We here in the northern hemisphere are in spring, and summer is not too far off so I thought it a good time to talk about some sunny songs. As often is the case there are many 'summer' songs that I have mentioned along the way in prior posts. Summer songs do not have to have the word summer in the title or even the lyrics; sometimes it’s just a tune that seems to go with the season.
The definition of a summer hit is a song released during the summer months, typically in June or early July that seems to coincide with summer activities and becomes widely (and sometimes globally) popular. There is such a thing as "the song of the summer", where a tune will rise like the sun everyday and perhaps every hour and become either the most annoying or the most memorable. I'm not sure how songs these days get the 'honour' as there are so many sources to get your music from, so the Spotify song may not be the same as the Billboard tune nor the same as the one from Apple Play. There was a time when the majority of our music came from the good old fashioned radio, whether at home, in the car or when gathering with friends. It was much easier to get a consensus on a song, albeit if you are a Metalhead you may not care about "Fancy" from Iggy Azalea et al.
Different countries and regions may have their own tune, so it doesn't always come down to only one. For example, “Surf City” by Jan and Dean may get the beach crowd ramped up but most people can better relate to the more generic “Heat Wave” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. The Billboard.com song of the summer list started in 1958 (the first year of the Billboard Hot 100). Rolling Stone Magazine has an all-time top list as does Spotify, though their list is not by year. There are many other lists for "song of the summer" and, they were not always #1 hits. The lists are kind of retroactive as well as the ranking in and of themselves takes the song out of its original time and place. For example, the Rolling Stone Magazine list is titled "The 55 Best Summer Songs of all Time" which is more than just semantically different from "song of the summer" and Billboard is literally the one "summer hit", taken directly from the chart success.
I will use lists as reference and may add in my own songs of summer as well. When one gets to a certain age, mostly speaking for myself, there is a point in time when we no longer worry about or seek out the "song of the summer". We get busy, we don't hang around as much with our buddies and often whether we like them or not, our children's songs (enter Waterfalls by TLC) become the adults’ songs of the summer. If you still keep your own list of summer songs or perhaps like me, just in your head from days gone by, then good on you! Since the Billboard list started in 1958, I will begin with a little history and then discuss songs from the 50s and 60s and see how far I get.
One might say that “Summertime” is the original song of the summer. The music was composed by the legendary George Gershwin, and the lyrics were written by DuBose Heyward (a credit is given to Ira Gershwin though there is some debate as to whether he contributed or not). The song was originally part of a novel by DuBose Heyward called Porgy (1926), then a play and then the musical called “Porgy and Bess”. The composition date is listed as 1935. The first recording was on July 19, 1938 and the above link takes you to the original release by Abbey Mitchell (Abriea "Abbie" Mitchell Cook, September 25, 1884 – March 16, 1960) who played the original Clara in the musical stage production as well.
Rolling Stone Magazine lists the Sam Cooke version from 1957, placing it at #27. I agree that this unique arrangement is an incredible rendition so if you’re a Rock and Roll publication, it's a fitting choice.
Currently Secondhandsongs.com lists 2,095 different versions of “Summertime” making it the number two most covered song of all time behind “Silent Night” which currently has 3,322 versions. I’ve found several mentions of 25,000 versions and Wikipedia sites Guinness World Records’ total of 67,591 recordings. Guinness offers no verified list but they do name a group called The Summertime Connection which is a fan-based organization that claims to have collected 57,316 versions. Whatever the assertions, I have no doubt there are many thousands of versions out there. For me, here is one of the best by Ella Fitzgerald. Now that we've established this song as the first bloom of the "summer song" concept, I will get on with some more tunes.
Songs of Summer
Nel blu, dipinto di blu
The first "song of the summer" listed on Billboard and from Wikipedia (which seems to just have copied the Billboard list) is "Nel blu, dipinto di blu" (roughly meaning in the blue painted sky) and better known as "Volaré". This plucky song was co-written by the prolific Franco Migliacci along with the original singer/songwriter Domenico Modugno. Just a bit of trivia about Migliacci, he wrote hundreds of songs, including "La terza luna" by Neil Sedaka. Yes, this song hit #1 in Italy in April of 1963, one of many songs Sedaka sang in Italian, he also did a Yiddish album and songs in French, German, Hebrew and Japanese.
