It’s been a little over two years since I left Frank Sinatra all forlorn and lonesome on that empty city street well after closing time, cigarette in hand, gazing absently into a blue fog, mourning his deteriorating marriage to Ava Gardner.
My review of In the Wee Small Hours was published on Independence Day 2018, my last review of an American artist before I launched a boycott of music exports from the USA. My modest protest lasted eighteen months, and during that time, my greatest regret was leaving my readers with a one-sided impression of Sinatra. While I completely agree with the characterization offered by Terry Teachout in the documentary Sinatra: All Or Nothing at All (“He was the poet laureate of loneliness; his songs were haunted by it.”), we also hold the image of Frank Sinatra as a man who loved the high life, the guy who clowned around with his Rat Pack buddies in Vegas, the singer with one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen, one that radiated joy and optimism.
Sinatra was also a hopeless romantic, in constant search of agape (unconditional love). His well-documented philandering can be interpreted in two ways: one, he was a typical dude on the make who viewed women as sex objects, blessed with the fame and fortune that makes getting laid a snap; or two, he was constantly searching for the all-consuming merger of body and soul and the women in his life were simply incapable of meeting both needs over the long haul. As he crooned in his first mega-hit:
All or nothing at all
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I’d rather, rather have nothing at all
And as is often the case with Frank Sinatra, both interpretations are probably 100% on the money.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, an album that celebrates the joys of love through Sinatra’s interpretations of songs from The Great American Songbook, was the fourth in a series of collaborations with arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle, recorded less than a year after In the Wee Small Hours. The creative synergy so obviously manifested on the darker album continues unabated here, the two albums forming a yin and yang of heartbreak and happiness. While critics agree that the two works are equal in terms of quality, In the Wee Small Hours gets the lion’s share of critical attention because it is considered “serious.” This bias towards gloom and doom is part of the human condition; Shakespeare wrote seventeen comedies, but we spent most of our time in lit class on four tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. Most of the history we study focuses on war, pestilence and disaster; what passes for news today is largely bad news; clips that describe the good things humans do are diminished by the adjectives “heartwarming” and “light” and stuck at the end of the newscast.
Though the same bias exists in music criticism (Beethoven’s symphonies are considered “superior” to Schubert’s lieder), popular music has often served as an antidote to our obsession with the bleak. Although I don’t have exact figures (though it’s possible that someone out there looking for something to do while riding out the pandemic may already be on it), I think it’s a safe bet that most of the popular songs written over the centuries are about love and that most love songs are more “I love my baby and she loves me” than “My baby left me.” The need to love and be loved is also an essential facet of the human condition, and love songs capture many of our most cherished hopes and dreams. Love brings out the best in us and in each other; automatically dismissing love songs out-of-hand as “nice,” “sweet” or “soft stuff” should be considered absolute sacrilege.
Great philosophers have a gift for the pithy statement that cuts through our mental meandering and captures the essence of the matter of hand, and one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century, holographic Vegas lounge singer Vic Fontaine (portrayed by James Darren on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), put it this way:
“It’s love, baby. Nothing better than that.”
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is Sinatra and Riddle at the top of their game, working with the best studio musicians and recording engineers in the business, swinging with force and finesse.
Nothin’ better than that, baby.
I specifically mention the engineers because the quality of the recording knocks my socks off every time I take Songs for Swingin’ Lovers for a spin. I have a similar reaction after listening to Masterpieces by Ellington, so part of my delight can be attributed to the sheer warmth of analog recording on the Ampex 200 series tape machine used for both albums. The other factor affecting my perception is a rather snooty, probably millennial attitude towards the primitive recording techniques of the time and a quickly-becoming-archaic belief that better technology means better outcomes. Any DIY software today has a thousand times the recording capability of a 50s set-up, but the little recordings of the piano-flute duets my mother and I come up with don’t come close to the quality and crystal-clarity of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers—and the Capitol engineers had to deal with a full swing band with up to thirty-six musicians (not to mention a very demanding vocalist).
