Like many inhabitants of this blue orb stuck at home with no particular place to go, we’ve been binging on TV series and movies. This represented a major lifestyle change for us because in the good ol’ pre-pandemic era we rarely watched television and had access to only one streaming platform: Amazon Prime, French Edition. When the second wave hit after last summer’s false ray of hope, we reluctantly added a Netflix subscription.
Recently we reached the point where we had watched everything we wanted to watch, so we sampled a few TV series and movies that we wouldn’t have bothered with under normal circumstances but were “highly rated.” We discovered that our tastes hadn’t changed: violent-and-stupid really doesn’t work for us. We were also blown away by the prevalence of dark-and-dystopian options. Why anyone would want to watch dark-and-dystopian when we’re living dark-and-dystopian is beyond me.
Our desperation spiked after the authorities re-installed the curfew and took to the airwaves to deny that they were even thinking about another lockdown, which told us that another lockdown was imminent. The news motivated us to initiate a more thorough search for entertainment options. My partner took Netflix, I took Amazon Prime.
Instead of searching by genre, I decided to check out Amazon’s personalized recommendations. Based on my purchasing habits, Amazon thought I might enjoy some musicals, indicating that their recommendations are not at all personal and their algorithms are in serious need of an overhaul. I didn’t find much of interest until something on the third page caught my eye: a woman in a yellow two-piece bathing suit. “Is that Ursula Andress?” I wondered. I was so wrapped up in trying to determine whether or not those were her perfect cheekbones that I didn’t even notice the guy whose image loomed large in the forefront.
The perfect antidote to the poison of dark and dystopian!
I rushed into the living room where my partner was digging through Netflix on her laptop. “Stop what you’re doing and search for Elvis movies!” I chose to ignore the look of horror on her face and returned to my little corner of the world to check out Amazon’s Elvis offerings. As things turned out, my partner would happily report that Netflix had zero Elvis movies, only Elvis documentaries (I suspected sabotage but my own efforts confirmed her findings). As for Amazon, pickings were pretty slim. The French had invented their own Elvis impersonator in the form of Johnny Hallyday, so I guess there isn’t much of a market for the real thing. I ignored Love Me Tender because it doesn’t qualify as a real Elvis movie, leaving me with six choices featuring the typically odd translations of English movie titles into French:
- Bagarres de King Creole (Fights of King Creole): King Creole
- Sous le ciel bleu d’hawaii (Under Blue Hawaiian Skies): Blue Hawaii
- L’idole d’acapulco (The Idol of Acapulco): Fun in Acapulco. The French apparently take a dim view of fun.
- Des filles encore des filles (Girls, Still Girls): Girls, Girls, Girls
- Café europa en uniforme (Café Europe in Uniform): G. I. Blues
- L’homme a tout faire (The Handyman): Roustabout. This listing was really weird, as the poster image wasn’t from Roustabout but It Happened at the World’s Fair.
I knew my dad had a copy of Jailhouse Rock, so our Elvis binge would be limited to seven of his thirty starring roles—more of a binge-ette than full immersion. My partner’s dread still burning in my mind, I suggested we start with Blue Hawaii. “It can’t be that bad—I adore “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” and Angela Lansbury’s in it!” I reeled her in with the Angela Lansbury revelation—we both loved her as the incestuous, domineering mother in The Manchurian Candidate. “You’re right—it can’t be that bad,” she replied with an undeniably wan smile.
Well, it could and it was—really bad. Colossally bad. The film felt like an advertisement for the Hawaiian Tourist Board with Elvis choosing to rebel against parental authority by offering his services as a wannabe tour guide. Instead of saving “Can’t Help Falling in Love with You” for the wedding scene with its tailor-made-for-a-wedding lines “Take my hand/Take my whole life too,” Elvis wastes the tune on his love interest’s mother after giving her a music box he picked up in Austria while he—er, his character—was in the service. Angela Lansbury delivers a disappointing and thoroughly ridiculous performance as The King’s domineering mother, playing an ex-southern-belle married to a bore who runs a pineapple company. Needless to say, the guys who ran things were all haoles; the Hawaiians featured in the picture either smilingly served their haole masters or frolicked in the water with guitars, drums and ukes close by in case Elvis suddenly decided to launch into song—a decision he made with terrifying frequency. Halfway through we spontaneously launched into our MST3K act, which enabled us to get through the wedding scene and the disappointment of yet another version of “Hawaiian Wedding Song” without a psychological scratch.
