NOVEMBER 30, 2015
Song of the Day: Witchcraft, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, was released as a Sinatra single in 1957, and spent 16 weeks on the Billboard singles chart, topping off at #20. This song was originally presented strictly as an instrumental in the musical revue, "Take Five." Sinatra actually recorded it on three separate occasions, but this one, featured on Disc 2 of "Ultimate Sinatra," is the 1957 single release [YouTube link]. It was also performed on a 1960 television special, "The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis," marking the return of Sargeant Elvis Presley from his military service in Germany. Presley became the King for a whole new generation of young rock and roll fans; Sinatra knew a bit about this kind of frenzied, wild fan response, given his regal reign during the bobby-soxer generation. Like Sinatra, Presley was a multifaceted entertainer, taking on stage, screen, and song. Check out the Sinatra-Presley TV special duet on YouTube, with Sinatra singing Presley's "Love Me Tender," and Presley taking on "Witchcraft."
NOVEMBER 29, 2015
Song of the Day: Sunny, words and music by Bobby Hebb, has been performed and recorded by hundreds of artists over the years. The song can be heard on an album that got mixed reviews, but it is nonetheless a meeting of giants: Sinatra and Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington. The album, "Francis A. and Edward K," which was released in 1968, was to be orchestrated by Duke's longtime partner, the superb lyricist and arranger: Billy Strayhorn, born 100 years ago on this date. So we celebrate the centenary of another giant of the music world. Sadly, Strayhorn passed away before the sessions began, and the orchestrations and arrangements were left to long-time Sinatra collaborator, Billy May. This well-known song gets a fine treatment, with those patented opening trumpet figures by Cootie Williams; check it out on YouTube.
NOVEMBER 28, 2015
Song of the Day: Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week), music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Sammy Cahn, was a Columbia hit single for Ol' Blue Eyes in 1944. It provides just the slightest indication of the swinging ways to come. This one can be found on Disc 1 of "Ultimate Sinatra," arranged by Alex Stordahl. What other song would have been a better choice on ... a Saturday!? Check it out on YouTube. And let's not forget that guys like New York-based Jonathan Schwartz have been hosting variations on "Saturday Night with Sinatra" radio shows on various channels and streaming services for umpteen years now; for Philly-based radio disc jockey Sid Mark, it's the syndicated "Sounds of Sinatra," heard usually the morning after "the loneliest night of the week."
NOVEMBER 27, 2015
Song of the Day: Time After Time, music by Jule Styne and lyrics by Sammy Cahn (both of whom knew a thing or two about writing songs that were Sinatra hits), was first introduced in the score to the 1947 MGM musical, "It Happened in Brooklyn," by Sinatra and also Kathryn Grayson. (The film also starred Peter Lawford, a future Rat Pack member.) It can also be found on Disc 1 of "Ultimate Sinatra." Recently, the Sinatra rendition of this song was heard in an episode of the summer TV series, "Aquarius," inspired by actual events, though mixed with a large dose of historical fiction. In the series, starring David Duchovny, we follow the early days of the infamous Manson family, responsible for the Tate-LaBianca murders in August 1969. You know you transcend "time" when your music is heard in a period piece in the years when psychedelic rock reached its peak. Sinatra never much cared for rock, even if he did a few covers of rock songs, without much success. His views of rock were probably on a par with those of the original "Tonight Show" host and comedian, Steve Allen, who saw the genre as eternally inferior to jazz, and regularly did "mock" poetry readings of the lyrics from the rock hits of the day. Allen once joked that rock and roll was based on three chords, and two of them were wrong. In any event, listen to Frank Sinatra's take on "Time After Time" [YouTube link] (not to be confused with rocker Cyndi Lauper's song of the same name [YouTube link], whose retro video actually opens with Lauper watching a scene from "The Garden of Allah," a 1936 film starring Marlene Dietrich and Charles Boyer).
NOVEMBER 26, 2015
Song of the Day: The House I Live In features the music of Earl Robinson, and the lyrics of Abel Meeropol (under the pen name of Lewis Allan), both of whom were later identified as members of the Communist Party during the McCarthy era. In 1953, Meeropol actually adopted Michael and Robert, the orphans of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed in 1953 for their acts of espionage in passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. The Robinson-Meeropol song is heard in a 1945 short film, directed by Albert Maltz, who would go on to be one of the Hollywood Ten. Being associated with some of these individuals kept the pressure on Sinatra, who was herded before investigators to answer questions with regard to his involvement with associations that had alleged "red" or "pink" connections. Seeking to travel to Korea to entertain the troops with the USO, Sinatra was offended that these investigators were impugning his patriotism; in the HBO documentary, "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," he relates his answer to those who questioned his love for America: "they could take the Korean War and shove it up their asses." With this, he walked out of the investigation room.
