Vocalist Joya Sherrill received her big break while still a high school student in Detroit. She wrote lyrics to Duke Ellington’s famous tune “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and her father, a prominent writer, arranged for Ellington to hear her performance of it while he was in town. Sherrill impressed Ellington, and he offered her a job when Ivie Anderson left his band in August 1942. She shared vocalist duties with Betty Roché and Phyllis Smiley.
Sherrill didn’t stay long with Ellington, leaving in October to finish school. She returned, though, around the first of November 1944, taking over for Rosita Davis, and made her first major recording, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” that December. She stayed with Ellington into 1946. In February of that year, she married Richard Guilemont in Detroit. She announced she would remain with the band, however she left in June to focus on raising a family.
Never intending to retire, Sherrill returned to singing later in the decade, contracting with Jubilee Records in 1949 and performing on the nightclub and burlesque circuits. In 1950, she shot scenes for the film Hurly Burly, which featured a number of burlesque talents. An early project of director Harold “Hal” Goldman, it seems to never have been released or to have been completely forgotten.
Sherill worked off and on through the 1950s, recording as vocalist for the Bigs Howard Orchestra in 1953 and on a shared album with Sammy Davis Jr., Sammy Jumps with Joya, in 1957. Davis and Sherrill did not sing any duets on the album however. In May 1957, Sherrill appeared with Ellington on television’s US Steel Hour, singing as part of his jazz fantasy work “A Drum Is a Woman.” She toured with Teddy Wilson’s orchestra later that same year. In February 1960, she appeared in a minor role in the Broadway production of The Long Dream, which ran for three days at the Ambassador Theater.
After being relatively inactive as a singer for several years, Sherrill emerged again in a big way during 1962 when she was chosen to accompany Benny Goodman on his tour of the Soviet Union, making her the first American jazz singer to perform in that country. Sherrill elicted controversy, however, when she chose to sing a sultry jazz version of a patriotic Soviet song, “Katusha.” Her rendition provoked a strong negative reaction throughout the communist state. Crowds jeered at her, and the Soviet government denounced her performance as inappropriate. Sherrill and Goodman expressed indignation, failing to understand that, to Soviet audiences, it was the equivalent of a Russian singer doing a strip-tease to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Goodman removed the song from his show, however, after only a few dates.
Sherrill was briefly an international celebrity after the tour, and upon her return she found herself invited on several television programs, including those of Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, and the Tonight Show. Her moment in the limelight soon passed, however, and she returned to occasional performances, often working with Ellington. She sang with his orchestra on Canadian television and at his 70th birthday celebration hosted by the White House. She also performed in his jazz project My People.
In 1970, Sherrill hosted her own children’s television program, Time for Joya! on WPIX in New York. The show featured songs, stories, puppets and art. She continued singing through the end of the century, often in connection with Ellington tribute events. Joya Sherrill passed away in 2010.