and Hot Lips Page.
When Ivie Anderson left Ellington’s band in August 1942, Roché was one of three vocalists chosen to replace her, the other two being Phyllis Smiley and Joya Sherrill. Smiley left after a few days and Sherrill, still a high school student, left in October to finish school. Roché remained as Ellington’s sole female vocalist until Wini Johnson joined in February 1944.
Competent in both jazz and the blues, Roché proved popular with critics, being described as “a sweet-looking, capable youngster” and a “rather cute songstress.” Unfortunately, her tenure with Ellington coincided with the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban, which ran from August 1942 to November 1944. When she appeared in the Columbia musical Reveille with Beverly, singing the orchestra’s famous song “Take the ’A’ Train,” the ban meant that she couldn’t record it in the studio. She also appeared with Ellington during his legendary Carnegie Hall performance of January 1943 and was lauded for her vocal work on the blues portion of the “Black, Brown and Beige” suite. Again, the AFM ban meant that her work went unrecorded. A live recording of the concert existed but wasn’t issued until 40 years later.
Roché left Ellington sometime between March 18 and April 15 in 1944 and soon joined Earl Hine’s orchestra. She also became a regular fixture at Ryan’s on the Street, a New York club widely known in the industry at the time as an incubator for jazz talent. With Hines, she was a featured performer and received equal billing, recording often with his sextet on the Apollo label in 1944 and 1945. In late 1945, she left Hines to sing with Gerald Wilson’s new orchestra, recording one song with them on the Excelsior label.
Roché briefly left show business after recording with Wilson. By mid-1950, though, she’d returned to singing, first on the nightclub circuit and later rejoining Ellington in 1951, where she finally had the opportunity to record “Take the ’A’ Train,” her rendition of which became the definitive version for the band.
She stayed with Ellington through at least November 1952 but by April 1953 was singing with Coatesville Harris’ Modern Jazz Group. In July 1956, Roché appeared as a featured performer on Bobby Troupe’s Stars of Jazz show on ABC television. Around that same time, she signed with Bethlehem Records, releasing an LP under her own name and singing the part of Clara in that label’s ambitious The Complete Porgy and Bess album, which oddly starred two white singers, Mel Torme and Francis Faye, in the title roles.
In 1960 and 1961, Roché released two albums on the Prestige label. By that time, however, her career was faltering. She worked the nightclub circuit in 1961 and 1962, sharing the bill with such acts as handwriting expert Nick La Tour and dancer Flash Gordon. Betty Roché finally slipped into obscurity and passed away in 1999 at age 81.
- Many sources around the internet claim that either Joya Sherrill or Ivie Anderson sang in the film. At the time of this writing, the website for Turner Classic Movies even cites the singer as “Ivie Johnson.” The vocalist in the film, however, was Roché. Sherrill had written lyrics to the song but had left the band by the date of filming in October 1942.