Ah, here we are in the midst of summer. A time I often notice my song listening habits stray back to old warm weather hits. It goes without saying, the ceaseless play of those tunes has given me an untold amount of enjoyment, while simultaneously driving the consternation within my immediate family. Only on occasion, mind you. On the other hand, I see that last part as my job as the jumbled spouse and generationally-challenged parent that I am.
Par for the course, if you ask me.
But all of that had to have a beginning, and it was one song in particular that started it all (and surprisingly, it wasn’t one by The Beatles). I was in the middle of five going on six when Percy Faith and his orchestra sealed the deal with his insanely popular instrumental, Theme from A Summer Place. I heard this tune at home or coming from friend’s houses in the neighborhood, while it played from AM radio sets and/or 45 rpm record players throughout the early part of 1960. It’s been stuck in my head ever since.
Tim Burton would famously reuse this instrumental for his 2012 film of the 1966-71 TV soap opera, Dark Shadows. A great piece of music introducing the villainess Angelique Bouchard, and serving as counterpoint her vindictiveness on screen.
The song title itself signals its movie connection. A Summer Place (1959) was a soapy melodramatic movie released late the previous year. I wouldn’t see the film till decades later. The interesting thing here about the much-played tune, written by Max Steiner (who wrote such famous film scores for the likes of Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and The Searchers, among others), was the fact it’s not even the main title theme of the picture. This was the “Molly and Johnny Theme” from the picture’s soundtrack, the characters portrayed in the film by Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue.
This song (which obviously didn’t have any memorable lip-syncing quality lyrics for folks till later) still holds some pretty impressive record stats, even for this day:
- released in February 1960, it hit and remained at the top spot in the Billboard Hot 100 for nine consecutive weeks
- it remains the longest running #1 instrumental in the history of the chart
- it won Grammy’s Record of the Year (the first instrumental and movie theme to do so)
- the original version has the #18 ranking on Billboard’s Top 100 Songs of the first 50 years of that chart
I’m sure later generations down the line consider it merely in the category of elevator Muzak. And they’d miss one of the great melodies and tracks from an earlier era which influenced a good many composers and film scores that followed. Though its source motion picture is far from a classic, this theme does rise to that level, I think. Because of that, many have covered the song through the years (right up in this century), with Percy Faith’s version still being the most popular. And it’s here the song shows how versatile Steiner’s refrain has remained through subsequent iterations.
It was popular across rhythm & blues (Billy Vaughn‘s 1960 instrumental cover) and jazz charts (Julie London‘s absolutely splendid ’65 vocal version) all the while materializing periodically on the pop and easy listening segments during the creative, break-out ’60s. Other vocal interpretations included Bobby Vinton, Andy Williams, and even The Lettermen, for chrissakes. I still have a soft spot for those instrumental covers performed by The Ventures and Chet Atkins. And the song keeps pulling them in years later — see singer Eamon’s sampling of it for his Elevator song and Ashley Robert’s 2010 dance rendition.
Though he didn’t compose the theme, Percy Faith’s swing era-honed skills provided the track a fine arrangement of strings and brass (especially those french horns) that made it memorable and more than a little heartfelt. The orchestrator even re-visited his own work with his ’76 disco version before his death. Even so, his chart-topping version was not used in the movie — that was performed by Hugo Winterbalter’s orchestra. I also believe it served as a touchstone of sorts for those who came through that sweet sounding archway between eras. Theme from A Summer Place carried the conventional vestiges from the ’50s into the revolutionary (social, political, and musical) upheaval that would arrive with the new decade.
It was a bridgework piece of music, and why, I think, it’s lasted up to the present.