Sinatra at 100: 10 Forgotten Gems

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So, today is the big day – the day on which Frank Sinatra would have turned 100.  The celebrations have been going on all year, with concerts and television programmes galore, from star-studded events through to new, almost definitive documentaries.  There have also been a variety of music releases, including the recent, rather remarkable set of songs from Frank Sinatra’s radio appearances from 1935-1955.  I am not going to wax lyrical about Sinatra here, but I thought this would be a nice opportunity to highlight ten stunning recordings and performances that come under the heading of “obscure.”  We all know about Songs for Swinging Lovers and Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely, but here’s some tracks you may not know that are well worth hunting down.

Let’s start in the late 1960s, with the wonderful Forget to Remember, a beautiful torch song that was, bizarrely, released as a single rather than on an album.  Barely known outside of the hardcore fandom – and rarely used on compilations, sadly – this is a master-class in phrasing, and comes complete with a stunning orchestration by Don Costa.  Even better than the studio recording is the one included in the 1969 Sinatra TV special, included as part of a sequence of torch songs that also included A Man Alone and Didn’t We.

From the same period comes I’m Not Afraid, even less well-known than Forget to Remember.  Sinatra had earlier recorded a whole album of songs and poems by Rod McKuen called A Man Alone, but this song by the same writer came along a few months later.  It’s an unusual recording in part thanks to Lennie Hayton’s great arrangement that seems to cross Sinatra with Ravel’s La Valse, as the waltz number becomes enshrouded in dissonant and impressionistic chords as it builds up momentum and reaches its stunning conclusion.

Shortly after the recording of the above two songs, Sinatra entered his period of retirement, emerging a couple of years later with an album entitled Old Blue Eyes is Back, which is more interesting than many give it credit for.  The key song here is There Used to Be a Ballpark, a wonderful number in which Sinatra acts as if he taking his grandchild on a tour of his old haunts from when he was a child, and reflecting how things have changed, and not always for the better.  “Now the children try to find it,” he sings.  “And they can’t believe their eyes, For the old team isn’t playing, and the new team hardly tries.”  It’s a devastating track, and remarkably moving.

Ten years earlier, Sinatra had recorded an album of rather grandiose arrangements of mostly Broadway show songs, The Concert Sinatra.  Included here is his second recording of Old Man River, which has never become as well known as his 1940s performance that was included in the film Till the Clouds Roll By.  To my mind, the older Sinatra gives a better reading of this wonderful song than the youthful one.  It is dark and reflective, and certainly a far cry from the thirty year old Sinatra singing the song in a white suit on top of a pillar.

Oscar Hammerstein II, the lyricist of Old Man River was also the lyricist of Lover Come Back to Me, a song that Sinatra never got around to recording, but which he performed on the radio and is included in the recent The Voice on Air boxed set.  This performance shows Sinatra at the start of his solo career but producing a majestic take on this song from the operetta The New Moon.  Sinatra would return to the song in the late 1970s, featuring an upbeat, jazzy arrangement backed by a combo in a number of concerts, but the recordings of this that circulate amongst collectors suggest that this was  less than successful.

Sinatra’s years at Capitol are, of course, his most acclaimed, but even here there are some hidden gems that the general public rarely get to hear.  Quite unlike most of Sinatra’s upbeat recordings for the period is I’m Gonna Live Til’ I Die, a raucous and bluesy number arranged by Dick Reynolds for the 1954 recording.  It was released as a B-side in 1955, and then became the finale of the Look to Your Heart compilation album in 1959.  The song isn’t really a swing number, but more of an upbeat belter, with the switch in tempos mid-way through most effective.  Frank had also sung the song on his early 1950s TV show.

At the other end of the musical spectrum is When the World was Young, the first track on Frank’s final Capitol project, the Point of no Return album which, as a whole, is under-rated.  Here he was reunited with Alex Stordahl, who had worked with Sinatra extensively during his Columbia years.  With the exception of September SongWhen the World was Young is one of the first songs in which Sinatra plays a character looking back on his life – something he would build a whole album around a few years later with the September of My Years LP and, of course, the infamous My Way single.

When the World was Young is both wistful and poignant, two terms that can also be applied to Sinatra’s 1962 recording of We’ll Meet Again for his Great Songs from Great Britain LP.  We’ll Meet Again is hardly traditional Sinatra fare, but what is remarkable here is how he takes this old sentimental war-horse and transforms it completely into a beautiful love song.  Sinatra wasn’t in great voice for these particular sessions, but it doesn’t matter, and his greatness can be seen in how he works around his limitations at this time rather than how they restrict them.  The Robert Farnon arrangement is also worthy of note, with its lush strings that never border on the sentimental.

