Everyone who lives in San Francisco loves to rave about the Bay Area to anyone who will listen. My friend and fellow ex-Ann Arborite Reed is on a personal campaign to convince everyone in Michigan to move out here. Maybe it’s some sort of way to cope with the fact we’re all likely to die in a natural disaster, but there’s one thing that never comes up in these SF love fests: the weather in the city sucks. The fog rolls in unpredictably, it gets chilly quick, and overcast skies are the norm.
Although recently it’s started getting nicer and nicer: apparently, September and October are the prime summer months. Of course in the East Bay where I live, it’s about 15 degrees warmer and always sunny. So in honor of the beginning of the summer here, and the end of the summer everywhere else, I want to take a look at one of George Gershwin’s (and all of pop music’s) most durable songs, the oft-covered “Summertime,” through the extremely convenient lens of another pop culture phenomenon, YouTube.
1. Sam Cooke (1957)
Choosing a favorite rendition of a song that’s been covered by so many was tough, but in the end it came down to two, and this one is impossible to deny:
“Summertime” was the a-side of the very first secular single Cooke put out under his own name (“Lovable” was credited to Dale Cook), but for whatever reason DJ’s across the country found the b-side much more appealing. Normally, that’d be a bad sign for the strength of your single, but when the b-side is “You Send Me,” there’s room for two classics on one 7-inch. On the strength of both cuts the record shot up to #1 and a new type of music was born: soul.
The story of soul isn’t quite that simple—but Cooke’s impact on music is undeniable. Many people, me included, have made the case for him as the greatest singer of all-time and while not everyone might agree on that, everyone can agree that this version is the one that sounds the most like summer.
2. Billy Stewart (1967)
Billy Stewart doesn’t quite have a spot in the soul pantheon like some of his Midwestern peers (Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield), but you’d be hard-pressed to name someone with a more distinctive voice and fresher takes on old standards. He had a fairly solid run of singles for Chess, but it was his version of “Summertime” that launched his career and would be his biggest single. Well actually, playing piano for Bo Diddley launched his career, but his soulful scat runs are what immortalized him. This version is not nearly as iconic as Cooke’s, but it flips the song on its head in a way that no one else has been able to match.
3. Billie Holiday (1936)
Lady Day recorded her own version “Summertime” less than a year after George Gershwin debuted the area in 1935’s Porgy & Bess, and her interpretation shows how it became such an exalted standard.
Like most of her best material, it’s playful, yet mournful. She smolders and her band, especially Cozy Cole on drums, sound about two degrees from melting. Haruki Murakami puts it pretty well in an excellent essay for the new Believer: this is Holiday when she was “brimming with imagination and acrobatic flights of song. The whole world was swinging in time to her swing. I mean, the planet was actually swaying. I am not exaggerating. We are talking magic here, not just art. The only other musician I know with such magical virtuosity was Charlie Parker.”
4. Charlie Parker (1949)
Sure enough, Bird also put his indelible mark on “Summertime.” This version comes from his 1949 sessions with a small string ensemble, and at the time, the concept of pairing Parker with classical musicians must have seemed ballsy. It’s speaks a lot about the power of his music that Parker’s alto hasn’t aged a day, soaring over string arrangements that have every opportunity to seem schmaltzy, but never do.
5. Keith Jarrett (1987)
I’d never heard this version until recently, and really the only reason it ranks so high for me, is because it’s so fun to watch. The 80s were a rough time for a lot of people, and here Jarrett is firmly in his Urkel phase, and you can’t help but laugh at his constipated turtle squirming routine. Still, his playing drips with soul, and he’s got the most important ingredient in abundance: a dark edge. Or maybe it’s just the thought of thousands of invisible Japanese jazz aficionados in the unlit expanses of this Tokyo concert hall. Either way, between his dancing, heavy breathing, outfit and venue, this doubles as both the funniest and creepiest interpretation on this list.
6. The Zombies (1965)
The Zombies cover proves a theory I’ve been kicking around for awhile: everything sounds better with some Rhodes electric piano. Colin Blunstone’s hypnotic lead vocal and the ethereal backing harmonies don’t hurt either, and it’s great to see a rock band capable of pulling off a song that most leave to jazz and soul singers.
7. Bill Evans (1965)
From the same year as the Zombies cover comes this jazz reading from the inimitable Evans. Though what really sets apart this version from a lot of other typical piano trio arrangements is the strident bass playing of Chuck Israels. He picks up the pace where many other bass players might be tempted to belabor the groove, and his solo is icing on the cake. Or ice cream cake, whatever sounds better when the humidity makes you want to crawl inside of your air conditioner.
8. Joe Pass (1975)
I normally hate solo jazz guitar; it’s inherently indulgent and wanky. But Joe Pass’ take here live at the Montreux Jazz Festival is equal parts gritty and show-offy, and plus it reminds me of my dear friend and guitar obsessive, Gary Prince (although Gary’s guitar face is definitely even more epic).
9. Larry Adler & Itzhak Perlman (1980)
I’m frequently pegged as a know-it-all when it comes to music, and I don’t mind, but even I have to admit I had no idea who either of these legends of their instruments were before I stumbled across their unique collaborations on YouTube, but I’m thoroughly intrigued. After all, you don’t hear world-class violinists and incredibly skilled harmonica players joining up all too often. Apparently prominent composers would write pieces specifically for Adler and his harmonica—he clearly has major chops.
10. Ella Fitzgerald (1968)
Ella and Louis Armstrong’s duet of “Summertime” is the obvious choice, but I like this video even more. Ella makes it look, and sound, so easy, as if such a heavenly voice just flowed out of her. But her sweat belies her efforts as she takes a rather straightforward reading to a sublime place without histrionics.
1. Boy George (2008)
I’m really sorry; don’t even try to watch that.
2. Devendra Banhart (2006)
I can normally tolerate Devendra, but this is ridiculous. It’s like, dude, how did you ever think this was a good idea? The stereotypical dancing hippie guy? Your paper thin, quivering melisma? How do you expect to be taken seriously? Yet you still landed Natalie Portman, so I guess you must be doing something right.
3. Tom Waits (1978)
Tom Waits is the last person you’d expect to see on a list after Boy George and Devendra Banhart, but I’m sad to say he thoroughly deserves it. This performance of “Burma Shave” to the music of “Summertime” is a case study in rambling. It actually starts out quite captivating, but Waits’ shtick here runs a bit thin when you realize it’s not going anywhere. I love the guy, but this is one of those times he coasted on his magnetic personality instead of his talent.
And for a palate cleanser, we'll end with a related and no less canonical tune. Bring on Autumn.