“Theme from A Summer Place”
Music by Max Steiner (*); arranged and conducted by Percy Faith.
Recorded by Percy Faith and His Orchestra for Columbia on September 11, 1960 in New York.
The story – part one: The songs of summer.
Recently, I was listening to a piece on National Public Radio about “the songs of summer.” This is a concept that I think many people will identify with because we all remember various songs that were popular at various times in our lives, and the strong linkage between those songs and important events in our lives. I will add that these “songs of summer,” at least in my life, were seemingly much more memorable and much more strongly linked with events in my younger life. Many rites of passage in my life took place with various songs of summer playing in the background. As I put the things of my childhood behind me (I’ve never completely done that), finished school, got a job, got married, had kids, and generally become very absorbed in those things, those sweet, memorable melodies seemingly receded from my daily reality. But they never vanished completely.
As I listened to the three-way conversation between two NPR journalists and an expert in current popular music, I was struck by the language they used. They spoke seriously and intensely about genres of music, about the vibe of a certain song, and how, when a certain melody became ubiquitous and familiar, if that happened in the summer, it became a song of summer. Once that happened, everybody could marinate in it at the same time. I think I understood, at least partly, what they were talking about.
One “song of summer” that is inextricably intertwined with my young life is the “Theme from A Summer Place,” as recorded by Percy Faith. Since that record was made in September of 1960, the summer that it became lodged permanently in my memory was the summer of 1961. In that summer, my family moved into a new suburban home, which had been built the previous spring. In that house, my older sister and I each had our own bedrooms. She, being 6 1/2 years older than me, also had her own stereo, which I coveted. She played it very often. One record she played a lot that summer was the Columbia 45 of Percy Faith’s “Theme from A Summer Place.” I noticed that that particular recording was also being played on radio a lot that summer. I had no idea that this lovely, evocative melody came from a Hollywood feature film that had been released at the end of 1959. But I liked the song, and I liked Percy Faith’s recording of it. It seemed to come into my mind when I returned to school after summer vacation, and gazed upon the suddenly more attractive girls in my sixth grade class.
I never saw the film A Summer Place until decades after it was released. As a child through the mid and late 1950s, I had a very bad track record when it came to going to a movie theater and enjoying a movie. My parents did not have the patience to deal with me in such a setting. But my paternal grandmother, a saint, did, at least for a while. She got permission from my parents to take me to a theater to see Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. We took the bus to the downtown theater where the film was playing. Within the first half-hour of it beginning, I began to cry hysterically. My grandmother tried to settle me with reason and logic. I would have none of it. We left the theater and took the bus home. I had nightmares for several days after that. My grandmother was troubled by all of this and had discussions with my parents about what to do. The consensus that emerged was that she should take me to another film, Disney’s Bambi, so that I could overcome whatever emotional problem I was having when viewing childrens movies. The same thing happened, except it happened within the first fifteen minutes of the film beginning. My grandmother gave up after that. On the bus on the way home, exasperated, she said, “Mikey, I just don’t understand you.”
Ideas for posts here at swingandbeyond.com come from many places. But regardless of where the idea for a post comes from, the mainspring for the development of all posts is the music. There has to be something in the music that I find appealing or worthwhile. It could be a superlative jazz solo, as in Lester Young’s solo, on “Oh, Lady Be Good” (1); or Coleman Hawkins’s solo on “Body and Soul.”(2); It could be a stunningly perfect combination of a great song, a great arrangement and marvelous solos, as on Artie Shaw’s recording of “Star Dust.”(3) It could be superb singing, as on Sarah Vaughan’s recording of “Lush Life.” (4) But more often than not, it is the almost gravitational pull a lovely melody has on me that provides inspiration.(Above right: a movie theater lobby poster for A Summer Place. If you have a magnifying glass, you can see Max Steiner’s name near the lower right corner.)
Beautiful melodies pop up in the most unexpected places. Very often, they are buried beneath whatever is in the foreground at a given moment in a Hollywood film. I enjoy vintage films, and on occasion am beguiled by a snippet of music that is not particularly well-presented in the film. A great example of this is the absolutely gorgeous melody called “Blues for Brando”(5), which is barely audible in the film The Wild One, in which Marlon Brando hams it up as the sensitive(?) leader of a mid-1950s motorcycle gang.
Among the films I enjoy from time to time are ones that I call “potboilers,” meaning they are intentionally lurid, in the same way a 1950s pulp magazine was lurid. Sexual innuendo is always a big plot point in these films. When seen today, they are sometimes hilarious. One such film is A Summer Place, which was released in 1959. I am quite sure I did not see this film until the advent of Turner Classic Movies. The stars of the film are Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee as the hot young lovers, and Richard Egan and Dorothy McGuire as the cooler parental lovers. Arthur Kennedy, who was the go-to Hollywood character actor in the 1950s to play the role of the mean, drunken parent/villain, handles the role of the cuckolded spouse in this film with revolting gusto.
