I’ve always liked Doin’ Time by Sublime which is (gasp!) approaching twenty years old. But I have a secret reason, because the breathy backing track is off a record approaching sixty years old by Herbie Mann that my Dad bought when I was still in short pants, and I still have the original, and love it. Well, and also because it’s based on Summertime; I’ve been in a musically-literate room where someone called it the greatest song ever written and while somebody else said “What about Good Vibrations?” a few heads were nodding. Let’s take a trip through the times.
What happened was, when I was a kid and we were living in Lebanon where my Dad was a Professor of Agriculture, drifters came through and sometimes we accidentally took them in. The pair I remember were called Ping and Leslie, lesbians and big jazz fans, who brought us, among other things, At the Village Gate by jazz flautist Herbie Mann. My Dad fell in love with it and bought a bunch of other Herbie Mann records, but I never liked any as much as this one.
Am I about to argue that Mann has the definitive take on Summertime? Nope, in fact it’s not even the best song on the album; that would be Comin’ Home Baby. But his Summertime is great too, because of the hip, relaxed, spacious playing of the At the Village Gate band, with a graceful sliding bass line, the funky flute and sparkling vibes floating over it.
Doin’ Time also isn’t the best take on Summertime, but it’s fun to listen to, even though you have to be a little sad about the death of Bradley Nowell, another shooting star sunk by heroin. Sublime, his band, is described as “ska punk”. Huh?
So, you ask, what is the best take on Summertime? Silly question; what’s the best flavor of ice cream? My own music collection has versions, along with Mann’s, by Charlotte Church, Big Brother & the Holding Company (feat. Janis Joplin), Billy Stewart, Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong, Patricia Barber (twice), Miles Davis, and Chet Baker. Guess what: They’re all good, except for Charlotte. I guess I have no choice but to offer a tour.
Big Brother/Janis Joplin · This is a live version, off Cheap Thrills. Janis really overdoes it because that’s what Janis did. It doesn’t quite work for me, but I love this version anyhow because of the weird contrapuntal electric-guitar arrangement, not really like anything else. Big Brother might’ve been a bunch of fucked-up smack-heads, but damn they burned bright. On iTunes, Amazon, Spotify.
Billy Stewart · I don’t know much about this guy, wiped out in a car crash aged 32; older than Janis anyhow. He sets out to prove pthat Summertime is really an uptempo funk-pop number at heart. He doesn’t quite make his case, but it sure is fun to listen to. On Amazon, iTunes, Spotify.
Ella and Louis · I am generally not a Louis Armstrong fan, sorry. I’m with Miles Davis on this, who just couldn’t get past Louis’ constant cheesy smile. Yeah, I know he had to do that coming up in the biz as a black guy playing for white audiences, but it’s still weird and bad. Also, maybe the problem is with me, but his trumpet playing never grabs my interest. Having said that, the version he recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, while the string arrangements are too mushy, is memorable; Louis’s solo has more soul than usual, he sings well, and then Ella really brings it on the last verse, leaping up to an astonishing wide-open vibrato-free high note on “your daddy’s rich”. On iTunes, Spotify, Amazon.
Miles Davis · Miles, as usual, plays the fewest notes while somehow at the same time offering the most musical depth and density. But I just loathe Gil Evans’ backing arrangement, gooey and plodding. Still, three minutes and 21 seconds of Miles bearing down on a tune is not to be sneezed at. On Amazon, iTunes, Spotify.
Chet Baker · Mmmm, I really like this. It’s the most conventional “jazz” performance, with the standard piano/bass/drums backing, taken maybe too fast, and the breaks wander way off the melody. But Chet brings a whole lot of emotion to his playing, and his rounded golden tone is just the thing for this song. On Spotify, Amazon, iTunes. But Chet recorded this a lot, I might not have your fave here.
Patricia Barber · She’s done it twice, once in the studio on A Distortion of Love; that version is mostly instrumental, largely a lovely bass break, then she sings it once straight through, not dressing it up much, which is the right approach. On Spotify, Amazon, iTunes. Then again on Monday Night: Live at the Green Mill Volume 2; I think she overembellishes the vocal line, but then makes up for it with a lovely unfussy deep piano break. It’s not on Amazon but you can buy the music straight from Patricia.
Live Video · And now for my own favorite version of Summertime, which I ran across researching this piece; Ella Fitzgerald in 1968, with a small band playing slow. Oh my goodness. And, well, Billy Stewart on TV, because every day needs a smile in it; and he’s really pretty great; also dig the flashy camera and mike work. I am sure there are brilliant video captures of many of the others I mention, but I’ve already been working on this piece for days and it’s late.