This soothing standard was featured in the folk opera Porgy and Bess, which started as a 1926 novel by DuBose Heyward called Porgy. The novel is about a black community in Charleston, South Carolina, and it quickly became a top seller. A year later, with help from his wife, Dorothy, Heyward turned the book into a Broadway play (without music).
George Gershwin, after reading the book and seeing the play, thought it would make a great stage production. Along with his brother Ira, Gershwin collaborated with Heyward and brought the novel to the stage as a musical in 1935. "Summertime" is the most famous song from the musical and appears four times in the production, most notably as a lullaby to help put a baby to sleep. The lullaby style became very popular and many children grew up hearing this song from their parents, but the variations of the song in the production helped demonstrate the song's versatility, leading to its recording in a wide range of styles and tempos.
Porgy and Bess had a test run in Boston and opened at the Alvin Theatre on Broadway on October 10, 1935. The show had a disappointing stint in New York, lasting just 124 performances before closing in early 1936. The musical was performed in Russia in 1955 and made into a movie in 1959 starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr. and Diahann Carroll, who performed the song. After the movie came out, the Opera became much more popular and it continues to be performed as a stage production. George Gershwin didn't get to see his play become a big success - he died in 1937. The song's lyricist, DuBose Heyward, also never saw the song become a standard, as he died in 1940.
This is one of the most covered songs in history, with well over 2000 official recordings. The first popular cover was by Billie Holiday, who transformed it into a Bluesy number. Janis Joplin's Blues-Rock version with Big Brother & the Holding Company is probably the best known, but other notable covers were recorded by Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Miles Davis, Ricky Nelson, John Coltrane, Julie London, Angelique Kidjo, and Frank Sinatra.
The most successful version on the Hot 100 was R&B singer/keyboardist Billy Stewart's 1966 interpretation, which featured Maurice White, later of Earth, Wind & Fire, on drums. It spent seven weeks in the top 40, peaking at #10.
Fantasia from American Idol performed it twice on the show when she won in 2004, which introduced the song to a new audience.
Before writing the music for this song, George Gershwin rented a place in Folly Island, South Carolina, so he could soak up the local atmosphere for his composition. But he actually wrote the piece back home in New York. His friend Kay Halle recalled to theater historian Robert Kimball:
"George and I had an arrangement with the man at the desk at the Elysee, where I lived, if I was out and George wanted to come in, he could always have the key to my room. One night I came in after a dinner about 11 o'clock, and as I walked up the stairway to my apartment, I heard the piano. I tiptoed in, George turned and saw me, and said, 'Sit down, I think I have the lullaby.' I knew he had been working hard to get the lullaby and that he had done several versions that didn't suit him. And so he sang in this high-wailing voice 'Summertime,' and it was exquisite. We looked at each other and the tears were just coursing down my cheeks and I just knew that this was going to be beloved by the world."
The song is a great example of how an instrumental piece can convey a feeling and a sense of place - even without the lyrics, it still feels like the American South.
The song is simple to play, with just six basic notes, which leads lots of room for extrapolation, something many of the jazz greats who recorded the song (including Miles Davis and Charlie Parker) exploited.
This was the first song The Beatles played with Ringo Starr. On October 15, 1960, they recorded at the Akustik Recording Studio, 57 Kirchenallee, Hamburg Germany. The place was an absolute shambles, at the back of a railway station. The main vocalist was Wally Eymond, aka Lou "Wally" Walters, who was guitarist for Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. Beatles drummer Pete Best wasn't there, so Eymond's bandmate Ringo Starr played. This was only a day or so after Stu Sutcliffe was brutally beaten, so he wasn't involved, although it's possible he was in attendance; Johnny Guitar and Ty Brian were also at the recording as observers only. They also recorded "September Song" and "Fever." Nine copies of the record were pressed. "Summertime" was the A side with "Fever" on the B side.
Janis Joplin performed this at the Woodstock festival in 1969. It was also the last song she sang in concert, as it was the last song in her set at her last show on August 12, 1970 at Harvard. (thanks, Bertrand - Paris, France)
Sublime's 1996 song "Doin' Time
" is based on this.