An Artistic and Historical Overview
By Phillip D. Atteberry
This material is copyrighted and was originally published in The Mississippi Rag, June, 1998.
[For a Czech translation of this page, see Sandra Knudsen's site]
More biographies have been written about Frank Sinatra than any other figure in popular music, and yet we know so little about him. He has granted few interviews over the years, and those have been guarded. We surmise--but we do not know--that his penchant for bullying was in part a response to being bullied in his Hoboken youth. We surmise--but we do not know--that his legendary woman troubles were replays of a tempestuous, love/hate relationship with his mother. We surmise--but we do not know--that beneath the marquee lights, behind the stage doors, between the lines of newsprint, within the lyrics of a song lies a human experience worth pursuing.
But we do not know. As Sinatra grew older, the name burned brighter and the man grew fainter, until at the end he was a phantom being whisked from place to place in ambulances and black limousines. How different from Bing Crosby, whose personality emerged more clearly as the years passed, who died laughing, smoking his pipe, and playing golf.
But Crosby, though he was only twelve years Sinatraís senior, belonged to a different age. The world before World War I was a simpler, stabler place. People believed in the future, in progress, in things making sense. Crosby emerged from a world in which it was easier to have faith and have fun.
Sinatra emerged from a more troubled world. As young Frank came of age, Al Jolson was still singing about his mammy and Irving Berlin was writing gently about how he hated to get up in the morning, but those voices were increasingly nostalgic. To those born in 1915, as Sinatra was, the world was a darker and scarier place. The "war to end all wars" hadnít ended anything. Instead, it set in motion even larger cataclysms--a world-wide depression, the Holocaust, and an even bigger war. It was bad enough that countries were destroyed; it was even worse that our faith in humanity went down with it. The future mattered less. The present mattered more.
Of course plenty of folks sat in local diners and looked on the bright side: "Just around the corner/Thereís a rainbow in the sky/So letís have another cup of coffee/And letís have another piece of pie." But that rainbow never came, at least not all of it. Prosperity came, more than we could have imagined, but not much peace. We became more restless. We moved more frequently--changed jobs, communities, religions and spouses more than any people before us, searching for a purpose and an identity.
That was Frank Sinatraís world, and that is ours. The central fact of his musical career is his restlessness, his dissatisfaction with the present, his constant search for a purpose and identity. We have found his career so fascinating because his struggle for identity approximated so eerily our own. For all of his uniqueness, we saw something of ourselves in Frank Sinatra. In his music, we heard ourselves in all of our complexities, uncertainties and contradictions.
But of course Sinatra was not the only singer to reinvent himself repeatedly. Bing Crosby did too. But there was a logical progression in Bingís transition from the protuding-eared balladeer of his youth to the pipe smoking, golfing, grandfather of his old age. The characters were different, but the personality behind them was much the same. It was not so with Sinatra. The wavy-haired bobby sox idol of the forties was fundamentally different from the rakish, hat tilted swinger of the 50ís and 60ís, which in turn was profoundly different from the glitteringly cuff-linked, immaculately touped kingpin of the 80ís and 90ís.
It is interesting that Sinatraís first hit, "All or Nothing at All," hints at a philosophy that governed much of his career. He was a man who wanted everything, from the worldís most beautiful women to the wealthiest record companies, and he stormed away when he couldnít have them.
And yet it is not fair to sketch Sinatraís legacy in such broad strokes. He is important as a cultural icon, but he could never have become so without prodigious talent, musical savvy, and a dose of good luck.
The Big Band Years
Sinatraís career did not begin with Harry James, but joining the newly formed Harry James orchestra in 1939 was Sinatraís first big break. He spent only six months with the band, made a few recordings (all of them more notable for their potential than their actual quality) and he spoke warmly--though generally--about James forever afterward. To my knowledge, Sinatra never talked about what he learned from Harry James, but it is tempting to speculate, for "The Voice," as Columbia later billed him, came to have a lot in common with "The Horn."
James, for example, combined a flair for sentimental ballads with a great talent for swing. Few could match Jamesí emotional climaxes on ballads like "You Made Me You Love You" and "Sleepy Lagoon," just as few could match young Sinatraís swooningly sweet renditions of "Iíll Never Smile Again" or "Dream." Whether or not "The Voice" absorbed any of "The Hornís" polished ballad style, we donít know. We do know that during the early 1940ís Harry James and Frank Sinatra were unmatched in their abilities to deliver a ballad.
