I remember the first time I heard the opening lines to “Summertime,” and it wasn’t even the song itself I was hearing. I was listening to Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” from their 1997 self-titled album, aired on KROQ Los Angeles.
“Doin’ Time” is a loose cover version of the now classic jazz standard, composed by titan composer George Gershwin. Gershwin, at the urging of author Dubose Heyward, collaborated with Heyward on writing an opera based on Heyward’s play and novel Porgy & Bess.
A Night at the Opera
Porgy & Bess, a play about a disabled black man begging on the streets of a true to life Charleston slum and his love interest, itself is a monument not only to Gershwin’s genius as a composer, but to the importance of black culture in America.
Granted, this is a piece of work penned by three white guys, but they brought black folk music and life to, not just another vaudeville show, nor an atrocious minstrel show, but to the high form of opera. And when they staged the show in 1935, Gershwin insisted on hiring a cast of classically trained African American singers.
The result was an unpopular reception by a skeptical (and mostly white) Broadway audience. Despite the risk and lukewarm public reception, this opera would go on to be the most frequently performed opera in the US—for its deeply touching view of urban citylife, the music, and the jobs that it would afford hundreds of black performers in its history.
The defining moment of the opera would come in the form of a revival by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976, well after the groundswell of racial equality created by the civil rights movement. Black audiences no longer found the opera distasteful for its alleged Uncle-Tomism, but instead welcomed it as a set piece in a grander history of black culture in America, more plainly, American culture itself. In what other place on Earth will you find an opera based on the lives of poor black folks from South Carolina, performed by black singers, with music by a Jewish composer from New York?Early Recordings
And from that opera, we get several songs that form an intrinsic piece of the American songbook. Among them: “Summertime.” The song is sung several times in the opera, most touchingly as a lullaby sung by the character of Clara to a baby whose parents had died in a recent storm. Abbie Mitchell, who first played Clara in the 1935 production, was the first to record the song, accompanied by Gershwin’s piano and orchestra.
Ms. Mitchell, herself born of Jewish and African American parents on the lower east side of New York City, first studied music before the turn of the century. She would enjoy a lengthy musical career, even performing for the King & Queen of England in 1903. Porgy & Bess would be her final musical theatre performance, but she would go on to appear in many stage plays, coaching dozens of aspiring singers and actors in New York until her death in 1960.
In 1959, the film version of Porgy & Bess came to life, featuring Loulie Jean Norman. Norman, a young model and singer from Birmingham, Alabama, was recognized early on as a sensational contralto soprano, able to sing a four-octave range. Before her role in the film adaptation of Porgy & Bess, she had recorded with Sam Cooke and Frank Sinatra. Afterward, she would appear on many variety shows, contribute to several films (one of which included a duet with Elvis), and her vocals are even featured in the original theme music for Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek series.
The song’s roots were inspired by black folk music in the style of a gospel spiritual. And Gershwin’s use of the A minor key and pentatonic scale suggest a blues. These factors combined to make the song an attractive composition for jazz musicians and recording artists:
Only one year after Porgy & Bess debuted, jazz songstress and pioneer Billie Holiday covered “Summertime.” This instantly solidified “Summertime”’s place in jazz history. Holiday’s version would reach #12 on the US Pop charts—an unprecedented success, for the singer as well as the song.
“Summertime” would be covered over 25,000 times, most notably in a duet between Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, as well as a version by late soul legend Sam Cooke, but the most successful version, would belong to Chicago bluesman Billy Stewart. Stewart’s version would eclipse even Billie Holiday’s record chart-topper, placing at #10 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Stewart’s single would also hit #7 on the R&B charts in 1966.
Porgy & Bess would be Gershwin’s first and only opera. Only two years after its debut, the great composer died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. But the legacy of his work lives on, from the familiar opening bars of Rhapsody in Blue to the song “Summertime” (even in Sublime’s “Doin’ Time”). Those familiar with the tune, its slow and sultry pace, its minor pentatonic scale all conjure a hot Southern night—a lullaby sung to us by a chorus of black voices across the decades, to remind us that America is a melting pot, and that perhaps, come summer—no matter what’s going on—when you hear it, you believe:
Summertime an’ the livin’ is easy...
And while the cotton may be high, with summer coming, the linen's are easy: you're just one click away from a complete set to stay cool all summer long!
Gershwin, George (November 2, 1935). "Gershwin explains why his 'Porgy and Bess' is called 'folk opera'". The New York Times.
McGinty, Doris Evans, '"As Large As She Can Make It": The Role of Black Women Activists in Music, 1880–1945' in Locke, Ralph P., and Cyrilla Barr, editors, Cultivating Music in America: Women Patrons and Activists since 1860. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.
McQuade, Martin (Winter 2007). "Zing a Little Zong". BING Magazine: 36–42.
Nocera, Joe. “Variations on an Explosive Theme.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Jan. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/opinion/sunday/nocera-in-porgy-and-bess-variations-on-an-explosive-theme.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all.
Ostendorf, Berndt (January 1, 1993). "Review of Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday". Popular Music. 12 (2): 201–202.
Pollack, Howard (2006). George Gershwin: His Life & Work. University of California Press. p. 589. Retrieved 2013-12-29.