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Lady Sings the Blues

Lady Sings the Blues

Most of the great blues musicians over the years have been men, but most of the best blues vocalists were women, starting way back with the greatest of them all, Bessie Smith.

bessie“Empty Bed Blues” Sure, Bessie had contemporaries with blues-singing skills—Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, and a host of other ladies with the surname Smith. But Bessie Smith was the real deal, and her big, unadorned voice transcends time in song after song: “Downhearted Blues” (her first hit), “St. Louis Blues,” “Taint Nobody’s Business if I Do,” “Careless Love,” “Empty Bed Blues.” Classics all, never topped. “Queen of the Blues” Dinah Washington, though, did record a quite enjoyable tribute album, Dinah Sings Bessie Smith, in 1958. Bessie died in a car wreck. The story that she died after being refused treatment at a white hospital has been debunked by eyewitnesses; however, it was the South in the ‘30s, so it is true that she had to be picked up by a black ambulance driver and taken to a blacks-only hospital, where she died from loss of blood.

lady“Lady Sings the Blues” The lady who had a song, an album, and an autobiography named Lady Sings the Blues (and about whom a movie of that name was made) was not primarily a blues singer. Billy Holiday was best known as an interpreter of pop standards, a vocalist of limited range and power but immeasurable depth and feeling. She turned pop schlock into pleasant, solid recordings, and she turned well-crafted songs into art. But she also did a fine job on blues numbers, including her own “Fine and Mellow.” A fifties television performance of this song has been called the greatest jazz performance on video. It is an unparalleled lineup: her soulmate Lester Young, Ben Webster, Gerry Mulligan, Coleman Hawkins, and other greats take turns on solos that answer Lady Day’s coolly-delivered verses.

cat“Back o’ Town Blues” Catherine Russell is one of my very favorite singers recording today. Her five albums are consistently excellent, the best example of a modern singer getting a retro sound but in a genuine way. Her songs, old and new, all sound timeless. The arrangements and instrumentation get an age-old feel but without any creakiness, and without being derivative. And her voice, on jazz, pop, R&B, and blues numbers, adds to the timelessness.She has her roots: Her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong’s musical director for years. Luis and Louis wrote “Back o’ Town Blues” together; Catherine covers it on her 2006 debut album Cat. She does her father’s “Lucille” beautifully on her Bring It Back LP from 2014. Other blues numbers Ms. Russell does proud include “Under the Spell of the Blues,” “Sad Lover Blues,” and “My Old Daddy’s Got a Brand New Way to Love,” which has more than a little Bessie Smith in it.

“Write Me a Few of Your Lines” Another fine blues singer—and guitarist—is Bonnie Raitt. (She’s made Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Singers and 100 Greatest Guitarists lists.) Her father was Broadway leading man John Raitt, who starred in the original Carousel, Oklahoma!, and other classics. Bonnie’s been at it for more than four decades, always on the fringes of commercial success. Her earliest albums, before her first hits, are my favorites, with plenty of fine bottleneck guitar work and vocals that would’ve made her heroine Sippie Wallace proud. My favorite is her take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s “Write Me a Few of Your Lines.”


“Blues for Mama” Nina Simone could do it all, from Broadway hits to Beatles and Dylan covers, from R&B and jazz to early folk. But she seemed most at home with the blues. After all, her blues feel and inflections show up in the Broadway and the Beatles—and she makes them fit, makes the songs her own. I listen to Ms. Simone intermittently, when the mood hits. But I have so many choices, with more than twenty of her records in my collection, that deciding on one can be overwhelming. I probably most often go to Nina Sings the Blues, which includes “Blues for Mama,” or to her excellent blues-dominated Forbidden Fruit album. Nina Simone was “difficult,” as they say. As I read biographies and saw documentaries about her, I imagined that it would’ve been difficult to have been a friend or associate of hers. She could be blunt, self-righteous, and headstrong. But she put that in the music, and that’s why it can be so powerful—particularly her blues performances. A new Simone documentary debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and the biopic that controversially stars Zoe Saldana as Simone is set to debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. I’m eager to see both of them.


