3. The Jamies

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When I was eleven or so, I would fall asleep with the radio on. This was a gunmetal-colored boom box from JC Penney, with a dual cassette deck and tiny treble and bass knobs that only worked as secondary volume dials.

We could pick up few radio stations in our valley. A couple of gospel and country ones, a pop station, a hard rock one molting into “classic rock” and an AM oldies station, WROV, the one I usually had on at night. Beginning, chronologically, with “Sh-Boom” and “Earth Angel,” its playlists cut off around “Good Vibrations.”

This wasn’t the music of my parents. Born in 1953, they regarded much of it, when they heard it, as the creaky sound of their childhood. I suppose I found the oldies station comforting in its distance but as often I found the old songs strange: trebly and desperate. Songs from a dead world, like Ray Bradbury’s empty Mars once its settlers went home to earth. (But the music wasn’t that old then. Only twenty or twenty-five years separated it from me in 1983: it’s the same as a kid tonight who’s listening to “Feed the Tree” or “Cannonball” or “Here Comes Your Man.”)

Sometimes a song broke my slide into sleep. One starts with a bass voice. He has a honking Boston accent, sounds like a lifeguard:

It’s summatime summatime sum sum summatime

Overlaid upon this, a warm-sounding tenor (he wrote the song, it turned out). An older brother:

summertime summertime sum sum summertime
summatime summatime sum sum summatime

His sister. A bright, sparkling alto:

summertime! summertime! sum sum summertime!
summertime summertime sum sum summertime
summatime summatime sum sum summatime

Another girl, a soprano. I imagined her looking like Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. She turns the quartet into an ecstatic collective:

SUMMERTIME SUMMERTIME SUM SUM SUMMERTIME
summertime! summertime! sum sum summertime!
summertime summertime sum sum summertime
summatime summatime sum sum summatime

The four close with a shivering unison “summer-ti-IY-IY-IY-iiime.” I’d never heard anything like it before. The next morning, I had only a rumpled memory of it.

Circles

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In James Toback’s Fingers (1978), Harvey Keitel is Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli, debt collector and aspiring pianist. In one scene, he meets his mobster father for lunch. Fingers sets a radio on the restaurant table, pops in a tape, hits play. “Summertime, Summertime” pipes out.

The businessman sitting across from him is flustered, soon angry. He wants the radio shut off. Fingers is appalled. “You believe this? This is the Jamies, man, “Summertime, Summertime!” The most musically inventive song of 1958!” A fight nearly breaks out; the Jamies keep singing.

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The Jamies’ “Summertime, Summertime” stands apart from other songs on the pop charts in 1958. Too stiff for doo-wop, not quite rock ‘n’ roll, too “teenage” for mainstream pop of the time, it’s perhaps best aligned with other ’58 novelty hits—“Purple People Eater” and “Witch Doctor” and the “Colonel Bogey March” from Bridge On the River Kwai.

Yet as Fingers noted, there’s a sophistication in it. The intro and outro, where each voice of the quartet appears in sequence to sing the same melody (it’s canonical singing, or “round” singing). And the bulk of the song resembles a ragtime piano piece, having alternating melodic strains more than verses-choruses-bridges.

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“Summertime, Summertime” is in three sections, each eight or nine bars. The first has fairly rapid harmonic movement (chords change every other beat, and there’s a modestly sophisticated I-V-ii-V7 progression). The Jamies end phrases by dragging the last word down a fourth (“throw ’em ah-way-ay-ay-ay“) and conclude with a refrain tag (“sum-mer-ti-iy-iy-iy-iime”) in which the upward push within “summertime” is like a smiling face briefly surfacing from a pool.

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The next part, where chord changes are fewer and the melody less roaming, is the song’s combative piece. The Jamies, stressing the second beat on every other bar, are ready to scrap with the enemies of summertime: teachers who need to zip their lips and all that dull hiss-to-ry, gee-AH-graph-y, gee-AH-me-try.