As a highly informative piece I found at Sound on Sound conclusively proves, ingenuity + collaboration + persistence can overcome any and all technological limitations. Engineer John Paladino related some of the challenges facing the crew, the musicians and the arranger:
Having experimented as to where the sound really came from on each instrument, I found that miking lower — maybe two-and-a-half to three feet above the floor, shooting straight under the music stands — provided a nice fullness to the saxes. You see, on stage the sax section would play standing up, but even when they addressed the microphone full-on they still wouldn’t get the boost that the floor provided. Sometimes, that was very difficult to handle because the woodwind guys would have to play multiple instruments: after playing a sax, a guy might then have to play a flute, and we didn’t have extra mics [to accommodate different setups].
This was educational for the arranger. He had to know some of the pitfalls of recording, and that he couldn’t all of a sudden just go from a full sax section to a little old flute solo. He had to somehow work it into the arrangement so that the guy could, perhaps, quickly get up and go to another microphone. In the beginning, someone like Nelson Riddle didn’t know how to write for a recording . . . and we didn’t know how to record for a recording! We were all learning at the same time. I’d tell him, ‘Nelson, I can’t do this. You’ve got the strings here against the brass and it won’t work.’ Well, Nelson became very adept at that — he was very good — and all of the on-call arrangers got wise to that, too.
And at the center of it all, you have the man George Will described in a centennial piece on Sinatra as “unquestionably . . . the greatest singer of American songs.” Many of Mr. Paladino’s challenges had to do with Sinatra’s insistence on recording with a live band, but Sinatra also challenged everyone in the studio to achieve an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship, including and especially himself. Paladino remembered, “Frank knew his own voice pretty well, and when he wasn’t singing well, he’d walk out of a session. I’ve got to give him credit for that. In fact, I’ve got no criticism of Frank at all. His criticisms of the musicians’ playing were really top-notch, because they locked in with what he was doing. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he wanted the band to do.”
Sure, all these guys (and the three gals in the band) were paid for their efforts, but it is clear from the result that their work was a labor of love. Sinatra would accept nothing less the best from himself and the people around him, and his high standards became their high standards.
Nothin’ better than that, baby.
The album kicks off with the perfectly thematic “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a song lifted from the positively dreadful film “Three Little Girls in Blue” and transformed into a swing masterpiece by Sinatra and Riddle. The arrangement is split into three parts: the two repeated verses and a coda. After a healthy opening from the horn section, Riddle tones it down a bit to establish a relaxed, happy-go-lucky mood for the first verse. When Frank enters in marvelous voice, he mirrors that happy-go-lucky feeling so well that you can picture him with his hat at a jocular angle, hands in his pockets, a girl at his side, “Running around the meadow/Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots.” Prior to the start of that verse, muted horns handle the counterpoint, but right after Sinatra delivers the fanciful lines “I wanna go and bounce the moon/Just like a toy balloon,” Harry Klee takes over those duties with light responses from the flute that complete the meadow-scape with images of flittering butterflies. I feel like squealing with delight when Harry executes a perfect rising glissando to introduce the “Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots” line and then harmonizes with Sinatra’s voice. While all this is going on, Riddle has followed up on Sinatra’s suggestion for a continuous string background, providing a subtle watercolor wash to the overall picture. As we move forward, the attention shifts entirely to Sinatra’s delivery, phrasing and astounding breath control as he executes what turns out to be a modest crescendo. I don’t know how he managed to avoid taking a breath after belting out the line “And a wonderful fling to be flung,” where he extends the high-register note of the word “flung” and then immediately drops an octave to deliver “And even when I’m old and gray” without a pause. He then shows us he still has plenty left in the tank with his sinuous yet powerful delivery of the closing lines.
Following his lead and anticipating the denouement, the full band returns with a more muscular swing, cueing Frank to repeat the verse, albeit in a more jazzy, finger-snapping style. I can’t describe the build and crescendo of the second part any better than Will Friedman did in Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art: “Even more effective are the ways he increases the emotional, no less than the musical, pitch within a single track: “You Make Me Feel So Young” modulates from mere cheerfulness to exalted rapture so overpoweringly it could make a statue want to fall in love.” The flute then returns for the gentler coda, this time reflecting those little kisses we give our lovers when all passion is spent. Once you get past the ecstasy the song generates (if that’s possible), you might realize that the Sinatra-Riddle take on “You Make Me Feel So Young” serves as a masterclass lesson in vocal command and the art of musical arrangement.