A less obvious similarity is their mutual knack for swing. "The Voice" didnít swing much in the early 40ís, but "The Horn" did. It wouldnít take many nights on a bandstand with a young Harry James to learn something about energizing a crowd with a swing tune. Sinatra didnít manifest that talent until later on, but once he did, it became apparent that he had learned from a master somewhere.
In 1940, Tommy Dorsey lured Sinatra away from James and launched him on the road to stardom. The Dorsey years (1940-42) are often hailed as seminal in Sinatraís development, but Yank Lawson, who watched young Frank from the trumpet section, disagreed. "I donít think Sinatra learned much with Dorsey," Yank told me in 1992. "His talent was already developed when he got there. He became so famous during those years because Dorsey had a good publicity machine, knew how to package him and had the money to do it right."
Sinatra himself disagreed. In a famous interview with Arlene Francis in 1977, Sinatra credits Dorsey with teaching him how and when to breathe for maximum effect. Adele Girard Marsala, who worked occasional dates with Dorsey and Sinatra, told me much the same thing in a 1993 interview. "Frankís phrasing was definitely influenced by Tommy Dorsey," she told me. "I never had any love for Tommy Dorsey, but itís a good thing Frank joined him when he did. Dorsey was the smoothest player in the business, and after falling under his influence, Sinatra became the smoothest singer."
Whether it was packaging or artistic blossoming (probably some of both), Tommy Dorsey made a star of Frank Sinatra. But musically speaking, the importance of these years had more to do with what was going on back stage. Dorsey, who had the best musical organization in the country in 1941, boasted three of the best arrangers: Sy Oliver, Paul Weston and Axel Stordahl. Oliver was the top swing arranger and Weston the top ballad man, with Stordahl a close second. From them, Sinatra discovered the importance of good arrangements. When Weston left to pursue his own career, Stordahl began working with Sinatra. That turned out to be one of the two or three most important developments in his entire career.
Sinatraís recording of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," which was probably arranged by Weston, represents his best work of the period. As usual, the melody is established by the smooth legato of Dorseyís trombone (supplemented by a few bars of Babe Russinís tenor sax) before young Frank, sounding more like a tenor than a baritone, delivers Johnny Burkeís poetic lyric about a "frightened" wallflower discovering a "pug-nosed dream." Sinatra was a master of vibrato during these years, making it, at times, sound like a controlled tremor, as in the phrases, "May I have the next one?" and "Was I the perplexed one?" The timidity of the speaker is registered beautifully in Sinatraís voice inflections. Itís no wonder the bobby-soxers wanted to caress him in the back of a Studebaker.
Looking back, it is amazing how brief Sinatraís stint with Dorsey actually was, from January 1940 to September 1942. As would so often be the case with Sinatra, what started so promisingly ended unpleasantly. In fact, Sinatraís career is characterized by a series of failed relationships, with women, with record companies, and with musicians. And yet even though his break with Dorsey was messy, it was neither manís fault. Clearly, Sinatraís popularity mandated that he strike out on his own. Equally clearly, the tough-minded Dorsey was determined to squeeze as much profit from Sinatra as he could. A fight ensued over Sinatraís contract, which bound him to Dorsey well into 1943. Because Sinatra left early, Dorsey continued to collect part of Frankís salary. Sinatra, who had learned a thing or two about publicity from Dorsey, used the press advantageously. The bobby-soxers rose up in protest and carried picket signs: "Dorsey Unfair to Frankie." The fan magazines loved it. So did the lawyers. It was uncomfortable for a while, but sanity prevailed, as it usually does in such things. Sinatra bought out his contract from Dorsey and paid stiffly for it. Now he was his own man, and--in taking Axel Stordahl with him--he shoved one last burr in Dorseyís saddle.
But while the public was caught up in Sinatraís spat with Dorsey, two other developments affected young blue eyesí career more profoundly.
