Duke Ellington

Photo of Duke Ellington

Arguably the most important figure in twentieth century music, Duke Ellington’s impact on the jazz world is indisputable. His innovative styles and original compositions inspired many artists over the years. Ellington was also one of the few bandleaders to successfully make the change from the hot music of the 1920s to swing in the 1930s, and he continued to contribute to the musical landscape in the post-war era.

Singer Ivie Anderson is the best-remembered of Ellington’s female vocalist. She joined the band in 1931 and remained for eleven years, singing on some of their best-remembered tunes, most-famously “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good.” In 1939, Ellington also briefly featured singer and pianist Jean Eldridge. After Anderson’s departure for health reasons in August 1942, Ellington went through a slew of female singers, often several at once. His choices were sometimes controversial.

To replace Anderson, he hired three women: Phyllis Smiley, Betty Roché and Joya Sherrill, who was still a high school student at that time. Smiley left after only a few dates, and Sherrill left in October to finish her education. Roché, best known as a blues singer, remained. She performed the definitive vocal version of the Ellington classic “The ‘A’ Train,” whose lyrics had been written by Sherrill, in the 1943 Columbia motion picture Reveille with Beverly, though she was unable to record it until 1951 due to the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban at the time.

Roché remained sole female vocalist until Wini Johnson joined in February 1944. Johnson, a well-known former Cotton Club singer and dancer, had no experience as a band vocalist. Recently divorced from actor Stepin Fetchit, she had been trying to re-establish herself in show business when Ellington hired her. Roché left in late March or early April 1944, and Johnson stayed as Ellington’s only female vocalist for a time. Critics were less than enthused about her talents. She left the band sometime in late September or early October 1944, replaced by both Rosita Davis and Marie Ellington. Marie was no relation to Duke, and he often billed her by her first name only to avoid confusion. She would later become Nat King Cole’s wife.

Rosita Davis stayed only a month and left around the first of November when Sherrill, having finished school, returned. Kay Davis joined the band that month as well, giving Ellington three female vocalists. Davis was another odd choice. She was classically-trained and had no experience with jazz or big bands. Ellington didn’t use her vocal talents in the traditional sense. Instead he often wrote special compositions just for her. She sang without words, using her voice as an instrument to provide countermelody. Her vocals came across as both elegant and haunting on such tunes as “Creole Love Call” and “Transblucency.”

Marie Ellington left the band in November 1945 to start a solo career. Sherrill stayed until June 1946 when she left to raise a family. Marion Cox joined the orchestra for a trial run that month as a potential replacement for Sherrill. Microphone failure marred her initial performance, but once she finally got started she earned a permanent spot in the band. Described as a “tall, striking gal,” Cox stayed with Ellington until June 1947. Delores Parker was the band’s new female vocalist in December 1947. Davis remained until July 1950 when she left to get married. By this time she was a stand-by vocalist. Chubby Kent, replaced her. Cox briefly returned around that time as well. Betty Roché returned in 1951 and stayed through at least November 1952. As the 1940s came to an end, Ellington had begun to focus less on keeping a steady female singer and instead was using former vocalists, like Roché and Sherrill, as well as other noted jazz singers on an as-needed basis.

Ellington had a few male vocalists over the years as well. Herb Jeffries, who started his career as a singing cowboy in black westerns, joined Ellington in early 1940, leaving in mid-1942. Al Hibbler joined in December 1943 and remained into the 1950s. Ray Nance, longtime Ellington trumpet player, also sang.

Ellington continued leading his band and writing music up until his death in 1974 from lung cancer at age 85.