Technically speaking, “It Happened in Monterey” doesn’t fit with the album’s theme since Frank left the girl and “threw away the key to paradise,” but Riddle and Sinatra deserve medals for transforming the patently odd original into a serviceable swing number. Of the two competing versions of the original, Ruth Etting (of “Ten Cents a Dance” fame) wins out over Paul Whiteman, but even Ruth couldn’t overcome the molasses-level slow tempo set in 3/4 time nor the lame attempt to “Mexicanize” the song with Spanish guitar. The reconstruction eliminates one of those tedious lyrical introductions that often accompanied popular numbers in the 20s and 30s (Al Jolson’s discography is full of them), replaces it with an attention-grabbing flurry of horns, strings and flute, and shifts the time signature to 4/4. The structure of the new arrangement is similar to that of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with the harder swing in the second verse marked by sharp punctuations from the horn section and sexy bursts of solo trumpet.
The metaphor of love-as-addiction is familiar to everyone who has seen the video version of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” with the five leggy, red-lipped broads undulating to the song’s thrusting rhythm or to fans into the Huey Lewis and the News hit “I Want a New Drug.” The Songfacts entry on Palmer’s number is remiss in that it identifies the trope as a purely ’80s phenomenon, failing to note that “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” initiated this micro-genre way back in 1932. The original sort of appears in the film 42nd Street (vocalist Bebe Daniels performs a quick run-through that is interrupted by dialogue); the version that went to the top of the charts came from Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. The Crosby version is rather stiff and formal, befitting the sexless elegance of Lombardo’s music, and though Riddle and Sinatra chose a slightly slower tempo for their rendition, the song flows nice and easy, and the combination of strings, celeste and flute in the instrumental passage turns the song into something approaching sweet and cuddly, though not cloyingly so. The images of addiction are far less harsh than Palmer’s “Your heart sweats, your body shakes,” as the only substances mentioned are coffee and tea . . . not the cigarettes and booze one would expect from Frank Sinatra, who often changed lyrics to suit his taste.
Maurice Chevalier (who sang much better in his native French) turned “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” into a hit, his version earning the honor of satirization via the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business. The lyrics caught the attention of this kinky broad due to the ambivalent expression of male submissiveness:
I’m hip that I’m the slave, you’re the queen
Still you might understand that underneath it all
You’re a maid and I am only a man
That verse only makes sense if you remember that most men are in denial about their desire to serve the superior sex. Sinatra is relatively restrained in this piece, with the band contributing the subliminal oomph. Apparently the boys in the band were more enthusiastic about the possibility of engaging with a dominatrix.
You may be familiar with the Johnny Mercer-Richard Whiting song “Too Marvelous for Words” via Jo Stafford’s version that appears in the Bogie-Bacall vehicle Dark Passage, or, if you go back aways, the runaway hit rendition by Der Bingle. I’m not all that hot on Crosby, but Jo Stafford is one of my favorite singers and I absolutely love her take on this marvelously crafted song.
That said, Frank really knocks this one out of the park. The key to Sinatra’s performance here is his remarkable gift for phrasing; as George Will put it, “For Sinatra, before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems.” In the first verse, you hear Sinatra in a relaxed voice, taking time to savor the euphony of Mercer’s lyrics (“Like glorious, glamorous/And that old standby amorous”), maintaining his delight with rhyming phonemes while nailing the rare but brilliant middle-of-the-verse key change (“I mean they’re just not swell enough”). Song established, Frank takes a breather while the band launches into a hard swing featuring the trumpet section led by Harry “Sweets” Edison with two brief double bass solos adding dynamic and sonic contrast. The second bass solo cues Frank to step up to the mike, and baby, does that man know how to fly or what? His phrasing is now in perfect sync with the swing, riding the wave all the way to the thrilling crescendo where he closes his performance on a long, unbroken note at the upper reaches of his range. I like to imagine myself watching Sinatra performing “Too Marvelous for Words” in Vegas, where at the end of the performance I leap out of my seat to give him a standing ovation, rip off my bra and fling it onto the stage.