First, Manie Sachs took over the Artist and Repertory Department at Columbia Records. Sachs had known Sinatra from his Hoboken days. When Sinatra extricated himself from Dorseyís legal snares, Sachs snatched him up. Sinatra couldnít have been luckier. Columbia was then part of the CBS broadcasting empire and was well financed. Moreover, Sachs was signing all kinds of talent--Doris Day, Dinah Shore, Harry James--and helped transform Columbia into the industryís top banana.
Secondly, the American Federation of Musicians struck in 1942, precipitating one of the great debacles in American labor history. We neednít explore the ramifications of that strike here. The important point is that the big bands were dealt a mortal blow, leaving the field more open to free-lancing vocalists. Of course the big bands would have died anyway. (In some ways they really were like dinosaurs--huge, awesomely impressive, but incapable of adapting to changing circumstances.) And yet the musicianís strike hastened the big bandsí demise and improved the climate for vocalists. In short, Sinatra used the big bands to jump start his career, but when those bands might have threatened his turf, they began to decline.
The Columbia Years
Ironically, Sinatraís first hit with Columbia was an old recording--"All or Nothing at All"--which he had made in 1939 with Harry James. The record flopped when it was released, but Columbia, who had James and Sinatra under contract in 1942, re-released it in Ď43. It quickly rose to the top of the Billboard charts because Sinatra was a star by that time and the public was thirsting for instrumental recordings because of the musiciansí strike.
But even though "All or Nothing at All" was Sinatraís first hit with Columbia, it is among his least typical. The person most responsible for Sinatraís Columbia sound is Axel Stordahl, a self-effacing man who deserves more recognition than he receives.
Stordahl was born in New York of Norwegian parents. In 1933, at age twenty, he joined the Bert Block orchestra as arranger and trumpeter. By 1935, Dorsey heard Stordahlís work, liked it, and snatched him up--along with singer Jack Leonard, whom Sinatra would later replace. Initially, Stordahl played third trumpet full time and arranged on the side. "But that," Yank Lawson remembered, "didnít last long. Axel hated playing the trumpet, and he couldnít play worth a damn anyway, but he was a great arranger," so before long Dorsey had him arranging full time.
Columbiaís nickname for Sinatra, "The Voice," was not scrupulously accurate--as so few publicity nicknames are. "The Sound" would have been better, for it was Sinatraís voice in conjunction with Stordahlís arrangements that set him apart from other vocalists of the age. Bing Crosby was well served during these years by the indefatigable John Scott Trotter, who was seldom brilliant but never bad. But Crosby didnít need a brilliant arranger. He had been around since the beginning of the microphone age and had written the book on "crooning." For a long time nobody could match his voice or easy familiarity.
Sinatra had to make his way in a more competitive vocal age, and Axel Stordahl, the first real master of the fine-tuned vocal arrangement, helped him do that. One of Stordahlís classic arrangements, "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)," introduced in 1944, reveals what made him so good. The arrangement opens with an eight bar string introduction. Twelve violins on top establish a sunny mood by staying on the chordsí major notes while three violas and cellos roam underneath on the minor ones, creating a thoughtful mood. As Sinatra enters with the melody, the strings recede and the harp injects a "splash" of sound, underscoring the chord change. Adele Girard was the first to point out to me how effectively Stordahl uses the harp. "If you overuse it," Ms. Girard explained, "it becomes saccharine. But if you use it sparingly to emphasize chord changes, it adds another dimension to the arrangement--a nice, punctuating splash of sound."
Stordahl, in typical fashion, reserves the muted brass and woodwinds to underscore transitions from one structural part of the song to another. When the lyric refers to "mission bells," the strings execute a slightly dissonant, plucked figure vaguely reminiscent of church bells, but when the lyric returns to Nancyís "glow," the soaring legato returns. Finally, the string conclusion at the end mirrors the introduction, giving the arrangement a pleasing symmetry.
All of this is not to diminish Sinatraís performance. During this period, his voice was supple, his intonation good, his lyric inflections sensitive and his phrasing masterful. Even though experience later made Sinatra a more versatile singer (and maybe even a better one), his vocal equipment reached its peak in the middle forties.
