Hot Fun in the Summertime

Sly and the Family Stone, Epic 5-10497, 1969, #2 Pop and #3 R&B

My favorite song of summer and probably my strongest contender for best single of all time is “Hot Fun in the Summertime.” The song does a lot of blending: strings against Larry Graham’s funky bass; lush four-part harmonies against belted-out solos; straight-eights against syncopated rhythms. Not to mention the band’s diversity of personnel: black, white, male, and female. It all manages to work together and make magic happen, like most of the band’s output during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

It did make Dave Marsh’s list of the “1,001 best singles ever made,” in his 1999 book The Heart of Rock and Soul. But it only came in at #314, barely in the top third. Marsh talks about the corny beginning of the record that seems to represent the middle-class, halcyon image of summer in America, which sets you up for the funky trade-offs in the bridge that represent unrest and defiance, kind of “Dancing in the Street” meets “Street Fighting Man” (two other great “summer” songs, by the way). I love both aspects of the song, and prefer not to read any meaning into them. The best summer songs of my era are about memories, and this one brings back a flood of them every time I hear it.
Sly Stone’s 1969 hit grabbed me instantly (along with a lot of other folks—it hit #2 on Billboard) and has never let go. I’ve heard covers of it that were OK, but the song as originally produced by Sly cannot be improved. “Everyday People,” another great example of a perfect record, is further evidence that songwriter/singer/bandleader/ keyboardist Sly was probably most talented as a producer. Covering these songs is like remaking Psycho—why mess with perfection?

Sly and the Family Stone were the ultimate representation of racial unity in pop music. Their lineup was interracial, and songs like “Everyday People” and many others on their albums Stand! and There’s a Riot Goin’ On promote racial harmony or lampoon intolerance.

Duke Ellington was often criticized for not being vocally opposed to segregation and racism back in the day. He would respond that he not only had suffered the indignities of being black in America but had long portrayed black life and culture in his music. Music was his way of supporting black culture and, as one of the most popular artists of his time, exposing white audiences to it. His longer work Black, Brown, and Beige (“a tone parallel to the history of the Negro in America,” as Duke said), and songs like “Harlem Air Shaft,” “Sepia Panorama,” “Creole Love Song,” and many others celebrated black life.

My all-time favorite Ellington recording, out of many contenders, is from his meet-up with John Coltrane. “In a Sentimental Mood” is a beautiful song written by Duke (with a big assist from early band-member Toby Hardwick) in 1935 and recorded many times by his Orchestra and by other artists. But the 1962 recording of the song trumps them all. Duke’s influence (and his compositions) brought out Coltrane’s lyricism and soulfulness on Duke Ellington & John Coltrane. And I think Coltrane made Duke a bit more adventurous than usual.

There’s an interesting tidbit about this song in the fine 2013 Terry Teachout bio Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington. Duke chose “In a Sentimental Mood” when a white friend asked him which of his compositions he felt was “a typical Negro piece.” When the friend said he was surprised by the answer, the composer of “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Creole Love Call,” and Black, Brown, and Beige explained: “Ah, that’s because you don’t know what it’s like to be a Negro.”

“Hot Fun in the Summertime” has always seemed to me to be the most perfect slice-of-black-life song of its time—over all the great contenders from James Brown or Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, but Duke (and maybe even Sly) would probably say, “You don’t know what it’s like…”

Passion Flower

Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra, Bluebird 30-0817, 1944

If you haven’t listened to this record before, you may be startled like I was after the first eight bars, when Johnny Hodges’ alto sax leaps up out of the horn section’s measured, blended ensemble with its eerie, keening cries. Jarring, and then profoundly beautiful.
There was no better pairing of instrumentalist and songwriter in all of popular music than Johnny Hodges and Billy Strayhorn. Hodges was an Ellington stalwart on sax for decades, and was a key component in the Ellington Orchestra’s sound. But he was particularly suited to the ballads of Mr. Strayhorn, Mr. Ellington’s right-hand composer-arranger-accompanist.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers

Strayhorn’s most well-known composition is the bouncy, up-tempo Ellington Orchestra theme song “Take the ‘A’ Train.” But his ballads especially draw me in, with their deep, dark, alluring beauty. His moody, complex “Lush Life” made it into Will Friedwald’s Stardust Melodies: A Biography of 12 of America’s Most Popular Songs, right alongside “Mac the Knife,” “My Funny Valentine,” and, of course, “Stardust.”

