Sinatra’s career crisis

911218946-612x612Since watching a DVD (a gift from my daughter) with three of Sinatra’s late-60s TV specials on it, I’ve been pondering the crisis that clearly took hold of him when he hit the age of 50.

I can look at this period now with the personal experience of having hit 55 last year, which was the age at which Sinatra announced his (first) “retirement” in 1971. Much as I’d like to retire myself, this was in hindsight an astonishingly young age for an entertainer to announce the end.

It was the TV special featuring easy listening vocal group The 5th Dimension, and Sinatra (jokingly) adopting their Liberace-style costume that got me thinking. This was his clear attempt (in 1968) to get down with the kids and perform music that was somehow more contemporary and relevant than his usual fare. He had absolutely no need to do this, of course, but he was acting out a very public mid-life crisis (his short marriage to Mia Farrow, 30 years younger than him, had just ended) that was culminating, before our very eyes in him perching awkwardly on a stool in a Nehru jacket and beads.

The following year, 1969, his final TV special was just him and a swing orchestra, doing the old stuff, and reminiscing (hilariously) about his Hollywood career, which he was also giving up on.

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Beads, Frank?

For me, the crisis that led to his premature retirement started towards the end of his Capitol contract and the beginning of the Reprise years, which I’ve written about before. In 1961/2, his Capitol contract overlapped with Reprise, so that he was recording albums simultaneously for two labels, phoning in performances to fulfil his obligations to one whilst also trying to embark on something new with the other. The cognitive dissonance must have been extreme.

NehruNo6

That late-60s Nehru look in full

And what was Reprise for, really? A little bigger piece of the pie? Sure, and why not? Which is why so much of the Reprise material consists of re-recordings of his classics from Columbia and Capitol in order to tap the lucrative Greatest Hits market. But give or take the three albums he recorded with Count Basie (including the live one), not much of what he recorded for Reprise was particularly good. And some of it was desperate.

He knew that popular music was changing and he wanted to matter, but at the same time, he hated rock music. He was casting around for new songwriters, but he didn’t know this new material in the way he knew that Great American Songbook. I always thought it was a dead giveaway when he performed George Harrison’s “Something” on one occasion, but credited it to Lennon and McCartney. Anyway, this stuff is painful to listen to. He drags on the beat, his timing is off, he doesn’t swing.

There are four albums that lead up to the retirement.

SinatraCyclesCycles comes first, in Christmas 1968. He’s just turned 53. He’s pictured on the album cover sitting on a suitcase and holding the bridge of his nose, as if to say, either, “What have I done?” or “This stuff stinks” – or both! This is an album that features “contemporary” songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell (!), Jimmy Webb, and John Hartford. It was as close as he came to recording a 60s country pop record. It wasn’t a disaster: #2 in the Easy Listening chart, #18 in the Billboard 200 chart.

Then, just three months later, comes his late career motherlode, My Way, which is another pop album, with its title track a version of a French-style chanson, “Comme d’Habitude”, rewritten/reimagined by Paul Anka. Sinatra reportedly didn’t like “My Way” which thus became a millstone around his neck. I personally have always hated the fact that this is the one “everyone” knows. Other tracks on the record include more Jimmy Webb, a song by Ray Charles, a Stevie Wonder number, “Mrs Robinson” and “Yesterday”. Another decent chart performance, #11 in the US and #2 in the UK, but I strongly suspect that Sinatra absolutely loathed this material.

Just five months later, still in 1969, he released A Man Alone, which consisted of songs (or poems?) by Rod McKuen (sort of set to music). Sinatra is still only 53, but this now seems like a man who has given up on life. To quote the Wikipedia: “Despite his popular appeal, McKuen’s work was never taken seriously by critics or academics.” This album hit #30 in the US and #18 in the UK. My mum had a copy. It was terrible.

Finally, Sinatra takes a good long break, sits down and has a Big Think, and a wholeWatertown(1970album) seven months later, he releases an experimental concept album called Watertown. The songs were written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes and told the story of a broken man from the titular town. It reached #101 in the Billboard charts, but inexplicably hit #14 in the UK. I don’t remember my mum having it.

(Christ knows what was happening in the UK in 1970. Ted Heath. Jeremy Thorpe. For further context, I’ve previously noted that Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, also released in 1970, didn’t chart in the UK at all.)

Anyway, Watertown is a flop, Sinatra is done, and the next thing you know, he’s announcing his retirement. Which seems now to be a bit of a flounce, but the voice was still strong in a way that it wouldn’t be later. I think he felt he’d run out of material to record, and couldn’t very well re-record all the good stuff for a 3rd or 4th time. But we know now, in a way people didn’t back then, that he could have given up recording and stuck to the live work. The audience would have continued to be there.

