Joya Sherrill

Photo of Joya Sherrill
  • Born

    August 20, 1924
    Bayonne, New Jersey
  • Died

    June 28, 2010 (age 85)
    Great Neck, New York
  • Orchestras

    Duke Ellington

Vocalist Joya Sherrill is best remembered today for her work with Duke Ellington in the mid-1940s and for her 1962 tour of the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman. Sherrill had a successful solo career during the 1950s and 1960s, though her star had faded by the end of that latter decade. She continued singing throughout the rest of the century.

Born in New Jersey, Sherrill grew up in New York City and later Detroit, where she received her big break while still a high school student.[1] She wrote lyrics to Duke Ellington’s famous tune “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and her father arranged for Ellington to hear her performance of it while he was in town. Sherrill impressed Ellington, and he offered her a job when Ivie Anderson left his band in August 1942. She shared vocalist duties with Betty Roché and Phyllis Smiley.

Sherrill remained with the band until October, when she returned to Detroit to finish school. She rejoined Ellington around the first of November 1944, taking over for Rosita Davis, and made her first major recording, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” that December. Sherrill was popular among fans, placing fifth in Down Beat magazine’s 1945 reader’s poll for the category of female band singer. In February 1946, she married Richard Guilemont in Detroit. She initially announced that she would remain with the band, however she left Ellington in June to focus on raising a family.

Never intending to retire permanently, Sherrill returned to singing later in the decade, contracting with Jubilee Records in 1949 and performing on the nightclub and burlesque circuits. In 1950, she shot scenes for the film Hurly Burly, which featured a number of burlesque talents. An early project of director Harold “Hal” Goldman, it seems never to have been released or to have been completely forgotten.

Sherrill worked off and on through the 1950s, recording several albums, including as vocalist for the Bigs Howard Orchestra in 1953 and on a shared album with Sammy Davis Junior, Sammy Jumps with Joya, in 1956.[2] In May 1957, Sherrill appeared with Ellington on television’s The United States Steel Hour, singing as part of his jazz fantasy work “A Drum Is a Woman.” She toured with Teddy Wilson’s orchestra later that same year. In February 1960, she appeared in a minor role in the Broadway production of The Long Dream, which ran for three days at the Ambassador Theater.

After being relatively inactive as a singer for several years, Sherrill emerged again in a big way during 1962 when she was chosen to accompany Benny Goodman on his tour of the Soviet Union, making her the first American jazz singer to perform in that country. Sherrill elicited controversy, however, when she chose to sing a sultry version of a patriotic Soviet song, “Katyusha.” Her rendition provoked a strong negative reaction throughout the country. Crowds jeered at her, and the Soviet government denounced her performance as inappropriate. Sherrill and Goodman expressed indignation, failing to understand that to Soviet audiences it was the equivalent of a Russian singer doing a strip-tease to the “Star Spangled Banner.” Goodman removed the song from his show after only a few dates.

Sherrill was briefly an international celebrity after the tour, and upon her return she found herself invited on several television programs, including those of Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, and the Tonight Show. Her moment in the limelight soon passed, however, and she returned to occasional performances, often working with Ellington. She sang with his orchestra on Canadian television and at his 70th birthday celebration hosted by the White House. She also performed in his jazz project My People.

In 1970, Sherrill hosted her own children’s television program, Time for Joya! on WPIX in New York. The show featured songs, stories, puppets, and art. She continued singing through the end of the century, often in connection with Ellington tribute events. Joya Sherrill passed away in 2010 at age 85.


  1. Sherrill’s family originally came from Arkansas but had settled in New Jersey by the time of her birth. By 1930, they had moved to New York City, where her father worked as a letter carrier, and by 1935 they were in Detroit, where her father worked as a clerk for the county government. Some sources have said that Sherrill’s father was a prominent writer. To what extent that may have been true is unknown. ↩︎

  2. Davis and Sherrill did not sing any duets on the album. ↩︎


  1. “Joya Sherrill.” Internet Broadway Database. Accessed 19 Mar. 2018.
  2. Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington, Day by Day, Film by Film Jazz Media, 1992, p. 259.
  3. Billingsworth, E. “Encores and Echoes.” Baltimore Afro-American 22 Sep. 1942: 8.
  4. “Chicago Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1942: 4.
  5. “Ellington Adds 4th Trumpet.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 3.
  6. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 31 Oct. 1942: 23.
  7. “Advanced Record Releases.” Billboard 30 Dec. 1944: 13.
  8. “As a Matter of Record.” San Antonio Light 31 Dec. 1944: 28.
  9. “Band Poll.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 16.
  10. Ehrlich, Evelyn. “Ellington Concert Has Below Par Ellington.” Down Beat 28 Jan. 1946: 3.
  11. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1946: 1.
  12. “Music As Written.” Billboard 9 Mar. 1946: 22.
  13. “Vaudeville Review: Oriental, Chicago.” Billboard 22 Jun. 1946: 48.
  14. “Music As Written.” Billboard 13 Jul. 1946: 24.
  15. “Music As Written.” Billboard 26 Feb. 1949: 24.
  16. “Burlesque Bits.” Billboard 17 Feb. 1951: 40.
  17. “Rhythm & Blues Notes.” Billboard 26 Jan. 1952: 14.
  18. “Joya A Single.” Down Beat 22 Feb. 1952: 7.
  19. “Proser Presents Phil Moore Show.” Down Beat 3 Dec. 1952: 7.
  20. “Phil Moore Flock Delivers 2-Hour Stage Revue in Fast Tab Format.” Billboard 29 Nov. 1952: 4.
  21. “Popular Record Reviews.” Billboard 16 May 1953: 36.
  22. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 11 Aug. 1954: 20.
  23. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 23 Feb. 1955: 17.
  24. Hentoff, Nat. “The Duke.” Down Beat 26 Dec. 1956: 12.
  25. “Wednesday Evening Television Programs.” Bristol Daily Courier [Bristol, Pennsylvania] 8 May 1957: 34.
  26. “Album Reviews.” Billboard 28 Oct. 1957: 5.
  27. “Jazz Group Featured in Concert.” The Hammond Times [Hammond, Indiana] 24 Nov. 1957: B-1.
  28. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 6 Feb. 1958: 39.
  29. “New Jazz Releases.” Down Beat 3 Mar. 1960: 42.
  30. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 17 Mar. 1960: 47.
  31. “Songwriting Joya Headed For Moscow.” Bristol Daily Courier [Bristol, Pennsylvania] 24 May 1962: 7.
  32. “Goodman Singer Denounced By Red Paper For Rendition Of Partisan Song.” Danville Register [Danville, Virginia] 6 Jun. 1962: 14-B.
  33. “Festival Presents 'The Duke'.” Winnipeg Free Press 28 Feb. 1965: 15.
  34. Wilson, Earl. “On the Town.” The Uniontown Morning Herald [Uniontown, Pennsylvania] 4 Aug. 1969: 4.
  35. O'Brian, Jack. “The Eyes and Ears of Gay Broadway.” The Hamilton Daily News Journal [Hamilton, Ohio] 26 Jun. 1970: 4.
  36. “United States Census, 1930,” FamilySearch ( : Fri Mar 08 16:06:24 UTC 2024), Entry for William L Sherrill and Alise A Sherrill, 1930.
  37. “United States Census, 1940,” FamilySearch ( : Sat Mar 09 01:15:44 UTC 2024), Entry for William Sherrill and Alice Sherrill, 1940.