Text reads: "Jazz composer & pianist. Wrote "Take the A Train" and other songs for Duke Ellington Orchestra. Boyhood home site 1/4 mi. W"
William Thomas (“Billy” professionally) Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s longtime collaborator, was among the most influential figures in American jazz. A versatile composer, arranger, and pianist, Strayhorn joined Ellington’s orchestra at age 22 in 1939 and worked with the bandleader the rest of his life. Ellington publicly acknowledged the central role Strayhorn played in his success, writing the band’s theme “Take the A Train” and penning popular and widely recorded songs such as “Lush Life” and “Satin Doll.” Strayhorn was a formative influence on an entire generation of musicians. Living in New York City most of his adult life, he was actively involved in the civil rights movement and was a personal friend of Martin Luther King Jr..
Although Strayhorn was born in Dayton, Ohio, his roots ran deep in Orange County and, importantly, his frequent stays in Hillsborough as a boy were essential to his musical development. His father and grandfather both worked at the Eno Mill. His grandparents, who owned a piano, lived in a house (now gone) at the corner of Margaret Lane and Hillsborough Avenue. Returning with his mother and siblings to North Carolina from Ohio regularly from age five, Strayhorn attended his first year of school while in Hillsborough; a classmate remembered him as “small and bright.” He spent breaks and summers in North Carolina through his early teenage years (by then the family had moved to Pittsburgh) and often took the train to visit an uncle in Durham.
Biographer David Hajdu contends that North Carolina became the young man’s spiritual home, the place he was introduced to music. Initially gospel tunes drew him to the piano. He often wandered through the slave cemetery across from his boyhood home and walked along the Eno River. At Strayhorn’s death at age 52 in 1967, Ellington said his friend “had no aspirations to enter into any kind of competition, yet the legacy he leaves, his oeuvre, will never be less than the ultimate on the highest plateau of culture.” In 2007 Strayhorn was the subject of a PBS documentary.