Sum-sum-summertime with the Oldies

Depending on where in the world you are, June ushers in the summer. Regardless of where you live, you are probably able to understand the glorious feeling of freedom that comes with the season. Actually, and I’m sure many of you can attest, there is a definite correlation between the wonderfully buoyant feeling of summertime and the joy that comes from listening to the oldies. Putting them together, you realize they are a pretty good match. Now, add in memory.

It’s something we specialize in here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure; recalling a simpler time. It’s probably a memory we can all relate to and recall – the end of the school year and the start of summer holidays. I wish we could all sit around together and share these memories. I’d love to hear the stories about what it meant to you. Was it summer jobs? Or did you spend every summer up at the lake or the cottage? Did you just stay in town, hanging out and enjoying the free time? No matter what you did, I’m sure you could all remember the songs that were playing at the time. As they often do, certain songs can instantly transport you back – to the booth at the malt shop, to the campfire, to the dock.

I thought that – to welcome summer, sunshine and lazy days – we might take a look at ten songs from the golden era that depict fun in the sun. There may be some you know well and some you may have missed but each song and their lyrics is designed to take you right back. Or, if you weren’t there at the time, these songs should give you a pretty good idea of what these kids got up to back in the day. Sounds like it was a good time!


DAY-O (THE BANANA BOAT SONG)Harry Belafonte (rel. 1956) // Harry Belafonte (b. 1927) released his album Calypso in 1956 and it not only hit #1 on Billboard‘s Top Albums chart – and stayed there for an astounding 31 weeks – but it also became the first LP to sell a million copies. It is a cultural touchstone and a symbol of 1950’s music; if you collected vinyl then or collect it now, it is essential to your collection. “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” or “Banana Boat (Day-O)” became Belafonte’s signature song and reached #5 on the Pop charts. A Jamaican folk song, this calypso number describes the end of the night shift on the docks where men have been loading bananas onto ships. For those of us who have never lived life in the Caribbean or who have never even visited the islands, this song and the album it’s on can transport you right to the beaches and into the milieu of island life.

IN THE MIDDLE OF AN ISLANDTony Bennett (rel. 1957) // I recently wrote about Bennett (b. 1926) and mentioned this tune in particular. This was exactly the type of song Tony hated recording but Mitch Miller, who at the time was a top man at Bennett’s record label, Columbia, strongly encouraged Tony to record it. Tony was disgusted with what he considered a trite song and agreed to run through it only once. I respect Tony and his great catalogue of work but I also can’t help but love this little ditty, which was also recorded at the time by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Much to Bennett’s dismay, Miller was “right”; “In the Middle of an Island” went to #9 on the charts and was actually Tony Bennett’s last ever Top Ten song. Thing about this song is that it is perfect for us dreamers. The lyrics depict an idyllic setting for two young lovers but they only describe a picture on the wall. So whether you are actually in the middle of an island or simply would love to be, this jaunty number successfully puts you “beneath the moonlight with just the monkeys and the palm trees…in a paradise for two”.

SUMMERTIME, SUMMERTIMEthe Jamies (rel. July 14, 1958) // Of all the celebratory songs on this list, this may be the most enduring and the most jubilant. The Jamies were a Boston group comprised of four young teens lead by Tom Jameson who wrote “Summertime, Summertime” and shopped it around to the local deejays. It was finally picked up by Epic Records and released in the summer of ’58. It joyously celebrates the end of the school year and the start of summer frivolities; and if that’s not the perfect theme for this list, I don’t know what is. And perhaps more than any other tune here, “Summertime” may be the most easily quoted. How many times over the years have you found yourself singing out loud the opening of this tune; “It’s summertime, summertime, sum, sum, summertime!”? So fun and so simple, even little children who have no idea who the Jamies are have likely sung this refrain many times. I was interested to learn that the Jamies’ manager was Sherm Feller, who would later find a sort of fame as the announcer at Fenway Park for Boston Red Sox games. Feller is credited as co-writer on the song though he contributed nothing to its creation. It was common practice at the time to include a manager’s name among songwriting credits so that they could receive royalties as a way of payment for services. I’ve often heard it spun that black groups were routinely “robbed” in this way but the white Jamies prove that this is not entirely accurate; it was simply a common industry practice and likely not even thought of as unethical.