We can never know to what degree Axel Stordahl accelerated Sinatraís career. We do know that he provided Sinatra with almost twice as many arrangements as anyone else. (Both Stordahl and Nelson Riddle, for example, are credited with about 300 recorded arrangements, but Stordahl provided almost as many more which were performed only on radio.) By a wide margin, the 40ís was Sinatraís most prolific decade. His documented performances exceed those in all other decades combined. Perhaps Young Blue Eyes would have come to dominate American popular music with any capable arranger, but I doubt that he would have done so to the same degree, for it wasnít just Sinatraís talent that transformed him into a giant of American popular music but the consistency and effectiveness of his musical direction.
And yet his musical persona did not fit reality, and that, ultimately, got him in trouble. Sinatra was swooned over by the bobby-soxers as if he were one of the soda-sipping boys at the local Dog ní Suds. But it wasnít true. Sinatra had been married since 1939. His first child was born in 1940. He was thirty years old when he recorded "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)." But even that would have been all right had Frankie behaved himself, which he didnít.
Those interested in music often resent non-musical, dirt-heaving accounts of Sinatraís skirmishes with the law and extra-marital affairs. That is understandable, but in fact Sinatraís life outside music, especially in the 1940ís, drastically affected his musical career. Many have tried to explain what happened. Few have done it well. Will Friedwald, who has written by the far the best book on Sinatra (The Song Is You: A Singerís Art, 1995), avoids the topic almost altogether. But one canít understand Sinatraís re-emergence in the early 50ís without a knowledge of his decline in the late 40ís.
Without playing psychiatrist, it seems clear that Sinatra experienced so much success so quickly that he couldnít deal with it. How many of us could? He grew up in a family without a well-defined moral structure. He grew up in a socio-economic class that forced him to fight for what he wanted, and (like the rest of us) he wanted what he didnít have--physical and material comforts. Even the most level heads are turned by adoration and extravagant sums of money. It is no wonder that Sinatra forgot everything he had learned about publicity from the well-oiled Dorsey organization and lost his head.
By 1947, Sinatraís exploits were weekly fodder for the tabloids and fan magazines. During that year, he was photographed with a notorious group of mobsters, including Lucky Luciano. His dubious associations got him labeled a Communist by the F.B.I., but even worse was his womanizing. The tabloid press (which was about the same then as it is now) luxuriated in Frankís bedroom and barroom exploits. Much ink was spilled in sympathy over poor Nancy Sinatra, even more was spilled salivating over Frankís relationships with Marilyn Maxwell, Lana Turner and, most importantly, the sultry and tempestuous Ava Gardner. Gardner came as close as anybody to matching Sinatra in fame, notoriety, and sexual brazenness. Their intercontinental flings and fights were more entertaining than the radio soaps. When Nancy Sinatra finally filed for divorce in February of 1950, the press was merciless. Sinatra responded by decking a reporter with a fist to the jaw and settling out of court for twenty-five thousand dollars. It was ugly.
About this time, Humphrey Bogart said, "Sinatraís idea of paradise is a place where there are plenty of women and no newspapermen. He doesnít know it, but heíd be better off if it were the other way around." And indeed he would have been. For the private life and the musical persona grew so at odds that Sinatraís popularity waned alarmingly. The young people who had bought his records in the early forties were getting married and starting families. They didnít feel comfortable with him any more.
In April of 1950, disaster struck. Sinatraís throat hemorrhaged through overwork and hard living. Years later, he told Arlene Francis that he didnít say a single word for forty days. Late in 1950, he tried a comeback, recording his first important LP, Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra. It abandoned ballads in favor of up-tempo swing numbers. It also utilized a fresh, thirty-four year old arranger named George Siravo. If one listens closely to Sing and Dance, one can hear a slight weathering of "The Voice" that wasnít there before. But it was still a mighty good voice, and it seemed that Sinatra might come back as strong as ever.
But he didnít. In 1951, he married Ava Gardner, and the relationship failed spectacularly. Musically, he lost his focus. In 1949, MGM let Sinatra go. In 1950, his skilled, long-time publicist, George Evans died. In 1951 his marriage to Eva Gardner began and ended. In 1952, Universal Pictures refused to renew his option (after his film, Meet Danny Wilson flopped), CBS canceled "The Frank Sinatra Show," and finally, in September of 1952, he was dropped by Columbia Records, thus ending the first major phase of Sinatraís career.
