10 "Songs of the Summer" Going Back a Century

Robin Thicke vs. Daft Punk? Try Billy Jones vs. Bessie Smith.

| Mon Aug. 12, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

As the amount of time we spend debating which track is truly the song of the summer swiftly approaches the amount of time spent listening to said tracks, it can be helpful to turn backward for guidance. How can we argue about 2013 without first arguing about 1993? 1953? 1913? Using Billboard chart performance as well as more subjective measures, let's get our summer hit house in order.

1913: "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," Chauncey Olcott

Going by Tsort's chart consolidations (which will be the main standard for here for the years Billboard was only publishing sheet music and vaudeville charts), "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" was a number one hit in 1913, entering the charts in June and remaining for 16 weeks. Olcott—who was from New York—meant to evoke the serenity and peacefulness of Ireland when she wrote the song for the musical The Isle O'Dreams.
(Also considered: "When I Lost You" by Henry Burr and  "The Spaniard That Blighted My Life" by Al Jolson.)

1923: "Down Hearted Blues," Bessie Smith

With lyrics like "Trouble, trouble, I've had it all my days / It seems that trouble's going to follow me to my grave," Bessie Smith's recording of this ode to an abusive ex-lover wasn't exactly a feel-good hit. Anyone who was darb enough in the summer of 1923 still thought it was the bee's knees, though, and that frazzle-snazzle helped it reach number one after charting in June. In 2006, the track was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
(Also considered: "Yes! We Have No Bananas" by Billy Jones (later performed by the Swedish Chef of Muppets fame) and "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by Paul Whiteman.)

1933: "The Gold Diggers' Song (We're in the Money)," from Gold Diggers of 1933

What could have happened in the 1930s that would make this image resonate with audiences? While it may only be the second-best gold digger-related song of all time (scratch that, third-best), "We're in the Money" was a huge hit in the summer of 1933. Not only did it lead off the Gold Diggers film, which premiered in late May, but star Dick Powell recorded a separate version that got radio play on its own. With apologies to Duke Ellington, whose instrumental "Sophisticated Lady" charted for four months that year—maybe if he had included a pig latin breakdown, he would have won out. (Also considered: "Sophisticated Lady" by Duke Ellington and "Stormy Weather" by Ethel Waters.)

1943: "You'll Never Know," Dick Haymes

No, you're not a bored college student again—that song really is a cappella. Musicians were on strike in 1943, and since it would be decade before they could all be replaced by Pro Tools and a Casio keyboard, singers like Dick Haymes had to make due. "You'll Never Know" first rose to prominence after Alice Faye performed it in Hello, Frisco, Hello. (It won the Academy Award for best original song.) Haymes' version hit number one on the Billboard charts in the middle of July and didn't drop from that spot for another month. (Also considered: "I've Heard That Song Before" by Harry James and "Taking A Chance On Love" by Benny Goodman.)

1953: "The Song From Moulin Rouge," Percy Faith

No, not that Moulin Rouge. It may not have originally been a summer song—it first hit the Billboard sales charts in March—but Percy Faith's track lasted 24 weeks, peaking at number one from May to July. It didn't do as well on the jukebox charts as Eddie Fisher's totally-not-about-a-stalker hit "I'm Walking Behind You," though Faith did outpace Fisher in radio plays. Do they still measure jukebox plays, or can we just assume Bon Jovi has been number one since 1984? (Also considered: "I'm Walking Behind You" by Eddie Fisher and "Vaya con Dios" by Les Paul and Mary Ford.)

1963: "Fingertips Part 2," Stevie Wonder

So it turns out the '60s existed before the Beatles came to America. Who knew? In a strange year that saw "Hey Paula" by Paul and Paula sell more than a million copies, and The Singing Nun hold down the number one spot on the charts for a solid month, picking a definitive song of the summer is tough. The edge goes to Stevie Wonder's live recording of Fingertips Part 2, because it's fun as hell, features Marvin Gaye on drums, and has an impromptu encore at the end ("What key?!"). This track sat at number one for most of August. (Also considered: "Surf City" by Jan and Dean and "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto.)

1973: "My Love," Paul McCartney and Wings

McCartney wrote this track for his wife and bandmate Linda, proving that inter-band relationships aren't always the worst. "My Love" sat atop the Billboard charts for four weeks in June before fellow Beatle George Harrison unseated it with "Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth)." Five months later, "Photograph" hit the top of the charts, making Nickelback Ringo Starr the third Beatle with a number one song that year. (Also considered: "Will It Go Round In Circles" by Billy Preston and "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" by Jim Croce.)

1983: "Every Breath You Take," The Police

This track owned the summer of 1983, sitting at No. 1 throughout July and August. Sting apparently still makes $2,000 a day in royalties from "Every Breath You Take," meaning he pulls in a cool $730,000 a year for however many wedding couples never bothered to listen to the lyrics that closely. (Also considered: "Flashdance...What A Feeling" by Irene Cara; Seriously, that's it.)

1993: "That's The Way Love Goes," Janet Jackson

In the closest summer battle of the century, Jackson—whose track sat at number one from the middle of May into July—beats out UB40, whose cover of Elvis' "Can't Help Falling In Love" held that mark from July into September. (Let's also toss in Tag Team's "Whoomp! (There It Is)" as 1993's "Get Lucky.") "That's The Way Love Goes" won a Grammy for best R&B song and went on to be certified platinum in the US. Sorry, UB40. I blame the A-Teens. (Also considered: "Can't Help Falling In Love" by UB40 and "Protect Ya Neck" by Wu-Tang Clan—because this is my list.)

2003: "Crazy In Love," Beyoncé, featuring Jay-Z

"Crazy In Love" combines the 1983 winner's stranglehold on summer airwaves with the 1973 winner's 'aww' factor. (Little-known fact: Beyoncé and Jay-Z actually actually got married five years after this track was released!) It's also the second-highest selling single since 2000, moving more than 8 million copies. In 2003, it reigned over the Billboard charts from the middle of July into September. (Also considered: "21 Questions" by 50 Cent, featuring Nate Dogg, and "This Is The Night," by Clay Aik—nope. Let's just stop this right here.)

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.