Gershwin's 'Summertime' Becomes a Rock Classic

Aug 9, 2013

“Summertime” is considered one of George Gershwin’s finest songs. Collaborating with his brother Ira and lyricist DuBose Heyward, Gershwin composed the piece for his 1935 “folk-opera” Porgy and Bess.

This clip is from the 1959 Samuel Goldwyn film Porgy and Bess, with vocals dubbed by Adele Addison for Dorothy Dandridge’s Bess:

The song quickly became popular and jazz-standard status followed with notable versions by Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis and Leontyne Price. In fact it’s of the most “covered” songs in history, and has been recorded over 25,000 times. Billie Holiday recorded one of the most  memorable versions in 1936, and hers was the first to reach a wide audience, ranking #12 on US pop charts.

From a musical point of view, the genius of the song comes from it’s combination of African-American, European and jazz influences. “Summertime” borrows a lot of the form and feel of the spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, which has roots in the African-American culture of the 1800’s. It also bears a striking resemblance to a Ukrainian lullaby that Gershwin was familiar with. Here’s a link to listen to that song: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oi_Khodyt_Son_Kolo_Vikon

Janis Joplin was a rock singer with a deep connection to jazz and blues. Taking inspiration from singers like Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, she created some of the most powerful music of the 1960’s. Her 1968 debut Cheap Thrills, with Big Brother & The Holding Company featured a complete re-invention of the song. Here is a great clip of Janis Joplin performing “Summertime” in Stockholm 1969: 

Molly Johnson became one of Canada’s best-known jazz artists after working as a back-up singer for fellow Canadians Jeff Healey and Tom Cochrane. With influences that range from pop, R & B, blues and jazz, her 2002 version of “Summertime” is languid like the original with a more rhythmic approach. This is Molly Johnson from 2008 performing “Summertime”:

Here are the complete versions of “Summertime”, tracked through time.