The mercury is rising, the sidewalk is steaming, the hills are turning brown from dehydration, and I can’t catch a buzz no matter how many Mexican beers I drink. Down the throat and straight out the pores. I’m basically spending thirteen bucks a twelve pack to give my skin a nice beer flavored sheen for the mosquitoes…you’re welcome you little blood sucking bastards.
One way to take my mind off of our rapidly heating earth’s surface (since the beer is not up to the task) is with music. When I contemplate the “song of the summer” I usually end up with whatever upbeat, feel good, largely forgettable fare that year has to offer. Instead of focusing on the latest contribution to that shallow pool, I thought I would focus on something more timeless and what song is more timeless than the Gershwin classic from Porgy and Bess “Summertime”.
The song has been recorded thousands of times, by such jazz luminaries as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, country legends like Willie Nelson, psychedelic hippie rock versions by The Doors and Janis Joplin, and even a stoner ’90s ska re-imagining by Sublime.
I decided for this list to stick with three of my favorites that may be lesser known to some. So, sit back under an umbrella, fill a bucket with some ice and your favorite libations, and bask in the warmth of the summertime.
“Summertime” – Billy Stewart
This is possibly my favorite version of this song. Recorded in 1966 on Chicago’s legendary Chess Records by R&B Powerhouse Billy Stewart. The track starts out with a piano flourish followed by a rumble from the other instruments and cascading vocalizations. It moves through the form of the verse and creates a nail-biting suspense in the first forty seconds. Then Stewart and his band deliver as he scats us right into a stone cold rhythm section with honking horns. The song takes on a sort of inner-city, Chicago blues/Latin salsa feel (if that’s a thing) complete with samba breaks and mariachi-esque trumpet lines over a Motown groove. It’s a thunderous piece of music and a lesser vocalist would get lost in the arrangement, but not Billy Stewart. He rolls in and out of the verses with acrobatic leaps up and down the scale. Instead of taming the beast, he prods the song forward with hot pokers right up until the end where breaks it down for a big Nina Simone inspired false ending. Then he scats us right back in for a final face melting reprise of the head of the song. Pick a day this summer, put this song on repeat and break off the knob.
“Summertime” – The Ventures
There are multiple surf versions of this song out in the world, but none better than by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, The Ventures. The heavy reverb surf-guitar twang whispers in your ears about big waves, cold drinks, hot sand and bikini clad girls hanging ten on a long board. As a born and raised California boy I have the beach hard wired into my DNA and this song puts me right there without having to get all sandy or slather myself with sunblock. Do yourself a favor, throw on this tune, put a little zinc on your nose, blow up a kiddie pool, and put your feet in. You’ll feel like you’re on vacation, even if it only lasts two and a half minutes and it’s cheaper than a plane ticket to Hawaii.
“Summertime” – The Residents
Even in the long days of summer, the sun has to go down sometime. Thankfully we have the original avant garde, eyeball-headed weirdos, The Residents to creep us out when the lights go out and haunt our dreams. This version of the classic takes full advantage of the minor notes in the bluesy chord progression to help us visualize bugs slowly emerging from a crypt or perhaps a serial killer working hard at his chosen trade. If like me, you like to temper your upbeat good time with the stuff of nightmares, then look no further than this toe-tapping ditty!