On June 21st we celebrated the summer solstice. At least I celebrated it. The longest day of the year and the first official day of summer is as good a reason to celebrate as any. Had it not been June 21st, I can assure you, I would have come up with some other excuse to celebrate.
There were probably radio stations somewhere playing the best summertime songs (insert radio voice here) “of ALL TIME.” It got me to thinking (everybody duck, Dave’s thinking again) as to what is, the hands down best summertime song of all time. That’s easy. It is Summertime. I hope the living is easy and you enjoy my musings on Summertime.
The earth has revolved around the sun 75 times since Billie Holiday recorded Summertime. It would become a hit and reach number 12 on the pop charts. Lady Day’s version came one year after the song was introduced to the world. George Gershwin’s aria, or is it a lullaby or a blues, from the opera Porgy and Bess entitled Summertime has been recorded some 2,600 times since. The lyrics are credited to DuBose Heyward. He wrote the novel entitled Porgy on which the opera was based. The lyrics are unforgettable and familiar to even the most casual fan of 20th century music. It is however George Gershwin’s composition that makes this perhaps the most enduring classic in the canon of the great American songbook.
Gershwin wrote the piece with African–American folk idioms in mind. These musical strains are what people now refer to as blues. While not strictly a blues tune in structure, its use of the pentatonic scale and minor keys helps give the piece a feel that puts the classic firmly in this milieu.
During the 1960’s folk and blues music revivals, it became very unfashionable to think of an aria from an opera as being a blues. Blues music was beginning to fall victim to quite a bit of revisionist history. People were now taught to believe that blues was music written, performed and consumed exclusively by the downtrodden. Gershwin and opera certainly don’t comport with this revisionism. If Summertime is a blues, then it would be the most recorded, most listened to blues tune of all time. It may just be the best blues tune of all time. For me the best blues tune is the one I am listening to at the moment and right now that tune is Summertime.
Many years ago I was listening to a public radio station in Southern California on the first day of summer. They played four hours of different versions of the song. I can’t imagine any other tune I could listen to continuously for four hours. Some versions were instrumentals and some were with vocals. Many of the vocal arrangements were duets. Versions by Ray Charles and Cleo Lane, as well as the timeless reading by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, are memorable. It hit me that somehow it seems you just can’t screw this song up. I am sure someone out there has heard somebody butcher this song. No names please.
In the right hands this tune is nothing short of sublime. By the way, I have been told there is a popular group named Sublime and they have recorded a version of Summertime. I haven’t heard it but as I said, there are thousands of people who have recorded this tune and I haven’t heard them all.
The way this song fits comfortably into virtually any musical idiom is nothing short of astonishing.
I thought it would be fun to give you my top ten versions of Summertime. How original… a guy named Dave with aTop Ten List. These are my favorites. Happy SUMMERTIME!
Eddie C. Campbell’s version of Summertime is the most recent version on our list. The 2009 album Tear This World Up on Delmark Records starts out with Campbell sounding like he is going to launch into a surf guitar instrumental before swooping into a loping shuffle and introducing the tune's familiar lyrics. Campbell’s idiosyncratic phrasing makes this version of Summertime a lot of fun
Big Joe Turner’s Summertime comes from his 1977 album entitled In the
Evening. The album illustrates what an absolutely great blues singer Turner was. He takes some unexpected tunes such as I Got the world on String and Pennies from Heaven and turns them into deep blues. His understanding of how blues should be sung could be used as a template for aspiring vocalists who are interested in learning the form. The album also features some very tasty guitar work by PeeWee Crayton. That alone is worth the price of admission.
Sam Cooke was one of the most celebrated singers of his time. The great one makes Summertime his own. I pulled Cooke’s take on this standard, recorded in 1962, from the album The Best of Sam Cooke. I also encourage Cooke fans to check out an album entitled The Rhythm and the Blues.
John Coltrane’s version comes from his 1961 Atlantic Release My Favorite Things. He is joined by the band that would come to be known simply as the Quartet. They are bassist Steve Jones, pianist McCoy Tyner, the polyrhythmic genius of the drums, Elvin Jones. Coltrane uses the Gershwin standard to push the boundaries of his instrument and propel jazz to some previously unexplored areas of expression. The shear effusiveness of Coltrane’s playing was referred to at the time by some jazz critics as 'sheets of sound'. He applies this sound with an up-tempo version of Summertime that stands in sharp contrast to his former band leader Miles Davis' take on the tune recorded just a few years earlier.
Billie Holiday makes the list because well...she’s Billie Holiday. I admit her unique voice and phrasing is an acquired taste. Once you have acquired that taste though, Holiday singing virtually anything becomes a wonderful cathartic experience in which you get to hear another human being sharing their soul with you. She sings Summertime like she sings everything else and that is with the sadness that lies behind every piece of material she touches.
Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s Summertime represents a departure from what many folks expect from a guy whose 'middle' name is “Guitar”. Watson is not only an accomplished vocalist and songwriter as well as a guitar innovator, he is also a terrific pianist. This late 60’s version of the song represents some of the pop sensibility of that era. This made my top ten simply because I love everything Johnny “Guitar” Watson does. The best place to find this version is on the album The Best of the Okeh Years. The album serves as a transitional document of Watson’s career shift from rhythm and blues to his 70’s funk period. This material is often overlooked, yet demonstrates much of what makes Watson a musical genius.
Billy Stewart’s 1965 version of Summertime was a crossover pop hit for Chess Records. It is the most popular version of the song for my generation. It was the first time I ever heard the tune. It is as catchy and upbeat as any recorded version. Stewart’s incredible one of a kind vocal gymnastics help distinguish this version of the song from all others. It is irresistibly fun. The four minute and fifty one second song was cut down to two minutes and thirty six seconds to fit the restrictions placed on it by AM radio stations back in the day.
Miles Davis' muted trumpet is one of the most distinctive, personal and evocative sounds in the history of music. Miles puts his very personal stamp on Summertime. The 1958 album Porgy and Besswas the second of three great collaborations with arranger Gil Evans for Columbia Records. Miles is joined by a large ensemble of musicians for this recording including alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmie Cobb. Adderly, Chambers and Cobb would go back into the Columbia studios with Miles the following year to make a record that would become the most popular jazz recording of all time, Kind of Blue.
Sidney Bechet’s version of Summertime is one of the important recordings in jazz history. The accompaniment of Bechet’s soprano sax by pianist Meade Lux Lewis and guitarist Teddy Bunn is simply transcendent. Bunn’s guitar work in particular, responds to Bechet in a way that turns this “jazz” recording into a deep blues. Bechet's solo, which covers the length of the tune was one of the longest in jazz history up to that time, pre-dating Coleman Hawkins seminal recording of Body and Soul by a few years.
Booker T. And the M.G.s' take on Summertime is slow, deliberate and ethereal. This mesmerizing arrangement is absolutely breathtaking. The song first appeared on the band's third album entitled And Now which was released in 1966. It was the first album by the band in which Stax house bass player Donald “Duck” Dunn plays on every track. The song appeared as the “B” side to the single Hip Hug Her the following year.