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Summertime (1935)

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Origin and Chart Information
“...its ‘lyrics are rife with religious imagery...’”

- Will Friedwald

Rank 3
Music George Gershwin
Lyrics DuBose Heyward

On October 10, 1935, the American folk opera Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theatre in New York. During the opening act Clara, portrayed by singer/actress Abbie Mitchell, sang “Summertime” as a lullaby to her baby.


More on Abbie Mitchell at JazzBiographies.com

Other members of the original Porgy and Bess cast included Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, Warren Coleman, John W. Bubbles, and Ruby Elzy. In addition to “Summertime” there were over 50 songs in the score including, “My Man’s Gone Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I Loves You, Porgy.”

In September of 1936 Billie Holiday’s recording of “Summertime” went onto the charts and rose to number twelve. Thirty years later Billy Stewart recorded an R&B rendition which rose to number ten in 1966.


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

In February of 1934 George Gershwin had completed the first of the Porgy and Bess songs, a DuBose Heyward poem set to music called “Summertime.” He then spent the next 20 months completing and orchestrating the score. In the summer of 1934 the Gershwin brothers joined the Heywards at Folly Beach near Charleston to observe the local people and their customs and to continue work on their collaboration. After several weeks, the Gershwins returned to New York to uphold George’s previous commitments, one of which was a weekly radio broadcast entitled “Music by Gershwin.” By August of 1935 George had completed Porgy and Bess. After producing nearly 700 pages of music he is said to have exclaimed, “I think the music is so marvelous I don’t believe I wrote it.”


More on George Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

More on DuBose Heyward at JazzBiographies.com

On September 30, 1935, the opera opened in Boston to generally positive reviews.

Critics at the New York opening were divided, however, and the show was not profitable, closing in December after 124 performances. On tour, Porgy and Bess was also a financial disappointment, exhausting the entire balance of the original $70,000 investment.

Despite such a dismal start Porgy and Bess went on to become the most performed American opera. There have been numerous revivals over the years, the most notable being January 22, 1942, at the Majestic Theater which ran for 286 performances, and the March 10, 1953, show at the Ziegfeld Theatre ran for 305 performances.

Adding to the distinctions, Will Friedwald (Stardust Melodies)describes, “Summertime” as “the best-known piece of music in the opera.” He goes on to comment that its “lyrics are rife with religious imagery...” and it “is not only a lullaby but a spiritual as well.”

The 1959 screen adaptation of Porgy and Bess starred Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Pearl Bailey, Brock Peters, and Diahann Carroll, with everybody dubbed except Davis and Bailey. Directed by Otto Preminger and produced by Samuel Goldwyn, the film won the 1959 Golden Globe Award for Best Picture -Musical and the 1959 Academy Award for Best Musical Score (Andre Previn and Ken Darby). Despite, or possibly because of, the lavish production values and the handsome cast, a common critical opinion is that the Broadway musical did not translate well to film.

More information on this tune...

Will Friedwald
Stardust Melodies
Pantheon; 1st edition
Hardcover: 416 pages

(This book devotes 38 pages to “Summertime” and includes the song’s history, lyric and music analyses, short biographies of the songwriters, and information on performers and recordings. The book also examines eleven other popular songs in depth.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

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