Before leaving this period, however, it might be helpful to comment on the wealth of recordings it yielded, for the Columbia years were, musically speaking, Sinatraís most prolific. Those who can afford Frank Sinatra: The Columbia Years 1943-52, The Complete Recordings (which I do not own but lust after) are lucky. The last time I checked, this 12 CD boxed set sold for $250. But it contains a wealth of rare material, exceptional sound quality and extensive, informative liner notes. For those of us who canít afford the mother lode, there are several good, less expensive options. Frank Sinatra: The V-Discs (a two CD set which sells for around $35.00) is full of interesting stuff. These albums contain 58 recordings, primarily from radio broadcasts or dress rehearsals thereof. Sinatra performs many standards with lush Axel Stordahl arrangements that never got recorded commercially. The sound quality is a little deficient in spots, but good overall. Two good, single disc compilations are The Essence of Frank Sinatra and Sinatra Rarities. These can be had for $9.99 or $10.99. They contain a sampling of Sinatraís best work during this period and are thoroughly enjoyable. In 1997, Sing and Dance With Frank Sinatra was re-released with several bonus cuts. It can also be snared for $10.99. A large number of other pleasing Columbia packages are available, but check the tunes and recording dates carefully. Many of the same cuts show up on different discs, making it easy to buy the same music twice.
The Capitol Years
Sinatra was not without a recording company for long. A few months after being dropped from Columbia, he was signed by Capitol Records. The A&R man who took the chance on him was Alan Livingston. Livingstonís reasoning was simple: Sinatra was a bargain. Livingston signed the now middle-aged Blue Eyes to a one year contract (with six one year options) and offered only a five percent royalty. If Frank didnít work out, Capitol lost virtually nothing.
Of course he did work out, thanks in large part to Livingstonís direction. Sinatra wanted to continue his relationship with Axel Stordahl, but Livingston astutely recognized that Sinatra needed a new sound. Stordahl was a great ballad arranger and deft with strings, but Sinatra could no longer assume the role of dreamy balladeer. Even though Livingston agreed to a couple of initial sides with Stordahl, he pushed Sinatra toward his youngest and most promising arranger, thirty-two year old Nelson Riddle.
Riddle began his musical career as an undistinguished trombone player who arranged part-time. Even though he played briefly with Charlie Spivak and Tommy Dorsey--and arranged for both of them--he did not make a name for himself until he gave up the trombone and began free-lancing as an arranger. Riddleís first significant studio work was for Decca in 1947 when he was only twenty-six years old, writing uncredited arrangements for Bing Crosby and others.
Riddle first got a foothold at Capitol by ghost-writing. Top notch arrangers at this time had more work than they could do, so they frequently farmed out work to uncredited apprentices. Riddle began to emerge from anonymity in 1950 when he ghost wrote (for Les Baxter) the chart for Nat Coleís "Mona Lisa." A short time later, Riddle ghost wrote "Too Young," which also became a hit. With accomplishments like that, Riddle didnít stay a ghost writer for long. He became full time musical director for Nat King Cole in 1951 and arranged extensively for every other vocalist in the Capitol pantheon.
And yet Sinatra was wary of him. Riddle was still a kid, after all. (He was only six years Sinatraís junior but seemed six decades behind in experience.) And yet, Sinatraís comeback kicked into high gear with the release of From Here to Eternity in 1953. Not only did Sinatra win an Oscar (in his first serious screen role), but he also turned the title song, arranged by Nelson Riddle, into a best-seller. From that point for forward, the partnership was solidified.
Interestingly, however, Sinatraís first album for Capitol, Songs for Young Lovers (1953), was a collaborative arrangement between Nelson Riddle and George Siravo (the credits merely say "Accompanied by Nelson Riddle.") Siravo was older than Riddle and had worked comfortably with Sinatra on Sing and Dance. Siravo, like Stordahl, liked strings and used them well. But he was less ballad oriented than Stordahl. He was fond of gentle riffs in the sax section and muted counter-melodies in the brass. His arrangements were less brassy than Billy Mayís and more suited to vocalists. Siravoís arrangements of "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "They Canít Take That Away From Me" survive as two of the best recordings Sinatra ever made. Riddle seems to have recognized the secret, for he works from a similar formula in many albums that come later.