“Come on in My Kitchen” Like Simone, Cassandra Wilson feels at home in many styles of music, including blues. Wilson gets way into the “real folk blues”—covering Son House, Elmore James, and other old-time Delta bluesmen. She transforms them into something personal, but doesn’t lose one bit of the classic blues feeling of these songs. She interprets two Robert Johnson songs—“Hellhound on My Trail” and “Come on in My Kitchen”—on her 1993 album Blue Light ‘til Dawn. Wilson’s newest album, Coming Forth By Day, is a tribute to Billie Holiday, who was an inspiration to her.

“Move Over” I must mention Janis Joplin, the most lauded and successful modern-era blues singer. I am not a huge fan, but there are several of her recordings I come back to from time to time, including “Down On Me,” “Cry Baby,” and my favorite, “Move Over.”An interesting side note: I was fortunate to have the opportunity a few years back to pore over the papers of the man who was Chief of Security at UT-Austin during the time of the Charles Whitman tower sniper incident (1966). In addition to some eerie first-hand accounts of that crime, there were numerous reports from undercover officers spying on campus hippie types. A name that appears on troublemaker lists frequently, as a drug supplier and user, is none other than Janis Joplin.

Honorable Mention: Susan Tedeschi, alone or with the Tedeschi-Trucks Band she fronts with guitarist Derek Trucks, is an exceptional blues singer. Plus, it’s kinda neat to have a hubby-and-wife blues-band team. And a little more solid than Jimmy Reed having his wife occasionally sing randomly behind him on recordings. Trucks (whose uncle Butch was the original drummer for The Allman Brothers Band) and Tedeschi won a Best Blues Album Grammy for their 2011 debut, Revelator.

It’s the Talk of the Town

It’s the Talk of the Town

People will talk. Hurtful, suspicious language has overtaken not only social media, but the nightly news. What does one do when the gossipers gather? Ignore ‘em! Billie Holiday has the most widely known version of “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” a classic “follow the beat of your own drum” number. It was written by Porter Grainger, Clarence Williams, and Graham Prince, and seems made to order for Billie.



Helen Humes, though, does a masterful job with the song. You believe her when she sings, “If I give him my last nickel and I know it’ll leave me in a pickle, ‘tain’t nobody’s business if I do.” Jazz editor/writer Nat Hentoff writes, “I thought Billie Holiday had a patent on “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-ness If I Do,” but Helen stakes a penetrating, tangy claim.” Hentoff goes on to say that, after the death of Lady Day, “no other female jazz singer has the wholeness and consistency of jazz beat that Helen possesses.” Take out female: she’s right at the top of all vocalists.



Rumours was one of the most commercially successful albums of all time, and its success is likely due to the underlying emotional conflict of its creators. Fleetwood Mac gave the album that name because so many interpersonal situations had arisen following the success of their previous album, Fleetwood Mac. “The Chain, “credited to all of the group members, was the centerpiece. The McVies, John and Christine, got a divorce after eight years of marriage. Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, who had revolutionized Fleetwood Mac when they joined the group as a musical and romantic couple, also began squabbling. Mick Fleetwood had relationship problems of his own. Public and press also tossed around some of their own gossip, mostly imagined. Imagine if Fleetwood Mac had recorded Rumours not in 1976 but in the era of social media!

Mick & Stevie

Mick & Stevie

Band-member relationship issues can make for creative explosions. Just look at The Partridge Family. (Or maybe The Beatles…)

And speaking of Shirley Jones, it took Meredith Willson eight years to finish his magnum opus, The Music Man, which hit Broadway in 1957. Willson, a small-town Iowa guy, wanted to bring small-town Iowa to the stage, and he did it well. I was a big fan of the 1962 movie when I was a kid. I mean, there was little Opie lisping, “Oh, the Wellth Fargo wagon ith a-comin’ down the thtreet.” And then Paul McCartney warbled “Till There Was You” on Meet the Beatles. Lotsa culture cred.

Shirley & Robert

Shirley & Robert

A nice bit of Music Man business was the gaggle of gossips singing “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” out in the street, with the men’s club singing “Goodnight, Ladies” as counterpoint. My friends and I used to hyperventilate seeing who could sing it the fastest: “Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep, cheep, cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more.” Cheep thrills. “Goodnight, Ladies” was much easier.

