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.
According to the Power Thesaurus, there are 1284 synonyms for the word “intensity,” and you could use almost any of them to describe Frank Sinatra.
One of Frank Sinatra’s most admirable qualities was his refusal to do anything half-assed. People who knew him often used the words “perfectionist” and “obsessive” to describe him, but those adjectives present a one-sided picture implying an ultimately positive result. It’s equally true that when Frank Sinatra fucked up, he totally fucked up. Reading his life story leads one to conclude that he was sent here on a mission to experience as much of life as he could at the highest possible level of intensity, good times and bad times alike.
Sinatra biographies tend to be far too gossipy for my tastes, and my first reaction when finishing one is to congratulate myself on never having had the slightest urge to become famous. The less personal reaction is sheer exhaustion. Sinatra was the human soul painted in colors so vivid and textures so rich that it’s almost impossible to believe that all the stories that make up his life narrative happened to one person, but they did. He experienced the pinnacle of success and the bottom of the barrel. He won an Oscar, eleven Grammies, three stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a Presidential Medal of Freedom; he also attempted suicide more than once.
The years 1949-1953 represented a period politely referred to as a “career slump,” when a combination of questionable choices and terrible publicity resulted in a severe decline in his popularity and the ultimate loss of his recording contract. At one point he was so broke he had to borrow $200K from his record company to pay back taxes. During this period he also experienced the death of his close friend and publicist, divorce from his first wife Nancy and almost immediate remarriage to Ava Gardner. Those are a lot of high-stress life events to pack into such a short period, so it’s no wonder that his career temporarily wound up in the crapper. But true to the words he would sing thirteen years later, “Each time I find myself flat on my face/I pick myself up and get back in the race.” Capitol Records took a flyer on Sinatra and signed him to a seven-year deal in early 1953; a few months later, From Here to Eternity would fill movie palaces all across the nation and Sinatra would be rewarded for his efforts with the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor the following year. 1954 also saw the release of his first two albums for Capitol (Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy!), both of which were warmly received. In his first two years with Capitol, Sinatra released no less than eight Top 20 singles, indicating that all was forgiven as far as the listening audience was concerned.
The move to Capitol was critically important for two reasons. Capitol allowed Sinatra an unusual amount of artistic freedom in contrast to the more restrictive environment at Columbia, and he would now emerge as a man with a clear and expansive vision of the music he wanted to produce. Equally important was the pairing of Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, as magical a connection as The Beatles and George Martin. The two had worked together on his first two Capitol albums, which allowed Riddle to accustom himself to Sinatra’s unrelenting intensity and gave Sinatra a partner who could transform his intuitive and insightful visions into the series of truly remarkable musical arrangements you hear on In the Wee Small Hours.
In the Wee Small Hours is recognized as a concept album, one of the first attempts by an artist to use the long-playing format to explore a single, unified theme. The theme here is “lost love,” the mood is intensely introspective, and the guy only gets the girl in his wildest fantasies. It has been referred to by insiders as “the Ava album” because Sinatra was still grieving over the failure of his tumultuous marriage to Ava Gardner. I don’t doubt the veracity of that assertion, but in terms of evaluating the artistic merit of In the Wee Small Hours, the backstory is a completely irrelevant distraction. The responsibility of the artist is to transform personal experience into universal experience, to move beyond self-absorbtion and express through art those aspects of individual experience that are shared by the other members of the human race. Loss of one’s partner is a sadly common human experience, but too many attempts to capture the essence of that experience cross the line into sentimental, boo-hoo, poor-me self-pity. What is remarkable about In the Wee Small Hours is how Sinatra and Riddle combine to create the purest expression of loss without intervening noise, making it possible for the listener to experience catharsis in relation to their own personal encounters with lost love. This is accomplished through Riddle’s sensitive and responsive arrangements and Frank Sinatra’s remarkable command of voice and lyrics, a hard-won skill that allowed him to transform songs into vivid, memorable human stories.