Riddleís most noteworthy collaborations with Sinatra during the Capitol years are Swing Easy (1954), In the Wee Small Hours (1955), Songs for Swinginí Lovers (1955), Close to You (1956), A Swinginí Affair (1956), and Only the Lonely (1958).
"Iíve Got You Under My Skin" from Songs for Swinginí Lovers is often hailed as Sinatraís single greatest recording, with Milt Bernhartís crescendoing trombone climaxing the instrumental bridge. And certainly this cut reflects the swinging, swaggering hat-tilted image that Sinatra was cultivating. No longer the gentle, wavy-haired teen idol, this was a voice of experience, a guy who had been around and really knew about getting under oneís skin.
But for all their differences, Nelson Riddle and Axel Stordahl had a couple of important similarities. Both utilized the massive instrumentation of large orchestras without getting in the vocalistís way. Furthermore, both had a distinctive "voice" which gave their arrangements personality. But Nelson Riddleís "voice" was more multi-faceted than Stordahlís. Stordahlís sound, however deft and pleasing, remains largely constant over the years. Riddleís "voice" is more varied. The sound of Swing Easy is not that of Swinginí Lovers. The ballads of Close to You are conceived differently from Only the Lonely. And yet for all his variety, Nelson Riddleís charts always sound like Nelson Riddle. The key is understatement. Riddle made sure the emotion of a performance sprang from the vocalist rather than from the chart. The chartís job was to provide a context for the vocalist. Riddleís strings donít soar and his brass doesnít pierce. Everything is light, uncluttered, and always in motion. Finally, Riddleís great strength is his versatility. He wrote over two thousand arrangements, many of which have become multi-generational standards, but he never fell into a pattern. He wrote in certain ways for Nat Cole, in different ways for Ella Fitzgerald, and in still other ways for Frank Sinatra.
Perhaps we are most indebted to the Sinatra-Riddle collaborations for their development of the "concept" album, albums devoted to exploring a certain mood or theme. We tend to forget that long-playing records with high fidelity microphones and microgroove technology were not available until the early 50ís. Before then, orchestral subtleties were obscured by the low-fidelity recordings. Technologically speaking, Nelson Riddle came of age at just the right time. He and Sinatra were able to explore, in twelve to sixteen tracks, a variety of nuances within a single mood, as they did in such diverse albums as In the Wee Small Hours and A Swinginí Affair. Concept albums have been such a staple of our musical existence for so long that we are tempted to forget their origins.
My own favorite Sinatra-Riddle collaboration is Swing Easy. In 1954, Sinatraís vocal powers were at their peak. His voice was a little less supple after his throat problems, but it was also less ethereal, giving him a more mature sound without affecting his range or his pitch. Swing Easy is the first of Sinatraís concept albums; the songs depict a new, swinging, nonchalant approach to life and song: "Just One of Those Things," "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," "Taking a Chance on Love," "Get Happy." This is also the first album in which Riddle used the solo talents of Milt Bernhart and Harry "Sweets" Edison. Nelson Riddle resembled Duke Ellington in his ability to develop arrangements that showcased the talents of particular musicians. Riddleís knack for using Edisonís muted, understated trumpet spots gave a lilt to many of the cuts.
Perhaps the albumís definitive cut is "Taking a Chance on Love." The lyrics, of course, announce a reinvigorated, refocused Sinatra: "Iím in a Groove Again;" "Iím Gonna Give My All Again." But the sound is also new. The string section is gone; the brass and reeds punctuate transitions from one section of the song to another, and Sinatra sings mostly behind bass and drums, with riffs supplied by piano and vibes (reminiscent of Red Norvo, whom Sinatra and Riddle both admired). Itís a simple, swinging statement of musical commitment and direction. For all the good work still to come, Sinatra never topped Swing Easy.
