In June of 1937 Billy Strayhorn, not quite twenty-two years old, asked Jerome Eisner to join a trio that he was putting together. Strayhorn and Eisner became friends while attending Westinghouse High School here in Pittsburgh. Strayhorn patterned the group after the Benny Goodman Trio, which included Jazz pianist Teddy Wilson, who was no doubt a great influence. The trio was eventually named The Mad Hatters. They were an integrated group, similar to Benny Goodman's trio, comprised of Strayhorn on piano, Eisner on clarinet and Calvin Dort on drums.
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The Mad Hatters' first gig was in 1937 at Charlie Ray’s, a club located above the Triangle Theater building on Station Street in East Liberty. They played there Friday and Saturday nights for nearly a year. A not-yet-famous Billy May sat in occasionally during his early days as a trumpeter. Early in 1938 The Mad Hatters expanded to become a quintet. That March they recorded three sides at George Heid Studio. Those recordings are thought to be lost. That summer the group performed regularly at an amusement park located somewhere between Bridgeville and Canonsburg. By the end of the summer The Mad Hatters downsized to their original three-piece line up. They performed six nights a week, for several weeks, at a club south of Pittsburgh in Winchester, VA. Their successful run at the venue ended abruptly when a brawl broke out between drummer Calvin Dort and a patron who made racist remarks toward Strayhorn.
On December 21st, 1938, after Strayhorn’s first meeting with Duke Ellington, The Mad Hatters recorded four songs at Volkwein’s in downtown Pittsburgh. Strayhorn quickly departed to join Duke Ellington in New York and The Mad Hatters never played again. Two of the recordings are thought to be lost and here we present to you the two surviving sides of the single remaining acetate. Both sides are tunes popularized at the time by the Benny Goodman Trio, “Body and Soul” and “Sweet Sue.”
These recordings are a very important part of Pittsburgh music history, dating back seventy-seven years. They are likely the earliest Billy Strayhorn recordings in existence. Until now, very few people have had an opportunity to hear them. We thank pianist and musicologist Bryan Wright for his restoration work on the recordings.
Once again, happy ONE-HUNDREDTH birthday Billy Strayhorn!