HARMONY LANE: REMEMBERING SUMMERTIME WITH THE JAMIES
On a typical July day in Boston- high humidity, temperatures in the mid-90s, lifelong friends Serena (Jameson) McKenney and Jeannie (Roy) McLeod sit together at the latter’s dining room table in a quiet suburban home just outside the city. Their respective husbands of nearly 50 years- longtime friends- enjoy a televised sporting event. It’s a scene the families have played out on a regular basis for decades, sharing stories of friendship, children, grandchildren, hopes, and dreams. But on this particular Saturday, the ladies drift back 50 years to when “Summertime Summertime” was blasting from radios across the nation, and they were one half of the Jamies, the quartet who recorded that timeless hit.
The Jamies- and “Summertime, Summertime”, were the brainchild of Thomas Earl Jameson, Serena’s older brother, born in Boston in April, 1937. “My parents were quite musical,” Serena, 69, recalls. “They always played piano and sang.” In 1949, the Jamesons moved to Dorchester, and joined the First Baptist Church. “My grandmother took me by the hand and introduced me to Miss Marie, the choir director, and that’s where I met Jeannie. I was 10 and she was 11.” Jeannie loved singing and was a regular in the choir. “My dad used to sing in the pubs in Scotland,” the shy, 70 year-old Boston native admits. “I loved ballads. That was my thing. We had a lot of church music, too.”
Tom, a tenor in the Boy’s Choir at Boston’s Trinity Church, came up with an idea for a song. “We lived in my grandmother’s house, and I remember being upstairs and my poor grandmother laying down for her rest on the couch in the dining room, and Tom was in the living room where the piano was, playing that over and over as he wrote it, because he was a perfectionist,” Serena laughs. “I thought, ‘Is it ever going to end?’ When he finished it, he asked Jeannie and me if we would sing it.”
“It’s Summertime”, a classic ode to school vacation, featured four distinct harmony parts, from soprano to bass, painstakingly written and arranged by Jameson. Arthur Blair, a bass in the choir who was the same age as Jeannie, rounded out the quartet. “The harmony, everything was totally and completely his,” Serena adds. “He was a tough taskmaster. Everything had to be perfect.”
For months, the unnamed group would gather- often three times a week- to rehearse the song. “We had the windows open because nobody had air conditioning and it was getting toward summer, and we’d be practicing,” Jeannie remembers. “My mother said the neighbors were complaining because we were doing it over and over.” “After an eternity, it seems, he was satisfied that we knew it perfectly,” Serena continues. “He said, ‘We’re going to make a demo now.’”
On Saturday, May 24, 1958, a demo of “It’s Summertime” was recorded at the Roy Nelson Studio on Boylston Street in Boston. “Tom paid,” Jeannie remembers. “He had a couple of copies made, and he and Arthur took them around to several disc jockeys in the Boston area.” One fragile 78 RPM copy remains in Jeannie’s possession today. The acappella version within the worn grooves is identical to the hit record minus instrumentation.
Two local DJs showed interest. Bob Clayton, who hosted Boston Ballroom and Jukebox Saturday Night on WHDH, and Sherman Feller, (1918-1994), a popular fixture on WEEI and WEZE who had been in the medium for some 17 years, and had rubbed shoulders with everyone from Nat “King” Cole to Frank Sinatra, both offered their services to Jameson.
“Tom chose Sherm because he had contacts,” Serena explains. “With Bob, there was going to be a middle man,” Jeannie adds. “We thought that was not a good idea.” “We had to go to Sherm’s apartment to sign contracts,” Serena continues. “I was dating my husband, Bob, at the time and he said, ‘Do you have a lawyer?’ I said, ‘Sherm said we don’t need a lawyer.’ He grumbled and said, ‘You need a lawyer’. But we signed, and Tom also signed something which gave Sherm half the writer’s compensation and allowed Sherm’s name to be printed on each record as co-writer. Sherm also got manager’s percentage and the publishing.”
Feller interested veteran New York arranger and bandleader, Archie Bleyer (1909-1989) in his protégés. In just over five years, Bleyer, who had left his post as Arthur Godfrey’s musical director shortly after founding Cadence Records in late 1952, had built a successful enterprise with the Everly Brothers, Julius LaRosa, Andy Williams, and his wife’s group, the Chordettes. On June 28, Bleyer came to Boston and a deal was struck.