Yeah, I’m that kind of girl.
Speaking of striptease, ladies, if you’re into déshabiller érotique as a way of spicing up the foreplay, Sinatra’s version of “Old Devil Moon” would provide the perfect accompaniment. Unlike the semi-comic David Rose number that immediately jumps to climax while calling up images of sleaze and tawdriness, Sinatra and Riddle open with a playful dialogue between singer, flute, harp and trumpet, each providing an emotional response to the unexpected appearance of a beautiful vision in silky lingerie:
I looked at you and suddenly (rising harp followed by a quick trumpet burst—initial excitement)
Something in your eyes I see (flute slowly moving up the scale as the lovers make eye contact))
Soon begins bewitching me (swirling flute reflecting that delightful sense of vertigo when you shift gears from the rational to the irrational erotic urge)
Sinatra then goes full jazz singer, filling the tune with blue notes and the languorous phrasing of Billie Holiday. Meanwhile, the band responds with a combination attack featuring slow, hip-shaking rhythms, sudden punctuations and direct responses to Frank’s lyrics (the laughing trumpets that accompany the line “Wanna laugh like a loon”). And baby, they’re just warming up! The instrumental break is a striptease artist’s dream, the powerful horns providing hip-thrusting punctuation and “Sweets” Edison bringing the sass with his trumpet responses. “Old Devil Moon” is so hot that . . . well, let me borrow another phrase from Vic Fontaine. If this song doesn’t raise your temperature, “you’d better check the obituary column, because chances are you’re in it, pallie.”
“Pennies from Heaven” is another questionable thematic choice, as it’s one of those songs like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a tune designed to sustain American optimism during the Great Depression. The core thought behind the song—you have to take the good with the bad—was already covered by Jolson in “April Showers.” What’s different is the strange use of a copper coin in a rain shower. Hey! Hail and sleet are bad enough, but a rainshower of pennies would surely leave dents in my skull! I’m also operating under the bias that I have never lived one moment in my life when a penny was worth a damn and I found it intensely annoying whenever the clerk tried to give me pennies in my change back when I lived in the States. I did some research and found that a penny wasn’t really good for much back in 1936. A candy bar, an ice cream cone, a bottle of Coke or a cup of coffee would set you back a nickel, and the only food item I could find that was close to penny value (other than the bad joke known as penny candy) was a pound of cabbage (1.5 cents). Perhaps it meant a lot more in 1936 when people had to save enough pennies to feed a poor family, but I can’t come up with a reason why people would want to be reminded of those days in a song twenty years later. It’s always nice to hear Sinatra sing, but I just can’t buy this song, no matter how many pennies you rain on my head.
“Love Is Here to Stay” was the last song George Gershwin wrote before his passing at the too-early age of 38. I have fond memories of this song because, well, it wasn’t the first song I learned on piano but it was the first song I played that earned a compliment from my piano teacher on my touch and rhythm (only took four years). It’s really a delightful song to play, filled with sixth, ninth and diminished chords and designed to be presented in “moderate swing time.” The melody is the ultimate expression of what it means to “tinkle the ivories,” a light, cascading flow of perfectly-arranged notes. Sinatra captures that feeling in his light, lilting vocal, and though it feels at times Riddle has the band swinging a little more intensely than “moderate,” it all works like a charm.
It took twenty-two takes and completely burned out the trombone player, but “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” remains one of the most exciting performances in popular music history. Astonishingly, the song was a last-minute addition to the album and Nelson Riddle had to come up with the arrangement in a hurry (in a taxicab on the way to the studio). “Go with what you know” is always a good starting point when panic sets in, and Riddle had spent quite a bit of time and energy studying the works of Maurice Ravel. Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” bears little rhythmic resemblance to Bolero and its 3/4 time signature with a triplet on the second beat, Riddle thought that its skeletal form of a repeating theme combined with a slow build leading to a veritable musical explosion might just work. The real challenge Riddle faced was Ravel spread his build over a period of eighteen or so minutes; Riddle had about three-and-a-half minutes to work with.