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a disproportionate number of Strayhorn’s slow-to-medium-tempo compositions were named after flowers: “Lotus Blossom,” “Lament for an Orchid,” “Ballad for Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters,” “Violet Blue,” “In a Blue Summer Garden.” Best of all of these, though—right up there with “Daydream” and “Chelsea Bridge”—were “Passion Flower” (1944) and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” (1947).

Others have covered these songs. Strayhorn himself recorded them in Paris in 1961, on The Peaceful Side. (Incredibly, on this, his only album as leader, Strayhorn is not given writing credits for these songs! “Passion Flower” is shown as being by E. Coates and G. Wiskin, and “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing” is credited to Duke Ellington. According to David Hajdu, in his Billy bio Lush Life, Strayhorn wrote in his name on copies he gave to friends.) The recordings are truly beautiful, with assists from the vocal group The Paris Blue Notes and a string quartet. But we miss Johnny Hodges.

Hodges introduced both of these songs on side projects, as Johnny Hodges & His Orchestra. The “Orchestra” playing on “Passion Flower” comprised Ellington players Jimmy Blanton, Sonny Greer, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Ray Nance, and the Duke himself. A mostly different set of Ellingtonians played on “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” and Billy Strayhorn himself handled piano duties. Nice backup bands, yes, to allow Hodges’ alto to careen and wail so untethered, so plaintively that the immense emotional depth of Strayhorn as channeled through Hodges is overwhelming. How fortuitous it was that these two were brought together musically.

Solitude

Duke Ellington, Victor 27564, 1941

“In my solitude you haunt me / With dreadful ease of days gone by.” Dreadful ease? Sounds like a post-punk band-name, or maybe a vape flavor. What in the hell was lyricist Eddie DeLange thinking when he wrote that? Well, he didn’t write that. He wrote “reveries,” and someone, rather than locating sheet music for this classic song or listening just a wee bit more carefully (and thinking about it for a moment), heard it as “dreadful ease.” And figured that made sense. So these mis-heard lyrics are all over the internet.

According to Duke Ellington, writing in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, he composed this most gorgeous of songs in 1934, as a rush job for a recording session that needed one more song. Lyrics were added later by DeLange. Ellington’s manager Irving Mills also took writing credit, as he often did without contributing a word or a note, to get a cut.

Ellington’s Orchestra had a hit with it late in ’34, and I have that version on vinyl. But I came across a 78 recorded in 1941 that’s all Duke, at the piano. I do love to listen to Duke playing solo—in his solitude, you might say—but often prefer him amidst the colorations of his hand-picked, well-groomed band members. In this case, though, the feeling of solitude is intensified by the focus of the one instrument, the performance in the hands of the song’s creator. Along the way, he tosses in a few of his usual flourishes, but not to excess, and makes an odd modulation, from Db to F, sound perfectly natural.

The flip side of Duke’s solo “Solitude” is Henry Creamer and Turner Layton’s 1921 composition “Dear Old Southland,” which was an oldie by 1941. Duke went it alone on that one, too, recording it, with a little stride action, on the same day as “Solitude.”

Many of the great pre-rock vocalists recorded fine versions of this one, particularly the great ladies—Ella, Sarah, Nina, and especially Billie.

I performed this song for years with a vocal trio. I got something wrong about it, but it was intentional: changing a minor chord to a major in the third bar of the verse, which I always felt was sacrilege, but I liked the way it sounded vocally. So, sorry, Duke. At least I never sang “with dreadful ease of days gone by.”