HERE COMES SUMMERJerry Keller (May, 1959) // Truth be told, this tune is where the origin of this article lies. It was a recent discovery for me – it was not a song I grew up with – and its pleasant loping gait and wonderful lyrics made hearing the tune for the first time like discovering a rare gem hiding in plain sight. Arkansas’ Jerry Keller (b. 1937) was a church friend of Pat Boone’s who recorded for Kapp Records. Interestingly, Keller wrote “Here Comes Summer” himself and saw the record climb to #14 when it was ingeniously released at the start of summer in ’59. The tune reached the very top of the heap in Britain although Jerry was never again able to crack the Top 40 in the UK – or Stateside for that matter. “Here Comes Summer” was also a Top Ten hit in Norway, of all places. In the lyrics, Keller cleverly references Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” with the line “so let the sun shine bright on my happy summer home”. By the late 1970’s, this tune had been covered four times, including by Cliff Richard and the Dave Clark Five. I just now found out that Jerry Keller moved from being a recording artist to writing lyrics. He provided the English words to Francis Lai’s contemporary standard “A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme)”, “Almost There”, a gorgeous song by Andy Williams and one of my favourite oldies from the 1960’s, the Crykle’s “Turn-Down Day”. How did I not know this? “Here comes summer. School is out, oh, happy day…we’ll go swimmin’ every day…drive-in movies every night…meet the gang at Joe’s Café…” Sounds perfect!

ITSY BITSY TEENY WEENIE YELLOW POLKADOT BIKINIBrian Hyland (June, 1960) // Here’s a goofy little tune that I am forced to respect. Brian Hyland from Queens was another artist on Kapp Records. He landed in New York City to work with a Brill Building songwriting team, one half of which would later provide Shelley Fabares with “Johnny Angel”. Brian was given “Itsy Bitsy” to sing when he was all of 16 years old and the song was a huge hit. In fact, the tune was a worldwide smash, one that has been revisited several times in various different languages. When the song was released, the scandalous bikini still had not achieved mainstream acceptance but it is often said that this ubiquitous song helped foster a surge in bikini sales and soon the garment was seen everywhere, perhaps most notably in the coming surf movies. While the tune may be slight, it not only heralded the coming of bubblegum pop but it reached #1 on the US Pop charts. It also topped charts in Canada, Belgium, Germany, New Zealand and South Africa.

VACATIONConnie Francis (rec. June 18, 1962) // Recorded just two days before the start of summer, 1962, “Vacation” became the only one of Connie Francis’ hits that featured lyrics she had written. The song was written by part of the team that would pen for Connie a song about the “other” season, “I’m Gonna Be Warm This Winter” but the authors only had part of the catchy chorus written; Connie filled in all the other words. “Vacation” was initially the B side of “The Biggest Sin of All” but that track peaked at just #116 and the flip became the hit, reaching #9 and becoming Connie’s 4th consecutive – and last – Top Ten song. Almost as much as “Summertime, Summertime”, “Vacation” is a great song to sing out loud when the realization hits you that there is nothing but two months of summer fun ahead of you; “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N in the summer sun. Put away the books, we’re out of school…we’re gonna grab a bite at the pizza stand…we’ll hop in a jalopy to a drive-in movie and never look at the show”. Another perfect set of lyrics and a song well-suited for sunshine listening.

SURFIN’ U.S.A.the Beach Boys (rel. March 4, 1963) // The premiere purveyors of fun in the sun were Hawthorne’s the Beach Boys. Though Brian Wilson and Co. traversed more serious byways as the decade went on, their origins were certainly based in summer-type freedoms and good times. Beach Boy biographies are rife with the story of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” but, in a nutshell, Brian was in the earliest phases of charting his band’s musical identity when he heard from a girlfriend’s brother about all the popular surfing spots. Brian thought that listing all these places in a song was reminiscent of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”, a song that also namechecks cities in its lyrics. With the input of Beach Boys lead singer and lyricist Mike Love, “Surfin’ U.S.A.” was born and released as a single in the spring of 1963. Problem was, Wilson was the only songwriter listed. Litigation of all stripes followed until eventually Chuck Berry was given sole credit; today the credit reads “Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson”, though certainly Love was involved. The ringing guitar intro leads to an uproarious tune that celebrates freedom and travel. I’ll never forget the end of one of my own school years and writing in pencil on my desk some of these storied lyrics; “You tell the teacher we’re surfin’, surfin’ U.S.A.!”.