I was pretty sure that my partner would threaten to end our relationship if I pushed to extend our Elvis binge beyond this one movie, but much to my surprise, she expressed the same feelings I had. Though the plot was contrived and the acting fell far short of Olivier or Bette Davis, we both admitted that the film, as awful as it was, “exerted a strange fascination” over us. That little piece of phraseology was a fragment of memory retrieved from a review of one of Ed Wood’s cinematic masterpieces I read years ago. When you watch an Ed Wood film, you know it’s as crappy as crappy gets but you can’t take your eyes off the screen—and the same applies to most (but not all) Elvis movies.
We decided to go for it and one week later we were very, very happy—happy that the weak demand for Elvis flicks in France restricted our journey to seven films. Jailhouse Rock and King Creole were clearly several cuts above the rest, but even Ursula Andress and her perfect cheekbones couldn’t save Fun in Acapulco. Though a complete turkey, The King’s popularity was such that Fun in Acapulco was the #1 grossing musical film of 1963 and the #1 box office hit the week after the Kennedy assassination (apparently the movie-going public of that era recognized the value of Elvis as an antidote as well). The soundtrack highlights the racist American belief that all those brown people south of the border from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego can be conveniently lumped under the heading of “Mexicans” with tunes like “Bossa Nova Baby” (bossa nova = Brazil) and “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in a Sports Car” (rhumba = Cuba). The backstory of the film is far more interesting than the film itself, but I’ll send you over to IMDb for those juicy tidbits.
Our journey did have one positive outcome: it reminded me that I’ve only reviewed one Elvis Presley album and three Elvis singles. Given that he was the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and had an enormous influence on everyone from Bob Dylan to the Beatles, I decided that this was an unacceptable state of affairs—especially when you consider that I’ve reviewed two albums from the other Elvis (Costello). With this review, the score is now Presley 2 1/4, Costello 2, restoring The King to his rightful place in Elvisdom.
This second LP from Elvis is curiously hard to find in its original format. The UK release was titled Elvis Presley No. 2; the most available version bears the title Rock ‘n Roll No.2, usually co-packaged with his third album, the soundtrack from Loving You. As my modus operandi is to preserve the historical record, I will focus solely on the twelve tracks that appeared on the original release, Elvis.
Presley’s golden period was very brief in chronological terms. If you count The Sun Sessions (though none of that material caused much excitement at the time), we’re talking four years before he was inducted into the US Army; after his discharge, he returned to his new home in Dullsville. Though he still topped the charts and did well at the box office in the period following his stint in the military, his post-Army musical offerings lacked the spark and edge of early Elvis records. Under contract to make three films a year, the bulk of his album releases from 1962 to 1968 were in the form of film soundtracks loaded with substandard work from substandard movies. Live concerts completely vanished during that period, in large part because the highly unethical and profit-oriented Colonel Parker decided that tours were an unnecessary expense, given the ample profits earned from the films.
In 1956 he was still in the early stage of his career and Parker was busy building the brand after the stunning success of “Heartbreak Hotel” and the iconic debut album, booking television appearances and shows across the country—which left Elvis pretty much in control of his recordings. Elvis led the sessions for the follow-up album and selected most of the songs, concentrating on his sweet spot in the R&B-Country spectrum. Working with The Jordanaires and his trusty touring band of Bill Black, D. J. Fontana and the amazing Scotty Moore, Elvis must have felt right at home, ready to rock, roll and croon his heart out.
The song selection included five numbers written or popularized by African-American artists, and the debate as to whether or not Elvis was a “cultural appropriator” because he made a ton of money covering the contributions of black performers and songwriters still burns hot today. Nick Bhasin’s excellent piece on SBS gets to the heart of the controversy:
Indeed, even if he adored the black musicians that inspired and came before him, Elvis has come to represent the cultural crime committed against them. He became a target for people who were (rightly) tired of the “parade of white heroes” they were taught to idolise. He didn’t invent the racist system that held him above his black contemporaries, but he certainly benefitted from it.
