“Night Train” is a twelve-bar blues instrumental standard first recorded by Jimmy Forrest in 1951.
Origins and development
“Night Train” has a long and complicated history. The piece’s opening riff was first recorded in 1940 by a small group led by Duke Ellington sideman Johnny Hodges under the title “That’s the Blues, Old Man”. Ellington used the same riff as the opening and closing theme of a longer-form composition, “Happy-Go-Lucky Local”, that was itself one of four parts of his Deep South Suite. Forrest was part of Ellington’s band when it performed this composition, which has a long tenor saxophone break in the middle. After leaving Ellington, Forrest recorded “Night Train” on United Records and had a major rhythm & blues hit. While “Night Train” employs the same riff as the earlier recordings, it is used in a much earthier R&B setting. Forrest inserted his own solo over a stop-time rhythm not used in the Ellington composition. He put his own stamp on the tune, but its relation to the earlier composition is obvious.
Like Illinois Jacquet’s solo on “Flying Home”, Forrest’s original saxophone solo on “Night Train” became a veritable part of the composition, and is usually recreated in cover versions by other performers. Buddy Morrow’s trombone transcription of Forrest’s solo from his big-band recording of the tune is similarly incorporated into many performances.
Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) credits the composition to Jimmy Forrest and Oscar Washington.
James Brown version
James Brown recorded “Night Train” with his band in 1961. His performance replaced the original lyrics of the song with a shouted list of cities on his East Coast touring itinerary (and hosts to black radio stations he hoped would play his music) along with many repetitions of the song’s name. (Brown would repeat this lyrical formula on “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A.” and several other recordings.) He also played drums on the recording. Originally appearing as a track on the album James Brown Presents His Band and Five Other Great Artists, it received a single release in 1962 and became a hit, charting #5 R&B and #35 Pop.
A live version of the tune was the closing number on Brown’s 1963 album Live at the Apollo. Brown also performs “Night Train” along with his singing group The Famous Flames (Bobby Byrd, Bobby Bennett, and Lloyd Stallworth) on the 1964 motion picture/concert film The T.A.M.I. Show.
Brown’s backing band The J.B.’s would later incorporate the main saxophone line of “Night Train” in their instrumental single “All Aboard The Soul Funky Train”, released on the 1975 album Hustle with Speed.