It's a tad ironic, perhaps, that, in 1962, Sinatra ended up starring in one of the most controversial Cold War thrillers of the day, based on a favorite novel of JFK's, written by Richard Condon, which was filled to the brim with tense international communist conspiratorial intrigue, an emergent by-product of the Korean War: "The Manchurian Candidate," directed by John Frankenheimer. Sinatra's film performance is surely a highlight of his acting career. In any event, Sinatra's involvement with "The House I Live In" was primarily due to his view that the song celebrated an America without bigotry or prejudice. He had heard the epithets spewed against Italian Americans throughout his whole life; he was a greaseball, a wop, a guinea bastard, a mobster, simply by virtue of his ethnicity. His hatred of ethnic prejudice extended to a principled stance against all forms of racism and bigotry. At the conclusion of World War II, the world had to confront the ugly reality of anti-Semitism, which had propelled many regimes throughout history toward discrimination and violence against Jews. But the Nazis fell to a level of human savagery that cashed-in on long-held cultural biases to justify the mass extermination of Jews (Nazi racial "cleansing" of the Third Reich targeted others as well, including many "inferior" ethnic, religious, and political groups, and even sexual "deviants" of the "pink triangle").
In any event, this song was actually first heard in the musical revue, "Let Freedom Sing." In the film, there's a small plot set-up; Sinatra walks out of a studio, where he's just completed a recording, and he sees a bunch of kids fighting over this one kid who is different from them; he's Jewish. They are taunting this one kid, and Sinatra asks the gang if they're Nazis. They object; some of the kids say that their dads went to fight the Nazis. And Sinatra asks them that if their dads got hurt in battle, did they get blood transfusions? Well, sure. He asks the Jewish kid if anyone in his family were blood donors, and the kid says that both his mom and dad were donors. He asks the kids, would their dads have rather died in battle than receive blood from people of another religion? He tells them to think, or he could have simply said, "Check your premises," because we're all human beings with human blood. He says he's Italian, and some others may be Irish, French, or Russian, but we are all Americans. He then tells them a story about the first airstrike by Americans against the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. It was successful due to the skill of Meyer Levin (by the way, a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and a member of its Hall of Fame [a BTHS .pdf file]), whose bomb hit and sunk the Haruna, a Japanese battleship.
For all its controversy as a short-film, with its "commie" messages like, uh, "freedom of religion," the film moves into song, as Sinatra asks the opening question "What is America to Me?" He provides a lyrical celebration of American freedom and democracy, of "the right to speak my mind out," a paean to the American people of "all races and religions," and their values. This certainly didn't strike me as a piece of red propaganda, but I can understand the ways in which the material can be interpreted as "pinko," given its historical context and the people who were involved in its making. In the end, however, a special Honorary Oscar and Golden Globe were awarded to the short film, which can be seen on YouTube.
Right now, I count my blessings that I am eating a Thanksgiving meal in America, in the same Brooklyn, New York of Meyer Levin, in the "house I live in." A Happy Thanksgiving to all!
NOVEMBER 25, 2015
Song of the Day: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, music by David Mann, lyrics by Bob Hilliard, is the title track from a 1955 album regarded by many to be the greatest of Sinatra's career. Ths song is also featured on Disc 2 of "Ultimate Sinatra." Sinatra delivers the song in that personally reflective manner, which bathes the lyrics with his own yearnings and lovelorn loneliness. It speaks to any of us who has ever fallen in love and felt the sting of its loss. Listen to this classic on YouTube.
NOVEMBER 24, 2015
Song of the Day: From This Moment On, words and music by Cole Porter, was written in 1951 for the composer's musical, "Out of This World," but it was dropped, only to be included later in the 1953 MGM film of the musical, "Kiss Me Kate." The song was recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1957, with a mid-tempo swinging arrangement by Nelson Riddle, for the album, "A Swingin' Affair!." It can also be found on Disc 2 of "Ultimate Sinatra." As today's lead essay explains, with this entry, we begin a 19-day tribute to Ol' Blue Eyes, culminating on December 12, 2015, the 100th anniversary of the day of his birth. Check this song out on YouTube.
A "Song of the Day" Sinatra Tribute Begins "From This Moment On"
Today, Tuesday, November 24, 2015, I begin a tribute to Francis Albert Sinatra, which will culminate on Saturday, December 12, 2015, the day on which we will mark the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Yes, he was The Voice for seven decades of the twentieth-century, from the mid-1930s to the early 1990s. But his enormous artistic gifts have been preserved forever in film, vocal recordings, and concert performances, allowing future generations a glimpse of the ever-lasting impact he made on American culture, art, and music.