“To me, Elvis represented somebody who — because our country was not ready then to embrace the black artist and make them No. 1 — became No. 1 because of his rendition of what some black people sounded like,” trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said. “What made it distasteful is that we had people who could do it better than him, but who couldn’t be accepted at that time because of the colour of their skin.”
For me, it doesn’t take away from Elvis’s legacy to acknowledge the greatness of these artists.
In fact, that’s probably what Elvis would have wanted . . .
“A lot of people seem to think I started this business,” he said. “But rock ‘n’ roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like coloured people. Let’s face it: I can’t sing like Fats Domino can. I know that.”
In another superb analysis, Brian Ward’s piece on The Conversation points out how Presley’s influence served to end at least one historic example of segregation:
Even more compelling is the sales evidence. In early 1956, Presley’s breakthrough RCA single “Heartbreak Hotel” simultaneously topped the traditionally white pop and country music singles charts and the traditionally black rhythm and blues chart. Indeed, Presley had 24 Top 10 rhythm and blues hits between 1956 and November 1963, including four number ones.
To put this into a broader historical context, this was probably the most integrated popular music market in US recording history: 175 Top Ten rhythm and blues singles were cut by more than 120 different white artists while black artists regularly enjoyed pop chart hits. By November 1963, Billboard could no longer differentiate between white and black consumption and suspended its separate black singles chart.
The bottom line is this: Elvis dug black music, loved to sing it and sang it well. He spent part of his youth living in a mostly black neighborhood in Tupelo; after the family moved to Memphis, he spent a lot of time taking in the blues scene on Beale Street. When he embarked on a career as a singer, his repertoire consisted of the songs he learned in his youth—R&B, country and gospel from both black and white artists. There is no evidence that his motives were contaminated by racism. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Sam “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars” Phillips or Colonel Parker, the illegal immigrant who rubbed Eddie Murphy’s head for good luck while playing the tables in Vegas. Elvis was just singing the kind of music he loved to sing and happened to arrive on the scene at a time when American teens were ready to . . .
“Rip It Up”: Elvis burns hot on the first of three Little Richard numbers, all of them singles Mr. Penniman had released earlier in 1956. Although on paper he was still relatively green as a performing artist, The King knew what not to do with stop-time opportunities—overplay his hand. The empty space of stop-time automatically shines the aural spotlight in the singer, so there’s no need to oversing your part. Elvis cools it in the first three lines, slowly building to ready-to-burst excitement in the line that leads to the chorus. He also relaxes his pronunciation (particularly in the chorus), inspiring a generation of singers who would follow The King’s lead and slur their way to rock stardom. Don’t give me that rain-in-Spain-falls-mainly-on-the-plain bullshit, man, this is rock-and-fuckin’-roll! And if you need any further proof that the boys in the band had little use for sheet music, pay attention to Scotty Moore’s absolutely nasty, dissonant, note-defying garage rock solo.
I’ll confess that listening to the song spawned an evil thought in my brain. If you don’t hear from me for a while, it won’t be because I died from the virus or was committed to a mental institution due to a severe case of Covid Claustrophobia. It will mean that the gendarmes took me out of the movie theatre in handcuffs (kinky!) because I ripped up the seats at the local cinema.
“Love Me”: Elvis made history with this tune that was originally written by the Leiber-Stoller team as a parody of country-western my-baby-dumped-my-sorry-ass-woe-is-me songs: it was the first non-single to reach the Billboard Top 10 (climbing to #2). The only reason it wasn’t released as a single is that RCA felt it would confuse listeners and compromise the sales numbers for “Love Me Tender.” Baby, I’ll take “Love Me” over that boring “Aura Lee” ripoff any day of the week! I melt every time Elvis sinks to the low-end of his register to start a verse and I get the chills every time he goes high on the line “Just to feel your heart beating close to mine.” The sincerity of his pleas for attention is immensely exciting for this dominant female—I just love to hear him begging and begging for more!
