ARTIST: Sarah Vaughan
Listen to it here:
Summertime was written by George Gershwin for his 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, with lyrics by DuBose Heyward who wrote the novel Porgy. Gershwin started writing the song in 1933 and tried to recreate the feel of a spiritual. The song is reprised several times throughout Porgy and Bess, heard first in act 1 as a lullaby. The first time the song was laid to tape was on July 19, 1935 by Abbie Mitchell, accompanied by Gershwin himself on piano. It has been covered countless times by many notable artists, including Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, Janis Joplin and Sublime.
Sarah Vaughan was born in Newark, New Jersey on March 27, 1924 to musical parents. Vaughan began her musical training at age 7 with piano lessons and singing in the church choir. She often frequented New York City and by the time she was 18 years old, her friend convinced her to enter the Apollo Theatre Amateur Night. Vaughan decided she would play piano for her friend and the duo came in second, at which point Vaughan decided to compete as a solo artist, which she won ($10 and a week’s engagement at the Apollo). A few months later she opened there for Ella Fitzgerald. While at the Apollo, she met bandleader Earl Hines, who replaced his female lead singer with Vaughan. She toured with Hines’ band, and in 1944 left to join Billy Eckstine’s band where she was recorded for the first time on the song “I’ll Wait and Pray”. At the end of 1944 she left Eckstine’s band to pursue a solo career, and through 1948 she toured, recorded and performed at many famous venues with many famous musicians. She signed with Columbia and saw more and more chart success with songs like Black Coffee, Make Believe, and Thinking of You. In 1953 her manager/husband negotiated a contract with Mercury records after her relationship with Columbia soured. She saw more and more success with Mercury, with her success peaking in 1959 with “Broken Hearted Melody”, a song she didn’t actually like but earned her a gold record nonetheless.
The late 1950s saw Vaughan touring non stop, performing at Carnegie Hall, Newport Jazz Festival, and a tour of Europe and her UK debut. The end of the 1950s saw the dissolution of her personal and professional relationship with her husband/manager and the start of a new marriage/managerial relationship. Together she and her new beau CB Atkins adopted a baby girl, but times were tough as Atkins was violent and his gambling had landed the couple in $150,000 debt and their house being repossessed. In 1963, Vaughan filed for divorce. Vaughan eventually met a new man who was kind to her and meticulously managed her career through the 1970s and 80s, until her health started to decline in 1989 and was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer. Vaughan died at home on April 3, 1990.
Through the marriage of her daughter Debra “Paris”, Sarah was the mother-in-law of former NHLer Russ Courtnall.
Embarrassingly, prior to listening to this song I haven’t really listened to a lot of Sarah Vaughan. I remember hearing her for the first time back in the late 90s/early 2000s with the swing and jazz revival and dismissing her as an Ella Fitzgerald wannabe, but now as I am a very mature adult (ha) with a more sophisticated ear, I can confidently say that Sarah’s voice is butterscotch. It’s so warm and smooth and effortlessly flows around the lines and licks on the song. Her voice is so present that I had to go back and listen a few times to try and pay attention to the accompaniment! There’s a saxophone in there…anyway, this song is SO famous that again it’s hard to be objective, and I honestly don’t know what Porgy and Bess is about, so I can’t comment as to whether Vaughan’s version suits the opera, but I definitely like her version. Summertime is one of those standards that I actually really like (call me cheesy, but I really like Gershwin stuff), and whenever I see it on a track list, I’m always interested to hear what the artist has done with it. Sarah’s version is a must-have.
I’m not a huge fan of Sarah Vaughan’s voice normally. It has a weird quality to it that I always find a little bit off-putting. But, even in spite of this, her version of Summertime has got to be one of the best around. There’s such a dark and ominous aura around the drums and bass, which Vaughan plays off of beautifully. The song itself is so simple, but Sarah Vaughan does a great job of pulling out all the complexity of the lyrics. I also love the little baritone saxophone interjections that come in. Everyone knows this song, but unfortunately not many people know this version, so I’m super glad it’s on this list. Too often Summertime gets oversimplified, or this simpering, cutesy quality.
Average mark out of 10:
Other notable versions of this song:
The incomparable Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company:
One of my (Kelly) favourites ever, Sam Cooke:
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Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:
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