As someone who has written a book about the music of Bobby Darin, what was especially nice about the recent release of the Frank Sinatra: Standing Room Only 3CD set a few weeks back was to hear Sinatra in 1966 recommending that his audience takes time out to go and see Bobby while they were in Vegas. The comments were, for this listener at least, unexpected, but put to bed once and for all the fake-feud between Darin and Sinatra that the media seemingly made up around 1960 and have continued to talk of as fact ever since. It should also be added that, in a 1975 newspaper interview, Tina Sinatra said that her father would be performing at a Darin tribute concert (a concert that sadly never happened). Another suggestion that the stories of animosity were untrue.
A second edition of my book on Bobby Darin will come out late in 2018, all being well, just as the second edition of my book on the music of Elvis Presley came out last year. Those books take a reader through the recordings of the artist in question, from the first to the last, re-evaluating them from a modern viewpoint as well as providing excerpts from contemporary reviews and articles from trade magazines and newspapers, showing how the music was received at the time. They have garnered some nice comments, but the question I’m asked most (especially by those who know me and my musical tastes) is “are you going to do one on the music of Frank Sinatra?” The answer to that is always that I would love to, but where would I start? Sinatra recorded more than double the amount of songs than Elvis and Darin put together, and if I ended up writing close to a quarter of a million words on Elvis, how much would I end up writing on Sinatra? And what about collecting together all of those reviews and articles. I have around 400-500 for the new edition of the Darin book, so with Sinatra I would be looking at probably five or six times that amount – at least! I am not sure I am up to that task.
But this week marks twenty years since I switched on the TV and browsed Teletext one morning only to see on the news that Frank Sinatra had passed away. It’s one of those moments that you don’t forget. I had “got into” Sinatra about five years earlier while working in a used record store. There were no customers, and so I started browsing through the albums, trying to find something to play. I picked up, by chance, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. And that was the start of that. And I have Sinatra to thank for so much more than just his own music. I picked up the albums he made with Basie, that got me searching out his records. The same is true for Duke Ellington after hearing the much-maligned album that Frank Sinatra recorded with him. And then came the VHS (as it was back then) of the 1967 TV show with Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. And who couldn’t fall in love with her? Through Sinatra, I found Basie, Duke, and Ella. And through them I found John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Benny Carter, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson. And through them I found… Well, you get the idea. But it all comes back to Frank Sinatra. Without him, I would never have heard any of them in the wonderful, weird world of musical six-degrees-of-separation.
And so, twenty years after Sinatra’s passing, I thought it would be nice to look at ten of the Sinatra albums, TV shows and concerts that I cherish most, but which aren’t always talked about a great deal. Of course, our musical preferences change on a regular basis – you learn to like things you didn’t, and go off things you used to love. But, right now, here’s ten glorious moments with Frank Sinatra. Albums dates refer to year of release.
1. The Voice of Frank Sinatra (1946). There really is no other place to start than with Frank’s first album. Many have argued that this was the first pop concept album. Just as many have argued that there were earlier ones. But it doesn’t matter, because Sinatra took the notion of the concept album to a whole new level. In this case, not just the bringing together of eight wonderful ballads, but their orchestration with a string quartet and small rhythm section. If I had to live without any era of Frank Sinatra music (and I hope I never have to make that choice for real), then it would be the Columbia years, but despite that, this collection of eight songs is wondrous in its concept and delivery. And if These Foolish Things doesn’t tear you in two, then nothing will.
2. Close to You (1956). Let’s skip those albums you already know about, and concentrate on Close to You, one of Sinatra’s least-known Capitol albums, and one that seems like a cousin of The Voice. Here, again, he utilises the string quartet, augmented at various points by a woodwind or brass instrument. Sinatra avoids the over-used American standards here, and goes for more obscure ones. They aren’t “unknowns” exactly, but more “rarely heards.” I don’t think there is a better version out there of P. S. I Love You or Blame It On My Youth. And Frank gives Chet Baker a run for his money on Everything Happens to Me, only to go on to eclipse all versions in 1981 when he re-recorded the song for She Shot Me Down, although it remained in the vaults for over a decade.
3. Monte Carlo, June 14, 1958. This concert, finally released officially in 2016 (although any self-respecting fan had it in their collection long before that) is a stunning tour-de-force, and a rare snap-shot of where Sinatra was musically at this time. He brings something to the relatively bland Monique here that he seemed to miss entirely in the studio. And what can be said about Where Or When? Sinatra takes it as a stripped back ballad, and sings the hell out of it, again beating the studio version that also remained in the vaults for years. That song alone is worth the price of admission here, and I’ll take this show over any other from the 1950s that we are lucky enough to have in our collections.
