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