Six of the best: versions of ‘Summertime’

Neil McKim selects six of the finest recordings of Gershwin's most famous song

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Six of the best: versions of ‘Summertime’
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‘Summertime, and the livin’ is easy...’ These words form the first line to one of the most memorable songs of the 20th century: 'Summertime', originally from the opera Porgy and Bess (1935), has been performed by thousands of musicians. That's not bad for a piece of music that was part of an initially slow box-office run. As it is George Gershwin’s birthday, here are six of the finest recorded versions of this iconic song. Choosing which to include was no easy task…

 

1. Abbie Mitchell (1935)

George Gershwin’s idea to write Porgy and Bess can be traced to 1926 when he first read the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, which was set on the fictitious Catfish Row in the Deep South. After signing a deal with the author, Gershwin began composing in 1934 and Heyward wrote the words to ‘Summertime’. The song appears more than once in the opera. Its first appearance is as a lullaby, sung by Clara, at the beginning of Act I and later it is sung by Bess. The first recording of the song from 1935 features Gershwin himself on the piano and Abbie Mitchell, who played Clara, singing. It is astonishingly beautiful and has been remarkably well preserved.

 

2. Leontyne Price (1960)

A post-war revival of Porgy and Bess in 1952 saw legendary soprano Leontyne Price take the role of Bess in a cast that included jazz singer Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life. Price was then invited to sing ‘Summertime’ with the Metropolitan Opera for a fundraising concert in 1953. Her rise in the opera world led to an audition in front of Herbert von Karajan, with whom she performed at many of the world’s leading opera houses. In 1960 she recorded ‘Summertime’ as part of a gala performance with Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

 

3. Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong (1957)

‘Summertime’ quickly caught on as a jazz standard thanks to its bluesy chords and was recorded by many of the great jazz vocalists, including Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. A version of Porgy and Bess from 1957 saw two legends collaborate on ‘Summertime’. Released on the Verve label of jazz impresario Norman Granz, trumpeter Louis Armstrong and vocalist Ella Fitzgerald's version bring out the jazzy elements of Gershwin’s tune. After Armstrong’s trumpet introduction, they duet on vocals with Armstrong’s scat vocals blending well with Fitzgerald’s crystal clear diction. The Hollywood string arrangement by Russell Garcia gives it a light and breezy backdrop. 

 

4. Miles Davis (1959)

The second album collaboration between trumpeter Miles Davis and arranger Gil Evans stands as a landmark in his prolific canon. This beautifully laid-back version of ‘Summertime’ is delivered by Davis on muted trumpet, set over a gently swinging and hypnotic accompaniment which is anchored by bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb. And the unusual orchestration includes French horns, flutes and bass clarinet: it's a remarkable adaption of Gershwin’s original tune. Biographer Ian Carr notes in his book on Davis, that although the trumpeter had found it one of his hardest records to make, he was delighted with the result. ‘I’d buy this record myself,’ said Davis.

 

5. Janis Joplin (1969)

The song even made it into the pop charts, most notably with R&B singer Billy Stewart’s soulful version in 1966. But probably the most well-known and extraordinary of the pop versions of ‘Summertime’ is by Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and Holding Company. With its extended psychedelic guitar introduction by Peter Albin, this version is drenched in the sound of the hippie counterculture of the late 1960s. And Joplin’s roaring vocals bring a whole new heartfelt dimension and anguish to the song. It’s certainly a sharp contrast to the more conventional versions. Here she is performing ‘Summertime’ live in 1969 with the Kozmic Blues Band.

 

6. Harolyn Blackwell (1986)

In 1976, Houston Grand Opera delivered a groundbreaking production of Porgy and Bess. The score was restored to its original length and this helped revive interest in the piece for a new generation. In 1986, an outstanding Porgy and Bess was staged at Glyndebourne by Trevor Nunn, with Simon Rattle conducting. The production featured a stunning cast, with bass-baritone Willard White as Porgy. Soprano Harolyn Blackwell took the role of Clara and performed a memorable version of ‘Summertime’. Ira Gershwin’s widow Leonore was among those to praise this production and it was later adapted by Nunn for a film in 1993.

 

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