Mary Elizabeth "Betty" Roché (January 9, 1920* – February 16, 1999) was an American blues singer who became most famous with her cover of the song "Take the "A" Train". She recorded with the Savoy Sultans, Hot Lips Page, Duke Ellington, Charles Brown and Clark Terry.
Roché (pronounced ro-SHAY) was born in Wilmington, Delaware,United States and began her career by triumphing at an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. In 1941, she sang with the Savoy Sultans, then joined Ellington two years later. It was a tough assignment, replacing one of the bandleader's most popular vocalists, Ivie Anderson, just days before Ellington's first concert at Carnegie Hall. She rose to the occasion, scoring highly with both the critics and audience in her featured section of the Ellington suite "Black, Brown and Beige."
Her vocal on this number comes on during the blues sequence, and was the composer's interpretation of the feelings of urban blacks at the start of the 20th century. It became one of Ellington's greatest pieces for a singer, an ambitious slab of scoring that showed the skill with which the composer was able to make use of the basic feeling of the blues as part of a sophisticated, advanced musical structure. To give credit where credit is due, there were many vocalists who worked with Ellington who would not have been able to pull this number off as effectively as Roché did. Nonetheless, her concert recording rendition was not released until the '70s.
Ellington could not make a studio recording of the suite until 1944, by which time Roché had already been replaced by Joya Sherrill. In a similar bit of bad career luck, Roché sang the Ellington signature tune"Take the A Train" in the 1943 film Reveille With Beverly, the band packed into a film backlot version of a train car. Again she did not come up with a studio version until nearly a decade later on the bebop-flavoured album Ellington Uptown.
One can blame these misfortunes on the second World War and the subsequent ban on all recording activity, which kept Ellington from documenting much of anything in 1943. The singer herself blamed her propensity for tardiness, which apparently botched a few recording sessions she was involved in. Roché also performed and recorded with pianist Earl Hines, trumpeter Clark Terry, and funky singer/pianist Charles Brown. In a strange coincidence, the latter performer died only one week after Roché.
Roche's career remained erratic. In the mid-'50s, she was part of the studio cast recording of George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, singing alongside greats such as Mel Tormé. She recorded an album for the Bethlehem label in 1956, predictably called “Take the A Train,” and another, “Singin' and Swingin',” for Prestige in 1960. Her last album was done for Prestige the following year.
Although she worked sporadically in clubs, she seemed to be half-hearted about her career, and eventually slipped into obscurity a few years later. Ellington wrote of her in his auto- biography, “She had a soul inflection in a bop state of intrigue and every word was understandable despite the sophisticated hip and jive connotations.”
The impression she made on the jazz scene is actually larger than many think, as she is credited with being a major influence both on bebop singers and the public's ability to deal with that kind of musical adventure.
Roché died from natural causes in February 1999, at the Mainland Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Pleasantville, New Jersey. (Info edited from various sources, mainly All music) (* other sources give her birth year as 1918).
As a bonus, watch this rare movie clip of Roche with the Ellington band–a spirited performance of “Take the A Train” from the film Reveille With Beverly, set on a passenger car, with backing vocals from members of the Ellington orchestra. This is one of the earliest versions of the song with lyrics, filmed in the late autumn of 1942 and pre-dating the singer’s much more famous take on “A Train” by nearly 10 years.