“It’s the Talk of the Town” is a work of art, but it took me quite a while to come to that conclusion. It was created in 1933 by three guys not associated with high art. The composer, Jerry Livingston, is remembered for his songs for Disney’s Cinderella, including “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” The co-lyricists, Al J. Neiburg and Marty Symes, are barely remembered at all. Neiburg’s one other hit was “Confessin’,” made popular by Louis Armstrong. Symes wrote a couple of standards, “There Is No Greater Love” and “I Have But One Heart.”

I’d heard various versions of “It’s the Talk of the Town” over the years and thought it was a nice song, but nothing special. Despite the song’s pretty melody, the many instrumental versions of it are incomplete and never made an impression on me. It’s not difficult for an accomplished singer to put across a solid, emotional song like this one. Dean Martin, Sam Cooke, Brenda Lee, and even Fats Domino have done passable versions. Connee Boswell did a nice rendition, sans Sisters, way back in ’33, the year the song was written. But they all are a bit on the jaunty side and their delivery is a bit pat; the proper tone isn’t set.

The lyrics of Neiburg and Symes, who got it just right with this one, beg for unrestrained emotion. It’s a devastating breakup song: “I can’t show my face / Can’t go anyplace / People stop and stare / It’s so hard to bear / Everybody knows you left me / It’s the talk of the town.” The singer goes on to lament the impossible situation: “We sent out invitations to friends and relations / Announcing our wedding day / Friends and our relations gave congratulations / How can you face them? What can you say?”


The song needs the lyrics, and their utter despair should not be compromised. It was Annette Hanshaw, in 1933, who came the closest to capturing the desperation of the words, but even her recording sounds a bit rushed and hopeful. It was more than seventy years later, when Maude Maggart recorded the song (on her album With Sweet Despair, appropriately enough), that the combination of Maude and her pianist—and Al & Marty & Jerry—makes art of the most wonderfully devastating kind. It took seventy-two years, but “It’s the Talk of the Town” finally became a true work of art.

Shirley Eikhard had a nice idea with her song “Something to Talk About,” and Bonnie Raitt did a nice job of it in 1991. Everyone’s going on and on about something they think is happening, so “Let’s give them something to talk about.”

I got to see Bonnie Raitt on one of her first tours, front row-center, because of the girl I was dating. She and her best friend were most likely the two biggest Bonnie Raitt fans in all of Austin, and scooped up tickets at the first possible moment. I was not a rabid Raitt fan, but liked her well enough, and she did a fine show. More memorably for me, her opener was Tom Waits, just off his first album, Closing Time. I’d never heard of him, and it took a little bit of time to accept this disheveled guy in the cheap black suit and skinny tie, cigarette in crooked-back fingers, the other hand’s fingers snapping as he did a hipster rap. He did play one number I recognized, his song “Ol’ ’55,” which The Eagles had just recorded.

During Bonnie’s set, Tom sat on the floor in the wings, just offstage, eating cold fried chicken out of a bucket. I wonder if Tom and Bonnie were…Nah, don’t want to start anything.

Honorable Mention: As a kid, I loved it whenever Joe Jones’ “You Talk Too Much” came on the radio. I still smile when I think of the song.

Getting Some Fun out of Life

Getting Some Fun out of Life

The Senior Follies is an annual song-and-dance extravaganza that features a cast of over a hundred, all aged 55 or older. The year I turned 55 happened to be the Follies’ first year. A friend who was the pianist and musical director for the show suggested I audition, and I thought, What the hell? I’ll give it a try. I got in, and that year and every year since, I’ve had the time of my life, surrounded by some of the kindest, most generous, and most fun-loving people I’ve ever known.

It seems appropriate that the first feature number I was assigned that first year was Sammy Fain and Jack Yellen’s “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” I’d somehow never heard the song, a number from George White’s Scandals of ’39 that was a hit for Tommy Dorsey. Tony Bennett and Count Basie had recorded a great version of it. I’m a big Tony Bennett fan, and I also love Count Basie. I even own an LP of Bennett with Basie, but not the one that song’s on. Bennett’s New York delivery shines through, and he and Basie and the band all sound like they’re having plenty of fun.

bennett basie

With me on stage as I performed “Are You Havin’ Any Fun?” were tap-dancing twins in their seventies, framing a third tapper in her eighties. The three were in “nude” costumes, covering each other’s naughty bits with fluffy pom-poms, in time with the music as I sang. Now, that is what I call having fun.