“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” opens the album, and the first instrument you hear is a celeste, a signal that we are about to enter a world of quiet reflection marked by feelings both tender and sad. Once the lush strings complete the opening passage and Sinatra steps up to the mike, you notice how the arrangement places Sinatra’s voice firmly in the front and center of the monaural soundscape. Sinatra insisted on supporting arrangements that gave him plenty of room to maneuver, and, as Riddle himself would admit, Sinatra consistently came up with the best approach for a given song. Here the string arrangement reflects a sense of tenuous stillness occasionally interrupted by bursts of emotion, indicating a restless sleep. The arrangement thoroughly complements Sinatra’s interpretation as he rides the shifting moods of reflection and emotion with perfect execution. He delivers the first verse in a rich but restrained voice, adding touch of tiredness to his delivery to reinforce the mood of a troubled late night. When he reaches the second verse, Sinatra expresses the emotions welling up inside through perfect phrasing and build; when he reaches the crucial phrase “if only,” he extends the notes and increases his volume so effectively that you can picture his formerly supine body twisting and turning in the darkness. He delivers the last line of the verse in a tone combining mournful regret and utter helplessness, so much so that you genuinely feel for the man:
When your lonely heart has learned its lesson
You’d be hers if only she would call
In the wee small hours of the morning
That’s the time you miss her most of all
The verse is repeated as the song comes to close, and Sinatra delivers that last line with a subtly quivering vibrato that feels like he would cry himself to sleep if he weren’t so tired. The song ends with a gentle repetition of the melody on the celeste, as if someone has tiptoed into the room and covered his tired body with a blanket. A three-minute masterpiece of song arrangement, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” is also a masterclass in the vocal arts (as are many of the songs on this album).
Sinatra’s approach to Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is best appreciated by comparing it to the Ellington version that appears on Masterpieces by Ellington. Ellington didn’t choose Yvonne Luanauze (real name Eve Duke) as the band’s vocalist because she was a great singer, but because her mellow timbre was similar to the sound of a saxophone. Ellington’s focus was on the gestalt of an arrangement, how various sounds and timbres blend together into a coherent whole. The vocals on “Sophisticated Lady” and “Mood Indigo” sync perfectly with the band, but Luanauze’s rendering of the lyrics does little to excite the emotions. Having experienced several bouts of what we would call “clinical depression” during his down years, Frank Sinatra had first-hand experience with deep indigo moods and their terrifying power. What I key into are his two completely different approaches to the “no, no, no” lines, which in the context of the song are response lines to an invisible colleague who claims to have a bad case of the blues. In the first set Sinatra remains faithful to the notes on the page, but varies his tone on the second and third note to say, “Man, you really don’t know how bad it can get” in a faintly shaken tone as he momentarily relives the awful experience of the deep blues. In the second go-round, with the smaller supporting cast of musicians doing their best to mimic a big band sound, Sinatra extends the negative to a dozen repetitions, clearly telling his listener that he doesn’t have the slightest fucking idea what he’s talking about. Neither rendition crosses the line into “my pain is greater than your pain,” instead coming across as friendly advice from a guy who has real-life experience in the depths of darkness. While I love the ambience Ellington creates in his version, Sinatra’s interpretation feels more true-to-life.
“Glad to Be Unhappy” is a Rodgers and Hart number that didn’t exactly set the world on fire back in 1936 and was largely forgotten until Sinatra rescued it from oblivion. The introduction of celeste and bass is but a brief nod to thematic considerations, as Sinatra changes the mood in the introductory verses by delivering a semi-stern lecture to the face in the mirror, urging himself to accept fact over fantasy when it comes to love. When he shifts from near-monotone to a mini-crescendo to dramatize the cinematic fantasy implied by the lyrics, “Look at yourself, do you still believe the rumor/That romance is simply grand?” my heart just melts, especially with the elegant, elongated delivery of that oh-so sophisticated word, “grand.” Once the introduction is complete, the song shifts to a downtempo jazz combo number with a somewhat elaborate melody, modified slightly by Sinatra to sync with his read of the lyrics. Sinatra was never one to simply accept a score or lyrics as-is; his quest for perfection would not allow him to indulge in an off-the-shelf interpretation. Since he couldn’t read music in the conventional sense (but could follow the patterns on lead sheets), the lyrics served as his interpretational foundation. “I’ve always believed that the written word is first, always first,” he said. “Not belittling the music behind me, it’s really only a curtain. You must look at the lyric and understand it. Find out where you want to accent something, where you want to use a soft tone. The word actually dictates to you in a song, it really tells you what it needs.” That quote from James Kaplan’s The Chairman speaks volumes, for it highlights his unique ability to approach a song in a more organic fashion, where his choices to vary tone, syncopate, clip or elongate are firmly rooted in the human tale expressed in the lyrics.
“I Get Along Without You Very Well” is a Hoagy Carmichael number that has morphed into something of a jazz standard despite (or because of) its melodic origins in Chopin’s Fantaisie-impromptu in C sharp minor, Op 66. Since most classical music was written long before the first international copyright agreement in 1886, the great composers have provided many a songwriter with royalty-free opportunities to snatch a promising melody. A good way to prepare yourself for Sinatra’s interpretation is to first listen to Chet Baker’s take on Chet Baker Sings, which, oddly enough, is a more straightforward rendering of the piece. Sinatra’s version features gorgeous, interlocking interplay between strings and voice, as if the strings are responding to the tenor of Sinatra’s voice. That voice covers a lot of territory on the scale, and Sinatra’s voice is particularly beautiful on the elongated high notes.
