A “Summertime” Classic: The Lexicon of Gershwin’s Languid Lullaby

Soprano Leontyne Price’s version of “Summertime” is number one on the author’s list.

Summertime is just about here . . . and the livin’ is easy, as the George Gershwin song goes. Songs about the season could easily number in the millions when you add up all the different versions. Consider the classic renditions of Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind,” Seals and Crofts’ “Summer Breeze,” the Lovin Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” Chad & Jeremy’s “A Summer Song,” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues,” just to name a few. And this list doesn’t even include the host of surfin’ tracks by the Beach Boys and the thousands of other cuts that evoke the pleasures of the hot season.

Gershwin’s “Summertime” has the honor of being the most recorded song ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, with more than 67,000 versions. Below is a list of the ten best recordings of the song, chosen for their diversity of approaches as well as their excellence.

I suggest going to your public library or visiting a streaming service and making a mix of these tracks to play at full volume while driving down a country road with your windows wide open. You can’t go wrong singing along to these cuts. Feel free to add ones that you love. With more than 67,000 renderings out there, you have literally thousands of wonderful versions to choose from.

Leontyne Price (photo by Jack Mitchell)

1. Leontyne Price: Great Scenes from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. The song “Summertime” comes from the opera Porgy and Bess, so it’s no wonder that the great soprano Leontyne sings it best! Her voice soars from the first note to the last trill. Price captures the languid, sensual nature of the season in a glorious lullaby: “Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good-lookin’. . . .”  Watch here.

Janis at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968

2. Janis Joplin, Big Brother and the Holding Company: Cheap Thrills. Janis and company take “Summertime” back to its roots in the blues in this jaw-dropping rendition. Joplin wrings every bead of sweat from the lyrics, while the band emphasizes the song’s formal structure in a way that complements all of the artists involved by revealing the complex nature of a seemingly uncomplicated melody. There are many live versions of Pearl (as Joplin was nicknamed) performing the song, including one from Woodstock, but this is the definitive one that put her on the musical map. Watch here.

3. Billy Stewart: The Best of Billy Stewart: 20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection. Billy Stewart may not be familiar to most readers, but the R&B singer had the most commercially successful version of the song. It reached number ten on the pop charts in 1966. Stewart’s take on the song, complete with his distinctive scatting and repetition of key phrases, gave it a sense of urgency. Artists as different as Bob Dylan and Quentin Tarantino are among the biggest fans of Stewart’s cover. Listen here.

4. Billie Holiday: The Quintessential Billie Holiday, Vol. 2 (1936). Holiday had the first hit version of this song back in 1936. Lady Day sang it straight while the band behind her riffed and improvised on the melody. Her voice is what holds the tune together and makes it soar. Listen here.

5. Willie Nelson: Summertime: Willie Nelson Sings Gershwin. Nelson offers a country version of the song by slowing down the pace and accentuating the beauty of the melody through his unhurried guitar picking and leisurely pacing of the lyrics. Mickey Raphael’s harmonica adds a Western touch to the material, evoking an open landscape, while Nelson lingers on the song’s inherent splendor. Watch here.

6. Miles Davis: Porgy and Bess. Producer Gil Evans lushly surrounds Davis’s jazz trumpet with an 18-piece orchestra. This allows the horn to explore the melody and offers flourishes without losing track of the central motif. Davis hits the high notes without straining and understands how to add silence to create musical tension. The music is simultaneously sophisticated and unpretentious. Watch here.

Carolyn Hester in 1961 with Bruce Langhorne, Bob Dylan, and Bill Lee in Columbia Studio A

7. Carolyn Hester: Carolyn Hester. Hester offers a beautiful folk rendition of the song using her voice and an acoustic guitar. She articulates every word as if each one has a deeper meaning. This plain rendition reveals the natural loveliness of the lullaby and the magnificence of it as a simple song. Watch here.

8. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Porgy & Bess. While “Summertime” is not a duet, Ella and Louis make it one. Louis adds a Dixieland touch to the whole affair with his horn wailing the introduction, while Ella sings the lyrics in a soft and easy voice. The contrast between Ella’s supple sound and Louis’s growl allows them to showcase their individual styles and what they share as performers. Watch here.

Floyd “Bud” Gaugh, Eric Wilson, and Bradley Nowell of Sublime in 1996

9. Sublime: Sublime. This punk-dub version of the Gershwin tune may have a whole new set of lyrics, but it captures the memorable nature of the song and its ability to adapt to a variety of formats. Sublime suggests the relaxed vibe of summer living even as it chops up the beat and mixes in everything from dogs barking and people shouting to scratching records. Listen here.

10. Caetano Veloso: A Foreign Sound. The Brazilian singer Veloso offers an acoustic version of “Summertime” with a tropical slant. He accents the secondary beats over the primary ones to create a lilting melody. This gives it, as the album title suggests, “a foreign sound” that is neither American nor Brazilian. Listen here.

There is also a splendid version on YouTube of two 20-something guitarists, Billy Strings & Marcus King, that has not been put on disc. I recommend checking it out. In the meantime, enjoy the easy living of summer by listening to these tracks.