The next year of the Follies, I was in a group number, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later Than You Think).” I had heard that one when I was young and thought its message was cute. Now, as a senior among seniors, I know its message contains words to live by. It was a hit in 1950 for Doris Day, sandwiched in between “I Said My Pajamas (And Put on My Prayers)” and “Hoop-Dee-Doo.” And we thought Doris Day was a stick in the mud!

Lady sings the blues--but has a little fun now and then

Lady sings the blues–but has a little fun now and then

Edgar Leslie and Joe Burke came up with “Getting Some Fun out of Life” in 1937, and Billie Holiday had fun getting it to #10 on the charts. She had such a way with a heart-rending ballad that one can have a nice surprise hearing her bounce through a song like this. Forty years later, pianist/singer/songwriter Dave Frishberg featured the song on an album of the same name. Another twenty-five years after that, Billie Holiday sound-alike Madeleine Peyroux also recorded the song, and it’s a lot of fun, too.

Now, Dave Frishberg is a guy who does seem to get some fun out of life. His jazzy compositions, delivered in his flat, Midwestern accent, include “Van Lingle Mungo,” a sedate ballad whose lyrics comprise old-time baseball players’ names and no other words, and the snappy “My Attorney Bernie.” “Bernie tells me what to do / Bernie lays it on the line / Bernie says we sue, we sue / Bernie says we sign, we sign.”

hank settin

A longtime favorite song of fun is Hank Williams’ penultimate hit, “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” You can hear that Hank is havin’ a ball as he sings, “You be daffy, I’ll be dilly / We’ll order up two bowls of chili / Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire.” Earlier in his short recording career, Hank Williams had another great fun-times number, “Honky Tonkin’.” Hank, like Billie, was known and loved for wringing pathos out of romantic misfortune, but could also cut loose on a song of happy and carefree fun.

“Long Tall Sally” is one of the original fun girls of rock and roll. She’s bald-headed, but she’s “built for speed,” and, with her, ol’ Uncle John’s gonna “have some fun tonight.” It was wild-and-crazy Little Richard’s second hit, after “Tutti Frutti,” and his first #1 R&B and top-ten pop. Both were recorded at the legendary French Quarter studio of Cosimo Matassa, J&M. Gone, except for the plaque honoring the man and his studio.

At the site of Matassa's studio

At the site of Matassa’s studio

Sally does sound like a bundle of fun, but my favorite fun girls appeared on three episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. Daphne, who had a basement-low, deadpan, chain smoker voice, was after Ange, with a come-on greeting: “Hi, doll.” Her pal Skippy went for Barney, but always called him “Bernie” in her squeaky, high-pitched voice. They were the fun girls of Mount Pilot, and Helen Crump and Thelma Lou did not like them one bit.

A lot of artists have “let the good times roll” over the years.

  • Forties: In 1946, Louis Jordan came out with a song called “Let the Good Times Roll” that made it to #2 R&B. Ray Charles had a pop hit with it in 1960. “I don’t care if you’re young or you’re old / You oughta get together and let the good times roll.”
  • Fifties: In the city of fun, New Orleans, Shirley (Goodman) & (Leonard) Lee recorded their own “Let the Good Times Roll” (#1 R&B, #20 pop) at Matassa’s J&M Studio in 1956. Lee sang it low, Shirley wailed it high, and they did sound like they were having a good time. Harry Nilsson does a nice cover of it on his Nilsson Schmilsson album. His voice is somewhere in between Lee’s and Shirley’s, but a lot closer to hers. “Come on, baby, let the good times roll / Come on, baby, let me thrill your soul.”
  • Sixties: Sam Cooke gave us his own “Good Times” in 1964. Cooke’s also made it to #1 R&B, and to #11 pop. Phoebe Snow’s debut album included a wonderful version of this one, backed by The Persuasions. “Get in the groove and let the good times roll / Like to stay here till it soothes my soul / If it takes all night long.”
  • Seventies: “Good Times Roll” was the first cut on The Cars’ first album, recorded in 1978. It’s a nice song, but, to me, it doesn’t sound fun. It’s a bit mechanical, in that late seventies-early eighties way. “Let them brush your rock and roll hair / Let the good times roll.”

sly fun

Honorable Mention: Unlike “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” just plain “Fun” wasn’t a hit for Sly and the Family Stone, but it was on their 1970 Greatest Hits album, which is where I heard it. The album it had appeared on previously, Life, was the one before Stand!, which took Sly and his Family to the top of the charts. “Fun” is fun, but not as much as its companions on the hits album, including its A-side, “Hot Fun.”

