Summertime performed by Louis Armstorng and Ella Fitzgerald.
Today is the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and we would be remiss if we didn’t take musical note of the occasion. There are so many great summertime songs that it would be hard to choose among them, except for the one great American classic that stands head and shoulders above them all—George Gershwin’s Summertime.
|Porgy and Bess colaborators George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward in Charleston, South Carolina.
Summertime is Gershwin’s aria 1935 opera Porgy and Bess with lyrics by DuBose Heyward the white South Carolinian author of the novel Porgy on which the opera was based. Ira Gershwin was also credited as a co-lyricist by Heyward, who was also a poet, was the sole author of Summertime.
The song was first sung in the opera by Abbie Mitchel as Clara and later reprised by Anne Brown as Bess singing to Clara’s orphaned baby after she and her husband drowned in a storm. Mitchel made the first recording of the song with Gershwin at the piano and conducting the orchestra on the 78 rpm album George Gershwin Conducts Excerpts from Porgy & Bess.
|Abbie Mitchel as Clara first sang Summertime on stage and recorded it with Gershwin.
Porgy and Bess, although not a hit in its first Broadway production went on to be one of the towering achievements of the American musical theater, oft revived as both a stage musical and as a full-blown opera. Gershwin’s great gamble was to synthesize Black folk blues and jazz and to dare to present a Black cast of classically trained singers mostly stripped of minstrel show stereotypes on Broadway. His devotion to Heyward’s text and vision and his generosity in collaboration created something magical.
Billie Holiday’s 1936 recording was the first to hit the US pop charts, reaching #12. Other versions to make the pop charts include those by Sam Cooke in 1957, Al Martino 1960, The Marcels in 1961, Ricky Nelson in 1962), and the Chris Columbo Quintet in 1963. The most commercially successful version was by Billy Stewart, who reached #10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and # 7 on the R&B chart in 1966. But perhaps the most beloved recent version was by Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Critic David Starkey wrote that Joplin sang the song “with the authority of a very old spirit.”
|Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's 1958 Verve LP was one of several collaborations between the two jazz greats.
There have been many other outstanding versions, but this collaboration by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald is truly extraordinary.
Then maybe we will get to some of those also-ran summertime songs later.