This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
It’s time for another variation on a single song and the one today is Summertime. This was from the opera “Porgy and Bess” by George Gershwin. The lyrics weren’t by his brother Ira, who wrote them for most of George’s songs, but by DuBois Heyward upon whose novel, Porgy, the opera is based.
The song pretty soon became a standard and entered the lexicon of popular and jazz singers. We’ll have some of them today as well as a couple of interesting instrumental versions.Also one or two that I hope will surprise you.
According to Wikipedia, it’s the most covered song in history and there are more than 25,000 recorded versions out there. Not all of those will be present today.
We might as well start with the best, BILLIE HOLIDAY.
It sounds as if Billie was born to sing this song. Of course, she sounded as if she was born to sing anything she tackled. Hers was the first version to make the charts, back in 1936. She has Count Basie and his band backing her on this one.
It was a tossup between LOU RAWLS and Johnny Hartman for this spot. Lou called heads.
Lou started out as a gospel singer and while still a boy he sang with Sam Cooke, who wasn’t much older than Lou, in a gospel group. He also met and sang with Curtis Mayfield around the same time.
Over the years Lou has sung gospel, soul and R&B music but he was always essentially a jazz singer as is amply demonstrated on his version of Summertime.
BILL EVANS was one of the best jazz pianists. This assessment of his abilities was shared by Miles Davis who requested that he join (or rejoin, really) him to record the “Kind of Blue” album.
Bill was classically trained; he started lessons on the piano when he was only six. He was also proficient on the flute and violin.
He rebelled against the restrictions of classical music – he wasn’t allowed to improvise so he switched to jazz in his early teenage years and started playing professionally before he was 20. Unfortunately, he had a long-time problem with drugs and he died at age 51.
To give us a rock & roll perspective on the song here’s Janis Joplin in front of BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING COMPANY.
This was a regular inclusion in their live sets and appeared on their most famous album “Cheap Thrills”. Instead of that one here’s the song from a live album of theirs “Live at The Carousel Ballroom,” recorded in 1968.
The two versions are quite similar and this one gives a flavor of their live performance.
SAM COOKE could make any song sound perfect, or nearly so in this case.
However, he really didn’t need that chorus behind him, adding nothing at all to the song. I guess they did that sort of thing back then. Fortunately, they aren’t too intrusive.Sam’s version sounds to me like a soul song interpreted as a country tune.
LAMBERT, HENDRICKS AND ROSS have the shortest version of the song and maybe the most interesting.
As was often the case when LH&R interpreted a song, they took it and ran with it taking it to places no one had gone before. That certainly happened this time.
LH&R’s career wasn’t very long, only about five years. Annie Ross first left the group and not too long afterwards, Dave Lambert was killed in a car accident. Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross are still with us as of this writing and occasionally perform together.
The version that reached the highest spot on the charts is by BILLY STEWART.
This one always brings a smile to my face as it’s so outrageous, although following that one by LH&R it may not seem so.
Billy won a local (Washington D.C.) talent contest with his version of our song. He had honed his singing in his mother’s gospel group, The Stewart Gospel Singers. Bo Diddley heard him and hired Billy to play piano in his group. He eventually got Billy a recording contract and Summertime was one of his first releases.
MILES DAVIS recorded an entire album of “Porgy and Bess” music.
I used him on a previous column dedicated to “Porgy and Bess” where, fortunately, I featured It Ain't Necessarily So from Miles so I won’t be doubling up. This is his version of Summertime.
There have been several different versions of THE DRIFTERS. The two most notable ones were fronted by Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King.
I listened closely to this version and I’m pretty sure it was neither of those singing lead. The CD is no help at all and nor is Dr. Google. Besides the “official” Drifters, there were others who used the name and as far as I can tell this is one of those.
I think it’s a group purporting to be The Drifters and is fronted by Matthew Child. Whoever he is, he’s a pretty fine singer.
I thought I was familiar with RICKY NELSON's music but this surprised me. It shouldn’t have as it’s on one of my CDs, so there you go.
It was the done thing back when Ricky was first recording that singers should become “all round entertainers” after a year or two in the rock & roll sun. Some resisted this pressure but others, like Ricky, recorded standards along with their usual songs.
Here is Ricky being an all round entertainer (sort of – this isn’t quite as all round as some other songs).
Just missing the cut are versions by Johnny Hartman, Judy Garland, Kenny Burrell, Paul Robeson, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee and also a few other lesser known performers.