Sly Stone had “Fun,” but The Beach Boys had “Fun, Fun, Fun” (when Daddy took the T-Bird away). Great song, bordering on being a quota song because I was in a sixties cover band for several years that did it.

beach b

Dream Jukebox: I’d love to have a 45 of Shirley & Lee’s “Let the Good Times Roll.” Let’s get this party started!

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

What a Little Moonlight Can Do

Billie Holiday is the appropriate artist to represent the moon. Her second hit, in 1935, was “What a Little Moonlight Can Do.” She also had hits with “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” “It’s Like Reaching for the Moon,” and “I Wished on the Moon.” A nice bio of Lady Day by Donald Clarke is called Wishing on the Moon.

billie bio

The moon has inspired songwriters of all eras and genres to create some of their best work. My own favorite song list includes more moon songs than those of any other subject. So here are the moon songs I moon over.

Sheet music for "Moonglow / Theme from Picnic"

Sheet music for “Moonglow / Theme from Picnic”

The full moon at the top of my list is “Moon Glow.” It was written in 1934, and was a top hit that year for Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, and Duke Ellington. (As Ellington sideman Rex Stewart noted in his memoir Boy Meets Horn, “Moon Glow” owes a big debt to [meaning ripped off] Duke’s 1932 composition “Lazy Rhapsody,” which wasn’t a hit—so I guess Duke got a little payback from the steal.) Billie Holiday recorded it, too. It became a hit again more than twenty years later when Morris Stoloff combined it with the theme from the movie Picnic. My sheet music for the movie tie-in shows an almost shirtless William Holden and a pleading Kim Novak in some sort of romantic entanglement. Somehow, I have never managed to see the movie, but I imagine it’s the theme song I’d still appreciate the most. “We seemed to float right through the air.” Magic! My current favorite version is a vocal-group rendition by The Ravens, which features the sonorous bass vocals of Ricky Ricks.

Back cover, Nilsson Schmilsson

Back cover, Nilsson Schmilsson

Waning only a wee bit from “Moon Glow” is Harry Nilsson’s “The Moonbeam Song,” from the 1971 masterpiece Nilsson Schmilsson. It is one of Harry’s finest songs, right up there with “Remember,” “Turn on Your Radio,” and “Without Her.” The song sounds like it could’ve come right out of a ‘30s movie—except for a line that places it in the ‘70s: “Or on a fence with bits of crap around its bottom…” You wouldn’t have heard Fred Astaire or Der Bingle singing that one. A little schmilsson to add texture to the charming Nilsson. Harry Nilsson also recorded “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” on his 1973 album of standards A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.

“It’s Only a Paper Moon” did come from a thirties movie. The songwriters who went on to create “Over the Rainbow,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” and other gems for The Wizard of Oz came up with “It’s Only a Paper Moon” in 1933. The lyrics by Yip Harburg (with Billy Rose) perfectly complement Harold Arlen’s music. It’s all about the depth and meaning a loved one brings to the singer’s life. “Without your love, it’s a melody played in a penny arcade.” This song was in the movie Take a Chance in 1933, and made it into Paper Moon in 1973 and Funny Lady in 1975.

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” is ominous, but the cascading guitar chords of John Fogerty’s guitar cut the gloom and make the song quite peppy. I’ve sung it at parties, and the drunks always sing along gaily: “Hope you are quite prepared to die!” The same thing happened at a military salute hosted at the White House by the President: John Fogerty incongruously sang this song for the occasion, and the service-people whooped it up, ecstatic. Dave Marsh rated it #198 in his The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. Marsh says the song was written about Richard M. Nixon. I sure wasn’t aware of that when I was hearing it back in ‘69 on KLIF, climbing to #2 on the pop charts.