Sinatra’s mid-life crisis lasted at least 5 years, but that core period, 1968-1970, was the hardest for him, I think. My own mid-life crisis seems trivial in comparison. But you want to scream at him, Slow down, Frank! No need for three or even two albums a year. Just wait, the pendulum will swing back your way.

Fellow New Jersey musician Bruce Springsteen last released a studio album four years ago.

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Desssert Isssland Dissscs – Take 3

[Speaking to Roy Plomley’s head in a jar] For my third appearance on the show, Roy, I’ve selected eight disks that mean a lot to me, right now. For those spotting trends, this selection sees a welcome return of two from my first island visit, but none at all from my second. What was I thinking?

Here’s the 2018 eight:

  • I Won’t Dance – Frank Sinatra with the Count Basie Orchestra. This particular song is my favourite Sinatra track twice over. First of all on his best 50s album (A Swingin’ Affair) and second of all on his best 60s album (Sinatra/Basie). For this latter version, he used a stripped back, slower-tempo arrangement by Neil Hefti, and he leans way, way back. The Basie orchestra’s instrumental interventions build to a rollicking climax, but most of all, they play in the white space left by Sinatra’s horizontal vocal. This one I can trace back to my younger years: my mum had the record, released in the year I was born. But I didn’t like it: it took me years to gain the musical education to appreciate what was going on. The song is a wondrous piece of work, too: from a Fred Astaire dance sequence to Sinatra’s definitive versions with Nelson Riddle and the Basie. For heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos. If the wind changes, I’d select the 1957 version, for Sinatra’s “Ring-a-ding-ding” improv on its own.
  • Jessica – The Allman Brothers Band. Sullied as it has been by the Top Gear years (Clarkson edition), I’ve carried an affection for this track since my teenage years, when I would occasionally hear it on Radio Caroline, which I would listen to with the radio pressed up against my ear, under the bed clothes. Even so, the Top Gear it reminds me of is the William Woollard version, because the Clarkson era used that shitty el cheapo BBC cover version. As I said the first time I picked it, I especially love the bit in the middle that you would never hear on Top Gear. It’s pentatonic, man.

(No video of this one, so the audio will have to do)

  • Detroit Medley – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Winterland ’78). Is there anything that sums up the peak of Springsteen’s performing career better than this? The 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town tour was his moment: not yet so big that he’s having to play stadia, nor even yet profitable – if you take him at his own autobiographical word. And yet: he’s big enough to have an arena-filling cohort of devoted fans and enough local radio stations who want to broadcast whole fucking shows and thus gift posterity a series of bootleg recordings that stand apart for their clarity and quality. And this is still six years before his crowds grew with the addition of The Normals, who were attracted to the pumped up, shouty, Born in the USA Bruce. The Medley’s origins lie in a pair of singles put out by Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. The first was a traditional blues number (C C Rider) combined with Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” (also known as (“Jenny Take a Ride”). Spotting a winning formula, the band next put out “Devil with the Blue Dress” (a hit for Motown) and another Little Richard classic, “Good Golly Miss Molly”. Springsteen turns these three minute pop songs into a 9-11 minute show stopper. His cover versions are in themselves quite faithful to the originals, but it’s in the improvised breakdown before the climax that he combines the roots rock ’n’ roll with the showmanship for which he is famed. With stage antics falling somewhere between James Brown and Orson Welles, Springsteen drops the band down to a pulse for his twangy  bass-notes guitar solo, and then builds it all up again before calling a halt and reading out what seems like an emergency announcement from the hall management. If you are in possession of a weak heart, or a weak stomach, can you please step out of the venue during the next section of this song because it might be DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH. He then calls up Clarence Clemons to aid him in demonstrating the actions which will do no harm, before adding, “You can even get off with light injuries an a short trip to the emergency room when we do THIS. Now… I bet all them guys on the radio are wonderin’ what we’re doin’.… I didn’t do it YET!” At which point, together with Clarence, and freely baiting the radio audience who had the temerity to stay home, he begins a cross stage boogie to Professor Roy Bittan’s rock ’n’ roll piano that descends into chaos before the band bring it back to “Jenny Jenny” with a massive finish. And the remarkable thing about the Detroit Medley was that it would always come at the end of a three hour show, and almost certainly leave the audience begging to be allowed home. But Springsteen would never be satisfied with that, and would leap from this incredible piece of theatre into a version of “Twist and Shout” or “Raise Your Hand” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”, leaving all concerned wrung out. At Winterland on 15th December 1978, he followed this extraordinary performance with “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and then “Raise Your Hand” and then “Quarter to Three”.
  • That’s Where It’s At – Sam Cooke. My daughter’s great insight about Sam Cooke is that he is all the evidence you need to understand that songs aren’t poems. Cooke’s smooth, mellifluous voice can do wonders with the most unpromising material. Listen to him sing “It’s All Right” or “We’re Having a Party” and you understand that the most pedestrian lyrics become poetry when performed by a master vocalist. My personal favourite is this: the almost conversational hesitations, stumbles, improvisations, snatching at the words at times, weaving in and out of the simplistic backing vocals and droning horns. The only problem with this is that it’s only 150 seconds long.
  • No Next Time – Allison Moorer. I love the way Moorer uses the (male) backing vocal on this: seeming to anticipate what he’s going to say, echoing his words even as he sings them, demonstrating in song that she’s heard it all too many times before and that she’s had enough of this shit. There are two ways this song uses such musical cutting. The second is the juxtaposition of the just breaking up distortion on the lead guitar as it plays against a lush background of strings
  • Learning to Fly – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (Live at Bonnaroo). The counterpoint to the show-stopping energy of Springsteen, Petty’s way with an audience was to carry them with him on a wave of weary joy. This live version of this so-simple song has a poignancy that only feels stronger following his death in 2017. Stevie Nicks stands in the wings to sing BVs, and Petty carries most of the song’s weight on his shoulders, with a strummed acoustic guitar. From the first chords, the audience are with him, singing every lyric, providing the beat, so that you barely notice that the band are, after all, accompanying him with a stripped back arrangement. I think Mike’s on an electric mandolin. At the second chorus: that’s where the tears prick into my eyes, as Tom says, “Yes it is,” and Benmont plays some piano. Then the song is stripped back again for, “Some say life will beat you down…” On the third chorus, Petty sings “But I ain’t got wings,” in his Dylan voice, then lets the crowd take over. And there you have the blessing and healing power of music, the communion between an artist and his audience, as he improvises lyrics to their singing of the chorus.
  • Wayward and Weary – Tift Merritt. This single is quite an obscure one in Tift Merritt’s back catalogue. I love the rolling piano, the relaxed heartbeat of the song, and the lead guitar’s counterpoint to the vocal. The song was supposedly written about Hunter S. Thompson, but I don’t think it matters if you know that or not. It’s a great uplifting song for when you’re feeling, well, weary.
  • The Pretender – Jackson Browne. My theme song.

