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The songs that summon memories of a magic time

One in a series of occasional stories about the rituals of the season.

August 13, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

The summer song is as scientific as a Popsicle. Sure, if forced, you could conjure up some specifications (temperature, taste, behavioral impact on adolescents), but if you were never 16, sunburned and partaking of sweet nothings, you probably don't have a clue in the matter.

The summer song is not merely a hit record released in the months when the Earth is tilted closest to the sun. No, it (like that Popsicle) has ingredients that are greater as sum than as parts and are just as fleeting. The needle that plays these romantic records is memory and, yes, it is still a needle and vinyl because lasers should only be involved in the memory of personal computers.

Dick Clark has watched summers come and go (a lot of them, frankly) and he has counted down the hits that have gone with those seasons in the sun. He says it's hard to put his finger on exactly what defines a summer song. "They're about freedom -- being free as a bird, you know, getting out of school -- and there is a certain wanting in them too, some romance and longing," Clark says. "There's two songs I think of, and one is about as obvious a pick as you could make. 'California Girls' just has that sound, that perfect summer sound. The other one is 'That Sunday That Summer,' a lovely song Nat King Cole recorded in, oh, I think 1963."

There was a primitive music video made for "California Girls" that Clark remembers watching from the stage of his seminal music show, "American Bandstand." "It was really just black-and-white footage of girls at the beach from that summer. And that footage is just embedded in my mind and, you know, when I think summer and California I think of that song and those smiling kids."

What about today, where are the summer songs of this year? Clark cites Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," a forlorn song about self-esteem and loss as a possible candidate this summer, or the ubiquitous, disco-inflected hit "Crazy in Love" by Beyonce. Maybe we're imagining it, but the eternal teenager doesn't sound as passionate about the new songs as he did for the 1960s tunes.

But really, your favorite summer song is always playing on the radio in your mind, you just have to turn the dial to the right age. "Whatever was your favorite song the summer you were 16, that's probably your idea of the perfect summer song," Clark says. "That doesn't change."

For the record, Hyun Kim, an editor at Vibe magazine, says Clark is dead-bang right on the summer song of 2003. "It's Beyonce; it's her summer, and that song will be the song that will remind kids of right here and right now." "Crazy in Love" is a densely produced disco-inflected song that's a little Donna Summer channeled into 2003 hip-hop. Its catchy chorus -- "Got me looking so crazy right now, your love's / Got me looking so crazy right now (in love)" -- has helped drive it to one of the summer's biggest hits.

But summer songs are like sunburns; everyone feels them a little differently. They don't even have to be overtly about summer -- though Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" from 1958, "Summer Breeze" by Seals & Croft in 1972 and Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" from 1985 might make some lists. Ask others, be they fans of Bobby Darin or Bon Jovi, and they will kick sand in your face on the topic. After all, what is more personal than the soundtrack of your youth?

Allen Slutsky says he knows a summer song when he hears it. The guitarist and pop historian studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but it was from playing in the clubs of his native Philadelphia and in Atlantic City that he learned about this specialized course material.

"The best ones have an airy feel, or a singsongy quality. They are usually mid-tempo -- these aren't ballads, not the true summer song -- and the lyrics should have a sense of longing or romance. And they're not just pure dance songs."

So by the calculation of Slutsky, who wrote the book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," "Dancing in the Streets" is not a summer song ("That's a dance song, it doesn't have the right feel"), while "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Tommy James & the Shondells is, as is, more recently, "Someday" by Sugar Ray. Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind" is in, but anything with a guitar solo is out.

"A summer song is magic; it's the postcard you keep with you," Slutsky says. "I know the years from age 14 to 22, there are songs I hear on the radio and they take me straight back there to the clubs in Philly or hanging out as a kid with not a lot to do. It's a magic time and that makes the music magic."

Well, some magic is magic and some magic is stagecraft performed for the price of admission. Which brings us to a sad lesson about the mysterious summer song, and it's not a pretty one. You see, to a lot of ice cream vendors a Popsicle is just inventory. The summer song is so commercial that it can seem the same way to singers and songwriters

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