Among my all-time favorite doo-wop songs is “There’s a Moon Out Tonight.” It was a hit that almost wasn’t. When The Capris released it in 1958 on a small label, it made no impact at all. Then record collector Jerry Greene heard it in 1960 and re-released it himself. Demand grew, outpacing Greene’s capacity, and it was issued yet again on Old Town Records. That’s when it became a nationwide hit, in 1961, the one song The Capris are remembered for. It’s got quirky elements, like all the great doo-wop numbers do: the lead vocal inexplicably leaps up an octave after the first two words of each line; the tag features a downward cascade of each part singing a rushed-up “moon out tonight.”

Jay Warner, in his book The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, turned up several interesting encounters the Capris had with other artists:

  • The group’s leader learned of another group called the Capris, who’d had hits in the mid-fifties, when his mother brought home one of the other Capris’ records, which she’d bought thinking it was her son’s group.
  • The Capris got their recording contract by going on an audition at which one contender they beat out was Tiny Tim.
  • When they were looking for a follow-up to “There’s a Moon Out Tonight,” The Capris were pitched some songs by rookie songwriter Paul Simon. They didn’t bite. (Maybe they should have.)

“Moon River” is a song I only came to appreciate late in life. I’d long associated it with Andy Williams, and whenever I’d hear it I’d get a mental picture of Andy in an Apache scarf and tinted aviator glasses, surrounded by gauzy curtains. It was mom-and-pop music when I was young, and when I finally saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Hepburn’s version still didn’t shake Andy from my brain. It was only recently, when I was given the song to sing in a show, that it grew on me. The Henry Mancini melody is beautiful, and the simple lyrics are Johnny Mercer at his best.

c berry

“Havana Moon” is unlike any other song Chuck Berry wrote. It’s got a bit of the Caribbean in it, rather than a rock beat, and doesn’t have the Chuck Berry lead guitar. But it tells a captivating story, and is charming in its rough groove. Santana did a version for his 1983 album, also called Havana Moon. It’s a bit too slick—I prefer Chuck’s unsmoothed-out original—but it heightens the Latin rhythms and features a fine Santana guitar solo.

Honorable Mention: Yes, I was one of the millions of record buyers who helped put Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon near the top of the all-time album sales ranks. It really is a great record, but I probably haven’t listened to it in twenty years.

“Moonlight in Vermont,” from 1945, is one of the very few popular hits to be written in free verse. Songwriter John Blackburn not only didn’t rhyme the lyrics, but he made the verses haiku! Karl Suessdorf provided the beautiful music.


Quota Song: “Moondance,” from Van Morrison’s album of the same name, has lost its glow over the years—probably because I’ve not only heard it so many times but played it so many times. Three other songs from that album, though, are tracks I never tire of: “Caravan,” “Into the Mystic,” and “And It Stoned Me.”

I’d have to say that I’ve also had my fill of Cat Stevens’ “Moon Shadow,” which, at over forty years’ remove, is just a little too twee for me.

In the Summertime

In the Summertime

Summer’s here and the time is right for thinking about summer songs.  I am a Texan who looks forward to summer.  I’m a morning person and love to be outdoors during a Texas summer sunrise.  And I don’t really mind a sweltering afternoon, because summer nights are glorious: a reward for making it through a Texas summer day.

My daughter called one evening not long before the end of the spring semester to say that her daughter was doing a project for her pre-k class and, among other things, needed to list some songs having to do with summer.  I began rattling off song titles and my daughter stopped me and said, “She only needs two.”  Two?  How can you pick just two songs about summer?  There are scads of them.  But then I picked two, easily, that, to me, stand above all the rest.

First, my favorite song about summer and, actually, my nominee for best single of all time: “Hot Fun in the Summertime.”  I have long dreamed of having a jukebox, and when I finally get it, this will be the first 45 I load in.

It did make Dave Marsh’s list of the “1,001 best singles ever made,” in his 1999 book The Heart of Rock and Soul.  But it only came in at #314, barely in the top third.  Sly Stone’s 1969 hit grabbed me instantly (along with a lot of other folks—it hit #2 on Billboard) and has never let go.  I’ve heard covers of it that were OK, and I’ve tried it in every group I’ve ever had, but the song as originally produced by Sly cannot be improved.  There is no use trying to remake it.