Caught between the longing for love
And the struggle for the legal tender
Where the sirens sing and the church bells ring
And the junk man pounds his fender.
Where the veterans dream of the fight
Fast asleep at the traffic light
And the children solemnly wait
For the ice cream vendor:
Out into the cool of the evening
Strolls the Pretender
He knows that all his hopes and dreams
Begin and end there

Sinatra Sings the Blues

2435472Sinatra was very open about his influences as a singer. It’s well-known that as a young man he idolised Bing Crosby, but he also spoke of the inspiration he drew from the singing style of Billie Holiday.

It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.

Holiday and Sinatra were of an age, born in the same year, though she’d have been in the year above him at school, not that she spent much time in school. The year of their birth was before the release of the first “Jass” record and the first vocal blues record, but by the time the two of them started singing professionally, in the 1930s, jazz had become the first pop craze, and radio had spread the blues far and wide. As they were growing up, recording technology had progressed from singing into a horn as part of a mechanical recording system to an electrified system with microphones and loudspeakers. As you step forwards with technology, however, you sometimes lose something. The loud, raucous music of the 1920s had to be tamed and smoothed somewhat so that the new apparatus could cope with it.

Bing Crosby learned to sing into a ribbon microphone, one that would break if you sang to loudly into it. So his singing style was adapted accordingly, and became known as crooning.

Sinatra first saw Billie Holiday in the late 1930s, and at some point she offered him advice on how to sing the blues:

‘I told him certain notes at the end he could bend. … Bending those notes — that’s all I helped Frankie with.’

Holiday didn’t have much of a range, but her phrasing was a major influence on Sinatra whose voice was a more powerful and versatile instrument. I’m not a fan of how Sinatra sang in the 40s (still constrained, I think, by early microphones and still considered a mere adjunct to the real business of swing jazz, the orchestra and its leader); and I didn’t like what he started to do as his voice started to fade in his 60s, which was to (obviously) limit his dynamic range and lean into the gravel in his voice and to flatten his notes just a little too far.

But in his Capitol years, as previously discussed, and into his 50s with Reprise, his singing was spectacular. Of course, Holiday didn’t live into her 50s, a tragedy that hit Sinatra hard, but he was able to take full advantage of advances in recording technology: specifically, the Neumann U47 condenser microphone:

A major contributor to Frank Sinatra’s signature vocal sound when he moved from Columbia to Capitol was the U47 valve capacitor microphone that Neumann had begun manufacturing in 1949.

This mic was less fragile than the RCA 44 ribbon microphones that had been used up till then, which allowed for more attack from both brass sections and vocalists, and offered a brighter high end.

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a short playlist of Sinatra singing the blues in the blues style. Of course, much of the Great American Songbook he drew from was based in the blues, and even a lot of the Broadway songs he chose had been influenced by the blues, but Sinatra’s torch songs and dance/swing numbers didn’t always sound terribly bluesy. I’ve selected a few, however, where you can hear the flattened blue notes that are characteristic of the blues. Sinatra did this often enough that it didn’t seem contrived but was a natural part of his style.