When Sinatra first entered the scene, he was this scrawny kid from humble Hoboken, New Jersey in search of a stage. But this was a proud Italian American, whose father emigrated from Sicily and whose mother came from Genoa. As a first-generation American son of immigrant parents, he was open to the musically diverse American palette. At first, he absorbed much from the crooner school of Bing Crosby, and, like Bing, he was deeply influenced by one of the most distinctly American musical idioms: Jazz. Sinatra's schooling in jazz came from a diverse array of artists, starting with sizzling hot trumpeter Harry James with whom he first sang. James would routinely throw him an improvised musical curveball, which Sinatra would learn to field vocally, so-to-speak. He submerged himself in the New York club scene, and learned much watching the live performances of English-born cabaret singer, Mabel Mercer and, especially, of Billie Holiday. But it was his tenure in the Big Band of trombonist Tommy Dorsey that taught him more about singing than any vocal teacher could possibly offer him. He always said that he learned more about breath control by watching Dorsey's trombone solos, played with such seamlessness that one could barely detect the jazzman's breathing. Before too long, his talent brought him front and center on the stage, as he captured the excitement of the bobby-soxer generation. The kids simply went wild. But he did not become The Voice, Ol' Blue Eyes, or the Chairman of the Board overnight. He didn't simply collect Grammy Awards, Golden Globes, Emmy Awards, and Oscar statuettes; in the early years, he battled his self-destructive tendencies, and it would take years for him to truly find himself, reinvent himself, giving new meaning to the Koehler lyric, "I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow, got the string around my finger. What a world! What a life!" What a life, indeed.
Eventually, it was Sinatra's self-reinvention that earned him Golden Globe and Oscar Awards for his film work, Grammy Awards for his singing, including the Grammy Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement and Legend Awards. In fact, he received recognition for Lifetime Achievement from so many of the industry's associations, that a brief summary doesn't do him justice. The accolades came from such institutions as the Screen Actors Guild; the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers; the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame; the Kennedy Center; the American Music Award of Merit; the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Moreover, he was a two-time winner of the critics' Downbeat poll for Male Singer of the Year, while the Downbeat readers named him Male Singer of the Year for sixteen years and Personality of the Year for six years.
A Deplorable Excess of Personality?
In the 1993 film version of "Jurassic Park," John Hammond, the creator of the park, played by Richard Attenborough, characterizes Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) as a person who suffers from a "deplorable excess of personality." Some might have said the same about Sinatra, whose excesses often undercut his early successes. So before we go on singing the praises of this Patron Saint of Song, it's best that we put some issues to rest, for they are not unimportant. I know that there are many people out there who find it impossible to separate the art from the artist. In some respects, it would be horrifically ahistorical and acontextal; grasping the artist's cultural or personal context might go a long way toward understanding and appreciating his accomplishments. But it is also true that many great artists throughout history have created magnificent works of art that either gave expression to the demons within, or provided a cathartic means by which to exorcize them. The point here is that it would be a mistake to dismiss the greatness of art because the artist suffers from character flaws. One thing that Sinatra accomplished, however, is that he emerged from these early years a better singer and a superior artist. As he says it in one of his signature tunes: "The record shows, I took the blows and did it My Way." By acknowledging his excesses and failures, Sinatra, in his vocals, became ever more expressive of a raw honesty, which came through whether he was singing of lost love, or of the joyous possibilities of life.
But the maturity of his art could not have emerged without his very public ups and downs. His critics viewed him as a thug, made all the worse because he was an Italian American with all the bigotry that this fact of ethnicity implied, especially in an era that gave us both the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression. Gangsta rappers have nothing on Ol' Blue Eyes. We've seen and heard it all: from his mug shot, to his tumultuous affair with and marriage to Ava Gardner and his subsequent attempts at suicide; and, later, his rowdy days and nights in Las Vegas with the Rat Pack, which fueled rumors of rampant womanizing and alleged Mafia ties.
And then there were emergent political problems he had to face. Having been declared 4F for service in the military, he and actor Orson Welles campaigned fiercely for FDR. His ability to entertain on the home front, and to film such extravaganzas as the 1945 musical comedy, "Anchors Away" (in which he worked like a "prizefighter" behind the scenes to keep up with the gifted choreographer, dancer, singer, and actor Gene Kelly), made him a bona fide star, and uplifted many spirits in a world consumed by war. But his liberal FDR-friendly politics, his embrace of a 'progressive' New Deal agenda, and his public stances against racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry at the end of World War II (as expressed in the 1945 short film "The House I Live In," which won an Honorary Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Film Promoting International Good Will), provided fodder for his tabloid critics. Many branded him a "red," a "leftist," and an out-and-out commie, to which Sinatra is reported to have replied: "Bullshit." There is a touch of irony in all of this red-baiting: despite being a virtual cheerleader of "High Hopes" [YouTube link], the very song Sinatra adapted for the 1960 Kennedy presidential campaign, the singer was marginalized by JFK, given his connections to mobster Sam Giancana and others. Sinatra's political journey went from supervising JFK's inaugural party to supervising the presidential gala of Republican Ronald Reagan, for whom he had become a vocal supporter, and from whom he received the "Medal of Freedom."