Marsh talks about the corny beginning of the record that seems to represent the middle-class, halcyon image of summer in America, which sets you up for the funky trade-offs in the bridge that represent unrest and defiance, kind of “Dancing in the Street” meets “Street Fighting Man” (both summer songs, by the way).  I love both aspects of the song, and prefer not to read any meaning into them.   The best summer songs of my era are about memories, and this one brings back a flood of them every time I hear it.

The other standout summer song, for me, is the grandmama of ‘em all, “Summertime,” from the George and Ira Gershwin/DuBose Heyward opera Porgy and Bess.  It’s been covered hundreds of times on record, notably by Billie Holiday in 1936, and by Louis and Ella, who recorded an album of Porgy and Bess songs in ’57, and Miles, who did the same in ’58, and it’s been sung many thousands of times in smoky bars across the country.  It’s Jazz Vocals 101.  Young ingénue: “Man, I want to sing jazz!”  Old pro: “Start with this one, kid.”

In The Jazz Standards, Ted Gioia points out that Gershwin thought of it as a lullaby, and that it wasn’t until the ‘50s and ‘60s, when over 400 jazz versions were recorded, that it really entered the jazz canon.  At an acoustic jam circle I was part of, “Summertime” was sometimes called. It ain’t exactly a bluegrass number, but it does sound lovely with a backing of Dobro, fiddle, and even an artfully-plucked banjo.  Great songs transcend genre.

porgy                         lady

A song from my high-school days that, try as I may, I can never forget, is the #1 UK/#3 US hit “In the Summertime,” by the English group Mungo Jerry (which, before I’d heard of T.S. Eliot’s practical cat Mungojerrie, I thought was just a really goofy-sounding stage name for a singer probably named something like Gerald Montgomery).  One of the few pop hits that featured a washboard.  I heard it so many times back in 1970 that it would later join the list of songs I’d use to challenge The Amazing Jimmy, a one-time pianist band-mate who often said, “There’s no such thing as a bad song.”  Nightly I would name the worst song I could think of that day.  “Oh, that’s a great song!” he’d always say, and he meant it.

A Roger Miller song that I thought was also called “In the Summertime” was one that my mom and I loved to sing together in the Roger Miller slur: “In th’ sum’time, when all th’ trees ‘n’ leaves’re green…”  It was actually entitled “You Don’t Want My Love.”  I still call it “In the Summertime.”

My trio does Cole Porter’s “Too Darn Hot,” which is a steppy 1948 number that almost sounds modern if you don’t pay attention to its references to pitching woo, supping, and lovey-doveys.  Or the line “Mr. Pants for romance is not!”

I suppose The Beach Boys must be mentioned for their many summer songs.  There were some wonderful ones, too.  “Keep an Eye on Summer” is a beautiful, slow song in which the singer pines for his love, who was taken away by school until the next summer comes.  “All Summer Long” is the flip side (not literally), a bouncy paean to summer hedonism.  And then there’s “The Girls on the Beach,” just as musically gorgeous and lush as “Keep an Eye on Summer,” but with lyrics more suited to “All Summer Long.”  I hear “The girls on the beach are all within reach, if you know what to do,” and I imagine popping snare hits and jangly guitar licks, not wistful tremolo chords and Four Freshman close harmony.

Some of our favorite summer songs may have nothing inherent to do with summer, other than personal associations we have.  A lasting summer memory of mine was an early evening at Vickery Park, an amusement park with picnic grounds, long ago replaced with apartment buildings and restaurants.  It was probably 1965, and I was a skinny boy standing poolside in my little swim trunks, in awe of the older kids dancing to the extraordinary music blasting out of the jukebox: “Baby love, oh, baby love / I need you, oh, how I need you…”  “Baby Love” has ever since been a summer song.


The Amazing Jimmy “No such thing as a bad song” Factor: I hate to say anything bad about a song about summer, even one by Mungo Jerry, but I’ll stick with their “In the Summertime.”

Quota Songs (good songs, but have reached their lifetime quota): Some of the endlessly played hits are maxed out: “Heat Wave,” “Summer in the City,” “Hotter Than July,” “Summer Breeze” (Seals & Crofts or Isleys).  If I heard them in the right context, though, say, standing in line at Aunt Stelle’s Snow Cones on a July evening, they might get some slack.

Dream Jukebox Candidate: “Hot Fun in the Summertime,” of course!  And, yes, “Baby Love.”

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