That’s Life (1966)

For me, this is the last great Sinatra track, before all the “My Way” and “New York, New York” nonsense that came after. While those latter two songs became show stoppers, they don’t appeal to me as they are both too on the nose to ring true. His kind of town, as any fule kno, is Chicago. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon in the early 60s, “That’s Life” is perhaps the Sinatra record that most sounds like it might come from 1966. That’s mainly because the band includes members of The Wrecking Crew, including Michel Rubini on Hammond, Glen Campbell on guitar, Hal Blaine on drums, and … it’s only fucking Darlene Love and the Blossoms on backing vocals.

I Got Plenty of Nuttin’ (1957)

This Gershwin number from Sinatra’s best Capitol Album A Swingin’ Affair comes from the controversial 1935 opera Porgy and Bess, which was first performed with an all African American cast, but having been written by white people was seen as a horrible kind of cultural ventriloquism. The song comes from Act 2, and is sung by the title character of Porgy. Taken out of its context, and in Sinatra’s hands, it loses its power to offend, and is simply a pop song based on the blues. Perhaps the most offensive thing about it is the spelling of ‘Nuttin’’ I absolutely love the instrumental interlude in this, as the band plays through the entire melody and really parps on that brass.

Stars Fell on Alabama (1957)

This 1934 song was composed by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish. The title phrase comes from a book and refers to the Leonid meteor shower’s appearance in 1833. The song has been covered by both Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as well as the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day. It is certainly one of the songs that people mean when they refer to the Great American Songbook. Sinatra’s version (again, from A Swingin’ Affair) has bluesy overtones, with extended and slurred words, alternative readings of the line, “My heart beat (just) like a hammer” and (most mysteriously) substituted “fractured ‘Bama” for “fell on Alabama.” So the Leonid meteor shower is breaking Alabama, shattering and cracking it. These Sinatra improvisations were his gift to the song, and you should by now be starting to believe that A Swingin Affair is the album to buy.

One for My Baby (And One for the Road) (1958)

This is another one from a musical – The Sky’s the Limit, the film version of which starred Fred Astaire and Joan Leslie. The youthful Sinatra dreamed away in many an Astaire musical, and this song was written for Fred Astaire, whose performance of the song is inevitably accompanied by a dance number. The bartender character, Joe, appears in the sequence too. To watch this, complete with uptempo tap-dancing bit, and then listen to what Sinatra does with the song (as performed in another movie, Young at Heart, made in 1955 with Doris Day as the love interest) is to experience popular music whiplash. This song plays straight into Sinatra’s self-image as a depressed torch singer (on every other album, at least). The original studio recording is on Only The Lonely (with Sinatra made up as a Pierrot clown on the Commedia dell’arte themed cover!)

https://youtu.be/NpZp7awjSJ4

I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good (1957)

This is a Duke Ellington number (lyrics by Paul Francis Webster) from 1941. You’ll find versions of it by Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, and so on. It’s a proper vocal blues, and Sinatra tackles it with a fabulous vocal, which you’ll find on what I’m going to call his bluest album, A Swingin’ Affair. But of course.

Nice Work if You Can Get It (1962)

This Gershwin tune is from 1937, and was again performed by Fred Astaire (with tap) in a movie: A Damsel in Distress, which also featured Joan Fontaine, who couldn’t dance. The film lost money. Sinatra recorded it at least twice, once on A Swingin’ Affair, and then again on Sinatra/Basie, an Historic Musical First, an album on which he radically reimagined several of his classic numbers, in new arrangements that explode the songs and make them new again. The Basie version is almost punky with its staccato rhythms and unusual phrasing which all but obliterates the original melody.

I Wanna Be Around (1964)

Another recording with the Basie orchestra, from the album It Might as Well be Swing.

This was written by Johnny Mercer in 1959, after receiving a message and a sample lyric from an Ohio woman who had been inspired by Sinatra’s two failed marriages to come up with the line, “I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart.” The song is from the perspective of a spurned first wife who watches her partner leave her for another, just as Frank had divorced Nancy to marry Ava Gardner, only to be dumped in his own turn.

I Can’t Stop Loving You (1964)

This is a country song, by Don Gibson, written in 1957 and recorded by Sinatra with the Basie Orchestra in 1964. Ray Charles was the first to blues it up, in 1962, and Sinatra followed his lead in ’64. By the end of the 60s, Elvis also started performing it live, and artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Van Morrison have covered it. Sinatra’s version is performed with many blue notes, and he sings with such relish that you can’t help but feel it a shame that he only recorded three albums with Basie.

