Sublime’s Perfect Bummer in the Summer


Bradley’s on the Microphone…sort of.

In 1996, Sublime was an eccentric little trio from Long Beach, California with a cult following and two haphazard but occasionally charming records under their belt. Then, on May 25th, lead singer and guitarist Bradley Nowell died of a heroin overdose in a San Francisco hotel while on tour.

Two months later, Sublime was one of the biggest bands in the world. Their third record—a self-titled major label release with MCA—launched Sublime to the front of a chart-stomping third-wave ska revival. 

Had a Million Dollars But I Spent It All

Sublime was now defunct, and therefore unable to tour in support of their posthumous and eponymous record. Sublime was nonetheless a dominant force in alternative music over the next two years. Four singles charted on the way to 5 million in album sales. 

“What I Got” topped the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. “Santeria” and “Wrong Way” also landed in the Top 5.

But it is the record’s final single—and thus Sublime’s swan song—that best captures the soulful grime and tortured resignation at the heart of the band. 

“Doin’ Time” was released in November of 1997, and peaked at #28 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts. It even managed to scrape the lower reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 (#87). It also carries the deepest history on a record brimming with smart musical reference points. 

So let’s get into our time machine and head back to the Great Depression. I know. Super fun…

Porgy and Bess (1935)

Volumes can and have been written on the song at the root of “Doin’ Time”. The great American composer George Gershwin imagined “Summertime” as the signature song in his musical adaptation of Porgy.

The novel by DuBose Heyward served as the basis for a play called Porgy and Bess. Heyward’s novel also included the preliminary lyrics for “Summertime.”

With additional lyrical contributions from his brother Ira, George recorded the first demo of “Summertime” in 1935 with Abbie Mitchell on vocals.

Summertime Standard

The historical importance of Porgy and Bess warrants its own conversation. But all by itself, many years removed from its original context, “Summertime” is universally recognized as an American standard.

“Summertime” was Gershwin’s attempt at channeling the essence of the Southern Black spiritual. There’s a strong case that, for a Jewish New Yorker born to Russian and Ukrainian immigrant parents, he nailed it. 

Take to the Sky

Porgy and Bess was a commercial flop upon its release in 1935. Though it would eventually become a cultural landmark, Gershwin would not live to see it. He departed New York for Los Angeles with designs on becoming a film composer. 

But shortly after his arrival, the composer began to complain of blinding headaches. When he collapsed and fell into a coma in 1937, surgeons discovered a brain tumor. They were unable to save the beloved composer, who was just 38 at the time of his death.  

Mind-blowing Side Note: That means Gershwin was just 25 when he did this:

But I digress.

Some decades passed before Porgy and Bess achieved its revered status. On the other hand, “Summertime” was covered widely, both immediately and in perpetuity.

The list of incredible and nuanced cover versions is far far too long to encapsulate here. Jump to the bottom for three hours worth of highlights.

For our purposes today, the point is simply that “Summertime” became an essential page in the American songbook. Unnumbered soul, rock, country, blues and jazz musicians have given their own voice to it.

Herbie Mann–Summertime (1961)

Among them was prolific jazz flautist Herbie Mann, whose 50 year resume includes early collaborations with Sarah Vaughn and Chet Baker, a chart-topping crossover Billboard hit in 1975 with “Hi-Jack”, and the body-positive album cover seen here. 

Take that, Ron Burgundy.

Herbie cut several different takes of “Summertime” over his illustrious career, but the most noteworthy was his smoking live jam at New York’s legendary Village Gate in 1961.

Though Mann was an industry veteran by this time, the 1961 live release represented a commercial breakthrough, crossing over to the mainstream Billboard album charts. Live at the Village Gate peaked at #30 in early ‘62.

Push Push

Apologies for making you look at this album cover again, but it’s kind of necessary. Indeed, Herbie Mann’s career would be long and illustrious, crossing over into fusion, funk, and various shades of commercially viable groove. That includes this 1971 album, which is just as greasy and groovy as the cover. It features a 24-year-old Duane Allman on guitar.

In a tragic turn, Duane was killed in a motorcycle crash on October 29, 1971. Herbie Mann’s Push Push was released the next day.

On a brighter note, Herbie Mann continued to record and perform for the next 30 years.

In the spring of 1995, Mann gathered together heavy friends like Tito Puente, Ron Carter, and Randy Brecker to celebrate his 65th birthday with a concert at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York.

About this time, Sublime was preparing to enter an Austin, Texas studio with a bag full of samples, including Herbie Mann’s “Summertime.”

Sublime—Doin’ Time (1996)

Sublime was a band on the cusp of breaking out. Emerging from a So-Cal surf scene where ska, punk, reggae and hip hop all bled together at the tip of a syringe, the oddball trio arrived with a deep trove of historical inspirations. In spite of their affinity for sophomoric lyrics and crack-den aesthetics, Sublime entered production with some serious knowledge and ambition.

Bradley Nowell envisioned a record that opened with a cover of Bob Marley’s “Trenchtown Rock” followed directly by “Doin’ Time”.

“Doin’ Time” was rooted in Gershwin’s “Summertime” and fused to a sample from Herbie Mann’s 1961 cover.

You can also hear strands of “Holy Thursday” by David Axelrod (1968), “Buffalo Gals” by Malcolm McLaren (1983), and Ini Kamoze’s “Come Now” (1988).

Sublime was unable to secure permission for “Trenchtown Rock” from the Marley estate so the cover was scrapped.

The Gershwin state was more amenable. After some negotiation, they agreed to allow use of the song with proper attribution, under one condition. The song’s original lyrics could not be altered in any way.

In the initial studio demo, Nowell sings “Doin’ time and the living is easy.” Nowell would simply have to re-record this line, restoring Gershwin’s original lyric.

Unfortunately, this was never possible.

Life Is Too Short So Love the One You Got

Though Nowell initially entered the studio intending to stay clean, his heroin usage spiraled out of control during the sessions. His addiction was so disruptive that friend and producer Michael Happoldt was forced to send him home while the remaining members worked to complete the record. 

As negotiations with the Gershwin estate ensued, the band returned to the road. It was there, in the spring of 1996, that Nowell overdosed and died. The band reached an agreement with Gershwin’s estate shortly thereafter.

It is thus that producer Michael Happoldt, and not Nowell, is heard singing the famous Gershwin line in the final version.

“Doin’ Time” was consequently tacked to the end of the record.

Originally intended for release under the ominous title, Killin’ It, the album was ultimately renamed Sublime upon its July 30th launch.

The album’s release was met with widespread critical praise and massive commercial success. It also stands as a cautionary testament to unrealized potential.

Lana Del Ray—Doin’ Time (2019)

There is some good news in all of this though.

First of all, Herbie Mann outlived them all, recording and performing right up to his death in 2003, at 73 years of age.

Second, Sublime did leave behind an enduring record, one that holds up well to repeat spins and its own modest trail of covers. Dig Lana Del Ray’s smoky 2019 take from her acclaimed 6th album, Norman Fucking Rockewell!

And in the interest of bringing it full circle, Lana Del Rey released “Summertime The Gershwin Version” in 2020.

90 Years and the Livin’ is Easy

“Summertime” proved not only endlessly adaptable but also uniquely versatile. Each artist here gives this standard a distinctive flavor.

I’m not saying you should actually sit and listen to three straight hours of “Summertime” but there are worse ways to spend your time.