In the years after filming "The House I Live In," the McCarthy era press became increasingly suspicious and hostile toward anyone suspected of left-wing views. This was the era of the Cold War, which turned increasingly hot in places like Korea. He was advised by actor Humphrey Bogart to ignore the tabloids, because he could never win any battles against a hostile press. Sinatra being Sinatra, of course, ignored Bogie's sound advice. On April 8, 1947, he went to see Peggy Lee's opening night at Ciro's on the Sunset Strip; behind him, he overheard the voice of his chief newspaper nemesis, the columnist, Lee Mortimer, who questioned Sinatra's patriotism in print, and who, on this night, referred to Sinatra as a "dago" and "guinea bastard." This was overheard by an overheated Sinatra, who recalls: "I tapped him on the shoulder, and I hit him so fucking hard I broke the whole front of his face, and he banged his head." Mortimer said he was going to destroy Sinatra, but ultimately, the issue was settled with Sinatra paying damages. He never forgot Mortimer, though; any time their paths crossed, Sinatra would spit at him. (These priceless stories are from the terrific HBO two-part documentary, "Sinatra: All or Nothing at All," from which I've drawn quite a bit for this essay.)
There is no doubt that this period in Sinatra's life took its toll; his excesses, his losses, his alcohol abuse, led him to a catastrophic collapse in his recording and acting career. His record company axed his contract and few film offers came his way. Even before the Ava Gardner-related suicide attempts in the early 1950s, Modern Television and Radio magazine was asking plainly in December 1948: "Is Sinatra Finished?"
If Sinatra's career had simply ended right then and there, we would barely be talking about the centenary of his birth. For indeed, the melodrama of his life dredges up the old debate about whether one can appreciate art apart from the artist, who might very well be a suicidal (or homicidal) maniac. Before discussing how Sinatra turned his life around, it's important to talk about this issue, for it has been raised so many times before with regard to other artists and their art.
For example, let's just say for a moment that every last accusation against Michael Jackson were true (with regard to the sexual abuse of minors, something for which he was acquitted in the only case to make it to trial). For me, it would not in any way, shape, or form, diminish my love and admiration of Jackson's talents as a musician, composer, and dancer. Jackson provided me with the soundtrack of my youth, and I cannot for a moment imagine a world without the songs I danced to, or laughed to, or cried to. I cannot for a single moment imagine a world where I'd never had the opportunity to see and hear him live, on stage, in a series of utterly brilliant concert performances. He was the quintessential "song-and-dance" man of my generation who touched the lives of millions of fans worldwide, which explains how deeply shattered we were by his own tragic death in 2009. So, whether he was a drug addict or a pedophile or a nutjob of the first order would have made no difference with regard to this fan's love of his art; and so it is with everyone from jazz guitar legend Joe Pass (who emerged from Synanon), or rock legends Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin or even to those classical philosophers, composers, musicians, painters, scultptors, writers, artists, etc., of whose flaws many of us are perenially unaware. Rest assured, if there was a tabloid press during the days of Classical Greece or Ancient Rome or the Renaissance, I can't imagine the stories that would have come to light about some of our philosophical and artistic heroes! It probably would have made the Robert Graves work, I, Claudius, look tame by comparison.
Loving a work of the creative imagination does not provide an apologia for the alleged or real sins or political views of its creator. In any event, our aesthetic responses are not generally guided by conscious reflection or articulated moral judgments about those who create. They are emotional responses that often emerge from the deepest and most complex corners of our soul. And here's the irony: a tortured artist (and there are plenty of them throughout history) might create a work of sublime beauty that speaks to those aspects of his own soul, crying out for objectification. And as responders, we may openly embrace that creation. Or perhaps, that same artist's tortured soul and life experiences might fully inhabit a work of art in its depiction of unimaginable sadness. But whatever our response, it is not necessarily a psychological confession concerning the depravity of our sense of life. It might simply speak to our own life experiences of loss, regret, and unfathomable grief. And we respond accordingly.