A Summer Place is a beautifully photographed and produced film. The actors, guided by veteran director Delmer Daves, do their jobs well. But what was and is most memorable about that film is its lovely instrumental theme, composed by Max Steiner.
Part two: Percy Faith’s house.
I love coincidences, especially those I stumble across unexpectedly. I have mentioned previously the wonderfully hospitable people who have taken me into their home in suburban Chicago on a number of occasions. Their house, which they sold last year and then moved into a smaller place nearby, is located in the lovely Chicago suburb of Wilmette. The house itself is quite comfortable and commodious. By all appearances, it was built in the 1920s. The neighborhood in which the house is located is a delight in every season, ideal for walking. The houses are all well-maintained on spacious, manicured lots adjacent to brick-paved streets with large trees lining them. A beautiful beach on Lake Michigan is about a half-mile away. (Above left: The charming house Percy Faith lived in when he was working at NBC in Chicago.)
Recently, the endlessly curious people who love classic American music, and who explore the Internet, have uncovered a terrific historical resource: an online repository of the registration cards completed by the young men who were required by the Selective Service Act of 1940 to register for the draft. These cards, which were actually filled out by the people in question, contain a treasure trove of information. At right is a copy of Percy Faith’s draft registration card. In addition to all of the basic information one would expect (full name, date and place of birth), there is information about his place of employment, and his home address. What caught my attention was Percy Faith’s home address: it was the same as the house where I was a guest on several occasions.
Percy Faith (1908-1976) was born and raised in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He was the oldest of eight children. His parents were Abraham Faith and Minnie Rottenberg. He played violin and piano as a child, and played in theaters and at Massey Hall in Toronto. After his hands were badly burned in a fire, he turned to conducting, and the orchestras he led used the new medium of radio to reach ever-wider audiences.
Beginning with stations CKNC and CKCL, Faith was a staple of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) live music programming from 1933 to 1940, when he resettled in Chicago to work as the orchestra leader for the Carnation Contented program on NBC. From 1948 to 1949 he also served as the orchestra leader on the CBS radio network program The Coca Cola Hour (also called The Pause That Refreshes). The accordionist John Serry, Sr. collaborated with Faith on those broadcasts.
In 1945 Faith became a naturalized citizen of the United States. He made many recordings for the Voice of America. After working briefly for Decca Records, he worked with producer Mitch Miller at Columbia Records, where he turned out dozens of albums of his own, and provided arrangements for many of the pop singers of the 1950s on the Columbia roster, including Tony Bennett, Doris Day and Johnny Mathis. By the time Percy Faith recorded the “Theme from A Summer Place” in 1960, he was a highly successful recording artist for Columbia Records.(6) (Above left: Percy Faith in 1942.)
Percy Faith followed the basic swing era traditions of how to most effectively arrange and then perform a beautiful melody in his recording of “Theme from A Summer Place.” Subtlety, simplicity and relaxed understatement are the hallmarks of his arrangement and performance.
It starts with a brief introduction consisting of a piano and a flute playing in unison, setting up a gently rhythmic ostinato. Note his use of a soft shuffle rhythm (in 12/8 meter) in this sequence. The deployment of a piano in this way was very popular in the late 1950s in pop music. The bass, guitar and drums fall in behind the piano and flute half way through the introduction.
The first chorus begins with Faith applying a glistening layer of unison strings atop the continuing rhythmic ostinato. Their sole purpose is to sing the melody plainly and simply. He then adds another instrumental color as the French horns provide a softly rhythmic counterline. Flutes are added to the sonic mix as the horns play the secondary melody, with the strings now providing a rhythmic pizzicato for them to play against. The strings then return with the main melody. The flutes appear briefly at the end of this sequence.
A modulation leads to the strings, now subtly harmonized, playing the melody against more active French horn lines. This is the climax of this arrangement, albeit one that, keeping with the character of this piece, is warmly mellow. The flutes then reappear to provide a brief contrast of instrumental color, after which the strings swirl through the finale.
I like the vibe of Percy Faith’s classic recording of the “Theme from A Summer Place.” I like to marinate in it with those near and dear, especially during those balmy afternoons in the dog days of August, perhaps with an adult beverage. It’s one of my songs of summer.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(*) Max Steiner (1888-1971) was a pioneer in creating music for Hollywood films. Here are two links to worthwhile documentaries on his life and music:
(6) Information about Percy Faith’s early career comes from the Wikipedia post on him.
Here are some links to other music that will warm the spirit in August or anytime:
I really enjoyed reading your reflections on this piece. I’ve always loved this record…almost a guilty pleasure. As always, nice work on remastering.