As in Bolero, Riddle established the repeating figure in the introductory passage that continues in the background once Sinatra launches his vocal (it sounds like a baritone sax, but biographer James Kaplan raised the possibility of a bass clarinet). Though the figure is not continuously repeated throughout the song (as it is in most of Ravel’s work), the figure re-emerges between verses, serves as a bridge to the instrumental break and makes a crucial reappearance in the fade. While most of the critical and popular attention justifiably focus on Sinatra’s vocal and Milt Bernhart’s once-in-a-millennium trombone solo, these tiny bits of repetition solidify the structure while giving the listener a satisfying sense of continuity and resolution. No wonder the band gave Riddle a standing ovation for this beautifully-designed arrangement.
This may be the twenty-second take but Ol’ Blue Eyes sounds completely relaxed as he savors Cole Porter’s typically clever lyrics in the first two stanzas. Though there are moments when you feel he’s ready to shift to belt-out mode in a heartbeat, he remains true to Riddle’s build, easing off at just the right moments. At this point, Riddle fast-forwards the build (in comparison to Bolero), heralding the shift by allowing a slightly truncated version of the figure to serve as a foundation while the strings build in volume and pitch; eventually the baritone sax eases out of its moorings with a more muscular sound. Right at the peak of the building tension, we hear a flurry of trumpets followed immediately by Milt Bernhart’s trombone, a sound that defines the phrase, “let it rip.” Milt blows at a gale force level pretty much throughout the solo, but somehow manages to maintain complete control of his instrument, hitting those beautiful blue notes and moving in and out of the strong swing delivered by the band.
Given the energy, the power and the superb craftsmanship displayed by Milt and the band, someone who has never heard Frank Sinatra sing may wonder if Riddle made a serious faux pas in designing an arrangement that requires the singer to follow such a stunning display of musical talent. “How do you top that?” our naïve listener mutters to himself.
What follows provides complete justification for Sinatra’s demand for full band accompaniment as well as his insistence on complete takes. I think part of the reason that no singer has come close to matching Sinatra in the intervening years has to do with advanced recording technology that allows a singer to record a vocal several times and then let the engineers cherry-pick the best parts. While some editing and patching were indeed possible with the primitive recording tools of the ’50s, Sinatra understood that songs are holistic forms of communication and that to deliver a song in a pleasing fashion made certain demands on a singer that he gladly accepted as part of the craft. To put it simply, he wanted full artistic control over his work and the opportunity to capture the feeling of a live performance. To accomplish that, he needed to draw on the energy of a full band to replicate the stage experience.
Sinatra’s delivery of the verses leaned more towards the tender and romantic; in the thrilling final chorus he sounds like a man who has experienced a revelation. Though his excitement shines through with absolute clarity, he never comes close to losing command of the song. He delivers the first three lines in a tone of budding excitement, then makes a crucial change in the lyrics: “In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night/And repeats, how it yells in my ear.” He then shifts to full belt-out mode, adding lyrics that bring the narrative closer to conversational speech while adding some terribly exciting rhythmic variation to his vocal:
Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win
Why not use your mentality, step up, wake up to reality?
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
The music stops briefly on “begin,” allowing Sinatra to flip back to warm-and-tender as he delivers the closing lines:
Cause I’ve got you under my skin
Yes, I’ve got you under my skin
I get the chills so many times during the final chorus that when I finally melt like butter to those closing lines, part of me feels like crying in gratitude. No, it doesn’t get any better than that.
After the positively orgasmic experience of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” we need something a bit less taxing and the Van Heusen-Mercer composition “I Thought About You” fills the bill nicely. The hit version featured Mildred Bailey singing for Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, and I think Riddle’s decision to downplay the clarinet and pump up the horn section was a good call—you can’t top Benny Goodman unless you’re Artie Shaw. It’s followed by “We’ll Be Together Again,” the only performance on the album that doesn’t move my needle . . . I don’t know if it’s the song, the arrangement or Frank’s approach, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good showcase for Sinatra’s talents.