4. Point of No Return (1962). This is one of those albums that have had a bad rap over the years. We hear tales that Sinatra wasn’t really bothered about recording this album of ballads, his last LP for Capitol, and his last with Alex Stordahl as arranger. But how can anyone listening to this come to that conclusion? When the World Was Young is as perfect a recording as I can think of. We don’t think of Sinatra singing French cabaret-type songs, but here he does, and does so beautifully, as always completely understanding the character at the heart of the piece. A new, jazzier phrasing can be found in I’ll See You Again, and These Foolish Things, originally recorded for The Voice of Frank Sinatra, is here darker and moodier.
5. Hibiya Park, Japan, April 21, 1962. This concert was released on DVD on the World on a String boxed set in 2016. This was part of Sinatra’s charity world tour in 1962, in which he travelled with just a jazz combo to support him, and raising a huge amount of money in the process. What is so special here is that I don’t ever remember seeing Sinatra happier on stage. His smile seems to beam from the beginning of the show to the end. He interacts with the crowd in a way we have rarely seen, clearly getting a kick out of the amount of children in the audience at whom he smiles, waves, and even blows kisses to at various points. Musically, the show is shorter than some of the others on the tour, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the singing or the playing – despite the wind trying to blow music stands across the stage.
6. The Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim (TV show, 1967). The late 1960s were a wonderful time for music specials. 1968 brought us Elvis’s NBC TV special, and the year before had brought us this. Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald had appeared together on TV before, but not like this. Everything just clicks into place, from the playful, semi-serious first duet medley, through to the finale of the show where Frank and Ella just go for it. Ella was in superb form (and, oddly, without a permanent contract at the time) and Sinatra couldn’t be happier to be jousting with her. The medley with Jobim is also a delight, and one can only wish that somewhere out there is material that was recorded for the show but not used due to time limitations, and one day we’ll have a deluxe release. Is there more material? Possibly (collectors will know that there is material in the vaults from the 1973 TV special). We can but hope.
7. Francis A. & Ellington K. (1968). This wonderful album seems to have been much-maligned over the years, with it said that Sinatra wasn’t in great voice, and Ellington not in great form. And yet it contains some of my favourite performances from both the Ellington band and Sinatra himself. All I Need is the Girl may be taken at a pedestrian pace, but it’s so exciting, with both singer and the band threatening to let rip at any moment. And is there a better version of Sunny out there? If so, I haven’t heard it. A follow-up album, with Frank singing an LP’s worth of Ellington songs, would have been most welcome, but never happened.
8. Watertown (1970). Watertown has become something of a cult favourite in recent decades. It’s one of those albums that few have heard, but those that have would never be without it. This is, essentially, a song cycle about a man whose wife has left him, and he now has to look after their two children. He doesn’t know if she will come back or not. Sinatra was always challenging himself – and his audiences. And that is the case here. This isn’t an easy listening album. It demands your attention from beginning to end. Michael & Peter, a song in the form of a letter to his wife about his children and what they are doing, is so remarkably moving. And the disappointment is palpable when The Train arrives at the end of the album and the man’s wife is not on it. But nobody appears to have heard the album at the time of release – except Nina Simone, it seems, who covered one of the songs on a 1985 album. But this is a beautiful, haunting album. Lady Day remained unissued for years, with Sinatra re-recording it with a lush Don Costa arrangement which was released on Sinatra & Company.
9. The Lost Songs (1973-1978). OK, I’ll come clean. This isn’t really an album at all. It is just me taking the opportunity to draw attention to a group of songs that Sinatra recorded during the 1970s that deserve to be heard. In the studio, at least, Frank seemed to be lost during this period. He didn’t know what to record. Albums were discussed and discarded. Albums were started, and discarded. Singles came out that were never going to do well commercially. Other singles came out that were the worst things Sinatra ever disc. Other songs remained in the vault. And yet, the really good recordings from this period (outside of the 1973-4 albums) are stunning and deserve to be heard. I’m talking here of Everything Happens to Me, Just as Though You Were Here, Dry Your Eyes, Like a Sad Song, Empty Tables, Send In the Clowns, Bang Bang, I Love My Wife. Most people have never heard these because many were only available on CD through a 20CD set from the 1990s. So, if anyone from the Estate is reading, get a collection of these lost 1970s songs (and the 1980s singles too) out on CD. They deserve to be heard.
10. The Ultimate Event (1988). One of those concerts that is out on DVD, but no-one is sure whether the release is legal or not. This was recorded in Detroit, as part of a tour featuring Sammy Davis Jr and Liza Minnelli alongside Sinatra. What is wonderful here is that all three are on fire, and the clear love they have for each other. Davis takes the audience from Rodgers & Hart, through Newley & Bricusse, and on to Michael Jackson and Andrew Lloyd Webber in twenty minutes. Liza Minnelli had, arguably, never been better. Her repertoire is familiar, but she wrings every ounce of emotion out of Quiet Love and Sailor Boys. Then comes Sinatra, showing that Minnelli and Davis created great results but so can he – but seemingly with much less effort! Finally, the three of them come together for a wonderful medley. Again, this is an edited show – how great it would be to see a release of the whole thing.
Perhaps that’s an idea for the next Sinatra anniversary?