It is no accident that Sinatra was a consummate story-teller, for the way he delivered a lyric of heartbreak elicited responses from his fans, who, as part of the human family, had suffered through feelings of similar grief, loss, and regret. In "Angel Eyes" [YouTube link], there's that image of Frank sitting by himself in a bar, contemplating lost love. He tells us, conversationally, painfully, "Try to think that love's not around, but it's uncomfortably near. My old heart ain't gaining no ground, because my angel eyes ain't here." The listener feels every syllable of loss with his impeccable diction in the delivery of the lyric. He's an actor telling a story, yes; but he's connecting that story to the real losses he has experienced in his own life. The grief is palpable. It's as if he had adopted the technique of "method acting" to the very art of song. It helps one to understand just why he was referred to as "the poet laureate of loneliness."
A Life Worth Living: The Sinatra Revolution
One thing is clear about Frank Sinatra, perhaps best expressed in one of my all-time favorite recordings of his; when he hit bottom, he was determined to turn it around. "That's Life" [YouTube link, and here too], after all, "as funny as it may seem, some people get their kicks stompin' on a dream. But I don't let it, let it get me down, 'cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin' around." He sings with defiance: "I've been up and down and over and out and I know one thing. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race. . . . I can't deny it; I thought of quitting, baby, put my heart just ain't gonna buy it. And if I didn't think it was worth one single try, I'd jump right on a big bird and then I'd fly."
But the vehicle for his comeback was neither a bird nor a song; it was a film. And a legendary Fedora (or shall we call it a Cavanaugh?).
It was with his reading of the 1951 James Jones novel, From Here to Eternity, that he became convinced that he would be perfect for the role of Private Angelo Maggio, for the upcoming 1953 film adaptation. He secured the role (most likely with the help of Ava Gardner, not Don Vito Corleone, and subsequently won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Film wasn't the only medium to conquer; Sinatra, after all, was a consummate stylist. He was no longer the scrawny looking kid from Hoboken; now, with a cocked Fedora atop his head, he seemed to define the very essence of cool, of attitude, of self-assuredness. And he influenced a whole generation of men on the sexiness of hats. My own Dad wore one of those hats till the day he died. Nevertheless, despite the Fedora, film was the central vehicle driving the Sinatra revolution to the next phase of his creativity.
Over the years, his very presence on the screen commanded your attention. He could move you to dance (in the 1955 film of "Guys and Dolls"), to laugh (in the 1960 heist film starring all of his Rat Pack cohorts, "Ocean's Eleven"), to cry (playing a heroin addict, with chilling film noir scenes of detox, in the 1955 film, "The Man with the Golden Arm"), to take notice, when his character depicted intense realism (in the 1962 film, "The Manchurian Candidate," and the 1968 film, "The Detective") and, finally, to suffer profound grief just when you thought you were on the precipice of glory (the 1965 World War II POW film, "Von Ryan's Express").
I actually saw "Von Ryan's Express" in 1965 when it first came out, at the age of 5 years old. The memory of it is so vivid, so engrained in my psyche because it was a night of trauma for me. The family took the drive out to Long Island to see the film at the Sunrise Drive-In Theater in Valley Stream, New York. Being at a Drive-In was a big thrill back then, and at the age of five, it was an overwhelming experience for me. I mean, you could go and get popcorn, and never miss any part of the movie. The thing about drive-ins though, is that they are built so that cars can be perched at an upward tilt, on mini-gravel hills. Well, when I went with my sister to get the requisite popcorn, I was running up one of those mini-gravel hills (which appeared closer to the size of Mount Everest to me). Somehow, I got tangled in my sneaker-laces, and went flying downside when I reached the apex of Everest. Naturally, like every other 5-year old boy, I ripped open my right knee for the umpteenth time of my youth. I had previously ripped it open getting caught in the metal of a fence, while I climbed it. And then there was the Becky Incident. Becky was the dog of my best friend's family, and she gave birth to my first dog: Timmy. In any event, I so wanted to walk Becky the Beagle, so, as a precaution, my best friend's mom tied Becky's leash to my wrist so that she would not run away, while I walked her. The stage was set for catastrophe. When the dog saw my friend up the block, she got very excited, and proceeded to run full-speed ahead along the sidewalk of Highlawn Avenue. The leash was still attached to my wrist. In hindsight, I figured this is what it must have felt like to be Messala, in "Ben-Hur," holding on to the reins, but being dragged to my death by horses galloping with a fallen chariot.
The gash scars from the Drive-In movie, and other sporting events, are still quite visible, even now, at the age of 55. But being a 5-year old at the Drive-In, I couldn't fight back the tears, from the pain, and from witnessing the blood pouring out of my wound. Mom and sister cleaned me up, and we returned to the car, to watch the epic climax of Sinatra's war film. He played the role of Colonel Joseph Ryan, leading a POW escape to Switzerland, across Nazi-occupied Italy. And [SPOILER ALERT!], in the final scenes, as the prisoner train is just about to cross into Switzerland, Ryan is running frantically behind that last train car, trying desperately to escape the Waffen-SS troops in pursuit. He is shot by machine gun rounds. Tragically, he falls dead.