But, of course, Sinatra didnít spend all his time at Capitol with Nelson Riddle. Three of his most famous albums from that period were with the boisterous Billy May: Come Fly With Me (1957), Come Dance With Me (1959) and Come Swing With Me (1961). With these albums, Sinatra develops a harder edge. The brassiness of Billy Mayís arrangements reflects a rising brassiness in Sinatraís musical attitude. Perhaps that is best reflected in the imperative "Come" in the titles. Itís no longer "How about You?" but "Hey there, cutes, put on your danciní boots and come dance with me!" Itís not a question or an invitation, itís an order. "Ole Blue Eyes" has taken a big step toward becoming "The Chairman of the Board," which is to take nothing away from these albums. Though Billy Mayís charts are less subtle than Riddleís, they contain significantly more octane and push Sinatra to a higher sustained energy level than he would ever again achieve. The timing of these albums is also fortuitous because in the late 50ís Sinatra began to betray his first difficulties with pitch (a problem that became increasingly debilitating later in his career). But these quick tempos and brassy charts conceal that deficiency almost entirely.
At the opposite extreme are two ballad albums with Gordon Jenkins--Where Are You (1958) and No One Cares (1959). These albums are Sinatraís first forays into stereophonic sound. Just as the Billy May albums are awash in brass, the Jenkinsí albums are awash in strings. Most arrangers use strings to cushion the woodwinds and brass. Jenkins does the opposite. His woodwinds (and barely audible brass) are cushions beneath the strings. Both albums are slow, but No One Cares crawls with the optimism of a suicide, which is not to take anything away from the music. But Where Are You is the better album because itís more varied and is highlighted by a sumptuously arranged "Lonely Town" from Bernsteinís On the Town.
As a postscript to the Capitol years, it should be noted that after Sinatra parted company with the studio, contractual mandates forced him to come back for one last album in 1961. For this album, Sinatra brought out of retirement Axel Stordahl (who was suffering from cancer and who hadnít worked in nearly a decade). The album was Point of No Return. Sinatra, who was choking back his disgust at having to work again for Capitol, refused to do re-takes and has some shaky moments. But the album has many nice passages, and Stordahlís arrangements still rank up there with the best of them. Point of No Return is not an album for newcomers to Sinatra. But for those who know his musical story, it is a fascinating and nostalgic listen.
But for all the great music that came out of the Capitol years, Sinatra began sowing the seeds of his later decline with a lifestyle that, once again, careened out of control. He kept lavish homes in New York, London and California. At one time he was part owner of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and his underworld connections seemed to grow. He became furious when Bobby Kennedy cautioned his brother to distance himself from Sinatra and the bad public relations that might go with him. And Frank didnít take care of himself. As had been in the case in the late forties, his lifestyle once again gravitated toward whisky, women, and lavish parties. In the ultimate act of audacity, he began performing with a cigarette in one hand and a tumbler of scotch in the other. He had accomplished much, but he still hadnít found an identity with which he was comfortable.
The Reprise Years
By 1959, Sinatra was clamoring for a bigger piece of the Capitol pie. He wanted his own company, Essex, to become a subsidiary. He wanted to use the Capitol distribution system and a fifty-fifty split of the profits. In truth, such arrangements are now common. At that time they were unheard of. Capitol, not wanting to offend Nat Cole or any of its other big money stars, declined Sinatraís proposal, and Sinatra stormed away intent upon revenge. He negotiated with Norman Granz and almost bought Verve, but in the end he started his own company, Reprise (which he pronounced "rePRIZE" as in "reprisal."), but Sinatraís departure didnít hurt Capitol like he thought it would. Capitol had a lot of good Sinatra in the vaults and flooded the market with it--at low prices--seriously hurting sales of the Reprise albums. Fortunately, Sinatra sold two thirds of Reprise to Warner Brothers in 1963, making a handsome profit and escaping financial embarrassment.
By the early sixties, Sinatra was struggling intermittently with his pitch and his voice. But he was still near the top of his game, as the early Reprise albums reveal. Since part of Sinatraís success at Capitol involved creating a new sound, he hoped to create yet another new sound by distancing himself from his Riddle-May associations. His first release, Ring-a-Ding-Ding, features charts by Johnny Mandel.
Mandel used more modern players (Bud Shank, Don Fagerquist and Frank Rosolino) and more modern voicings among the sections. The tempos in Ring-a-Ding-Ding are roughly similar to the Billy May albums, and the tunes are standards, but the percussive innovations, the chord substitutions and the introductions, which sometimes lead into the bridge rather than the opening bars, serve notice that Sinatra is taking a new direction.