My favorite song on In the Wee Small Hours is the least politically correct number on the album, as it celebrates the virtues of smoking cigarettes to facilitate self-reflection. This was, of course, normal behavior in the 1950’s, as seen in many movies and television programs of the era. Characters would take a break from the action to have a smoke and reflect on the plot line, or light up at the kitchen table when they needed to work out a particularly a thorny problem. Smoking was also something of an art form, as demonstrated by Rita Hayworth’s memorable door-opening scene in Gilda. Unlike today, where smoking almost automatically identifies a character as an evil villain, both good guys and bad guys smoked, and while sinister meanings were occasionally attached to a female character who puffed on a Lucky, female smoking had the titillation factor going for it, which served to neutralize any ill will a viewer may have felt. Since I always disclose the biases of which I am aware, I will happily admit that I smoke cigarettes and couldn’t give a fuck what people think.
Shame me all you want, your health nazi invective will bounce harmlessly off my secure and comfortable psyche.
Written by long-time Sinatra pal Jimmy Van Heusen in conjunction with lyricist Eddie DeLange, “Deep in a Dream” conjures up the figure of a man who has dimmed the lights and lit a cigarette as he considers his lost love:
I dim all the lights and I sink in my chair
The smoke from my cigarette climbs through the air
The walls of my room fade away in the blue
And I’m deep in a dream of you
Riddle balances the strings with horns and an occasional fluttering flute to illustrate the multiple moods on this piece, an innovative score that responds immediately to Sinatra’s emotions. Sinatra begins the verses in the lower part of the register, moving smoothly through the melodic peaks of the third line before descending to the lows to close the verse and enter the dream world. Like clouds in the sky, smoke moves in mysterious ways, with strands turning into shapes that resemble objects in the real world. The modern instinct in responding to the second verse would be to say, “Wow! This would make one seriously cool music video,” but really folks, your imagination will work just fine:
The smoke makes a stairway for you to descend
You come to my arms, may this bliss never end
For we’ll love anew just as we used to do
When I’m deep in a dream of you
I imagine the woman in a sparkling, shape-fitting gown, perfectly coiffed with long curled tresses falling on her bare shoulders . . . but since my image of “love anew” is too kinky for the reading audience, I’ll let you fill in the rest of the blanks. Sinatra’s voice intensifies with excitement in this verse, sweetening the word “bliss” with a combination of joy and relief. In the bridge, he imagines music coming from the ceiling and the couple does what all couples did in the good old days when they heard music—they dance! Alas, this beautiful scene cannot last forever, and the whole thing . . . goes up in . . . smoke (sorry):
My cigarette burns me, I wake with a start
My hand isn’t hurt, but there’s pain in my heart
Awake or asleep, ev’ry mem’ry I’ll keep
Deep in a dream of you
Riddle inserts a brief horn response to the phrase “wake with a start,” reflecting that “What? What the hell? Where the fuck am I?” moment when our slumber is cruelly interrupted. On the final “of you,” Sinatra plummets to the lowest note he can handle, his voice quivering slightly in response to the stretch, but miraculously coming back full force when he is free to rise to the more comfortable note above, which he holds for a healthy stretch in the fade. Sinatra’s breath control was legendary, a skill developed through hard work and supported by frequent morning swims in the ocean, and not harmed in the least by his consistent consumption of Camels . . . so there! “Deep in a Dream” is an imaginative demonstration of the virtues of poetic economy, beautifully delivered by a master storyteller and supported by an equally masterful arranger.
The fantasizing continues with “I See Your Face Before Me,” which begins with a lovely swirl of flute, woodwinds and strings creating a dream-like environment. This piece tends to favor Riddle’s Fantasia-reminiscent arrangement over Sinatra’s vocal, which makes sense when you consider it was the first song Nelson Riddle arranged, way back in 1938. Still, Sinatra is marvelous, smoothly and sensitively guiding the song with a tone of wondrous attachment to the lovely vision that refuses to vacate his consciousness.
The firmly-strummed Spanish guitar that opens “Can’t We Be Friends” gives Sinatra a cue to ramp up the assertiveness level, and he delivers the opening line, “I took each word she said as gospel truth” as if he’s sharing his frustration with a buddy over a Jack Daniels (3 rocks, two fingers) at Toots Shor’s. He then descends to the bottom of his range to confess his own stupidity: “The way a silly little child would.” The intro leads into a soft jazz arrangement featuring George Van Eps on guitar and Paul Smith on celeste; meanwhile, Sinatra plays the part of chump to perfection, keeping his voice a touch on the ragged side to express a sense of emotional exhaustion. The verses repeat the lyrical story in different words (I believed her, what a dope), but my favorite is the last verse with its more colloquial language:
I thought I’d found the gal I could trust
What a bust, this is how the story ends
She’s gonna turn me down and say
“Can’t we be just friends ?”
