Duke Ellington, Victor 27564, 1941
“In my solitude you haunt me / With dreadful ease of days gone by.” Dreadful ease? Sounds like a post-punk band-name, or maybe a vape flavor. What in the hell was lyricist Eddie DeLange thinking when he wrote that? Well, he didn’t write that. He wrote “reveries,” and someone, rather than locating sheet music for this classic song or listening just a wee bit more carefully (and thinking about it for a moment), heard it as “dreadful ease.” And figured that made sense. So these mis-heard lyrics are all over the internet.
According to Duke Ellington, writing in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, he composed this most gorgeous of songs in 1934, as a rush job for a recording session that needed one more song. Lyrics were added later by DeLange. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills also took writing credit, as he often did without contributing a word or a note, to get a cut.
Ellington’s Orchestra had a hit with it late in ’34, and I have that version on vinyl. But I came across a 78 recorded in 1941 that’s all Duke, at the piano. I do love to listen to Duke playing solo—in his solitude, you might say—but often prefer him amidst the colorations of his hand-picked, well-groomed band members. In this case, though, the feeling of solitude is intensified by the focus of the one instrument, the performance in the hands of the song’s creator. Along the way, he tosses in a few of his usual flourishes, but not to excess, and makes an odd modulation, from Db to F, sound perfectly natural.
The flip side of Duke’s solo “Solitude” is Henry Creamer and Turner Layton’s 1921 composition “Dear Old Southland,” which was an oldie by 1941. Duke went it alone on that one, too, recording it, with a little stride action, on the same day as “Solitude.”
Many of the great pre-rock vocalists recorded fine versions of this one, particularly the great ladies—Ella, Sarah, Nina, and especially Billie.
I performed this song for years with a vocal trio. I got something wrong about it, but it was intentional: changing a minor chord to a major in the third bar of the verse, which I always felt was sacrilege, but I liked the way it sounded vocally. So, sorry, Duke. At least I never sang “with dreadful ease of days gone by.”