Learnin’ the Blues (1962)

Sinatra first recorded this as a successful single in 1955, but then again with Basie on their first collaboration. It was written by former beauty queen Vicki Silvers, and dropped into Sinatra’s lap when a singer hoping to get signed took his recording of the song to Sinatra’s publishing company. The Hefti arrangement on the Basie album has more polish than the original recording, which many critics prefer. But you can’t knock Basie and Sinatra together, and I like the call-and-response brass arrangement and the more laid-back tempo. Sinatra puts a little less into the vocal, stepping back to make it seem casual, but he also makes it bluesier, so it works better here.

Sentimental Journey (1961)

This song was Doris Day’s first hit record, in 1945. Its release coincided with the end of the second world war, and became the “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” hit of that summer. It has since been recorded in over 150 versions (including one by Ringo), and translated into French, German, and Japanese. Sinatra’s version is on his second-last release for Capitol, Come Swing with Me, with orchestra conducted by Billy May, though May only arranged three of the songs. This was Sinatra’s last swing record for the label that relaunched his career, and he was already recording for Reprise. Because of this, I’ve always felt this record had Contractural Obligation written all over it, with some of the arrangements feeling rushed, as if speeded up simply to get it done quicker. Sinatra was recording four songs a day for Capitol, and then four more for his upcoming Reprise release. Then again, it’s an experimental record, with a doubled brass section playing in stereo, and Sinatra is still pretty damn good, even when he’s phoning it in.

Blues in the Night (1958)

Another Arlen/Mercer track, this was written for a film of the same name, a film noir (!) musical that starred almost nobody I’ve heard of. One scene required a blues song to be sung in jail, and this is it. I always find it interesting when an immortal song features in a forgettable movie. I’m even given to understand that the version in the movie “murders” the song, which turned out to be strong enough to survive such treatment. Sinatra’s cover, on Only the Lonely, isn’t even considered one of the important ones, but, well, he sings the blues.

The Lonesome Road (1957)

Finally, it comes to this, another track from A Swingin’ Affair, which is the most venerable song in this playlist. Written in 1927 by Nathaniel Shilkret and Gene Austin, it first appeared in the mostly lost mostly silent film Show Boat in 1929, which Wikipedia insists was not based on the musical Show Boat but instead on the book upon which the musical was also based. Huh. Apparently, it was originally a silent film based on the book, but then panic set in when the musical was a hit, so they added 30 minutes of songs with some cast members. Which explains, maybe, the inclusion of this song instead of “Ol’ Man River”, which is certainly the most famous song from the musical. “The Lonesome Road” isn’t even from the musical, but I guess is a gospel-style song in a similar vein. Sinatra’s version is beautifully arranged, properly bluesy, and opens the second side of the album. Another classic from a forgotten film.

When your heart grows cold and old

I was listening to a (back catalogue episode of) Roderick on the Line today, and he said an interesting thing about music and nostalgia.

We, he said, meaning people in their 40s and 50s, are the first generation who can listen to the music of our parents’ generation as easily as we can listen to our own. Can this be true? I’ll explain.

My parents were born in the 1930s, and the music collection they had when I was growing up came mostly from the 1950s and on. In other words, came from the era that they’d have been in their later teens and twenties. A collection of brittle 78s, a mostly-disappointing collection of vinyl LPs (with the notable exception of Sinatra), and some other stuff from the early 1960s that I’ve always assumed belonged in some sense to my older siblings.

But my father’s father, who was dead long before I was aware of anything: what was his music? No records survived. Even if he was in his 20s in the 1930s, that era of economic hard times, would he have even owned a record player? Or had the luxury of even being into music, in the modern sense? No records survive.

Similarly, I don’t recall ever seeing or hearing any music at my maternal grandmother’s house. My grandad had an old broken reel-to-reel tape recorder, but who knows what it was ever for?

Just now, I could hear my kid upstairs playing Buddy Holly, which is something I passed onto her. It’s interesting to hear her playing (over several days), Jonathan Richman, then the Velvet Underground, then Buddy Holly or the Everly Brothers. You can trace the line, you can hear the musical DNA. I listened to Buddy Holly myself because I wanted to know where the Beatles had come from, and because “Words of Love” was on Beatles for Sale, which was the Beatles album in our house.

When I listen to Sinatra, it’s also because there were a load of albums in the house when I was growing up (but, really, only two or three of them were of the right vintage, the rest were from the Reprise era, not the kind of thing I still listen to). So the Sinatra DNA was passed on, but I had to do my own work to obtain/discover the best material. My mother had Songs for Swingin’ Lovers and Come Fly With Me, but I never heard the superior A Swingin’ Affair until much later on.

So the kid upstairs, you might say, represents a third generation, who can listen both to the music of her parents, but also her grandparents. Does she have Sinatra on her iPhone? I think she does. How weird is that?

