This is the full, unedited version of a post I wrote for Boston Magazine.
With my day job marketing real estate entering the semi-dormant state of the dead of summer, my attention veers back to music, specifically, songs that I love to play during the summer. Since I am trying out Spotify, I will attempt to share a playlist there for the first time. Let’s see if this experiment works with this link. I make no claim that these are the 10 best summer songs of all time (you would need “Summertime Blues,” “Dancing in the Street,” and “Heat Wave” on such a list.) These are not necessarily even my top 10, but they are the first 10 that jump to mind right now.
One of my band’s (Buffalo Tom) best-known songs is called, “Summer,” in fact. And like that song, many of my picks here have to do with the passing of summer or are otherwise melancholy. In fact, one of my song’s lines goes, “Summer’s gone, a summer song/You’ve wasted everyday.” Uplifting, eh? I think this has every thing to do with growing up in the Northeast, where summer is so precious, and every year it seems to pass ever more quickly. We trot out all the cliches about the passage of time. And that is what my favorite summer-themed songs explore. Make the summer count, goes the sentiment, and by extension, make every day of life meaningful.
1. The Beach Boys, “Surfer Girl”
How could any list of summer songs not include a Beach Boys song? In fact, I could easily constitute the list with all Beach Boys numbers, including other melancholy numbers like “In My Room.” This song is all about pining all summer for a girl from afar, an elusive surfer girl, over the classic pop ballad chord progression and a bed of plaintive Four Freshman-like harmonies. Poor old Brian wasn’t the surfer. His brother, Dennis was. Brian was just a fish out of water more comfortable in his room. Pet Sounds was the real Brian. And so was his lament, “Surfer Girl.”
2. War, “Summer”
OK, let’s stop wallowing for a minute and just enjoy summer with this one from the band War. I am a child of the 1970s, so more than a couple of my picks are from that era. War sings of many of the cultural highlights of the ’70s: “Riding ’round town with all the windows down/Eight track playin’ all your favorite sounds.” Late they sing about vans and CB radios. It was like they had a direct line to my heart and soul, or at least my fantasy world. It has such a good latin-funk groove that you can’t help but chill.
3. Sly & The Family Stone, “Hot Sun in the Summertime”
This is one that would appear on the lists of many folks, no doubt. From 1969, the genre-smashing Sly & the Family Stone, offering a nostalgic look back at summer’s past, but still celebratory of summers present. Sly could ease off of the funk pedal now and then with a big blast of horn-driven pop like this one.
4. Lou Rawls, “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine”
Some songs just remind you of summer, even if the lyrics have nothing to do with the theme. This Gamble & Huff smash was released in 1976. Every time I hear it, it brings me back to summer of that year. I was 10, growing up on the north shore beaches of Long Island. This latin-funk-tinged slab of Philly soul was number one in July 1976. It poured forth out of every little Panasonic transistor radio on the beach, wafting over the gentle breakers on the jetty. I remember watching Lou on the “Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” that summer. Johnny asked Lou, “do you like any of the new singers out today?” Lou replied, smoothly, “awww yeah, man. I love ’em all.” Probing in that hardball way Johnny was known for, he pressed on, “anyone specifically you like to listen to?” Lou, kept his cool, undaunted, not prone to the sort of panic that would result in a weaker man blurting out something like “K.C. & the Sunshine band,” just purred again, “aww, I just love ’em all.” And I believed him.
5. Frank Sinatra, “The Summer Wind.”
Frank Sinatra once said that Lou Rawls had “the classiest singing and silkiest chops in the singing game.” Which leads me to a Sinatra number. I grew up with this song (my mother is a 100% Italian New Yorker) but when I heard it over the opening scene ofThe Pope of Greenwich Village, with Mickey Rourke getting all dressed to the nines for his gig as a restaurant manager, it was sort of life-changing, or at least a revelation. I went to thinking Frank was actually cool. Sure, we all know that now, but this was 1984. I was 18. Sure, I liked Frank, but I didn’t think he was cool. What the hell did I know? I was a kid, for chrissakes! I have sung this song at weddings, piano bars at Frank’s Steakhouse, and the Paddock, not to mention karaoke joints around the world. What a lyric by Johnny Mercer: “Like painted kites, those days and nights, they went flying by/The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky.” And what a powerful Nelson Riddle arrangement of a Henry Meyer composition! It swings, baby! the version on my Spotify playlist is an older Frank, live at Radio City, from 1990. The years in his voice adds another layer of depth to the poignant lyric.
6. João Gilberto, Meditação (“Meditation)
The bossa nova stylings of Antonio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto make for deeply satisfying summer listening. Gilberto is credited as creating this style, which take the beat of the samba but brings it to a stripped down, mellower context. Gilberto worked with the writer and producer Jobim to record some of the 20th century’s most sublime melodies and lyrics. Depending on the translation from the native Portuguese, these songs can achieve the same Zen effect of Haiku, with nature, solitude, and meditation common threads that run between the art forms. Gilberto provides this evergreen Jobim song with his unadorned vocal style, which allows the listener to just soak in the melody, rest in the gentle samba sway, and ponder the rich lyric.
7. Chet Baker, “There Will Never Be Another You.”
Chet Baker is closely identified with the “West Coast cool” offshoot of bop, which traded influences with bossa nova. One can here the similar “flat” style of singing, the relative straightforward presentation of the melody, and the gentle swing. There are few hard edges, but don’t this stuff as “light.” Chet’s singing is deeply emotional and he was a real jazz player, surrounded by some of the best in the business when he tok to the microphone for his seminal Chet Baker Sings (1956)
8. The Rolling Stones, “Memory Motel”
Growing up on Long Island, we heard about this being written at and/or about the motel of the same name out in Montauk. This record, like many of the Stones’ middle period, is actually quite underrated. This ballad screams 1970s summer and is one of my all-time fave Stones numbers. “When I asked her where she’s headed for/’Back up to Boston, I’m singing in a bar.'”
9. Elvin Bishop, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”
Elvin Bishop was one of those guitarists who had an act under his own name but had his biggest hit with a guest vocalist, Mickey Thomas, a top blue-eyed soul singer who went on to become the lead singer in Jefferson Starship. This smash was peaked at number three on the charts in May of 1976 but was all over the radio that summer, hence its effective placement in movies like Boogie Nights and Summer of Sam. It has that “burned out at the end of a hot summer’s day” feel to me, driving home all sunburned at the beach.
10. Grateful Dead, “U.S. Blues”
As I said, I am unapologetically a child of the 1970s, and this is an shameless summer anthem, filled with images of Americana, name-dropping the likes of P.T. Barnum and Charlie Chan, flag waving and bits of other old-timey summertime fun.