Ten versions of this song from a variety of performers were released prior to the Presley version; none made the hit parade. Elvis succeeded where others failed because he had a gift for making a song his own.
“When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold”: We’ve had fast, we’ve had slow and now it’s time for something in the middle. Elvis thought so highly of this Gene Sullivan/Wiley Walker tune first popularized by the great country songwriter Cindy Walker that he performed it during his last appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The Elvis take has a bit more bounce than Cindy’s version, though I do miss the muted trumpet of her arrangement. Featuring another melody that allows Elvis to open the verses in the low end, his excellent performance is supported by an exceptionally tight group vocal from The Jordanaires and some fine pickin’ from Scotty Moore.
“Long Tall Sally”: I had no idea Elvis covered this song until I bought this album . . . and now I understand why. Elvis really doesn’t get it up except in the “ducked back in the alley” verses and I don’t believe him when he sings “We’re gonna have some fun tonight” in the fade. By contrast, Little Richard gets it up and keeps it up all the way to the finish, delivering one of the most exciting performances in rock ‘n’ roll history. While McCartney’s take lacks the sexiness of the original, he does imbue his tribute to Little Richard with plenty of enthusiasm. The good news for Elvis fans is that The King clearly outshined The Kinks’ version, a debut single so abysmal I don’t know how they managed to survive (but I’m glad they did).
The highlight of the Elvis rendition is Scotty Moore’s lead solo that takes rockabilly to another level entirely. I just . . . can’t help falling in love with Scotty Moore.
“First In Line”: First, let me confess that I’m extremely uncomfortable with the “proper” use of an apostrophe-s in nouns ending in s. So, when I write Elvis’ instead of Elvis’s, just read it however you would say it and allow me my moment of rebellion.
We now return to the fifth track on Elvis’ second album, “First in Line.”
Whoa! Where’s Elvis’ voice coming from? Another room? Heaven? It’s certainly not natural reverb—the sound is too cold. It can’t be Sam Phillips’ slapback echo; he was out of the picture by then. It’s not Duane Eddy’s water tank. I’m guessing Elvis was in another room since it sounds like chamber reverb . . . but I could easily be wrong. Let’s just say the primitive reverb used in the ’50s and ’60s was anything but subtle. When used in excess (like it is here), reverb has a tendency to muddy the sound, robbing vocals of clean, crisp notes and clear articulation. Too bad—this would have been a nice slow dance number if the reverb hadn’t given Elvis’ voice an otherworldly quality that’s kind of creepy.
“Paralyzed”: The beat, tempo and some of the lyrics would have felt pretty familiar to even the most casual Elvis fan, as the song is really a twin of “Don’t Be Cruel,” which was also an Otis Blackwell composition (Elvis earned co-writing credit on this one). Even the preacher returns for a curtain call (“In front of a preacher you said I do”). Similarities notwithstanding, Elvis makes the song work by changing his tone from pleading suitor to a guy who’s absolutely dazzled by the babe on his arm. His “oohs” in response to her captivating beauty tell me he’s feeling a series of tingles in his dingle. The most obvious differentiating factor is the absence of The Jordanaires’ sharp “bop-bops” at the ends of the verse lines that added a nice touch of syncopation to “Don’t Be Cruel” and made it the more danceable song.
“So Glad You’re Mine”: It should be pretty obvious that “So Glad You’re Mine” sounds completely different than the other songs on the album as it was recorded eight months earlier during the sessions for his RCA debut album. You will find the song on deluxe editions of that more celebrated work, but I’m blown away that it didn’t make the first cut. This is my favorite high-register Elvis vocal ever! If you want to hear a great example of honky-tonk blues, look no further—Elvis was really feeling it when he recorded this one, nailing all the blue-note opportunities with marvelously libidinal overtones. Scotty Moore’s solo is sort of a warm-up for his rising-to-blues-heaven solo on “Too Much,” and it fits the song like a wet t-shirt. Kudos to Steve Sholes for placing this track in the pole position on side two, giving it greater prominence in the bad old days of disc-flipping.