 

It’s Too Late to Stop Now – Sinatra/Basie

MI0001879734I’ve been listening again to these two albums recently, and have been struck by a certain peculiarity across the two. Released a decade or so apart, they have more in common than you might think, but they both sound a little odd to my ears.

When Sinatra set up Reprise, he took the kind of control over his career that almost no artist before him had ever had. Give or take Bing Crosby, who pioneered the use of magnetic tape, Sinatra paved the way for artists who wanted to free themselves from the contract slavery. Given how few have managed that feat since, that Sinatra did this in 1960 is extraordinary. (The Beatles only managed to make their slavery worse with Apple.) (The Stones and Prince managed to gain ownership of their masters – almost nobody does this.)

All that said, I don’t rate much of what Sinatra released on his own label, but there are a few high points. Sinatra/Basie came out in the year of my birth. It was always in the house when I was growing up. I liked Sinatra from an early age (it’s the Capitol years, stupid), but whenever I picked up this album to play, I found it underwhelming. ‘A historic musical first?’ And yet… not so great on the ears.

And that’s the first strangeness. Sinatra’s best live album is, without a doubt, Sinatra at the Sands, with the Basie Orchestra. And Sinatra himself claimed that his best-ever live performance was with the Basie Orchestra in London, in May 1970. I remember, too, that my mother was always on a search for the version of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ that appears on the second Sinatra/Basie collaboration, It Might as Well be Swing, which came out in 1964. She’d heard it once, or something, but didn’t know where it came from. (It’s hard to imagine now, kids, but records used to go out of print.)

The second odd thing about this album is the fact that Basie didn’t play on some of the tracks. I’ve said before that Basie didn’t really do much. His signature vamps on the piano bass notes are all you ever notice, really. But he was supposed to be the band leader. The Basie Orchestra were a renowned live outfit, not a studio session band, so a number of freelancers were on hand – just in case, I guess. So Bill Miller plays piano on (at the very least) the opening number, ‘Pennies from Heaven’.

Now, we’ve heard ‘Pennies from Heaven’ before. It’s on (some would say) his best album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. So it seems audacious to record it again, six years later, and have it compared to the Nelson Riddle version. The 1956 ‘Pennies’ swings and has a fairly relaxed tempo; using it in 1962, Sinatra tried to set the tone by doing it both faster and in a looser way. Miller stabs at the piano, Sinatra sings like he’s lying down, and then the Orchestra does an aggressive and loud instrumental. In the second run through of the lyrics, the band does a stereo call-and-response on either side of Sinatra’s vocal. It’s different, but still great. What feels odd is that you’re hearing the Sinatra canon being messed with. I guess here, ahead of Dylan, he’s deconstructing his own myth.

On other tracks, Sinatra’s determination to keep it loose and easy seems to work against the tone of his voice. He doesn’t want to be heard to be trying to0 hard, so his voice takes on some of that quality it had later on, when he would seem to lean on a note and turn it into a rumbling drone.

‘(Love is) The Tender Trap’ was originally recorded, in a breezy, uptempo version, for the soundtrack of the film The Tender Trap in 1955. In 1962, he performs it s-l-o-w-l-y. What is he doing? You really have to think of this album as a collaboration between singer and band. It’s a duet. As Sinatra leans back, the band leans forward. He leaves the gaps for them to fill. What’s incredible to think of is just how collaborative and improvised the whole thing is. But you can hear it as he sings the line, ‘Some starry night…’ There’s a clear hesitation, a stutter, ‘Ss- some s-tarry night, when her kisses make you… tingle…’ as he decides just how he’s going to play it, going forward.

What works with this record is to play it fucking loud, as they say. And then you get the full impact of the Basie band, and some flavour of the atmosphere in the studio that Sinatra was working from.

Where I do start to have an issue is with the version of ‘I Won’t Dance’, which is one of my all-time favourite songs on his (actual) best-ever album A Swingin’ Affair, which came out straight after Songs For Swingin’ Lovers. ‘I Won’t Dance’ is a breezy, tight, joyful stroke of genius. When he sings, ‘You know what? You’re lovely, ring-a-ding-ding, so lovely…’ it’s quintessential Sinatra, completely in command of his material, positively fizzing with energy, feeding off the superb arrangement. It closes out Sinatra/Basie in Oppositeland, so down-tempo that it feels like the lyric is dragging. There’s time for a flute to pipe in halfway through every line. Sinatra leaves holes everywhere, filled by stabs from the sax and the muted trumpets (in call-and-response stereo). But he seems to me to be singing too much on the beat, even appearing to lose his way at times. And the greatest sin of all? No ring-a-ding-ding.

*UPDATE!

Well it took some time, it really did, but I now (2018 me) absolutely love this album – especially “I Won’t Dance”. I can’t pick between the two versions, but I never get tired of the version on this album. So ignore everything I said above. This album is brilliant.

