In 1963, Duke Ellington changed the lives of two young South Africans forever. One of them was the composer/pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, then known as Dollar Brand. The story of Duke’s discovery of this great talent in a Zurich, Switzerland, nightclub, the recording session that he produced in Paris, and the subsequent release Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio is well known.
The world is less familiar with Sathima “Bea” Benjamin, the singer who persuaded Duke to visit that tiny club on a snowy winter's night. She and Ibrahim, her husband-to-be, had fled South Africa in search of freedom and opportunity. They were poor, but they were making music on their own terms. Benjamin's singing impressed Duke deeply, and he recorded her as well as Ibrahim in Paris. Sadly, her effort languished in a vault, until it was finally released to much acclaim as A Morning in Paris in 1996.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Benjamin, in Cape Town, South Africa, where she has resettled. While we spoke about many things, the story that she told about being discovered by Ellington was especially vivid. She told me that, when Duke arrived in Zurich for a concert she already knew that Frank Sinatra had asked him to recruit new talent for Reprise records. She was determined to get his attention:
“...I don't know how I got backstage. ...there were all these women with their furs. You know, Duke Ellington loved the ladies, and the ladies loved him. So there were a whole lot of rich, elegant Swiss ladies, with their furs and jewels, waiting to get in his dressing room. ...and I'm standing there with my little Salvation Army clothes.... But every time the door would open, he would catch my eye. Then at one point he said, ‘Let her in.’ And there I was in the room. It was a miracle.
"I'm Glad There is You." Sathima Benjamin with Abdullah Ibrahim, piano. Paris, 1963.
"I said if you'd just come with me when the show is over and listen to the Dollar Brand trio, I think you would be very interested. He didn't even ask me at that point what do I do. He said ‘Ok.’
"Afterwards... we get to the club and the owner had the key in the door. Abdullah and [band members] Makaya [Ntshoko] and Johnny [Gertze] were standing outside, and they see me get out of the car with Duke Ellington. Oh, my God! ...So the owner puts the key back in the door and we go in.
"The trio played, and Duke sat there in wonderment. [He] said, ‘Listen. Be at my hotel at 10:30 am.’ We didn't sleep that night. It was February and was snowing. ...We just couldn't believe what happened. [The next day, Ellington arranged for Sathima, Abdullah, and the band to travel to Paris to record for him.]
"...when we got to Paris... they took us to the Champs-Élysées. I have never in my life lived in such a grand hotel. ...I was just amazed at the grandeur of it all. But that's what Ellington did. [At the Barclay studios], Ellington came in with little Billy Strayhorn. And he aid, ‘Strays... this is Bea. I think the two of you can do wonderful things.’ And Strayhorn sits there, he has his big glass of champagne and his cigar. He says, ‘What are we going to do?’ Instead of me coming up with an Ellington song, I said I'm going to sing ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.’
"Solitude." Sathima Benjamin with Duke Ellington, piano. Paris, 1963.
"Then Ellington said sing with the trio... When I started to sing ‘I Got It Bad,’ he ran out of the booth. He said, ‘Get off of the piano,’ to Abdullah. ‘This is my song.’ I thought, ‘Oh, first it was Strayhorn, now here's Ellington. I can either drop dead now or sing like I never sang before.’ And I know I sang like I never sang before.
"A little later I sang ‘Solitude’ for the very first time. And ever since that time, when it comes time to do ‘Solitude’ in a show, I tell the pianists ‘No, no, no.’ They tell me that I don't have to sing it alone. I say, ‘I'm not singing it alone. I'm hearing Ellington accompanying me. I'm not alone. ...Ellington is here with me.’" [Yes, she's talking about the recording directly above.]
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This interview also appears in the June 2012 issue of Ellingtonia, the publication of the Duke Ellington Society. I'm very grateful to Miss Benjamin for giving me several hours of her time.