I could list virtually any song from Sinatra’s collaboration with Duke Ellington here – the album Francis A & Ellington K is, after all, one that is just waiting to be rediscovered.  While Frank’s albums with Count Basie are well-known, this one is not, although there is little reason musically for the lack of attention it has received.  Take the performance of Sunny as an example.  Here it is slowed down into a slightly bluesy slow swing, and it sounds as if it had been a standard for years rather than a recent pop song.  The arrangement also allows the wonderful Ellington band to shine and for Sinatra to explore more jazzier phrasing than he often did during this period.  This 1967 album is also notable for being Sinatra’s last full LP of swing material for a dozen years, when the first album of the 1979 Trilogy set saw him concentrating on standards once again.

Finally, we have a song that is particularly fitting.  Nobody paid much attention to Here’s to the Band when it was released in the mid-1980s, but it’s another example of Sinatra performing a song that looks to the past – and this time he’s talking about all of the great people and bands he has performed with during his (at that point) fifty year career.  Along the way, he name checks Basie, Ellington and even Elvis, but also pays tribute to the “nameless” musicians too.  The studio recording is fine in itself, but the song seemed to work even better on the concert stage, with Sinatra, then seventy, coming over as most sincere when he sang:

“To start at the ground and reach for the top
To have such a wonderful career, I just gotta stop
Stop and turn around to thank everyone that sits on the stand
`Cause I wouldn’t have made it without them, here’s to the band!”

So, there we have it, ten Sinatra classics that only rarely get aired.  I could have included tens of others, including the intimate It’s Sunday, the beautiful tribute to Billie Holiday entitled Lady Day, the forgotten torch song Empty Tables, the moving rendition of Nature Boy which saw Sinatra recording with just choir accompaniment, the entire Watertown album, and, yes, even Old MacDonald.  Luckily, while the 100th anniversary of his birth has seen compilations of his most popular material emerge, there has also been a tendency to highlight from time to time the forgotten gems in the Sinatra catalogue, and long may that continue.

Show Boat (San Francisco Opera) Review

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The problem with the San Francisco Opera Show Boat is that it is performed by an opera company.  Currently being screened in cinemas in the UK, this stage production is a harmless way of spending two and a half hours, but is otherwise something of a mess – especially to those of us who know the show well.

The score of Show Boat was restored a few decades ago to that which was presented on Broadway in 1927, with the songs that had been cut since then restored to their rightful place.  But not in this production.  Gone were numbers such as I Might Fall Back on You, In Dahomey, and I Would Like to Play a Lover’s Part.   Why?  No idea.  It’s not like the San Francisco production was of Wagnerian length – and, even if it was, why would that matter?

It gets even odder in the second half where not only are songs missing, but those that remain are sung by different characters and the narrative changed!  Dance the Night Away was sung by Kim on the Cotton Blossom in the 1928 version of the show (it was a replacement for a different song sung by the same character in the same scene in the 1927 original), but was sung by her mother, Magnolia, in the current production – and she sings it on Broadway in a completely new scene (pictured above).

One has to wonder why a respected opera company would tackle a classic piece of American theatre that has been around for nearly ninety years and think it new better than Kern, Hammerstein and Ziegfeld and begin to rewrite it.  Would they do the same with La Traviata?  I don’t think so.   And the changes didn’t stop there.  Dialogue was also altered for no apparent reason, as were lyrics.

The opening chorus originally opened with the line “niggers all work on the Mississippi,” but here it was changed to “coloured folks work on the Mississippi.”  This is political correctness gone mad.  The show is partly about racism for God’s sake – cutting out the racist language that the show is criticising is just completely insane.   It’s like making a film about homophobia and cutting out all the derogatory language that is part of that.   What’s even more mad is that the word “nigger” was retained during the dialogue – so why edit it out of the opening chorus?  The whole point of that opening line of the show is that it is hard-hitting – it told Broadway audiences in 1927 that this was no ordinary, light-hearted show.

But, all these changes aside, the whole thing completely fails as decent entertainment because it is performed by an opera company.  It’s like hearing Pavarotti sing Frank Sinatra.  It doesn’t work.  Yes, it’s fine for some characters – Magnolia and Ravenal can be sung with an opera voice and the show loses nothing.  But Julie ends up as a drunk in a bar singing torch songs – and sounds like Kiri te Kanawa when she should be sounding more like Billie Holiday.  It means the whole thing doesn’t make sense for the story and the characters become unbelievable.  Talking of unbelievable, Magnolia is meant to be 16 when the show starts, and yet is played by Heidi Stober who, according to my calculations, is nearer forty.   Yes, in opera we’re used to this kind of casting – but this isn’t opera, it’s theatre.  Sadly those behind the production failed to realise this.

Messing with the order of songs, cutting numbers and changing the narrative would be fine for viewers who don’t know the show well as they wouldn’t realise what had changed or been excised. However, when you couple this with a production that fatally casts the wrong kind of singers it’s a step too far.  And all of this (complete with appalling over-acting at times) is magnified when you then watch it on a big screen in a cinema.    There were some very good episodes, most notably a powerful rendition of the miscegenation scene which still moves an audience ninety years after it was written, but for the most part this was a fatally flawed production of a show that doesn’t get revived nearly often enough to start with.