A final section, whose lyric never changes. A rallying cry, a call for kids to flee the city and head to the hills. (This line was a great mystery to me for a long while—I thought they were singing “it’s time to head straight for the mills,” which called up an image of sunny-faced Victorian child laborers. It turned out to be “them hills”).

And that’s it. No solos, breaks, variations. “Summertime, Summertime” is a conveyor belt that moves the Jamies among three stations. After the third repeat, it rumbles to a stop.

It’s also church music.

Choir Kids

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The First Baptist Church of Dorchester, a neighborhood of Boston, has stood for over a century on the corner of Ashmont and Adams. Singing in the First Baptist choir in 1958 were two friends, Serena Jameson and Jeannie Roy.

The Jamesons had moved to Dorchester in 1949. They were a musical family, and at the age of ten Serena joined the choir, which is where she met Roy. Theirs would have been typical teenage lives in the late Fifties—graduating high school, thinking about marriage—but for Serena’s older brother getting the urge to write a song.

Tom Jameson also sang in a choir, at the larger (and Episcopal) Trinity Church in the Back Bay. He was twenty-one in 1958, when he wrote a song about the open promise of the teenage summer. To Todd Baptista, Serena described her brother’s composing methods as perfectionist, bordering on the obsessive—Tom at the family piano in the living room, playing through a melody again and again, while their grandmother tried to nap on the couch. Once the song was in his hands, he asked his sister and Roy to help him sing it. A bass singer recruited from First Baptist’s choir, Arthur Blair, completed the set.

(It’s unclear when Tom wrote the song—it was demoed in mid-May 1958—but I wonder if hearing the Chordettes’ “Lollipop,” which had charted nationally earlier that year, was an influence, as “Lollipop” is also a four-part harmony piece with a choral round for an intro.)

Tom drilled his singers like a martinet, rehearsing them up to three times a week. With the Jameson house’s windows open to the lengthening spring evenings, the neighbors could hear the building, step by step, of what Tom called “It’s Summertime” (there were, not surprisingly, some complaints). At last satisfied with the vocal arrangement, Tom paid for a session at a studio on Boylston Street and took the demo to a few Boston deejays.

Sherm

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Sherman “Sherm” Feller had been on the air since the early Forties. He’d worked at WEEI, WEZE, WVDA and, in the mid-Sixties, he became the voice of Fenway Park.

Tom Jameson chose Feller because the latter said he had good connections in the record business. Which wasn’t bluster: Feller quickly got the demo to Archie Bleyer, a bandleader, arranger, and founder of Cadence Records. Bleyer liked what he heard (allegedly relying on his teenage daughter’s opinion) and wanted the group to come to New York to record.

The Jamesons, Blair, and Roy were summoned to Feller’s apartment. He told them they didn’t need a lawyer, and they signed all the papers he put in front of them, as per Baptista. Although Tom had written every note and word of the song (the demo vocal arrangement is reportedly near-identical to the released single), Feller wound up with the publishing, a manager’s percentage of earnings, and half the writer’s compensation, getting billed as a co-composer.

It was how the game worked then and, to a degree, it’s how it still does. Some kid has a catchy song, some showbiz type convinces him or her to sign it away, some corporation ultimately owns it.

On the drive to New York, Feller said the group needed a name. They thought up “The Double Daters” (a touch weird, given that half were siblings) but Feller went with The Jamies, a play on the last name of said siblings. On 2 July 1958, the Jamies cut the renamed “Summertime, Summertime” at Capitol Studios on West 46th Street, doing their drilled-to-perfection vocal arrangement over a sparse backing by house musicians. Most prominently, a harpsichord player. It sounded as if the Jamies’ dotty aunt was accompanying them.

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Bleyer passed on the single—his daughter, in classic hipster style, thought it wasn’t as good as the demo. So Feller got the Jamies signed to Epic, Columbia’s (slightly) more adventurous pop division, and pocketed the advance. Tom Jameson quickly had to come up with a B-side: the forlorn “Searching for You,” in which the Jamies wander the earth looking for their lost loves—the bridge sounds like a hymn; the song doubles as a pledge to recover a lost faith.

