[With another autumn upon us, a series on presences and representations of the season’s first month in American cultural texts. Share your fall connections in comments, please!]
On what a seemingly random 50s song can tell us about that era in music—and how we remember it.
The story of “See You in September” (1959) reads like many others in American pop music history, if certainly sped up from the normal timeline. New York City songwriters Sid Wayne and Sherman Edwards (the latter best known, many years down the road, as the composer of both the lyrics and music for 1776) collaborated to write the song in a single June 1959 day. It was shopped to producers that same day, and by that evening the Pittsburgh-based vocal group The Tempos had agreed to record the song. The group flew in the next day, the recording sessions were finished within the next few days, and the song was released soon thereafter; it hit the charts (becoming by most measures the biggest hit for both Wayne and The Tempos) but peaked that summer at #23 on the Billboard Hot 100. It seemed destined to remain a mid-level, soon-forgotten hit in a very busy era in American popular music.
And then came the covers, and more covers, and a few more covers for good measure. Between 1959 and 1966, “See You” was covered by no fewer than ten artists and groups, including doo-wop artists The Quotations, Hong Kong pop group Teddy Robin and the Playboys, and covers in French (by singer Olivier Despax) and Spanish (by two different artists, Marta Baizán and Kinita). None of those were the most famous or successful cover, which was released in 1966 by The Happenings and reached #3 on the Billboard chart. The covers didn’t end there—the 70s included versions by Julie Budd and Debby Boone, among other artists—but without quite the voluminous quantity of the 60s collection. And I would argue that this laundry list of 60s covers reveals just how ubiquitous that trend was in the early era of rock ‘n roll, how much indeed the period’s music comprised not a group of distinct songs and performers so much as an interconnected, often cross-pollinating world of influences and inspirations. Seen in that light, “See You” is a very exemplary pop song indeed.
You don’t have to take my work for it, as one of the most nostalgic examinations of late 50s and early 60s music and culture, George Lucas’ film American Graffiti (1973), uses The Tempos’ original version of “See You in September” on its soundtrack. Played (as most of the film’s songs are) by legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, the song is featured in this sequence, as protagonist Richard Dreyfuss contemplates the next stage of his life and says goodbye to his current one. It’s easy, when you listen to a dozen or more versions of the same song (as I did while writing this post), to lose sight entirely of its meanings, both literal and what it might mean for young people hearing it in that formative era of American popular music. But as it does with so many aspects of culture and society, American Graffiti effortlessly reminds us of such meanings, reflecting the role that music (among other cultural and social elements, especially cars) plays in the lives and communities of young Americans. In that way, any and every song, including “See You in September,” becomes both a window into the world of its production and a vehicle for remembering and reliving that world.
Next September text tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other fall texts you’d highlight?
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