I’m not exactly sure why Sinatra chose to record a highly sanitized version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” the 1928 number made justifiably famous by Eddie Cantor. Cantor’s version is much more suggestive, maybe one step away from explicit. Sinatra’s version describes a man who is pussy-whipped; Cantor’s a man who’s cheating on his wife and eventually has to pay up in divorce court. Here’s a comparison of just the first two verses:
The countryside is all in bloom
The flowers and treezes, the birds and beezes are making whoopee
The chorus sings, “Here comes the bride.”
Another victim is by her side.
He’s lost his reason cause it’s the season
For making whoopee.
Another bride, another June
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee
A lot of shoes, a lot of rice
The groom is nervous, he answers twice
It’s really killin’ that he’s so willin’
To make whoopee
I hate to say this, but Sinatra’s version qualifies as (ugh) “cute.” A line like “The groom is nervous, he answers twice” is a bit of dialogue that scarcely qualifies for a titter on the laugh track. In contrast to the tepid lyrics, the band is on fire, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for Frank’s curiously missing libido; nonetheless, his delivery is as flawless as ever. Sinatra also plays it safe on the following track, “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” and once again, the band brings the fire with some seriously hot horn work.
There’s nothing like a sprightly Cole Porter tune to get the blood pumping, but I would argue that the 1934 original featuring Ramona Davies for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was over-the-top sprightly with its herky-jerky high-speed tempo. Sinatra and Riddle executed a full rebuild on this one, dispensing with the oh-so 30s introduction, ridding the lyrics of era-specific references (FDR, Mae West, Vanderbilts and Whitneys), and, most importantly, reducing the tempo and smoothing out the rhythm (an approach Ella Fitzgerald would embrace a year later on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook). The reconstruction of the beat into something more foundational gives the band lots of room to add the punctuation that transforms the song into a hot swing number in the second go-round, inspiring Sinatra to yet another thrilling finish.
I also like what they did with the lyrics. Combined with Sinatra’s perfectly clear enunciation, the re-arrangement gives the listener a better opportunity to appreciate the witticisms that made the cut:
The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today
And black’s white today and day’s night today
When most guys today that women prize today
Are just silly gigolos
I agree with most of the cuts save one—I wish they would have found room for “When ev’ry night the set that’s smart is intruding in nudist parties in studios.” While the editing is consistent with the sanitization of “Makin’ Whoopee,” I’m now very curious to find out if the upper crust really and truly humped their way through the Great Depression, knifing their way through the bread lines to arrive on time for the orgies, the bastards.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers closes with “How About You?” originally performed as a duet by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in the film Babes on Broadway. The piece follows the dominant format used in the album, with a gentler first go-round followed by a swingin’ finish and fade. Riddle again finds a place for the celeste in that sweet first section; by contrast, the second section is full band on fire with Frank happily riding the waves. What I love most about the song is Sinatra’s plunge into the lowest part of his register on the parting words, “How about you?” I can picture him lifting his head up after nailing that line with his big, beautiful smile lighting up the studio.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers remains an exhilarating experience sixty-three years after its release . . . but I have to admit it left me feeling more than a bit sad. The craftsmanship demonstrated by Sinatra, Riddle, the band members and the production team has been sorely missing from the vast majority of popular music released in this century. Auto-tune can make a shitty singer seem like a diva; this song is indistinguishable from that song; drummers are becoming obsolete. Society has devalued the craftsperson, whether it’s the jazz musician who toils in obscurity or the people who struggle to make a living working with their hands. When I lived in the States, I remember my astonishment that software engineers were commonly paid in six figures to produce products that never fail to disappoint the user. The visual arts have become portfolio investments; the best-seller lists are filled with tell-alls and celebrities with ghost-writers; and yes, music has become a commodity, screwing music creators in the process. I don’t think a person can be nostalgic about an era she never lived through, but I’d give anything to live in a world filled with Sinatras, Riddles, Milt Bernharts and John Paladinos—people who really cared about, respected and cherished the opportunity to make great and timeless music.
