September 4, 2019
e often focus on an entertainer’s individual performance when thinking of the arts. This may sometimes be the right viewpoint, but it can obscure the importance of artistic collaboration in aiding and/or enhancing a career.
Thomas Brothers’s Help!: The Beatles, Duke Ellington, and the Magic of Collaboration is an intriguing examination of famous people who successfully used collaboration to establish their musical legacies. A Duke University professor of music, Brothers’s goal is to show how “their collective methods were the primary reason for the high quality, which just seems to loom larger and larger as the decades pass.” In the author’s view, “one could even say that they”—The Beatles and Duke Ellington—“were the two greatest collaborations in music history.”
Many readers probably understand examining the Beatles in an analysis of successful musical collaboration, but why Duke Ellington?
The legendary American bandleader wouldn’t have been included years ago. As Brothers points out, “Ellington misled the public by exaggerating his own role, keeping collaborators out of sight and off the credits of record labels.” An overview of old recordings, and various radio, TV, and magazine interviews, shows this. “Today,” however, “the situation is much clearer than it used to be, thanks to research on Billy Strayhorn and increasingly honest assessment of the phenomenon.”
Strayhorn has gradually emerged as the musical genius behind much of Ellington’s work. Ellington himself recognized Strayhorn as “super talented, intellectual, articulate, ambitious, well trained, and slightly diffident.” Brothers also notes that, “compared to Ellington, Strayhorn’s musical education was more systematic, more notation based, theoretical, with much stronger cultivation of performance and much stronger awareness of classical repertory.” Strayhorn most likely composed some of Ellington’s greatest hits, including Take the A Train, Lush Life, and Chelsea Bridge.
Why did it take so long to identify Strayhorn’s role in Ellington’s trademark sound? The Duke masterfully cultivated his own public image, and “built his career around hiring excellent musicians and using them in ways that did not occur to others.” In Strayhorn’s case, Ellington had several intangibles to deal with—he was “young, unconnected, slightly introverted, nerdy, African American and homosexual.” Working with an established musician “offered a secure existence with one of the best dance bands in the country, on retainer with few steady obligations, a gig that was tough to top.” Ellington could use the services of this supremely talented musician to his advantage.
Other great musicians similarly collaborated with Ellington and were excluded from song credits. These include tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who is now understood to have written In A Mellatone, but whose “name is rarely mentioned in connection with this much-loved piece.” As well, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges’s “vital contributions” to tracks like I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart and Don’t Get Around Much Anymore have never been properly acknowledged.
No one would suggest Ellington lacked knowledge, talent, or ability. Rather, he’s become the Rembrandt van Rijn of the musical world: though his name is listed for all to see, others had a hand in building his legacy. Nevertheless, Brothers still believes “the time may be right for recognizing Ellington as a genius collaborator.”
The Beatles are a different story. Were there an illustration next to the term “musical collaboration” in a dictionary, it should be of this legendary, highly influential band from Liverpool, England.
John Lennon and Paul McCartney met in 1957. The former had founded a skiffle/rock and roll group called The Quarrymen the year before, which the latter joined as a rhythm guitarist. This group transformed into the Beatles, and included early band members like Stuart Sutcliffe (Lennon’s old art school friend) and Pete Best. The additions of George Harrison and Ringo Starr (along with Brian Epstein as manager) created what Brothers lovingly calls the “four-headed monster.”
Lennon believed that “being a professional composer meant being a collaborative composer.” His great writing partner, McCartney, was also a musical prodigy and seemed to agree with this position. Lennon-McCartney lyrics “often communicate a feeling of a direct connection, and also an edge of competition, sharp and fresh,” according to Brothers. Brothers delves into the Beatles’ inner psyche, and suggests “Collaboration became part of what their music meant.”
How so? The group embraced collaboration “partly because of the egalitarian nature of the vernacular tradition, partly because of their closeness, and partly through an intuitive sense for how commercially appealing this model would be.” Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison preferred working independently, and wrote most of their compositions in this manner. But it was the collaborative process that occurred before a song’s final polished version that gave it its mystique.
Some of Lennon-McCartney’s greatest collaborations, including Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and Hey Jude, perfectly fit this description. The two men notoriously argued and debated the use of certain musical notes, passages, and lyrics. Though reports of their collaborative efforts range from significant in one interview to minimal in another, it’s fair to say that, though the sum of each Beatle part was important, the sum of all Beatle parts properly defined their legacy.
Can a line be drawn between jazz legend Ellington and the Beatles’ rock and roll brilliance with respect to musical collaboration? Help! notes a connection between “their skill in synthesizing the group dynamics of the African American vernacular with commercial expectations of compositional definition.”
That’s certainly part of the equation, but there’s another way to draw that line. There’s and intriguing YouTube clip of Ellington playing several Beatles songs, including She Loves You, Eleanor Rigby, and Ticket to Ride, from a February 1970 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. When you see the work of one great collaborator cover a group of great collaborators with the perfect amount of appreciation, pitch, and expertise, a magical connection that seemed unusual at the outset becomes clear before the final note has been played.