On July 1, Feller and the group drove to New York for a recording session, scheduled for the following afternoon at the Capitol Studio. “We were on our way to New York and Sherm said ‘you have to think of a name’,” Serena recalls. “We finally came up with the Double Daters.” Finding the name already in use, Feller subsequently suggested the Jamies, from Tom and Serena’s last name.
The group’s bouncing lyrics and tight harmonies were augmented nicely by a harpsichord, which stood out among the sparse accompaniment. Blair’s bass intro was followed by a cascade of voices, from Tom’s tenor and Serena’s alto, to Jeannie’s clear soprano. “When we went to record, they said ‘Stop and let us know if you want any changes,” Serena recounts, “and Tom did stop it several times because it wasn’t the way he had it in his mind. It had to be exactly the way we had practiced.”
Apparently, Bleyer’s daughter, who liked the original demo, didn’t like the finished master, titled “Summertime, Summertime”. Bleyer put much faith in the girl’s opinion. In a 1987 interview with Charles White, Feller recalled meeting with Bleyer in his West 57th Street office a week later. “He threw (it) in the wastebasket when I came in. He said, “The kids don’t like it as much as they like the demo.’ So I said, ‘Look, I’ll buy it.’ He said, ‘No, you can have it’, and he gave (the tape) back to me out of the wastebasket. I took it across the street to Epic, saw (A&R man) Joe Sherman, and he took it to the President. They gave me an advance of $2,000 and got on the road with the kids.” A division of Columbia, Epic had proven itself a lucrative subsidiary, hitting with everything from Roy Hamilton’s dramatic ballads to teen actor Sal Mineo’s modest hits. Most importantly, Epic had a powerful distribution network.
On July 11, the Jamies appeared at famed dancer and commercial photographer Paul Winik’s Boston studio. “They told us to come to take pictures, and we didn’t have anything alike,” Serena admits. “Boy, we got a dressing down. He said the guys should have had something in the same color. Our clothes should have matched also. We felt really bad. We didn’t know, and the bottom line is who has the money to buy outfits like that? We were the epitome of naïve. Our minds were on our full-time jobs, our boyfriends, our youth group, and everything that was going on in our lives.”
The group signed with Epic on July 12 and the record was released on the 18th. The B-side, Tom’s composition “Searching For You”, “was an easier song to do,” Jeannie explains. “Tom had only written one song, and when he found out we needed another side, he must have scrambled and written that. When we got there, we had it all memorized.”
Epic gave it a big push, and Feller arranged an appearance on American Bandstand on the 24th. “Summertime, Summertime” cracked the pop chart on August 11, peaking at #26 in an 11-week stint. “If we could have gotten it out in June, it would have really been a big record that year,” Feller surmised. “It sold a quarter of a million records from July 18th to Labor Day and that’s only five weeks.”
On September 27, the Jamies appeared with Connie Francis, Gordon McRae, and Bobby Freeman on the Dick Clark Saturday Night Beechnut Show in New York. Like all the artists, the Jamies were asked to sign their performance check back over to the show. “We didn’t get that money,” confirms Jeannie. “We signed it back over. $100 would have been a two week’s net pay for me then.”
“We went to Washington and Baltimore to do a couple of T.V. shows and a big record hop,” Serena remembers. “At the last minute, Jeannie had to work, so we flew down, just the three of us. When we would sing with the record, I would sing her part and my part. I remember being on T.V. in Baltimore doing this, and thinking how are we going to get away with this. We did it, and it turned out to be a blast.”
The group played a multitude of local hops, and sang at the Boston Policemen’s Ball with Pat Boone, on December 9. They added several popular songs to their act, including “Stranger in Paradise” and tunes from “South Pacific”. “I learned to hate those songs,” Serena chuckles. “Tom said we needed a repertoire and he could arrange them. 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!”
The Jamies also traveled to Montauk Point, Long Island to appear at Epic’s annual record convention. “This was supposed to be a big deal,” Serena remembers, “and it was a lounge. They were all sitting with drinks around the tables in a large room and we started singing, and I don’t think the interest stayed on us very long. When all the talking started, I thought, ‘Oh, get me out of here!’” The ladies’ future husbands surprised them by showing up in Montauk Point. “They slept on the beach,” Jeannie laughs. “They had no money.”
In November, they were back in New York to record Sherm’s “Snow Train”, and Tom’s “When The Sun Goes Down”. “Sherm asked Tom for permission to use that part, ‘it’s summertime, summertime’, in ‘Snow Train’,” Serena explains. “I thought it had a really good beat. ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ was a really hard song to sing. We had to do that two or three times over.” Epic released the disc later in the month, hoping to cash in with a winter-themed hit, but “Snow Train” never caught on. “It had kind of a nasal sound,” Jeannie explains. “It didn’t go anywhere and Epic thought we were washed up.”
