Friday, September 12, 1986

On This Day (1936): Billie Holiday charted with “Summertime,” the most recorded song in history


Billie Holiday

Writer(s): George Gershwin (music)/ DuBose Heyward/Ira Gershwin (lyrics) (see lyrics here)

First Charted: September 12, 1936

Peak: 12 US, 3 DF (Click for codes to charts.)

Sales (in millions): --

Airplay/Streaming (in millions): -- radio, 6.3 video, -- streaming

Awards (Billie Holiday):

Awards (Sidney Bechet):

Awards (Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong):

About the Song:

It has been widely reported and accepted for years that the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is the most recorded song of all time. It isn’t. Not by a longshot. The song has been said to be recorded as many as four thousand times, but a group known as the Summertime Connection says they know of at least 82,000 public performances of “Summertime,” of which more than 67,000 have been recorded. GW

Despite all those recordings, the song astonishingly only charted once in the first 50+ years of recorded music PM when Billie Holiday took it to #12 in 1936. In the rock era, Sam Cooke (#81 BB, 1957), Herb Alpert (#28 AC, 1971) the Marcels (#78 BB, 1961), Ricky Nelson (#89 BB, 1962), and the Chris Columbo Quintet (#93 BB, 1963) all had minor hits with the song. In 1966, Billy Stewart had a top ten hit with the song. Fun Boy Three hit #18 with it on the UK charts in 1982. Janis Joplin’s blues-rock version with Big Brother & the Holding Company didn’t chart, but is one of the best known versions. SF The song also became a jazz standard with popular versions from Sidney Bechet as well as Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong.

Others who’ve recorded the song include Tori Amos, Cab Calloway, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Miles Davis, Lana Del Rey, Dennis DeYoung, Tommy Dorsey, Peter Gabriel, Al Green, Herbie Hancock, Lena Horne, Mahalia Jackson, Al Jarreau, Annie Lennox, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, the Platters, Lou Rawls, R.E.M., the Righteous Brothers, Marty Robbins, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, Sonny & Cher, Sarah Vaughan, Dionne Warwick, Brian Wilson, and the Zombies. SH

George Gershwin composed the aria in 1934 for folk opera Porgy and Bess, based on the 1926 DuBose Heyward novel Porgy, a top seller about a South Carolina black community. Heyward and his wife Dorothy turned it into a Broadway play and Gershwin, after reading the novel and seeing the play, turned it into a musical, SF with his brother Ira and Heyward contributing lyrics. George visited Folly Island, off the South Carolina coast, where the opera is set. He observed the local customs and soaked in their music and idioms. LW

Originally, Bess had a minor role. However, when Anne Brown – the first African-American singer admitted to Juilliard – contacted Gershwin, he let her sing for him and started crafting songs around her. He expanded the role to the point that he renamed the musical Porgy and Bess. Anne Brown played the role when it opened on Broadway on Ocrober 10, 1935.

“Summertime” is sung four times throughout the musical, but most notably as a lullaby to a baby right after the overture. The song mixed “elements of jazz and the song styles of blacks in the southeast United States from the early twentieth century.” AMG Heyward was inspired by the lyrics for “All My Trials,” a southern folk spiritual lullaby. WK The song has also been considered an adaptation of the African American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim called the lyrics for this and “My Man’s Gone Now” “the best lyrics in the musical theater.” WM


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First posted 1/24/2020; last updated 9/10/2023.

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