Harvey Keitel and the Song ‘Summertime, Summertime’

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Harvey Keitel, in the scene from Fingers

Harvey Keitel, in the scene from Fingers

Most of the time, when music is doing its job effectively in a film, you don’t even notice it’s there. The deep, drawn-out bass notes and swelling atonal squalls in a horror film are preparing your brain to accept that blood is about to spill from a character’s neck, but you’re concentrating too intently on that poor guy’s predicament to consciously pay attention to the score. An insistent, pounding metallic drone lets you know you’re in some futuristic hell while a rush of strings, sweet and enveloping, is your cue that two people who’ve been dancing with romancing are about to engage in some serious groping.

But not all movie music is meant to be subliminal. Sometimes it becomes the star. In retrospect, it’s impossible to imagine the John Travolta-Uma Thurman dancing scene in Pulp Fiction centering around any song other than Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” or John picking up his acoustic and playing anything but “If I Fell” to console a bummed-out Ringo in A Hard Day’s Night. Scenes like those, the ones that flick on that “What a great song this is!” light bulb in your head, often take on a life of their own apart from the film they enhanced.

One of those indelible moments is front and center in Fingers, James Toback’s 1978 psychodrama focusing on an aspiring but aging concert pianist, Jimmy “Fingers” Angelelli, who aches to perform at Carnegie Hall. Because Fingers is played by Harvey Keitel, you know going in that this isn’t going to be some feel-good romp where ambition and hard work pay off, and sure enough Fingers has another life: he works as a debt collector for his gangster father.

You really wouldn’t call Fingers a likable fellow, yet you find yourself rooting for him to tear himself away from the life and make it to that stage before it’s too late and it all finally goes south for him. Fingers loves music more than anything, after all, and who can’t relate to that? He loves it so much that he thinks nothing of taking his portable radio—this being the era before ear buds—into a restaurant, plunking it down on the table and letting it play, the other customers be damned.

This is where our Classic Video takes off. Fingers has barely settled into his chair, across from his dad (Michael V. Gazzo), when the radio goes on.

“It’s summertime, summertime
Sum-sum-summertime
Summertime, summertime
Sum-sum-summertime
Summertime, summertime
Sum-sum-summertime
Summertime, summertime
Sum-sum-summertime
Summerti-i-me”

Now, this doo-wop intrusion doesn’t please the two gents at the next table, this odd little song from another time and maybe another world, seemingly just two words—one instance of “it’s” followed by “summertime” repeated ad infinitum. We hear these words first from a lone male voice, soon enough joined by a female, then one more of each. They’re obviously having a grand old time, these kids. It’s summertime! They’re happy about this, really happy! And the fact that their voices are a little on the flat side—you won’t confuse them with Tony Bennett—is easily forgiven, especially when they break away from that opening chorus and start to tell us why summertime is for celebrating:

“Well, shut them books
And throw ’em away
Say goodbye to dull school days
(Just) look alive and change your ways
It’s summerti-i-ime
(Ba-ba-bom)
Well, no more studyin’ history
And no more reading geography
And no more dull geometry
Because it’s summertime”

Good times ahead! But not for one of Fingers’ eatery neighbors, more visibly irritated by the second. He couldn’t care less that these silly kids are enjoying their summertime, or that Jimmy Fingers shares their glee. Nicely dressed, not a hair out of place, he fidgets and reaches to straighten his tie. We see Fingers tapping on the table, grinning goofily. He and his dad are reveling in silence but that revelry is about to be disrupted. “Hey, waiter,” the perturbed diner calls out. “Tell this guy to turn his radio off.”

“What are you telling him for? Tell me.” Fingers, basking just seconds ago, has had his concentration broken and he’s having none of it.

“All right, I’m telling you. Turn it off!”

Fingers is aghast. His hand goes up to his forehead. “Do you believe this?” he says to his father but really to a world that’s just been thrown off its axis. “This is the Jamies, man! ‘Summertime, Summertime,’ the most musically inventive song of 1958! What are you eating, shrimp?” he asks the interloper. “Are you gonna tell me this song doesn’t go with your shrimp?”

Related: The Billboard Hot 100 chart debuts, 1958

Jamies sleeve SummertimeYou don’t have to guess what happens next, and in the scheme of things it’s not that important. What is important is that Jimmy Fingers, embodied by the one and only Harvey Keitel, has just imparted a truth that had probably never occurred to us but will from that moment forward never be forgotten: that “Summertime, Summertime,” previously just a fun little trifle, written and arranged by Tom Jameson with lead vocal by his sister Serena (the siblings are joined by Jeannie Roy and Arthur Blair and minimal instrumentation), an Epic Records 45 that only reached #26 on the Billboard chart, the only thing The Jamies ever did that anyone will ever remember, a song that includes phrases like “zip your lip” and “regular oh-free-for-all” and—some of the greatest lyrics ever in the history of lyrics—“ Well, are you comin’ or are you ain’t?/You slow pokes are my one complaint/Hurry up before I faint,” truly might have been the most musically inventive song of 1958. It took a bad guy named Fingers to make that clear.

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Don Armstrong
    #1 Don Armstrong 25 August, 2016, 12:29

    Great distinction you make between music that’s background versus music that’s a key aspect of a scene. This is a great song, never would have known if you and Fingers hadn’t pointed it out.

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