High cotton

How have I never done this before? “Summertime,” originally composed by George Gershwin and written by DuBose Hayward, has become one of those rare American pop standards that has fans across many different genres and eras. “Haunting” seems too tame a term to describe it but if we have associations between summer time and a sense of deep melancholy and wistful nostalgia, I’d suggest that the song, “Summertime” has done much to shape that perception.

As we’re nearing the end of summer, I decided to pull out a pick six of different versions of the song.1 These aren’t necessarily my absolute personal favorites but I wanted to show some breadth in the choices and showcases the various stylistic approaches that artists have taken to it. Let’s begin with a stone-cold (but overlooked, to me) classic:

Sam Cooke: Summertime
From 7″ (Keen, 1957). Also on the Best of Sam Cooke

Everyone remembers the A-side of this single: “You Send Me,” one of Cooke’s first major hits. But *whistle* this flip is gorgeous, especially with that eerie back-up vocal that drifts and echoes in the background. It’s safe to say that Cooke sounds incredible (was this ever not the case) but he brings a special gravitas to the performance and smartly, the accompaniment leans towards the sparse as not to compete with the golden throat.

Salena Jones: Summertime
From This N’ That (RCA Victor, 1974)

A little over 15 years later and jazz singer Salena Jones adds her soulful take to the plate. I like how the song splits the difference between a funkier intro which then effortlessly glides into a more conventional torch song arrangement.

Nick Drake: Summertime
From The Complete Home Recordings (Boyds, recorded 1967/8)

Sure, it’s pathetically lo-fi and recorded on amateur equipment but the fact that this is still mesmerizing speaks to both the strength of Gershwin/Hayward’s genius and Drake’s somber approach.

Klaus Wunderlich: Summertime
From Hammond Fur Millionen (Telefunken, 1971)

Walter Bishop Jr’s 4th Cycle: Summertime
From Keeper of My Soul (Black Jazz, 1973)

These would have been in my heavy rotation back in ’99: funky funky funky. The Wunderlich has that signature organ feel and approach – lively and playful but anchored in a steady backbeat that gives the song some bump. But if you want to talk about gravity, it gets no heavier than Bishop’s version, from his sole Black Jazz album. Those opening organ chords build such anticipation over 8 bars that when the beat finally drops, your whole body’s on edge.

Booker T and the MGs: Summertime
From And Now! (Stax, 1966)

To close out, I had to go with something that chills everything down. This isn’t the 3pm during summer time. It’s definitely not the 8pm festive hour. This is round midnight, lights turned down low, early September, as the tendrils of autumn begin to creep into the evening air. If you don’t know what I mean, just give it a few weeks and you will. You will.

  1. Big shout out to Soulstrut. I had a few of these already, especially the jazz versions, but this thread turned me onto some of the other ones, including Nick Drake’s.