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…”

Alexander’s Ragtime Band

The Boswell Sisters , Vocalion 4239, 1938, #4 Pop

As a harmony nut, I find I’m often drawn to the music of sibling-harmony groups. Way back before the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers and the Roches, around the same time as the Mills Brothers, there were the Boswell Sisters, still unrivalled in their vocal harmony arrangements, which were heavily influenced by the music of New Orleans, where they grew up. They made quite a few recordings that are among my favorites, with nary a disappointment in their entire recorded output.

…you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change…

There’s certainly something to be said for the blend of contrasting voices (like the smoky baritone-against-brassy tenor of the Righteous Brothers—who weren’t brothers—or rough Lennon against smooth McCartney), but the complementary voices of Connie on the bottom, Martha in the middle, and Vet on top made the Boswell Sisters’ commingled syncopated phrasing impossible to imitate. Many have tried, including The Pfister Sisters and The Puppini Sisters (neither group actually sisters), and are enjoyable—but not Boswellian. The Sisters were very close, spending hours singing together from an early age, and you get the idea that they developed a psychic connection that allowed them to anticipate every swoop, every tempo or rhythm change, every pause, arranging songs on the spot as they went along. (Of course, I know their arrangements were carefully worked out and rehearsed, but I imagine the process was organic and smooth.)

The Boswell Sisters, the most musical of pop artists, recorded at least one great song about music in every year of their brief career as a trio: “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy” (1930); “Sing a Little Jingle” (1931); “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (1932); “That’s How Rhythm Was Born” (1933); “Rock and Roll” (yes, “Rock and Roll”—in 1934!); “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1935); and “The Music Goes Round and Round” (1936). All fabulous!

Any of these songs—or any other Boswells recording—could represent this group’s special charms, but I settled on “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” because that’s the only single of theirs I own. (I have it all on LP and/or CD, but, yes, folks, it’s at 78 rpm that the Sisters really shine.) It’s a 1938 reissue of their hit 1935 recording, with another 1935 hit, “Dinah,” as its A-side. You’ve never heard any other version of either song anything like the Bozzies’ renditions.

Another reason to use this recording to represent the Boswells is the New Orleans connection: Composer Irving Berlin wrote the song, his first big hit (in 1911), about an actual New Orleans bandleader named Alexander.

Now, Alexander Watzke was white, but Berlin’s song’s music owes a lot to black styles and innovations and the lyrics are in black vernacular. The white Boswell Sisters listened to and learned from black musicians and performers around New Orleans while developing their sound, which is hipper—“blacker”—than what any other white singers were doing at the time. (And their N’Awlins accents enhanced the effect.) Unfortunately, though, like Alexander Watzke’s band, the Boswells’ bands were always all-white. It was a reflection of the time: Bessie Smith got Louis Armstrong and James P. Johnson; The Boswells got Benny Goodman and the Dorseys.

Did the Bozzies want it that way? I like to imagine that they would’ve loved to work with black musicians and were open-minded enough to dream of a time, like their black counterparts often did, when black and white music-makers could make their music together, without apologies, without secrecy, without censure and rejection. I’ll probably never know the answer to that one, but I’m happy that the cathartic, expansive music of the Boswells was preserved long enough to be enjoyed in a more enlightened age.

Castin’ My Spell

The Johnny Otis Show, Capitol F4168, 1959, Pop #52

Back when Johnny Otis was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of identifying as one thing or another.

This recording covers a song written and originally recorded by the Johnson Brothers (not the Brothers Johnson, entirely different Johnson brothers who came along later). It was assembled, produced, and sung by Johnny Otis, fronting The Johnny Otis Show. It followed his big hit “Willie and the Hand Jive” and has the same beat, but this time overlaid with pulsing, repetitive phrases sung by Johnny Otis and Marci Lee. It has more to offer than the infectious “Hand Jive,” but it wasn’t nearly as big a hit.

Johnny Otis created a masterpiece with this recording, which improves on the Johnson Brothers’ original version from the same year. “Castin’ My Spell” not only has the quick close-harmony vocals over the hand-jive beat, but it is punctuated by fine electric guitar injections provided by Jimmy Nolen, who went on to play in James Brown’s fine mid-to-late sixties band.

I was telling my stepdaughter Alicia about watching the documentary Rachel Divide, about Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who claimed to be black. Even when confronted with incontrovertible proof she was white, she continued to deny it, much to the consternation of her biracial son, and to most everyone else. I had some sympathy for Ms. Dolezal, up to a point. She truly seemed to feel more natural as a black woman. But she went too far when she insisted she wasn’t white, I told Alicia. She could’ve just said that she felt more comfortable, felt more herself, living among black culture and community. “She could just say she identifies as black, and that would be acceptable,” I said.

“Oh, no,” Alicia said, “that isn’t right either. A person from a privileged race can’t just step in and ‘identify’ as a member of an oppressed race. She hasn’t earned the right to identify as black.” And that’s what a lot of the black people interviewed in the documentary said. A white person who “crosses over” can step right back into a world of privilege any time.

Back when Johnny Otis was growing up, there wasn’t much talk of identifying as one thing or another. But I imagine Johnny Otis, who was of Greek heritage (real name: Ioannes Veliotes), would’ve put his own situation that way. What he did say was, “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” Unlike Rachel Dolezal, though, he never lied about his background. He just preferred the company of black people, understood the black culture better than the white, married a black woman (in 1941!), with whom he had four kids, and made his name in predominantly black music styles. He worked closely with a great number of black artists, all of whom appeared to have been totally accepting of Johnny Otis. Johnny’s mother was not so accepting.

(Mezz Mezzrow, a Jewish jazz musician who immersed himself in the black community personally and professionally in the ‘30s, didn’t write any of my favorite songs, but he did write one of my favorite memoirs, Really the Blues. It’s well worth wading through his hepcat language just to be surprised by where he goes with it. Mezz probably would’ve also said he identified as black.)

You could say, I think, that “Castin’ My Spell” is not easy to identify as black or white. Its composers were black, and its performers were black, except for Johnny Otis. But it’s as much a rockabilly number as an R&B number, and its defiance of pigeon-holing is certainly among its charms.