SURF CITYJan & Dean (rel. May 17, 1963) // Hot on the Beach Boys’ heels were Jan & Dean. Jan Berry, who basically “looked after” the duo’s recordings, was a student of Brian Wilson’s and was able to work with his hero on “Surf City”. Meeting at a party, Brian played for Jan and Dean an early version of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and the lads flipped. Jan asked if they could record it but Brian demurred, saying he was saving it for his group. But he did play for them a song he had been working on but was thinking of discarding. Jan and Dean loved it and added the now-iconic lyrics celebrating this wondrous place that had “two girls for every boy”. When “Surf City” became the first surf song to go to Number One on the Pop charts in the summer of ’63, the Beach Boys’ manager – and father of the band’s Wilson brothers – was enraged as the Beach Boys themselves had not yet scored a chart-topper. While Brian was proud that one of his songs had topped the charts, Murry Wilson was bitter and called Jan Berry a “record pirate”.

SUMMER HOLIDAYCliff Richard and the Shadows (rel. June 2, 1963) // With “Here Comes Summer”, this song is the point of this article and a crown jewel of summertime oldies. If we are not confining our interest to North America then it must be said that Cliff Richard is nothing less than one of the biggest pop stars of all-time. By 1963, Cliff was in the full blush of his popularity in the UK. It may be cliché to say he was the English version of Elvis Presley but he really was. Like Presley, Cliff’s chart success was augmented by the films he made, lightweight romps with lots of music. Summer Holiday is the exact equivalent of an American beach party film with European flavour. Cliff and his buds work on London double-decker buses and borrow one to traverse continental Europe. On their way to the South of France and Greece – decidedly different settings than Malibu! – they pick up a trio of girls and merriment ensues. Cliff gives out with the title track – #1 UK, Top Ten worldwide, didn’t chart in the US – with lyrics that are perfect to be sung nowadays by Dad at the wheel of the minivan heading out for a trip while the kids – and Wifey – roll their eyes; “We’re all goin’ on a summer holiday. No more workin’ for a week or two. Fun and laughter on a summer holiday, no more worries for me and you. We’re goin’ where the sun shines brightly, we’re goin’ where the sea is blue. We’ve seen it in the movies, now, let’s see if it’s true”.

BEACH PARTYFrankie Avalon (rel. 1963) // Speaking of Malibu, the 1960’s king of that West coast beach town was Philly-born Frankie Avalon. Frankie starred with Annette Funicello in American-International‘s surprise hit Beach Party, the film that launched a thousand sunny romps. Unlike Cliff Richard’s high-tone locales, Frankie and the gang opted for the simple pleasures of Malibu as soon as school let out. Frank released “Beach Party” as a single in ’63 but it didn’t chart but that matters little. The song serves as an anthem for all these wonderful movies and is maybe the best song to play when the school bell goes that last day at 3:00; “Vacation is here – beach party tonight!” Avalon continued to release records after this but had few hits and none were of the fun-in-the sun variety. But he has survived through the years as a symbol of both the golden era of oldies and these wonderful films that serve as a great escape whether it’s summertime or not.

Frankly, you shouldn’t need help getting pumped up for summer. But if you do and even if you’d just like a great soundtrack to go along with the celebratory opening days of the season of freedom, warmer weather, longer days and campfire nights, here you go. And being that this is Your Home for Vintage Leisure, all these songs are from that wonderful golden era and are bound to bring back delightful memories of the summers of youth.

2 comments

  1. Nice to see that Murry Wilson was a ray of sunshine as usual…In relation to Surfin’ USA, I was interested to find out that it had been part of a legal tussle. For some reason I always thought that there had been an agreement and Chuck Berry had been given a co-writing credit from the start.

    • Weird. Murry again. If I recall properly, with any hint of a legal beef, he just gave Chuck sole credit. I remember as a kid seeing the credit – with “Arc Music” as opposed to “Sea of Tunes” on my Endless Summer record. Always confused me. Only was corrected – Berry/Wilson – years later. I’d have to check to confirm though. Record pirate! Yarrrr!

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