On May 20, 1959, Feller sent a letter to Epic voiding their contract on the grounds that three members were minors when it was signed. Sherm arranged a one record deal with United Artists but by the time of the September session, Serena and Arthur had left. “From the beginning, it was not my thing,” Serena admits. “It was because my big brother said, ‘Do it’. I don’t know why Arthur dropped out. Maybe he was frustrated because we didn’t get any money.”
Rosalind Dever, a 22 year-old Medford alto who worked with Jeannie at Hancock Insurance tried out and was chosen, as was Quincy’s Robert Paolucci, a 24 year-old who answered a newspaper ad that Tom placed. The bouncing “Don’t Darken My Door” became the A-side of their November, 1959 release. “That was written by someone Sherm knew,” Jeannie explains. “Tom wrote ‘The Evening Star’.”
A November 30, 1959 statement from United Artists claimed the Jamies had earned $144 in royalties but owed $2,131.60 in session costs. “By that time, I had gotten married and was in Maine,” Jeannie explains. “We must have performed with the new group, because we had these gray or light blue plaid outfits with a vest, but I don’t recall where. I think I still have it downstairs.” In early 1960, the Jamies quietly dissolved.
Jeannie recorded a demo of two Tom Jameson originals in 1961. “The Dawn’s Early Light” and “April Evening” survive today on a weathered 78. “I was living in Maine, and I was home for a while, and Tom asked me if I could go to a studio and do the demo for him.”
Arthur Blair now resides in Fruitland, Idaho. Rosalind Dever lives in Attleboro, Massachusetts. Bob Paolucci worked extensively as a translator, singer and actor, appearing in dozens of Off-Broadway productions, 10 operas, commercials, independent films, and television programs including To Tell The Truth and Saturday Night Live. He died of leukemia in New York on April 11, 2004 at age 69. “He was quite a nice man and he had a very good voice,” Jeannie offers.
Tom Jameson is a retired computer programmer who also lives in Massachusetts. “My kids look up to him,” his sister relates. “He’s the best uncle in the world, and they love him to pieces. He reads a lot, and can talk about any subject. I’m very proud of my brother.” Serena and her husband of nearly 50 years reside in New Hampshire. They have five children and 10 grandchildren. “Her children sing,” Jeannie beams. “My son sings, too. Maybe our children can get together and record!” Jeannie and her husband of 48 years live just outside Boston.
Sherm Feller served as the public address announcer for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park for 26 years. His gravel-voiced delivery, a sound he attributed to working without his dentures, is still instantly recognizable to Red Sox fans. He died in 1994 at age 75. “Tom and Sherm got back together as friends when Sherm was the voice of the Red Sox,” Serena explains. “He invited Tom to Red Sox games a few times and they talked and watched the game. I would say, ‘Tom, I really want people to know that you wrote ‘Summertime, Summertime’. He’d say, ‘Just let it go. We’re friends. I’m not bitter.’ It’s just not in his nature.”
Through the years, “Summertime, Summertime” has taken on a life of its own. “(Epic) released it three times,” Feller told White, “and three times it made a lot of money. (In 1960) it sold another quarter of a million.” In 1962, it spent eight weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100 and hit #38. “I didn’t realize that at all,” Jeannie admits.
Through the years, “Summertime” was redone by the Fortunes, the Doodletown Pipers, Hobby Horse, Jan & Dean, Mongo Jerry, and Sha Na Na. Buick, Applebee’s Restaurants, and Coca-Cola have used re-recordings in commercials. “We got absolutely nothing,” Jeannie states. “If it went through Sherm, it stayed with Sherm. We didn’t get any money. I brought my son over to see him during his senior year at UMass Lowell. He remembered me. I think he was afraid I was going to ask for money. He said, ‘We really didn’t make much money on that.’ And I thought, ‘yeah, sure’, but that’s not what I was there for. It took a long time, but you have to forgive him, because if you don’t, it doesn’t matter to him, and you’re carrying that around inside you.” In recent years, the members have gotten artist royalties for satellite radio play through Sound Exchange.
Although all four original members are still living, they dispel thoughts of a reunion performance. “I don’t have that ability,” Serena admits. “If you want stand-ins, I’ll give you all five of my kids!”