Vocalist Timeline

Herb Jeffries
Phyllis Smiley
Al Hibbler
Rosita Davis
Maria Ellington
Marion Cox

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Wini Johnson and Wini Brown.” Ellingtonweb, tdwaw.ellingtonweb.ca/WiniJohnson.html. Accessed 20 Mar. 2018.
  3. “Ivy Anderson.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 28 Jul. 1934: 3.
  4. “Off the Stand Jive.” Down Beat May 1939: 3.
  5. “Record Reviews: Duke Ellington. ” Down Beat 1 May 1940: 14.
  6. “Her Husband is Safe in Holland. ” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1940: 13.
  7. “We Found!” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1941: 10.
  8. “Willie Lewis Home from Hitlerized Europe.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1941: 2.
  9. Dexter, Dave Jr. “Ivie Anderson's Greatest Triumph on New Duke Disc!” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1941: 14.
  10. Miller, Paul Eduard. “Ivie Joined the Duke For Four Weeks, Stays With Band 12 Years.” Down Beat 31 Jul. 1942: 31.
  11. Holly, Hal. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1942: 19.
  12. “Gets Break with Duke.” The Afro-American [Baltimore, MD] 25 Aug. 1942: n. pag.
  13. “Vaudeville Reviews: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 29 Aug. 1942: 16.
  14. Billingsworth, E. “Encores and Echoes.” Baltimore Afro-American 22 Sep. 1942: 8.
  15. “Ellington Adds 4th Trumpet.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 3.
  16. “Ivie as Single In Coast Club.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 6.
  17. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 31 Oct. 1942: 23.
  18. “Ellington Scores in Carnegie Hall Debut.” Baltimore Afro-American 30 Jan. 1943: 17.
  19. “Night Club Reviews: Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 10 Apr. 1943: 15.
  20. “Night Club Reviews: Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 5 Jun. 1943: 15.
  21. “Vaudeville Reviews: Capitol, New York.” Billboard 23 Oct. 1943: 20.
  22. “New Dukemen Bow in Concert.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1943: 1.
  23. Moore, C.A. “Keeping Posted.” San Antonio Register 25 Feb. 1944: 4.
  24. “Tunes Hot In Hub, But Gross Isn't.” Billboard 25 Mar. 1944: 28.
  25. “Night Club Reviews: The Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 15 Apr. 1944: 24.
  26. “52nd St. Men Cover Nation.” Billboard 13 May 1944: 20.
  27. “Night Club Reviews: The Hurricane, New York.” Billboard 27 May 1944: 22.
  28. “Duke Socko 3G, Earle, Philadelphia.” Billboard 16 Sep. 1944: 28.
  29. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 30 Dec. 1944: 13.
  30. “As a Matter of Record.” San Antonio Light 31 Dec. 1944: 28.
  31. “Ellington Concert Sell-out In Chicago.” Down Beat 15 Mar. 1945: 1.
  32. “Philly Earle Turnstiles Click 37G Tune for Duke.” Billboard 15 Sep. 1945: 37.
  33. “Carnegie Concert Has Below Par Ellington.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1946: 3.
  34. “Music As Written.” Billboard 9 Mar. 1946: 22.
  35. “Vaudeville Review: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 22 Jun. 1946: 48.
  36. “Music As Written.” Billboard 13 Jul. 1946: 24.
  37. “Ellington Fails To Top Himself!” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 2.
  38. “Vaudeville Review: RKO-Boston, Boston.” Billboard 18 Jan. 1947: 35.
  39. “Music As Written.” Billboard 19 Jul. 1947: 39.
  40. “Ellington Pleases Concert Crowd.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1948: 3.
  41. “Music as Written.” Billboard 19 Jun. 1948: 21.
  42. “Vaudeville Reviews: Palladium, London.” Billboard 3 Jul. 1948: 44.
  43. Borneman, Ernest. “The Duke in Paris, Part 1.” Down Beat 25 Aug. 1948: 6.
  44. Borneman, Ernest. “The Duke in Paris, Part 2.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1948: 6.
  45. Egan, Jack. “Webster In Royal Return To Duke.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1948: 1.
  46. Hoefer, George. “Ellington's Annual Chicago Concert A Gala Evening.” Down Beat 10 Mar. 1950: 7.
  47. Advertisement. Penn Yan Chronicle-Express [Penn Yan, New York] 27 Jul. 1950: 3.
  48. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1950: 5.
  49. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 8 Sep. 1950: 10.
  50. “Mercer Ellington Starts Disc Firm.” Down Beat 22 Sep. 1950: 2.
  51. “R & B Blue Notes.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1950: 39.
  52. “Betty Roche Now Back With Duke.” Down Beat 4 Jun. 1952: 16.
  53. “Ellington in 50th Indianapolis Show.” Baltimore Afro-American 28 Jun. 1952: 22.
  54. “Night Club-Vaude Reviews: Paramount, New York.” Billboard 1 Nov. 1952: 15.
  55. Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington, Day by Day, Film by Film Jazz Media, 1992, p. 259.