Duke Ellington: The Essential

Tim O'Neil

While even a dilettante such as myself could easily catalog a number of omissions, it wouldn't really serve any purpose -- this set covers the necessary bases in as fleet-footed a fashion as possible.

Duke Ellington

The Essential

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2005-06-28
UK Release Date: Available as import
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I do not envy the compiler responsible for assembling this collection. The Essential series generally does a fair-to-great job of putting together a reasonable overview of the artists under examination, but some must be easier than others. Putting together something like, say, The Essential Eddie Money is a relatively easy thing to do -- more complicated artists like Dylan and Sinatra probably present considerable challenges. But still, they pale in comparison to the headaches of whittling down the very best -- or, at least, most important -- material of such a monumentally important and prolific artist as the Duke. Two discs, for example, seems awful perfunctory considering that past Ellington collections have occasionally ran to 24.

So, while even a dilettante such as myself could easily catalog a number of omissions, it wouldn't really serve any purpose. This set covers the bases in as fleet-footed a fashion as possible. Beginning in 1927 and running until 1960, the collection covers almost every significant revolution in pop music during the 30-year period -- from the evolution of the big band sound to the revolution in stereo recording to the constant tug-of-war between the composer and the improviser which eventually came to define the music's most powerful idioms. There's no doubt that, in terms of jazz, Louis Armstrong deserves his place of foremost prominence, but only just -- Ellington is one of only a handful of artists who deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as Satchmo. But outside of the realm of jazz, Ellington's influence is arguably greater even than Armstrong's, as he did more to bridge the gaps between jazz and classical, pop and even world music than any other musician in the 20th century (excepting, maybe, George Gershwin).

That the collection stops so abruptly at the onset of the '60s -- and that it features some large gaps in the intervening eras -- is probably due to label constraints as much as anything. It's hard to imagine that the compilers wouldn't have wanted to include at least a few representative cuts from Ellington's classic team-ups with the likes of Armstrong, Count Basie, Coltrane and Mingus -- but on the other hand, the cut-off date also serves to encapsulate almost every major innovation of Ellington's career. He would create some great music in the years between 1960 and his death in 1974, but his days of tearing the world inside out were over. Fittingly, the album's final track is one of Ellington's incredibly rich Tchaikovsky arrangements, "Arabesque Cookie" (from the Nutcracker Suite) -- in the space of two CDs the listener goes from the crucible of jazz in the 1920s to its apotheosis as the most important unifying force in modern music. That jazz itself would eventually be shuffled out of the limelight during the onset of rock and roll is no real shame, because the work of Ellington and his contemporaries had already provided most of the musical framework and vocabulary by which pop music would continue to define itself throughout the end of the 20th century.

Considering the historic focus of The Essential series, it is only meet and just that the collection lingers on Ellington's revolutionary early years, in particular his band's historic run at the Cotton Club from 1927-1931. The album's first seven tracks were recorded in that four year period, while the rest of the collection's 30 songs were plucked fairly evenly from the remaining 30 years, which should give you some measure of the era's importance as the incubator not only of Ellington's sound but the sound of jazz in general. From a tightly coiled ragtime sound the music would expand and grow to fit a new kind of landscape. In just four years Ellington evolved from the cavernous "East St. Louis Toole-Oo" to the languid "Creole Rhapsody" -- the musical equivalent of moving from black & white to glorious Technicolor.

Coming out of this important period, Ellington would record some of the most enduring standards in American music -- "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)", "Solitude", "In a Sentimental Mood", "Caravan", "Clouds in My Heart". The wartime period would prove almost as fertile, and you would probably recognize "Mood Indigo", "Ko-Ko", and "Takin' the A Train" from this period. Even if you've never heard them, Ellington's arrangements and compositions are hardwired into the DNA of American music: trust me, you'll recognize them.

So while we can quibble with the exclusions -- the gaps in time when Ellington recorded with labels not represented here, the exclusions of more examples of his experimental arrangements, the lack of any real focus on Ellington's excellent piano playing -- it's impossible to quibble with what is actually here. If you already know your Duke, this isn't the collection for you. But if you're new to jazz, or new to Ellington, this disc serves as an admirable Clift's notes. This disc showcases Ellington as most remember him, as a masterful composer, a visionary arranger and a pop songwriter of enduring merit. If you like it -- and really, it's impossible not to -- there is plenty more where this came from.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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