2f7e6d02ec5d31966ed082781536ba3b81434d78At least the Basie Orchestra sound in tune, which is more than I can say for the Caledonia Soul Orchestra on It’s Too Late to Stop Now, Van Morrison’s 1974 live masterpiece. I know I’m wrong about this, but the more I listen to this record, the more discordant I find the small horn section and the timid string quartet that share the stage.

(By the way, Van Morrison’s on iTunes now, did you know? He wasn’t before. The only Morrison solo record on there was his first one, which was owned by someone else, before Van seized control of his catalogue.)

I still think It’s Too Late to Stop Now is the best Van Morrison record, don’t mistake me. It is a great live album, and feels live in the best possible way, with all the tension and energy of someone at the peak of his game. But to my inexpert ears the trumpet and saxophone don’t blend, and the string section sound thin and scratchy. However they were mic’ed up, however recorded, the sound mix sounds lacklustre. I know we’re supposed to be putting the vocalist front-and-centre, and Morrison’s vocal control is almost as accomplished as Sinatra’s, but I still want to hear more of the band. How can 10 musicians sound so thin?

Listening to Van Morrison, anyway, is a study in ignoring his reputation and personality. Mark Ellen said in his book that there are two kinds of people when it comes to Van Morrison: those who like his music; and those who’ve met him. I love It’s Too Late to Stop Now, but I want the Caledonia Soul Orchestra to sound more robust – more like the Basie Orchestra, and less like a band who don’t want to play too loud in case the Man gets annoyed.

How did all these people get in my room?

20130704-224035.jpg

Listening to Frank Sinatra live recordings, you’ll often hear him interacting with the audience. “Where do you think Gene Kelly learned how to dance?”, or “Where does it hurt you, baby?” and so on.

I’ve been listening again to a CD I bought quite a long time ago, as I go through my Sinatra jag, it’s the Live at the Sands album, with Count Basie and his Orchestra, conducted by Quincy Jones. I often wonder exactly what the Count’s role in proceedings is. He does some stuff on the piano, nothing fancy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Anyway, that’s by the by. The excuse for my Sinatra jag was exam marking, but maybe it’s also something to do with my dad dying recently.

Live at the Sands is an odd, mid-60s document. The youth are on the cusp of hippiedom and Vegas is a place for squares and adults. It hasn’t yet tried to reinvent itself as a family destination. Sinatra adopts the vernacular (“groovy”) but the polite applause between numbers conjures a buttoned-up scene, seated guests who have paid well, wearing evening clothes and drinking Californian sparkling wine that was still (at the time) masquerading as champagne.

The band are tight and well-rehearsed, playing familiar numbers. Like all Vegas shows, this is just a set list of greatest hits. A few years later, Elvis would play a series of shows at the International, but The Sands is Rat Pack territory. In the 60s, The Sands was Howard Hughes’ joint, though Sinatra is supposed to have owned a stake at some time.

It’s February 1966, and Sinatra has just turned 50. So maybe I’m obsessing on this because like Sinatra I’m a December baby and that’s the age I am now. The Rat Pack was an invention of a man in his 40s, but now he’s entering another decade. How does a man in his 50s behave? Only bootlegs can really offer a proper documentary of a particular gig. Most live albums, including this one, have recordings from different dates, different sessions. It’s programmed as if it’s a single show, opening with an introduction (as if it’s the first performance of “A Man and His Music”, the generic show title that could be used, interchangeably, by any male soloist), but who knows how many different bits and pieces there are.

It’s the opening line that gets me, Sinatra’s first words as he steps out onto the stage. The band have already been playing around the intro to “Come Fly With Me”, the MC has given him the big introduction (accompanied by a hi-hat rhythm), and Sinatra could come out and start singing, or he could say good evening or something generic. He’s clearly there for a few moments before he utters a word. Looking out at the crowd, those middle-aged and middle-income Americans who have been lucky enough to get tickets. (Sinatra tickets! Something my mum never had. How hard would it have been, Dad? As hard as getting tickets for Fleetwood Mac, The Stones, Tom Petty? Or a different order of magnitude?) Basie is vamping on the bass notes of his piano. Sinatra lets 8 bars of music swing by.

“How did all these people get in my room?”

I love this. There’s the arrogance of a man who owns the stage, maybe part of the resort, the proprietor, and it’s cut with the bewildered drunken haze of a rat pack party animal who is only now waking up after an extended long weekend. Who are all these people? It’s a line from The Hangover, or is it The Godfather? It’s both. It’s a nerve-settler, an easy laugh, making everybody welcome, even if they feel they don’t belong in this fancy place with these fancy people and their fancy clothes. You can dress like them but might not feel like one of them, you’ve got the tickets, but you’ve extended yourself out of your financial comfort zone to make this trip. Now you’re in Frank’s room, and it’s okay. It’s on.
Cool as fuck.

