2015 sees what would have been the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. In a series of blog posts over the course of the year, I will be taking a look at some of my own favourite recordings by “ol’ blue eyes” in what I’m calling “The Sinatra 100.” The one hundred performances won’t be in any particular order – I’m not that organised – but hopefully they will highlight some little-known recordings as well as visiting some familiar ones. This first batch of five numbers come from the first decade of the Reprise label.
1. MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES (1961)
I’ve always loved this romp, which was recorded for the album Sinatra Swings – originally titled Swing Along with Me, but Capitol forced the title to be changed, stating that it was too close to their own Sinatra album Come Swing with Me from a couple of years earlier. The whole album is a blast. Billy May arranged all twelve tunes, which included some rather left-field numbers such as Granada, The Curse of an Aching Heart and Moonlight on the Ganges. Despite Capitol’s protestations, the album has far more in common musically with the light-hearted upbeat elements of Come Fly with Me than the more traditional-sounding Come Swing with Me. This is certainly true in the case of Moonlight on the Ganges, which has an arrangement clearly modelled on that provided for On the Road to Mandalay for the earlier album. As with that number, Billy May uses everything at his disposal in his arrangement, and even if the result is not quite as much fun or not quite as quirky, Sinatra still swings the hell out of it.
2. I’M NOT AFRAID (1970)
One of the best Sinatra songs you’ve never heard. In 1969, the singer had recorded an album entitled A Man Alone, consisting of songs and poetry by Rod McKuen. It was a hit and miss affair, but an interesting effort all the same, with Sinatra in wonderful voice. Eighteen months later, Frank was recording another McKuen lyric, this time to a tune by Jacques Brel. Sadly wasted as one of the most uncommercial single sides ever released by Sinatra, this is rather special. Arranger Lennie Hayton managed to come up with an orchestral backing that drew heavily on the tonal qualities of music by Debussy and Ravel, particularly the latter’s La Valse. Sinatra’s performance is dramatic and gives him the chance to show just how good his voice was here, just a month before his final session prior to the infamous retirement.
3. REACHING FOR THE MOON (1965)
Recorded late in 1965 for Moonlight Sinatra, this is one of my favourite ballad performances. The song had been written thirty-five years earlier for a film that was intended to be a musical but, with the musical having a decline in fortune by the time of its release, had virtually all of the songs cut. Reaching for the Moon, the title number, remained, but is still one of Irving Berlin’s lesser-known tunes. Here it is given a sumptuous arrangement by Nelson Riddle with lovely cascading strings during the instrumental break. Sinatra’s vocal has a darker tone than usual, giving the number more gravitas than, say, the Ella Fitzgerald recording for her Irving Berlin songbook eight years earlier.
4. OL’ MAN RIVER (1963)
Many will argue that Sinatra’s Columbia-era take on this classic from Show Boat was better, but I’d have to disagree. This 1963 version derives from The Concert Sinatra, a strange title for an album recorded wholly in the studio. The album has just eight songs, each arranged in a rather grandiose way by Nelson Riddle, and each one a ballad. Ol’ Man River here becomes an epic, taken at a remarkably slow pace by Sinatra and featuring some of his very best vocal phrasing. His voice is deeper and darker here than in the 1940s version, and is all the better for it. He used a similar arrangement in his 1967 TV special (mostly with just a piano instead of a full orchestra) with Ella Fitzgerald and Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the result was, arguably, even better than the performance here.
5. WE’LL MEET AGAIN (1962)
Great Songs from Great Britain was, well, not such a great album when it comes to Sinatra’s voice. He sounds tired after his world tour, and understandably so. However this was, importantly, his only studio album recorded outside of the USA (it was recorded in London), and the arrangements by Robert Farnon breathe new life into a batch of songs that were, by and large, viewed as past their sell-by date. We’ll Meet Again is typical of that. Here Sinatra takes this old war horse and completely reinvents it, making one completely forget the fact that it had been almost solely associated with World War II. His tired voice forces him to come up with a different style of phrasing, and the result is that the song becomes not a sing-a-long but a beautiful love song.