Sinatra also forged an alliance with Neal Hefti, well known arranger for Woody Herman and Count Basie. Sinatra and Swinginí Brass (1962) is among his best Reprise efforts. The title not withstanding, Heftiís charts are less "brassy" than Billy Mayís. Hefti was more influenced by the sparse, efficient Count Basie style. His charts lean heavily on the rhythm sections and are laced with innovative riffs which are tossed about among the horns. Only on the gentle songs, notably "Serenade in Blue" does the pitch waver.
But even with these new elements, Sinatraís Reprise years were not, in the end, a "rePRIZE," so much as a "reprise," the word, after all, means "to repeat," and a large portion of what Sinatra recorded in the sixties he had already recorded in the 40ís and 50ís. His 1961 double-album project, I Remember Tommy, was arranged by Sy Oliver and "reprises" the Dorsey standards. At the time, it was Sinatraís best-selling. Most of Sinatraís other albums also contained some songs that he had previously made famous. That, of course, is in part because he had recorded so much good material for so long. And there is much to be said for a good reprise. "They Canít Take That Away From Me" and "I Get a Kick Out of You," for example, sound fresh and different in Neal Heftiís hands and are worthy additions to the Sinatra canon.
But as the sixties wore on, Sinatra had no place to go musically. He was facing an increasingly barren musical landscape with skills which were, though still significant, beginning to wane. The Golden Age of the American song had come to an end. Sinatraís albums were increasingly pitched to an older audience. He went back to Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Billy May for more and more of his albums.
Of course he displayed a remarkable ability to land the occasional hit. In 1965, "Strangers in the Night" went to number one on the Billboard charts. "Thatís Life" made a small splash in 1966, as did his duet with daughter Nancy, "Something Stupid." "September of My Years" was something of a hit in 1967, and "My Way" was a big seller in 1969. But, musically speaking, none of these songs match his best work from the forties and fifties. By the end of the 60ís, Sinatra was unhappy with popular music and with himself. With his audience aging, his pitch uncertain and his energy waning, he retired from show business in 1971.
Perhaps absence really does make the heart grow fonder, because once Sinatra was gone, the public clamored to have him back. They clamored for two years. And then, in 1973, he did come back, more popular than ever, sporting a new toupee and a challenging new repertoire. He achieved immediate success on the road and in the studio. The voice sounded amazingly good at the start--but it didnít hold up. Increasingly, it was Sinatraís reputation that sold the albums, not his music. Sinatraís pitch problems, which had become noticeable at the end of the Capitol period, worsened notably. His voice rapidly lost its flexibility. His phrasing became more and more staccato. He became a belter, not by choice, but because his vocal equipment no longer allowed him to be anything else.
Will Friedwald speaks of Sinatraís voice as being "in fine shape" as late as 1978, it just wasnít true. Yes, the aging Blues Eyes packed in thirty-thousand people a performance, but they were attracted by the name, not the music. The albums declined too. Ole Blue Eyes is Back (1974) contains some pleasant selections. The Main Event with Woody Hermanís Thundering Herd (1975) has its moments, as does Trilogy: Past, Present and Future (1980). But more than anything, these and other albums document a precipitous vocal decline. Even the most ardent Sinatra fans lament Frankís not knowing when to quit.
A couple of years ago, I was teaching a course called "Introduction to Jazz" to young college students. One day I asked: "How many of you know who Frank Sinatra is?"
Two or three adventurous students raised their hands.
I said to one of them: "Tell us something about Sinatra."
The young lady, with absolute sincerity, replied, "Heís an old man who wears a toupee and canít sing."
Those words struck me like a dagger, but she wasnít at fault. She was only eighteen, after all, and couldnít have been expected to know that Sinatra was the single biggest influence on popular music in the Twentieth century. I hope some day she learns.
The Twentieth Century has been tumultuous, containing unprecedented wealth, violence, philanthropy, narcissism--and talent, All of which are represented in the life and career of Frank Sinatra. That is why David Hajdu and Roy Hemming wrote in their essential volume, Discovering Great Singers of Classic Pop, "The day Frank Sinatra dies, the Twentieth Century is over."