The ensuing song is glorious. The band are not only tight but sound properly live, and you can feel Sinatra drawing on the energy, shouting during the instrumental break (is it “Six!” or “Sex!” that he shouts? I can’t tell. It’s both), and improvising around the lyric without ever dr20130704-223838.jpgagging on the beat, which is played hard and loud by the drummer. Before the instrumental in “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, he warns the audience: “Run for cover,” just before the band blasts the air from the room in an explosion of sound.

A few years later he would say of his performance with the Basie orchestra in London that it was his finest moment. You can’t get a live album of that, but there’s this, so.

 

Sinatra: Reprisals and Cultural Capitol

Cover of "The Capitol Years"

Cover of The Capitol Years

Further to yesterday’s post, I spent most of the morning listening to my suddenly-expanded Sinatra collection. I previously had a triple-disc set of his Capitol recordings and previously previously had a number of vinyls and cassettes. But, you know, a few house moves and computer changes down the line, I was down to a couple of MP3 files. Then my Dad died, and I picked up a few CDs that he had lying around. These include the aforementioned Songs for Swingin’ Loversand Come Fly With Me and Come Dance With Me, a couple of Greatest Hits compilations with Capitol recordings and yet another Greatest Hits collection from Reprise.

Ah, the Reprise years.

For some reason, there are reviews on Amazon which claim his Reprise re-recordings of some of the songs he first did at Capitol are superior. His voice is better, they claim, and the arrangements are “enhanced”, and the recordings better quality.

Wrong on all three counts, I think.

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it’s the Capitol years, stupid.

In his first incarnation, Sinatra recorded for Columbia, and I’ve never found anything to love on those recordings. In his second, after a 3–4 year hiatus, he recorded for Capitol, putting out a couple of albums a year, on average, until the early 60s, when he set up Reprise.

Give or take a couple of outings with Count Basie, the Reprise stuff is pretty disappointing. Doobie doobie do…

It may well be the case that Sinatras 1960s voice had a superior tone or timbre. It may even be the case that the quality of sound on those records is technically superior (though I don’t hear this supposed superiority). What is true, however, is that his timing and phrasing is not better than his Capitol recordings, and the orchestral arrangements (pace Count Basie with Quincy Jones) are not enhanced. It’s like comparing Aretha’s records for Columbia with the later stuff she did for Atlantic.

Sinatra on Reprise doesn’t swing. Specifically, his re-recordings of numbers like “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “All the Way” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” don’t swing. It sounds to me like he’s snatching at the vocal, phoning it in. The Reprise arrangements are too schmaltzy, too lush with cheesy strings, and when he attempts something contemporary (“Yesterday,” “Mrs Robinson,” “Something”), he either drags the melody or grabs at it too eagerly. I know some will say that I’m referring to the legendary Sinatra phrasing, but I know the legendary Sinatra phrasing, and it’s not on Reprise, it’s on Capitol.

My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra

My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is important, because if you were a younger person wanting to check out Sinatra, you might be seduced by the My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra double CD set on Reprise, with its seductively youthful-looking (and possibly pre-Reprise) Frank on the cover art. It’s got all the tracks that you might have heard of, but a lot of them are inferior re-recordings. Yeah, it’s got “My Way,” which is horrible, and “New York, New York,” which is almost self-parody, and some other horrors, such as “Strangers in the Night,” but none of those tracks actually, you know, swings.

What you should be looking for is the 75-track The Capitol Years (£9.99 on iTunes), or the 96-track Capitol Singles Collection (£9.99 on iTunes). I wouldn’t get both, though, as there’s a lorra duplication. For only £2 less you can get 55 fewer tracks on The Best of the Capitol Years. Bargain! Wait, what? Also there are a lot of confusing, out-of-mechanical-copyright re-issues, if you can be arsed to trawl through and see what it is you’re buying. Yeah, there are 1,546 “albums” to trawl through, which is why your motto should be, it’s the Capitol years, stupid.

All of this copyright-free madness is a waste of everybody’s time, of course, like those apps on the app store that look like the thing you’re after, but aren’t it. There’s a lot to be said for sticking with canonical releases and avoiding compilations altogether. If you choose to go this route, be aware that the Capitol discography follows a pattern of torch songs on one record, followed by swing on the next. So In the Wee Small Hours followed by Songs for Swingin’ Lovers; Close to You followed by A Swingin’ Affair! It’s not always so exact, but the swing records (helpfully) often have the word “swing” in the title. There are some odd exceptions. Come Fly With Me is mostly croony love songs, bar the title track and one or two others (a concept album, is what it is). The title track of Nice ‘n’ Easy is superb (possibly, quintessentially, the one song you should buy if you were only going to buy one), but the rest of the album is ballads.

Finally, be very aware that Sinatra was very cynical and not above knocking out a couple of contractual obligation records when he wanted to hurry things along. He’d just turn up at the studio for a day and belt or croon out a few favourites: job done.