This recent album by Lana Del Rey delves into the rich afterlife of Gershwin’s famous aria “Summertime,” exploring how Sublime’s early ska-punk recordings and interpretation of the song have influenced the pop star’s sixth appearance on the Top 40 radio charts. But these days, everywhere we turn, we’re hearing about Bess and Porgy in Lana Del Rey’s recent song “Time, Doin'” and the new production at the Metropolitan Opera.

Written by Sophia Janevic.

One example of how “Summertime” has been transformed since its premiere and reflects a long tradition of reinterpretation is examined in the context of older recordings of the song in Lana Del Rey’s 2019 music video depicting an indie pop singer as a wandering giantess in Venice Beach. When these recordings are examined, it becomes clear that Gershwin’s composition has been reinterpreted by countless artists in various forms, from ska-punk in the 1990s to psychedelic rock in the 1960s to early jazz recordings in the 1930s. To understand how the song has taken on various forms since its premiere, we first need to look at the original aria from the American opera “Bess and Porgy” by George Gershwin (1935), which is perhaps the most recognizable tune and has been reworked into a pop anthem in SoCal. But how did “Summertime” become the ubiquitous tune it is today?

Each artist approaches the premiere of the opera with a distinct musical style. There have been over 25,000 arrangements and recordings of “Summertime” since its debut. He improvises on the melody and walks a bass line over it. Davis Miles arranges “Summertime” for trumpet in his 1959 recording. Fitzgerald and Armstrong reinterpret the solo aria as a duet, singing and playing trumpet together in their 1958 album “Ella and Louis.” In 1956, opting for a more moderate swing tempo, he performs it with his Orchestra and other Big Bands like Duke Ellington. After the opera’s premiere, “Summertime” quickly becomes a hit on the top Billboard charts, with many artists recording their own covers of Billie Holiday’s rendition in 1936. Modeled after an African American spiritual, the tune quickly found its way into the popular music realm and off the stage. Clara sings this gentle lullaby to her infant son, as the muted strings fade and swell like waves. The slow, bluesy strains of “Summertime” open Act I of Bess and Porgy.

During the 1960s, The Zombies, along with other U.K. Bands, helped define the ever-evolving popular music sphere by cementing their place in it. They garnered a wider audience by covering songs like Gershwin’s “Summertime,” which further solidified their success and saw them touring the U.S. In the British Invasion, alongside fellow rock groups like The Kinks and The Beatles. However, the impact of their version of “Summertime” was not just due to minor alterations in the lyrics and a driving tempo, but also their musical innovation. The Zombies stayed fairly true to the original, but added their own stripped-down, rock English twist with a guitar imitating the swells of the string opera. This unexpected genre fusion found its way outside the world of jazz and into the 1960s music scene.

In Sublime’s rendition of Gershwin’s “Doin’ Time,” they maintain the original first line of the aria, titled “Summertime.” The song incorporates contemporary experimentation and technological elements, such as record scratches and vocal growls. The track features a combination of half-sung and half-rapped vocals, blending the flute melody with drums by sampling jazz flutist Herbie Mann’s live album, “Herbie Mann at the Village Gate,” released in 1961. Sublime, a ska-punk band from Long Beach, California in the 90s, drew inspiration from various genres like hip hop, punk rock, and reggae. Their interpretation of “Summertime” takes a fresh approach, referencing the 1960s for creative inspiration, three decades after The Zombies’ cover.

Despite the difficult genesis of their song “Doin’ Time,” the group was finally able to release it in November 1997. The recording process was challenging, as they had to insert this byte sound into the song. Instead of singing the original lyric “Summertime,” the group changed it to “Doin’ the Time” to avoid legal challenges with the sample of Gershwin Mann’s cover. This problem was further complicated by the fact that Sublime’s lead singer, Bradley Nowell, had died of a heroin overdose.

In the last few years of his life, George Gershwin moved to Los Del Rey and began his career towards New York, where both artists grew up. As she rapped the original lyrics and brought out elements of Herbie Mann’s bossa nova, her version of the song became lusher and smoother. While Del Rey’s cover is undeniably inspired by her own style, she cites the major influence of California’s SoCal sound and vibe, which epitomized Sublime. Despite being raised and born in New York, Del Rey’s distinct ties to Southern California are evident in her dreamy and romantic sound, often referred to by critics as “Hollywood sadcore.” Surprisingly, Del Rey’s song “Time” came as a connection to the punk-ska band Sublime, possibly to the delight of some fans. In 2019, indie pop singer Lana Del Rey released a cover of Sublime’s “Doin’ Time” as a single from her sixth studio album, Norman F**king Rockwell! Over twenty years later, another artist reinvented Gershwin’s tune with a Sublime cover.

When Gershwin died in 1937, no one could have predicted the vast breadth of his musical reach. These new productions of Bess and Porgy carry on the Gershwin tradition, but they are just a small aspect of his legacy. His music persists vibrantly both on and off the stage, perpetuated through popular American genres that existed during his lifetime. It is perhaps fitting that his music has found a new home in Southern California, where Gershwin lived during his final years, as it is a testament to the malleability and timelessness of his compositions. “Summertime” is a testament to the endurance of Gershwin’s music, and we can’t wait to discover what tunes he will take next.

Pollack, Howard. George Gershwin: His Biography and Creations. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

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Zemler, E., 2019. Hear Lana Del Rey’s Glittering Rendition Of Sublime’s ‘Doin’ Time’. [Online] Rolling Stone. Accessible at:.