This is much more than a summer song, in fact if the song could speak it may say "I'm kind of a big deal", not to take anything away from Anchorman Ron Burgundy. First introduced on January 30, 1958, after winning first prize at the San Remo Festival, it was immediately released as a 45 rpm single. After finishing third at Eurovision (recently named #2 of all time) it very quickly became an international sensation and was recorded in nine languages in just its first year. In the same year it was released it was covered 18 times in Italian. After entering the charts at #54 for the week of August 4th it spent five weeks at #1 on the newly formed Billboard Hot 100 in August and September. While it hit top tens around the world it was only #1 in the US. It would go on be the #1 Year End song on Billboard and at the very first Grammys in 1959 it won Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
The first version with English translation (words by Mitchell Parish) was by Dean Martin (my favorite, which hit #1 in the UK) with his dual language version. It was the first of eight such covers in 1958. The first Italian language release titled as "Volaré" was in 1959 by Connie Francis who was another artist well known for recording in multiple languages. To date, this song has been covered over 280 times, which is quite a number but still only 385th on the Most Covered Songs list from Secondhandsongs.com. Other popular versions are by Sergio Franchi (The 1976 Plymouth car commercial guy), and The Gipsy Kings. Apparently, Ricardo Montalban did not record this song, which runs contrary to my own and others' recollection. Although he did do a car commercial with the memorable phrase "fine Corinthian leather".
Other songs from 1958
“Nel blu, dipinto di blu” is a great song no doubt, but I find it difficult to picture the younger crowd dancing or sitting around the jukebox during the summer of 1958 with “Volaré” playing instead of the popular pop and rock songs of the day. Having said that, just two years later, teenage heartthrob Bobby Rydell hit the top ten in 1960 with “Volaré”. But back to 1958, The Everly Brothers were all over the charts at this time. "All I Have to do is Dream" is the only song in history to hit #1 on all the Billboard Charts simultaneously, occurring on June 2. It was #1 in Canada (May 5-June 2) and on June 19th it hit #1 on the UK Singles Chart. Also very popular was Elvis Presley's "Hard Headed Woman", along with Ricky Nelson's "Poor Little Fool". Both were #1 for two weeks that summer. If we look at the Disc Jockey chart (one of several before the Hot 100 amalgamation August 4th) the novelty song "The Purple People Eater" was also #1 for four weeks.
The better pick for me that year would be Eddie Cochran with "Summertime Blues" which came out in June and hit #8 on Billboard and was #18 in the UK. It was co-written by Cochran and his manager/songwriting partner Jerry Capehart. The Rolling Stone Magazine list of The Best Summer Songs of all Time ranks this song at number three. Most famously covered by The Who (their version ranked at #19) “Summertime Blues” is the only song to appear twice on the list. There is also a great rendition by Brian Setzer for the movie La Bamba (1987) and Alan Jackson had a #1 Country hit with it in 1994. Also if I may, an honorable mention for a memorable cover (in the style of the Who) from my brother Ivan's band, my fuzzy recall places it circa 1980 at the old Oxford Tavern (the OxBox).
More Summer Songs from the 1950s
To simplify (my life anyway) I will short form The Rolling Stone Magazine list of The 55 Best Summer Songs of all Time to 55BSS and all references to a "ranked" song are from this list.
In the years prior to the Billboard Hot 100, I would have to say "Rock Around the Clock" was among other things, the top summer song, spending 8 weeks at #1 during the summer of 1955.
In 1956 there were very few R&R songs that hit #1, except for Elvis Presley’s "Heartbreak Hotel" which topped the charts for 7 weeks from May 5 to June 16. He hit the top 10 with "I Want You, I Need You" (#3), "Hound Dog" (#2) and finished in September with "Don't be Cruel" which spent 7 weeks at #1 up to the end of October of 1956.
In 1957, we had Elvis again with "All Shook Up" ending an 8-week run at #1 in June. Afterwards, Pat Boone occupied the top spot but Elvis returned with "(Let Me Be) Your Teddy Bear", for 7 weeks at #1 until the end of August.
This brings us to where I started in 1958, but to finish the decade, 1959 had few true R&R songs at the top of the charts. There was Country artist Johnny Horton with “The Battle of New Orleans” and teenage idol Paul Anka with “Lonely Boy” (Billboard’s choice) dominated the #1 spot. Elvis had the only really rocking song "A Big Hunk o' Love" for 2 weeks at #1 in August. Ray Charles "What'd I Say" spent the month of August in the top 20 extending into September for at total of 7 weeks peaking at #6. 55BSS ranked the instrumental “Sleepwalk” by Santo & Johnny at #19; it was a late summer song that hit #3 on August 31 before reaching #1 for the last two weeks of September.
Summer Songs of the 1960s
In 1960, The Everly Brothers "Cathy's Clown" spent 5 weeks at #1 early in the summer. The made-for-summer song from Brian Hyland was "Itsy Bitsy Yellow Polka Dot Bikini", #1 for just one week but it was in the top 10 for July and August and stayed in the top 20 into September for a total stint of 10 weeks. Billboard would select “I'm Sorry” by the 15-year-old Brenda Lee which hit #1 for 3 weeks and spent more weeks in the top five and top ten than any other song that summer.
