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My New Book!

Monday, June 16, 2014

June 16, 2014: AmericanStudying Summer Jams: Summer Wind

[As the solstice approaches, a series on AmericanStudies contexts for some of our most enduring summertime songs. Add your responses or other summertime favorites for a crowd-sourced weekend bbq—I mean, post. Okay, both!]
On performance, authorship, and memory.
Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” (1966) was far from Old Blue Eyes’ most successful song, but the nostalgic ballad of summer love lost was certainly a hit, rising to #25 on the Billboard singles chart and #1 on the Easy Listening chart, and helping to make its album, Strangers in the Night, one of the most successful of Sinatra’s long career. Yet Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” was not only not the first recorded version of the song, but it was released less than a year after that first version, Wayne Newton’s, which itself had reached #78 on the Billboard singles chart and #9 on the Adult Contemporary chart in 1965. And less than a year after Sinatra’s, Welsh star Shirley Bassey released her own version of the song! Such was the culture of popular music in the 1960s.
Newton, Sinatra, and Bassey were able to record and release their own verisons of “Summer Wind” in large part because the song had been composed by none of them, and instead by an outside songwriting duo: the music was by Heinz Meier and the lyrics by legendary songwriter Johnny Mercer.  For more than 40 years, from his earliest songs as a twenty-something in the early 1930s to just before his 1976 death, Mercer composed the lyrics (and occasionally also the music) to some of the 20th century’s best-known works: from “P.S. I Love You” (1934) and “Jeepers Creepers” (1938) to “Moon River” (1961) and “Days of Wine and Roses” (1962), along with more than 1400 others. So there’s no possible way to see Mercer’s career as anything less than a triumphant success; yet Mercer was also a singer in his own right, and it’s fair to ask whether it might have been difficult to see other performers gain fame from his compositions—which might explain why Mercer released his own version of “Summer Wind” (1974), just two years before his death.
Whatever Mercer’s own perspective, the question is an important one for any student of popular music and culture. Does it matter that most of Frank Sinatra’s hits were written by other songwriters? Does it matter that many of Elvis Presley’s were? When we remember these hugely influential and transformative artists, are we simply remembering their talent and presence, irrespective of these questions of authorship? (With Elvis there are of course related but distinct questions of race that these issues also raise.) These are complex questions, and I’m certainly not suggesting that we should not remember Sinatra or Presley (although it’d be possible to argue that the difference between Sinatra and Wayne Newton, for example, was at least partly one of access to better songs). But I would strongly suggest that our collective cultural memories need to include songwriters like Mercer far more fully than they do, and indeed that it is such songwriters whose works and voices can often truly capture the arc of American popular culture.
Next summer jam tomorrow,
PS. Thoughts on this song? Other summertime favorites you’d share?

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