“Old Shep”: Elvis goes way back in time for this one, drawing on memories of his first public performance at the ripe old age of ten when he sang Red Foley’s “Old Shep” in a singing competition at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.
Hey—you gotta start somewhere.
The challenge presented by this boy-and-his-faithful-dog story lies in its highly emotional content that might lead a ham-handed arranger to bury the song in harps and violins and an undisciplined singer to try to wring every last tear from the listener by overdramatizing the vocal. Elvis wisely chose a simple arrangement of piano, bass and a touch of guitar with The Jordanaires at very low volume. His vocal balances sincere emotional expression with due restraint, especially when we arrive at the point of the story when any human being equipped with a working heart would collapse into mush:
As the years fast did roll
Old Shep, he grew old
His eyes were fast growing dim
And one day the doctor looked at me and said
“I can do no more for him, Jim”
With hands that were trembling
I picked up my gun
And aimed it at Shep’s faithful head
At this point I scream, “No! Don’t do it, Elvis! You’ll never forgive yourself!” Thankfully, Elvis heard my heartfelt cries for a temporary stay of execution: “I just couldn’t do it, I wanted to run/I wished they would shoot me instead.” I love how Elvis gradually lowers the volume on those lines; I can see him slumped over, crying softly in the face of a terrible dilemma.
Oh, how I wish I knew about this song when I was still dating, for I would have played “Old Shep” for potential suitors to gauge their reaction, sorting their responses into three categories to simplify my decision-making process:
- The dude chickened out—he should have pulled the trigger. Throw the psychopath out. Consider a restraining order.
- So what—it’s just a dog! Throw the sociopath out. Anyone who can’t appreciate the special bond and companionship offered by our canine friends is a LOSER.
- Poor Old Shep! Poor Elvis!—Meet me in my bedroom in fifteen minutes.
“Ready Teddy”: With supercharged backup from D. J. Fontana and Scotty Moore, Elvis recovers from his “Long Tall Sally” slump and hits a grand slam with “Ready Teddy,” outperforming Little Richard’s original by a rock ‘n’ roll mile. Truth be told, Mr. Penniman left the field wide open by leaving his piano in storage, singing along to a horn section that can’t match his energy and winds up slowing things down. There are no such obstacles in the Elvis take, allowing Elvis to ride the propulsive rhythm, belting out the stop-time lines like there’s no tomorrow. The centerpiece of the song comes in the form of an extended Scotty Moore guitar solo split into two parts by a Fontana drum roll even more fierce than his rolls on “Hound Dog.” Elvis and the boys really burn the joint down to the cinders on this one.
This Blackwell-Marascalco collaboration contains a line about teenage sock hop fashion that I find utterly fascinating: “Flat top cats and the dungaree dolls.” I’d never date a guy with a flattop haircut and wouldn’t be caught dead in dungarees unless they were cut to be topless with an open crotch and came in black leather. I really can’t get my head around chicks looking like farmhands dancing to rock ‘n’ roll.
“Anyplace Is Paradise”: This smoky little number comes from Joe Thomas, an ex-jazz-saxophonist who rose in stature to become the top R&B guy at Decca and RCA. As a cool-down number following “Ready Teddy,” it works, but it’s not the most memorable song in the Elvis catalog.
“How’s the World Treating You”: I dunno, but it seems to me that Elvis’ selection of this piece written by Chet Atkins and Boudleaux Bryant of Everly Brothers fame wasn’t one of the better choices he made in his lifetime. As in “Love Me” he plays the submissive role, but in that song he’s a submissive filled with passion and not the whiny, self-pitying wimp he portrays here. Word on the street is that Elvis was the uncredited piano player on this song (as well as “Old Shep”), and all I can say is that he’s lucky he made it in show biz because he couldn’t have landed a job as a piano player in even the most pathetic dive in the world.
“How Do You Think I Feel”: With its sanitized Latin beat, this song brought back the trauma I suffered by watching Fun in Acapulco, so I don’t think I’m in the right state of mind to give it a fair evaluation. Sorry!
Well—this was fun! I now return to the grim reality of French incompetence in pandemic management without a damn thing on TV.
Oh, well . . . The Golden Girls never gets old.
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.