The Jamies wore their Sunday clothes to their professional portrait for Epic promo materials. The photographer was bewildered. You’re a pop group, he said. The boys and girls should have matching outfits, at least! “We didn’t know, and the bottom line is who has the money to buy outfits like that? We were the epitome of naïve,” Serena Jameson told Baptista.

The Off Season

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Epic, when reissuing “Summertime, Summertime” in 1962, told the trade press that the single had bad timing in its initial release (that said, “Summertime” sold about 250,000 copies between late July and Labor Day 1958). Feller said he believed that had the Jamies broken nationally in July, they would’ve had a major, possibly Top 10 hit with it.

But the single, released on 18 July 1958, didn’t catch fire until late August. Contemporary issues of Cash Box and Billboard show “Summertime, Summertime” getting strong airplay in Boston (Feller shamelessly flogged it on his own show), Maine, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Montreal but mainly keeping east of the Mississippi. Only in early September (when it charted nationally in both publications, peaking at #26) does “Summertime, Summertime” start hitting in Nogales, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Amarillo.

Now it’s too late. School’s back in. Who wants to hear about summer dances and ditching schoolbooks when you’re cramming for your first exam and the sun’s going down at six? In deep winter, the single would have been a happy fantasy; in spring, a burgeoning promise. In late September, it just sounded cruel. The Jamies were off the charts a few weeks later.

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The Jamies as a flame in Epic’s fifth birthday cake; Cash Box, 25 October 1958

The Jamies promoted the single for a few months, appearing on American Bandstand and a couple of other TV shows, performing at dances, an Epic sales convention, the Boston Policeman’s Ball and a few nightclubs, padding out their meager repertoire with songs from South Pacific and other Broadway shows. They soon realized they weren’t cut out for pop life, as Serena wonderfully recalled to Baptista a decade ago:

In a club situation, though, we quickly bombed, because once we did ‘Summertime Summertime’ and tried to do something else, they could see we were what we were—four church kids—and in a bar they were not interested in listening to that. We went to a dance studio and they tried to teach us these movements and it was hilarious. None of us danced. We were Baptists!

Still, the Jamies had sold enough to merit a follow-up single, one better pegged to the season. It was a Christmas piece, “Snow Train.” This time Feller actually wrote the song, which wasn’t a plus—“Snow Train” has a lyric that scans as if it had been scratched out on a cocktail napkin, a car-honk of a lead melody, and a mix bleary to the point of distortion. Along with a desperate cameo (Feller-requested) by the opening hook of “Summertime, Summertime,” you can hear Tom experimenting with vocal arrangement ideas—for one chorus, he and Blair sing lead while Serena and Roy harmonize. “Snow Train” went nowhere on the charts; Epic dropped the Jamies in spring 1959.

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The B-side “When the Sun Goes Down” was a Tom Jameson co-write (likely a complete write). Serena recalled the song being difficult to perform, needing a few takes to get right. A sprightly-paced track with ringing lead guitar breaks, it revives the communal joy of “Summertime, Summertime.” A group of teenagers is hungry to hit the town, all but yelling at the sun to sink. The night ahead is a world roped off for the young. “Early to bed and early to rise is what some people say,” the Jamies smile. “But the gals I know and all the guys they just don’t live that way!”

Summertime’s End

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By early autumn 1959, when Feller signed the Jamies to United Artists, the group had been reduced to Tom Jameson and Roy. Serena had never wanted to be a pop singer in the first place, she later said. Blair also left, in part because the Jamies hadn’t made a dime despite “Summertime, Summertime” being all over the radio. They were told to sign over their performance checks to the TV shows they appeared on (a standard practice of the period) while their royalties were wiped out by recording session costs. Anything else went to Feller and stayed with him.

The Jamies added Rosalind Dever, from Medford (she was a co-worker of Roy’s) and Robert Paolucci from Quincy, who responded to a newspaper ad. The new quartet differed little from the original, with Dever replacing Serena as the alto voice. Dever and Paolucci both being in their early twenties was a plus, as Epic had voided the Jamies’ contract by noting the majority of them had been minors when they signed it.