Well, this was just too much for my traumatic night. I got hysterical crying, and it took lots of assurances from my mother and sister that Frankie was still alive; it was only a movie. Come to think of it, the last Drive-In theater experience I had also featured a tragedy; it was in April 1998, virtually one month to the day before Ol' Blue Eyes passed away. We were vacationing in Tucson, Arizona, and went to the De Anza Drive-In, where, fortunately, I did not rip open my knee, but I do admit to crying again, as I watched the last heartbreaking moments of the sinking "Titanic" on a huge 70mm screen!
The Essence of Sinatra's Vocal Revolution
Having conquered the film world and the style world, there was nothing left to conquer but that which Sinatra was born to be: The Voice. To say he was musically triumphant in the 1950s and 1960s would be an understatement. He retains the distinction of being among the very first artists to bring into the market the idea of "the concept album." Sinatra would go on to sell more than 150 million albums throughout his prolific recording career. Among the classic "concept albums," one finds such gems as "Songs for Young Lovers," "In the Wee Small Hours," "Come Fly with Me," "Nice 'n Easy," and "September of My Years. But we can't forget some of those magnificent live concert recordings such as "Sinatra at the Sands" (with Count Basie), and those utterly remarkable sessions with artists who transcended global boundaries and eras, men such as Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim (check out this brilliant clip with Jobim and Sinatra, from the third installment of his TV specials, "A Man and His Music").
Not all of Sinatra's work with Jobim was first released when it was recorded; Sinatra was a perfectionist, and some of it just didn't feel right. The "Complete Reprise Recordings" of their work together wasn't issued until 2010. The liner notes are absolutely priceless, as they tell the story of the meeting of two giants from different parts of the world, who had vastly different personalities: Sinatra, a veritable "fearless" Lion in the studio or on the stage; Jobim, the quiet, reserved genius of Brazilian music, and one of the creators of that lyrical fusion of samba and jazz known as the bossa nova. The writer of the notes, Stan "Underwood" Cornyn, who just passed away in May 2015, tells us a story that by its very nature teaches us something about the universality of music. One thing that the two artists worked on, over and over again, was to find just the right balance between the louder instruments and percussive sounds and the quiet, tender melodies that required near silence. Cornyn writes:
Seemed like the whole idea was to out-hush each other. Decibels treated like daggers. The arranger tiptoeing about, eliminating some percussion here, ticks there, ridding every song of click, bings, bips, all things sharp. Doing it with the fervor matched only by Her Majesty's Silkworms. But when someone asks if the piano part (played by Sinatra's personal accompanist Bill Miller) didn't come off just a little jarring, Sinatra counters with, "Him percussive? He's got fingers made out of jello." Henceforth, Miller plays jello-keys. And Sinatra makes a joke about all this. "I haven't sung so soft since I had the laryngitis." But while singing soft, making no joke about it. Singing so soft, if he sang any softer he'd have to be lying on his back.
The resulting sessions are, in my view, among the most sublime music ever created by two masters of their craft.
In this essay, we have learned that few entertainers could top the tabloid adventures of Francis Albert Sinatra. However, even fewer performers could barely touch Sinatra's accomplishments as an exquisite interpreter of the Great American Songbook. He could deliver a ballad with graceful diction, and break your heart. He could swagger his way through the swinging orchestrations of some of the best arrangers and conductors in the business, from Nelson Riddle to Billy May to Quincy Jones, incorporating the American jazz idiom with a fluidity that enabled him to sing above and behind the beat. He may not have been a scat-singer, but his whole conception has led even some of the greatest jazz instrumentalists of the era to characterize him as a bona fide jazz vocalist; many of these same jazz artists had learned much from him, from his phrasing, his pacing, and his interpretive, improvised ways with both the lyric and the melody.
Citing Variety, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow characterized Sinatra's re-emergence from the ashes as one of the greatest comebacks in entertainment history. Sinatra went from the generation of the bobby-soxers to a cultural phenomenon. He and his Rat Pack, with guys like Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, single-handedly turned around the struggling casino town of Las Vegas, making it a tourist attraction that offered some of the greatest musical and comedic entertainers in the business (one of those comedians, Don Rickles, had a ball roasting Sinatra, Davis, and even Ronald Reagan; and check out Sinatra and Rickles on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show"). In these unparalleled live performances, Sinatra rarely delivered songs exactly like his classic studio recordings. He sang the hits that the crowd worshipped and adored, but he often played with both the lyrics and the audience. The Rat Pack went on to star in films together in the early 1960s, including box office hits, such as "Ocean's 11" (1960) and "Robin and the 7 Hoods" (1964). Sinatra was emerging as the "King of the Hill, Top of the Heap, A Number One," as the lyric tells us in "New York, New York." In short, he had become a genuine cultural icon.