I’m so happy to see you reviewing this album! Your boycott of USA musical artists left me sad because I wanted so much to see you talk about his other masterpieces!
“Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!” is perhaps my favorite album. It is pure dopamine, it is joy and happiness in music form! All these songs are on average three minutes long, like an average pop song in the radios. But these aren’t just average pop songs. Not only they are insanely catchy, but the richness and bouncing joy of Sinatra’s voice coupled with the extremely creative, detailed, delightful arrangements from Nelson Riddle and the band’s energy make this album a masterpiece! It is the highest level of craftmanship in service of joy and passion. It’s hard to not think that all the musicians and Sinatra weren’t having a lot of fun making this album while never losing sight of craftmanship. Sinatra always brought the perfectionism from everyone, he was very demanding. And because was very perfectionist with himself too, all musicians felt encouraged to follow his example.
I love how rich Sinatra’s voice is. His tone control is magical, the way that he emphasizes specific words lighting his voice and making it sound like honey. Like in “Old Devil Moon” when he sings:
“I look at you and suddenly”
He uses a different, special lighter and honeyed tone in the last sylable of suddenly. He also does this when he sings “carpet ride” in the first sylable of the word ride.
He does this a lot in all songs and it’s absolutely wonderful. In the only ballad-like and slowest song of the album, which is “We’ll Be Together Again”, we can hear Sinatra sing almost the entirety of the words in this mellowed, honeyed voice that, in the other songs, he tends to only employ in specific sylables.
About the song “We’ll Be Together Again” itself, I like it, but I agree that neither the song and its arrangement fit in the album. I think that it was added only because Capitol executives demanded it because they felt that the listeners needed a break to relax in the middle of the album. To put it simply, they tought that a full swing album from start to end would be too draining, break-neck and exhausting to the listener. I need to know how these executives reacted to rock!
Anyway, my point is that Sinatra was a singer in total control of his voice, he truly knew his own voice completely. While many American Idol singers are obsessed with just hitting the high notes, Sinatra did what should be the first priority of any singer: develop and explore the middle range of a voice, its full tonality range, the full “color palette” of your timbre rather than just vocal range.
And did I say already how diverse, detailed and rich the sound of the band and Riddle’s arrangements are? I can’t stress this enough. The band is awesome at both subtlety, specially when Sinatra is singing, and energy blast, like the instrumental interludes that almost every song in the album has, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” being the best and most obvious highlight of this. “Swingin’ Down The Lane” is another amazing example, the band is on fire, like you said!
About “Pennies From Heavens”, I love it because of the nice melody, Sinatra’s frequent use of his honeyed voice tone and the xylophone, at least I think it is a xylophone. The xylophone has this magical, pure and innocent sound of joy. Supposedly Riddle was a big fan of the instrument and I love its use in “Pennies From Heaven”. “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” also has wonderful use of xylophone in the band’s instrumental interlude.
Talking about pure, innocent joy, has there ever been a better song embodying this than “You Make Me Feel So Young”?
I also love how Sinatra perfectly balances a new gusto and punch in his singing style with his classic legato of the Columbia Years, the latter still clearly present and perfectly used in the right moment of each songs, such as when he sings in “Anything Goes” the following lines without stopping to breath and with immaculate phrasing:
“The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today
And black’s white today and day’s night today
When most guys today that women prize today”
So smooth and effortlessly sounding. Also, I love his use of his honeyed voice tone in the word “prose” when he sings:
“Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
I liked that you highlighted the ending of “How About You”, in which Sinatra sings his lowest note in the entire album to close both the song and the entire album at the same time. I have noticed in Sinatra’s recordings that he often preferred to end his songs in a mellow, subdued and intimist way, often with a very low note that he holds for a good time. This is so opposite to the trend nowadays, specially American Idol singers, who want to finish every song with a big, long high note!
Of course, Sinatra could do the big high note ending as well, “Too Marvelous For Words” being this album’s big example of such. And it’s wonderful too.