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The last Jamies single countered a cheery break-up track, “Don’t Darken My Door,” written by one of Feller’s songwriter connections, with a solo Tom Jameson composition, “The Evening Star.” Marked by a wailing slide guitar (? it could be a singing saw), it’s the end of a world that “Summertime, Summertime” had called into being. As with “Searching for You,” the Jamies sing it like a hymn. Hand in hand, they walk off into the dark.

The single, released in November 1959, failed to chart and the Jamies were over at the dawn of the new decade, slipping off into life, work, marriage; some of them left Massachusetts, others still live there. Tom Jameson, who became a computer programmer and business analyst, died of cancer in 2009. Paolucci, who died in 2004, lived in New York, working as an actor, interpreter, and translator.

There’s a marvelous picture on Baptista’s site of Serena Jameson and Jeannie Roy in 2008, sitting at a piano and holding their first press photo. They look as if they’ve just shared a laugh together. Having remained friends, they recalled the Jamies as the great adventure of their youth.

Eternal Summer

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Minimalists ahead of their time, the Jamies now sound like some bizarrely perfect combination of the Chipmunks and the Young Marble Gi­ants…They never placed another record on the charts—but for 22 years straight they’ve caught the feeling of the fog burning off.

Greil Marcus, “Real Life Rock,” 28 July 1980.

My family moved a few times in the late Eighties and Nineties, and during one house-shift I found a box of old records. We’d ported this from house to house for years without anyone bothering to see what was in it. Along with a bunch of scratched-up LPs, there was a paper bag of 45 RPM singles. Leftovers from teenage parties or middle-school swaps, some with Caldor stickers on their labels or inscribed with a name (usually, neither of my parents’). “Touch Me” and “Wichita Lineman” and the Capitol “Help!” single with its different Lennon vocal. And “Summertime, Summertime,” in a Sixties reissue. That’s a photo of it above: it’s been on my desk as I wrote this.

I’d never thought to ask my parents about the song: it had intrigued me as a kid but I’d figured they’d have no clue about it. Yet a copy of “Summertime, Summertime” had been in the basement of every house I’d lived in.

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“I love the words,” Suzzy Roche once said of “Summertime, Summertime.” “It reminds me of how great it was to get let out of school as a kid…staying up late…swimming…lying in the grass looking at the stars… Come along and have a ball a regular free for all. It’s just plain old fun. I could use a little more of that sometimes.”

It’s what caught me up in the song, too—the feeling of summer about to break upon you. Most Americans don’t have carnival days: the closest they get is in childhood, that short span of weeks from late June to August, with each day left wide open, unwritten, free from work, from school, from parents (well, in theory). A world of children, ruled by children; the Jamies, in their close harmonies, sound like exalted kids carrying the news. Look alive and change your ways: it’s summertime. Hip ones, too—these are postwar kids, with no respect for their elders (the Jamies were good actors). Man, this jive has me in a trance! they sing. It’s constant motion, running to the hills, to the pool, the dance, the campfire. Are you coming or are you ain’t? 

Four Dorchester church kids in 1958 make a demo, record a song, and within a few months, a man driving on Rt. 66 in Texas hears it ringing out of his car radio, starts humming along despite himself. His granddaughter hears it sixty years later, selling Quarter Pounders on television. Harvey Keitel hits play on his tape deck; I hear it on a Virginia night in 1983; someone listening to an algorithm-assembled “Summertime Fun” mix on Spotify hears it today.

I thought about Tom Jameson, an artist who wrote this sunburst of a song and spent the rest of his life in quiet obscurity. It must have been strange to hear “Summertime, Summertime” for so long, reissued by Epic every few summers, covered by Jan and Dean and the Fortunes, used to sell Buicks and ice cream and dog food. His voice and his sister’s, her friend and her choir partner’s, always young, forever standing at the gate of summer. It’s a paradise, and like most paradises, it was never quite there and you can never go back.

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