Today, however, we live in an age where the overuse of the word "icon" has had an effect no different than the flooding of any market; its overuse makes everything iconic, and therefore, nothing. You know you've reached a stage of cultural bankruptcy when, in today's culture, Sinatra is still recognized as one of America's icons, but that he'd share that iconic status with Kim Kardashian. Not. Unlike the Kardashians who are "famous for being famous," as Barbara Walters once put it, Sinatra is an icon precisely because he was a person who was revered or idolized for his accomplishments. He is an artist whose influence spreads into genres as diverse as jazz (he was selected in a 1956 poll of jazz musicians, with affirmative votes from Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, and Carmen McRae, among others, as "the greatest-ever male vocalist") and rap; it is felt in the work of contemporary popular artists as diverse as Alicia Keys, Sara Bareilles, John Legend, John Mayer, Josh Grobin, Gavin DeGraw, and Ne-Yo. It stretches from the jazz stylings of Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Buble, to the cabaret of Ron Hawking and Michael Feinstein ("The Sinatra Project") [YouTube link], and the rap of Jay Z (who is a master of rapping above and behind the beat). In some respects, however, Sinatra's influence isn't felt enough, and this is to the detriment of the musical world in which we live. As jazz vocalist Cassandara Wilson put it: "I wish Frank Sinatra influenced more singers today. He comes from a time when it [was] about the phrasing of a piece, the emotional content of a piece. He descended from Billie Holiday and singers who placed more emphasis on the lyrical content of the song."
Here at "Notablog," on the list called "My Favorite Songs," I have always revered and idolized Sinatra. One would think that after featuring audio clips and full-length YouTube renditions by Sinatra on over 60 songs in my ever-growing list, that we would have exhausted our supply. By some estimates, however, the Chairman of the Board (a name given to him by New York's WNEW-AM radio personality, the beloved William B. Williams) recorded over 1,200 tracks, but this includes various recordings of the same song delivered with different arrangements. Clearly, the guy spent a lot of time in the studio, when he wasn't going on global concert tours or filming another hit movie.
Given the number of Sinatra performances highlighted in "My Favorite Songs," he is, perhaps, the artist cited more than any other on my list. So, before listening to the next 19 days of songs that I will post over the coming weeks, I invite folks to check out the ones already listed: "All of Me," "All or Nothing at All," "All the Things You Are," "Angel Eyes," "Autumn in New York," "The Best is Yet to Come," "Brooklyn Bridge," "Call Me," "Call Me Irresponsible," "Change Partners," "Cheek to Cheek," "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)," "Come Fly with Me," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Don't Take Your Love From Me," "Everything Happens To Me," "Falling in Love with Love," "The First Noel," "Fly Me To the Moon," "Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)," "How About You?," "How Insensitive," "I Concentrate on You," "I Fall in Love Too Easily," "If You Go Away," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "I'll Never Smile Again," "I'm a Fool to Want You," "I Should Care," "It Was a Very Good Year," "I've Got a Crush On You," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "Just Friends," "The Lady is a Tramp," "Love is a Many-Splendored Thing," "Luck Be a Lady," "Me and My Shadow," "Meditation," "Moonlight in Vermont," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "My Buddy," "My Kind of Town," "My One and Only Love," "My Shining Hour," "My Way," "The Nearness of You," "New York, New York," "One for My Baby," "Pennies from Heaven," "Pocketful of Miracles," "Poor Butterfly," "Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars (Corcovado)," "Someone to Light Up My Life," "The Song is You," "Spring is Here," "Summer Me, Winter Me," "Swinging on a Star," "That Old Black Magic," "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)," "They Can't Take That Away from Me," "Too Marvelous For Words," "Triste," "The Way You Look Tonight," "What a Little Moonlight Can Do," "Wives and Lovers," "Yesterdays," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "You'll Never Know," "You'll Never Walk Alone," "You Make Me Feel So Young," and "You're Gonna Hear From Me."
Some of these songs are so closely tied to their definitive Sinatra recordings, that it is hard to listen to them coming from the voices of other singers, no matter how wonderful other renditions might be. I mean, can anyone of us honestly think of such songs as "The Best is Yet to Come," "Come Fly with Me," "Fly Me to the Moon," and "It Was a Very Good Year," without thinking of Sinatra? Charlton Heston, the Oscar-winning actor who knew one or two things about 3- and 4-hour epics, once said that every single song that Sinatra ever sang was the equivalent of a 4-minute movie, so good was he at telling a story. Sinatra sang the standards, but his own renditions of so many of these standards became the standard by which to measure other renditions. For other artists who sang these songs, the best route to success was to completely change the interpretation and arrangement. For example, I can't think of anybody but Michael Jackson performing "Billie Jean," and yet several other successful renditions have been recorded only because the interpretation of the song was dramatically altered. Chris Cornell's version, in my view, is the most successful because it is dramatically different from the original. Check it all out here.
