The fascinating story of Queen Elizabeth, Duke Ellington, and the single-copy gold record starts with the Queen's father. King George VI is said to have owned and enjoyed several Duke Ellington discs, and it is known that Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth danced to Duke Ellington songs in the early years of their marriage.
Prince Philip was posted to Malta a year into his marriage. This was a relatively carefree interlude, and the young couple frequently danced at the Hotel Meridien Phoenicia in Valletta. Phillip declined to let other officers dance with his wife and regularly requested that the orchestra play Take the A Train, which was a favourite of the Princess.
In 1958, Duke Ellington performed at The Leeds Music Festival. He was invited to a mayor’s reception at Leeds Civic Hall. At the reception, the quests were invited to meet the Royal Family. Last in line, Ellington was able to have a brief chat with the Queen. Queen Elizabeth said she was disappointed to have missed Ellington's performance, though Prince Philip had made the show and enjoyed it. Ellington responded that he found her "so inspiring" and that 'something musical will come of this".
Ellington’s son Mercer has said that his father started the composition that would become The Queen’s Suite the moment he got to his hotel. As usual, Ellington roped in collaborator Billy Strayhorn (who wrote the song most associated with Duke Ellington, Take the A train). When they were done, Ellington recorded the suite, had a master prepared, arranged for the pressing of a single gold disc, and had the record delivered to Buckingham Palace. Ellington's gift to the Queen can be heard below:
The Queen's Suite drew inspiration from what Ellington referred to as some of the most moving moments of his life. These include interactions with nature: birdsong heard in Florida, a frog serenading “a million lightning bugs”, and a vase of roses on a friend’s piano. The last part, ‘Apes and Peacocks’ refers to the “gifts of nature” that the Queen Of Sheba gave to King Solomon. Comprised of six movements over twenty minutes, the suite was recorded during three sessions early in 1959.
Ellington paid Columbia $2,500 to ensure that he retained ownership of the recording so that no further copies could be released. This project was personal! It was Ellington's private homage to Queen Elizabeth, and the record was intended for the Royal family only. Ellington’s producer, Irving Townsend observed that Ellington laboured more on Queen’s Suite than on any other composition of that period.
While he refused to release the Queen’s Suite, and while he forbade any mention of the Royal association, Ellington and his Orchestra did perform individual movements on occasion. The Single Petal of The Rose, which Ellington tended to play unaccompanied on the piano, became a frequently requested piece.
The Queen’s Suite was released by Norman Granz, music promoter and founder of Verve Records, two years after the death of Duke Ellington (1899–1974). One cannot help wondering if Ellington would have approved. Be that as it may, The Queen’s Suite is now readily available and highly regarded. Many critics consider “The Single Petal of A Rose” to be both the centrepiece of the suite and among the most beautiful and personal melodies of Ellington’s career. You can hear it here:
The Queen’s Suite is not the only record produced as an edition of one. In the 1940s, Voice-O-Graph booths allowed customers to make a single crackling record of about one minute. In 2015, the Wu-Tang Clan released a lone copy of its seventh album. Packed in a jewel-covered box, it was bought for an unknown sum by Martin Shkreli, a financier. It was later seized by the US Department of Justice and sold for $4 million. In June 2021, a unique recording and pressing of a 2021 performance of Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan sold at auction for over £1.5m.
Unlike a Voice-O-Graph disc, Duke Ellington spared no expense in making his record for Queen Elizabeth II, and unlike the Wu-Tang Clan and Dylan releases, there was no thought of the commercial value. In his book Duke Ellington’s America, Harvey G. Cohen suggests that in The Queen’s Suite Ellington deployed images of nature and divine power as “a strong personal position concerning the influence of money and commercialism in art”.
Duke Ellington’s The Queen’s Suite is a testament to both Ellington's personal integrity and the esteem in which he held Queen Elizabeth II. It was a special gift indeed. Will the Queen's gold record now go on display?