In 1961, Bobby Lewis was at #1 for 7 weeks in July and August with “Tossin' and Turnin'” and was the Billboard choice for song of the summer. Also from that year, 55BSS lists Chubby Checker's “Let's Twist Again” at #35. It hit top 10, peaking at #5 that summer.
In 1962, Bobby Vinton’s “Roses are Red” was the Billboard selection and Neil Sedaka’s “Breaking up is Hard to Do” was another chart topper that summer. 55BSS ranks Surf Guitar King Dick Dale's “Misirlou” at #15 and the second instrumental on the list.
In 1963, recorded before he turned 13 on May 13th, by August Stevie Wonder hit #1 for 3 weeks with “Fingertips Part II” and is the Billboard Choice for that year. "Surf City" by Jan and Dean (sounds like the Beach Boys because it was co-written by Brian Wilson) was #1 for 2 weeks and is ranked #22 on 55BSS. “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas is ranked at #34 on the same list.
In 1964, "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas hit #2 on Billboard and #4 in the UK. Written by Marvin Gaye, Ivy Joe Hunter, and William Stevenson, 55BSS ranks this song as the #2 Greatest Song of Summer and one of the few artists to appear twice on the list. "Under the Boardwalk" by The Drifters is ranked at #23 and Chad & Jeremy with "A Summer Song" at #52. The Billboard selection for that year was “Where Did Our Love Go” by the Supremes which was at #2 for 2 weeks in August.
In 1965, "California Girls" by The Beach Boys is ranked #7 overall on 55BSS and peaked at #3 on Billboard in August. The Rolling Stones hit #1 for 4 weeks in July with "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" and they are the pick of the summer for Billboard Magazine.
In 1966, "Summer in the City" by Lovin' Spoonful hit #1 on Billboard for 3 weeks and is ranked #10 on 55BSS. Also from that year, “Sunny Afternoon” by the Kinks ranks at #44. Billboard's song of summer is “Wild Thing” by The Troggs which charted #1 for 2 weeks. Other hot tunes were “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb and “Sunshine Superman” by Donovan.
In 1967, Billboard had “Light My Fire” by The Doors as the song of the summer. After 9 weeks on the charts it hit #1 at the end of July for the first of three weeks. Aretha Franklin’s “RESPECT” was still in the top 10 in July after 2 weeks at #1 in June. For 2 weeks before and another 2 after “RESPECT”, the Young Rascals hit #1 with “Groovin'” and along with three more songs, they were in the top 20 for 26 weeks. Also that summer, The Association preceded “Light My Fire” with “Windy” (#1 for three weeks). Windy, Light My Fire, how often do you hear those words!
In 1968, Billboard’s choice is “This Guy's in Love with You”, by Herb Alpert which was at #1 for 4 weeks. While Rolling Stone Magazine does not have a song from either 1967 nor 68 on their list, I think The Rascals (The Young Rascals prior to 1968) may have been overlooked. “People Got to be Free” was #1 for 5 weeks starting August 17. As just mentioned above, preceding their original “Groovin'” in 1967, The Rascals had a spring #1 hit in 1966 with a cover of Limmie Snell’s song “Good Lovin'”. One of these days I'm thinkin' I will do an ed. on all these apostrophe songs and maybe incl. abbreviated ones too! Anyhow, “Good Lovin'” was ranked #333 on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and along with “Groovin'' appears on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Author Dave Marsh placed “People Got to be Free” at #237 in his book, Heart of Rock and Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles of All Time.
In 1969 we have “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and The Family Stone which is ranked #9 overall by 55BSS. Billboard's song is “In the Year 2525” by Zager & Evans. This to me is no comparison to Sly's song, however it did spend 6 weeks at #1 in July and August. By summer's end people were so sick of the overplayed song it dropped off the charts completely by September. I recall that my terrified ten-year-old brain thought this apocalyptic song was truly predicting the end of the world ..."as we know it" but now "I feel fine". (That's for you David! A little R.E.M. humour folks!)
And a good place to stop for this issue, I may do a follow-up to talk about some Summer songs from the 1970's onward.
In case you were curious, the Rolling Stone Magazine list ranks "I Like It," (2018) by Cardi B, Bad Bunny, and J Balvin as #1 on the 55BSS list. Followed by the aforementioned "Dancing in the Street" at #2 and "Summertime Blues" at #3.
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Edited by Richelle Dafoe (post edit errors by yours truly)