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I don’t know about you, but as far back as I can remember – and rumor has it even farther back than that – there have been twelve months in a year.

Those twelve months are then divided into four seasons of three months each and all of those seasons have names which in most parts of the globe have far different types of weather.

This record was released in winter, typically the coldest stretch of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, yet the song is ostensibly about the hottest season which means that either Cincinnati, Ohio was enduring an uncharacteristically mild winter in 1952 or Syd Nathan simply decided to cut back on expenses this year and eliminate handing out calendars as cheap Christmas gifts to his employees.


Out Of Season
Way back in the fall of 1947 the first rock vocal group, The Ravens, similarly released an out of season single featuring this song.

Of course the two years later the hottest (pardon the pun) pop record in late May and early June was Baby It’s Cold Outside, a song that in the years since gets lumped in with Christmas carols each year because it’s far more appropriate for the weather around the holidays.

So who knows, maybe that was an indication that people were not as sensitive to extreme temperature changes back then, or just patently stupid and didn’t realize that songs with blatant references to times of year might be better utilized DURING that time of year.

Now granted, when freezing your ass off in February it is nice to think about warmer weather and if a song called Summertime can do that for you, maybe you’d be excused for releasing it out of season.

But when the version in question actually is so dreary that it makes you want to skip over summer when it rolls around and head right into autumn then there’s probably no viable excuse left for unleashing this on an already cold, miserable and unsuspecting public.

The real question though is how anybody other than a snowman could turn a song about summer into something as bone-chilling as Little Esther does here is beyond me.


Harlem Revisited
Finding the right material for Little Esther after her jump to Federal Records hasn’t always been easy.

Though Johnny Otis, with whom she scored a remarkable string of hits with on Savoy during 1950, could – and occasionally still did – write for her at Esther’s new home, they seemed to have shied away from that even if the rest of his band was surreptitiously backing her in the studio.

So if you were going to divest her of Otis’s hand-crafted material for some inexplicable reason, you could do worse than to have her sing a song that has been a part of the musical landscape for almost two decades by this point. Except that it doesn’t really fit into the market that she, Otis and Federal Records were all dealing in at the time.

Of course on one hand you could claim this version of Summertime was historically authentic. The prominent harmonica lending this the kind of ambiance the song may actually deserve. After all it was written by George Gershwin for the opera Porgy & Bess and meant to be sort of a quasi-spiritual with strong folk music connotations… even if most recorded versions prior to Little Esther treated it as a classy pop-jazz number with prominent strings.

So while you’re tempted to give credit to Johnny Otis’s crew for delivering a more accurate rendition of the composition itself, that doesn’t mean it makes for a good record and certainly it doesn’t make for a good rock record.

But it’s not simply a stylistic rift between this version and the general rock aesthetic that existed at the time, but rather it’s that this doesn’t work with Little Esther’s somewhat off-beat reading of the song vocally… idiosyncratic at best, confused at worst.

Her pacing is unsteady, full of stops and starts that tries to bring more melodrama to the story but only makes it too quirky and unmelodic. Her overly breathy singing likewise adds no insight and she emphasizes words that are completely inappropriate for conveying the song’s themes. At times her voice itself sounds good, holding notes nicely and gliding along as if on a cloud. But then as soon as you latch on to those vocals she switches up her technique and lets you fall to the ground, leaving you to wonder why she didn’t pick an approach and stick with it throughout the song.

But as frustrating as her performance is, the band is just as out of sorts here starting with the fact that the arrangement was lifted from Otis’s pre-rock breakthrough, 1946’s moody instrumental Harlem Nocturne, a completely different song with a much different vibe to it. But that billowing horn and lurching pace make the similarities impossible to miss.

Now that we’ve detailed all of the conceptual problems we can finally say that even if you were to find all of that much more tolerable in general, it clearly is misguided for a rock release.

But then again, as the last cut of the day, this was almost certainly deemed a throwaway… which come to think of it, isn’t a bad suggestion.


Winter Doldrums
Of all of the pre-rock standards in existence, this song is one of my personal favorites and there have been countless rock versions that have creatively reimagined it over the years.

This is not one of them.

That’s not to say that they didn’t try and come up with something different than most renditions of the song here, but when you’ve borrowed the foundation of its arrangement from another unrelated record of yours and given Little Esther far too much leeway only to see her stagger around in search of firmer footing, it’s no wonder that her Summertime comes across as dark, cold and downright bewildering.

It should be no surprise that this didn’t revive Esther’s commercial fortunes, for even if it had been more seasonally appropriate people would’ve stayed away from something that sounds so uneasy with the song’s eternally defining melody.

More telling though is the fact that as the follow-up to her only decent selling solo single on Federal, this doesn’t even attempt to build on those returns and instead sends her sliding back down the ladder towards irrelevance.

Anyway you looked at it, Little Esther’s summer had long since passed her by and though still just in her mid-teens she found herself in the midst of harsh unforgiving fall and was facing a long cold winter ahead of her.


(Visit the Artist page of Little Esther for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)

Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
The Ravens (October, 1947)