If you spend enough time reading this blog, you will discover that I like Billy Stewart. Why did I buy this record? Not just because I like Billy Stewart. I bought it because he completely deconstructs the traditional arrangement of this Gershwin standard and reconstructs it in a way no one else has before or since. Listen to Sam Cooke’s take from his first single and you will know what I mean. (Trivia: Cooke’s take on “Summertime” was supposed to be the A-side, until radio stations started to get requests for the B-side, “You Send Me”. The rest is history, as the cliché goes.)
Getting Billy Stewart into the studio was no easy feat. He preferred performing in front of an audience where he could work/feed off the crowd and improvise per the mood of the house. Working off a lyric sheet, sticking to a backing track, take after take after take in the studio… those were not things Stewart wanted to do.
Producer Billy Davis found the solution. Davis had produced recordings with Stewart since 1962. After three years and several R&B hits, Davis had developed an understanding of what made Stewart tick as a performer. It was decided that for Stewart’s first album he would sing a number of pop standards from the American songbook in his own style, the aim to achieve crossover success on the pop charts. Supposedly, Davis’ instruction to the Chess studio band was “just follow whatever Billy does”.
This record is the result of that instruction. Davis let Billy Stewart be Billy Stewart, and the band followed Stewart’s lead to the hilt. Stewart’s radical interpretation of “Summertime” is nothing short of amazing. I talked about his technique in an earlier post; no need to cover it again. Here, Stewart is at the peak of his craft, an example of why kids with dreams of being a soul singer tried to imitate his every vocal trick. He pulls out every stop, but he never lets his singing overshadow the song. He never shows off; he interprets. He puts on a show and entertains, but never once does it feel forced or heavy-handed. Everything Stewart had learned in 20+ years of performing is on display. And the band manages to keep up. The result was Stewart’s biggest hit, making the top ten.
The one complaint about this record is trivial: it is too short, clocking in at 2:38. The song feels over before it has even started. To get the best feel for the song, one has to go to the 4+ minute version on the “Unbelievable” LP. A nice 30-second piano prelude warms up the listener, and there’s an interlude with a great sax solo and Stewart doing an tour-de-force of improvisation to set up the finale. The hallmark of a great song is one that you want to go on for an hour. Stewart’s take on “Summertime” should go on for an hour. Like the season, you never want it to end.
(P.S. The B-side, “To Love To Love” would have been a hit in and of itself. But don’t take my word for it. Just listen.)