Sinatra was a baritone, his voice had also significantly deepened in the 50s compared to the 40s and he explored his new strength at the low register. A baritone fully exploring the beautiful, full, warm and rich sound that a baritone voice can offer instead of the pop music industry nowadays trying to push everyone to be a tenor.
One last thing: I love your criticism about so-called “serious” and “artistical” music fans and I will also add “film fans”. Artistical works that are feel-good in any way, that encourage hope, joy, faith in people’s capacity for good or escapism are often looked down upon when compared to cynical or dark artistical works that only show mankind at its worst. It’s like any belief in goodness is inherently less artistical because it’s supposedly necessarily more appealing to the masses. You will see many music and film buffs often disdaining from feel-good art and having almost all their favorite artistical works and favorite artists being primarily dark, edgy, cynical and gloomy. I absolutely hate this indirect celebration and cult of cynism and hopeless nihilism, all of this is at least as bad, if not even worse, than the far more widely despised and deeply uncool “sentimentalism”.
Good insight on Capitol’s interference and thank you as always for the insightful comments. I think Frank would have been appalled by “American Idol.”
Speaking of the “nihilism is cool” trend in the arts—I think the problem at the core is that nihilism can’t be self-reflective; by definition, it can’t move on from “everything sucks” to “everything sucks but we can fix it.” Pure nihilism allows the reader/viewer/listener to escape any responsibility for trying to make things better. I think sentimentalism can be manipulative by playing on the human weakness for nostalgia and “the good old days,” but it should be pretty obvious that what we hear on Sinatra’s great albums is not sentimentalism but high quality joy.
Exactly! Perfect comment!
I will also tell another curious story involving Capitol’s executives and Sinatra. His next album after Songs For Swingin’ Lovers was a minimalist set of ballads with only the backing of the Hollywood String Quartet. Sinatra decided to pull a prank with the executives, and maybe also make a point with how little studio’s executives can understand or cara about art. He recorded “There’s A Flaw In My Flue”, a totally silly song, as seriously as the album’s songs! The prank worked too well and almost backfired, Sinatra had to intervene to keep the song from actually being released in the final album!
This recording would be released as rarity decades later. This is it. How Sinatra and the musicians were able to do a full take of it without bursting into laughs, I’ll never know:
What a hoot! Thank you!
Nothing to add but thank you. A tour de force appreciation of a truly iconic album.
Thank you. A tour de force appreciation of a truly iconic album.
Thanks for an another great review. This and Sinatra at the Sands are the Sinatra LPs to which I return most often. A few years ago my brother and I were listening to music in my basement when our then 85 year old father came downstairs. Under my Skin was playing and my dad entered the room, starting snapping his fingers and singing and seemed to lose about forty years. Paul and I looked at each other and smiled. Frank, Ella and Peggy were his favourites.
Although everything here is carefully choreographed Sinatra sounds as if he walked into the recording studio, heard the band playing, and just decided, on the spot, to sing along. It sounds so damned effortless. I feel the same way when I watch Astaire.
That’s a beautiful picture of your father—and he has excellent taste in vocalists. Thank you!
I agree with the above comments; a great review. On the subject of “Pennies From Heaven”, it’s a song I never particularly liked until I heard Big Joe Turner’s version on “Boss Of The Blues”. An unlikely vehicle one would think, until you hear him sing it.
Oh, YEAH! I’d never heard that before; the original US pressing doesn’t include it but I found a “Complete Boss of the Blues” online and voila, there it was—outstanding performance by Joe and the band. Adding to my review list. Thanks!
Great review as always. While I love albums like in the wee small hours and Watertown, my favorite Sinatra album has always been Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! It’s truly joyous front to back, and a great collaborative record on all fronts. I’ll always adore true romantics in music. I also thank you for the background and explanations of each song, I think I might love Ive got you under my skin even more than I used to.
Speaking of romantics, what are your thoughts on prefab sprout? I’ve suffered my annual relapse in trying to stay away from their catalogue and have just been obsessed with them recently! Just as much as I do with the kinks every now and then.
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