Clearly, I have always celebrated the talents of Sinatra, the self-confessed "saloon singer," who became the epitome of cool, the essence of musical class, and, as Bono once suggested, perhaps the only Italian Francis (with apologies to the Italian man from Assisi and the humble Argentinian Pope of Italian immigrants) to provide genuine proof that God is a Catholic ([YouTube link; I'm paraphrasing Bono's introduction of Sinatra at the 1994 Grammy Awards, where The Voice was recognized as a Grammy "Living Legend").
Nearly all of the selections that will be featured in this tribute can be found on "Ultimate Sinatra," a 4-CD Centennial Edition of 101 recordings, drawn from every label under which Sinatra recorded, including Columbia Records, Capitol Records, and his own Reprise label.
I was asked by a few people if I could possibly select a Top Ten List of Sinatra Favorites, and I find it virtually impossible to rank, but I'll try a knee-jerk Top Ten, literally off-the-top of my head, in alphabetical order, rather than a ranking: "The Best is Yet to Come," "Come Fly with Me," "Fly Me to the Moon," "I Concentrate on You," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "It Was a Very Good Year," "I've Got You Under My Skin," "One for My Baby," "New York, New York" (heard at the end of every home game played by my New York Yankees), and "That's Life." But if I think about this for any more than five minutes, I'll give you a whole other list of Top Ten... so let's keep it at that!
Today's "Song of the Day" is "From This Moment On" (on Disc 2 of "Ultimate Sinatra"). Indeed, from this moment on, prepare to be entertained through December 12th. We will feature a song each day (with one tip of the Fedora in the middle of our tribute to two other artists with links to Sinatra). As I have noted, not one of these songs has ever appeared on the illustrious list assembled above, which, in itself, is a testament to the breadth and the depth of this man's magnificent artistic legacy.
NOVEMBER 21, 2015
Song of the Day: Drink You Away, words and music by Timothy Mosley, Jerome "J-Roc" Harmon, James Fauntleroy, and Justin Timberlake, is featured on Justin's fourth solo album, "The 20/20 Experience: 2 of 2." I loved it when I first heard it on the album, and in concert, but I truly went wild for it when I heard it performed on, of all things, the Country Music Association Awards broadcast from Nashville, Tennessee, on 4 November 2015. Not a typical country music fan, I still marvel at the fact that so much of what is genuinely American music, owes its origins to the blues. In this instance, Justin's Memphis-blues-influenced approach is in a perfect mashup with Chris Stapleton's bluegrass country to give us a terrific performance. Check it out on YouTube, and also, their take on "Tennessee Whiskey." And don't forget Justin's original album version [YouTube link]. Tomorrow night, there's another awards show, the American Music Awards, which might give us a few other moments to remember.
NOVEMBER 15, 2015
Song of the Day: Paris Was Made for Lovers, with music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Hal Shaper, is the title track from the 1972 British comedy-drama film, known alternatively as "A Time for Loving." My favorite version of this song was a live Legrand performance from an early 1970s Monsanto special (see link below). Of course, today, there is every reason in the world to remember one lyric from Legrand's song: "Paris Was Made for Lovers... Why Else Would Paris Even Be There?" I've never been to Paris, but my heart has visited its residents since Friday the 13th of November, and it aches because they, who have known the horrific wars of the twentieth-century, conquered by the Nazis, liberated by the Allies, have now been introduced to a war of the twenty-first century, one that I know only too well because it showed its ugly face in my city, my home, on September 11, 2001. We can debate the reasons for this bloodshed from here to eternity, but there is simply no doubt about the utter savagery of those who have the self-righteous audacity to claim that they kill in the name of their God. These premodern jihadists have brought back all the premodern means of murder; they've sawed off heads and crucified "heretics." But they use modern technology to assist them in their coordination of terror. We've heard of the "Stolen Concept Fallacy," where one requires the truth of that which one is simultaneously trying to disprove; maybe we can call this one the "Stolen Technology Fallacy," where one requires all the technological gifts of a civilized society, including social media and satellite technology, while in the process of trying to destroy the very civilization that has made such gifts possible. If I lived in Paris, I'd want to deny such murderers the capacity to use anything that wasn't invented prior to the seventh century. And I'd introduce them to one more premodern innovation as a reward for their brutality: The Guillotine. Paris Was Made for Lovers, Not Haters. Listen to the godly Legrand sing of the love of his city [.mp3 link]. And may God bless the people of Paris as they mourn the lives that have been taken from them.