“Just friends” and the antidote “cold shower” go back a long way; the song originally appeared in a 1929 musical. However, the “Can’t we be friends” routine is not exclusively limited to male victims, as Ella Fitzgerald confirmed in her covers of the song (one solo, one with Satchmo). The difference is in the response: a cold shower may cool off a ready-to-explode penis, but it only makes our nipples harder.
That’s why they invented vibrators!
Whether it was due to self-induced tension or a triggering memory of Ava Gardner, Sinatra broke down crying after the master take of “When Your Lover Has Gone.” The song itself has an unusual structure with an intro and two short verses that contain a relatively weak refrain, but Sinatra cared more about lyrics than structure, and it’s easy to imagine him falling apart after delivering that last brief verse:
What lonely hours, the evening shadows bring
What lonely hours, with memories lingering
Like faded flowers, life can’t mean anything
When your lover has gone.
Riddle pauses the background music for a split-second before the verse to give Sinatra some space, and when you hear his voice emerge from the silence, you notice it is filled with emotion he can barely contain. He lingers over each word, as if considering the meaning of each one . . . “lonely” . . . “hours” . . . “memories” . . . until he launches into the crescendo of the third line, his voice rising in volume and pitch, in a tone that sounds as if he is resisting every move forward to avoid having to accept the truth in the cold closing line: “When your lover is gone.” This is clearly one of Sinatra’s most powerful performances, and his ability to maintain musical discipline while recalling deeply painful memories is the mark of the ultimate professional. In the hands of most singers, this song would easily turn into a melodrama; with Sinatra, it is a noble, cathartic tragedy.
Side Two opens with what I personally consider to be one of Cole Porter’s weaker numbers, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” I’m definitely in the minority here, as the song has been recorded again and again by everybody who is anybody, but the absence of wit and wordplay that characterized Porter’s more mature works creates too much of an obstacle for me to overcome. Sinatra almost deconstructs the song by slowing the tempo considerably; most of the versions I’ve heard (Ella, Red Garland, Clifford Brown and Max Roach) are fast and snappy. Riddle intensifies the question mark in the song’s title though a clarinet that sounds perfectly film noir, and Sinatra’s tone is one of genuine wonderment. I’m also not particularly fond of “Last Night When We Were Young,” one of Judy Garland’s favorites, but I’ll give Sinatra and Riddle credit for making the song far more interesting with a marvelous build leading to Sinatra’s climactic held note.
The celeste returns for “I’ll Be Around,” where Sinatra places himself in the role of noble hanger-on, and despite his reputation as a tough guy, he approaches the part with perfect humility. Even when the song gives him several chances to overdramatize a held note, he restrains himself, making the lines “Perhaps you’ll see/You were meant for ME” all the more poignant. Though I can’t get my head around the concept of waiting around for someone who obviously doesn’t want you simply because YOU have decided she’s the one for you, I’ll exercise the same restraint Sinatra did and tell you that his version of “I’ll Be Around” is both charming and well-acted.
In my research for this review, I stumbled across an article on Vail Jazz titled, “Was Sinatra a jazz singer?” The author answered the question strongly in the affirmative, but I was surprised to learn that the issue was in doubt. Of course he was! And one of the best! Having already solidified his jazz cred here with “Mood Indigo,” he gets another chance to demonstrate his chops in “Ill Wind,” a Harold Arlen jazz classic first performed at the Cotton Club in 1934. Riddle sets the stage by using woodwinds to create a sense of dark mystery, cueing Sinatra to intensify the mood through blue notes and off-beat phrasing. His mood oscillates between vulnerability and mustered strength, coloring the song in hues of deepest blue. Harry Edison from the Count Basie Orchestra delivers a trumpet solo that could have served as the theme music for the album cover, capturing that late night loneliness after all your best lines and generosity with the booze have failed to pierce the hearts of the opposite sex and now you’re too broke to call a taxi.
We’re now presented with back-to-back Rodgers and Hart numbers, the first featuring Sinatra in the role of oblivious mate. “It Never Entered My Mind” features an elegant, restrained arrangement featuring French horns, flute and strings. Sinatra sounds like a man who is stunned to find himself alone, but the most interesting aspect of the song is his interpretation of the bridge:
You had what I lack myself,
Now I even have to scratch my back myself.
Most versions deliver the lines straight, imbuing the words with a semi-humorous veneer. Sinatra takes that second line and turns it into something richer: the moment where the guy finally and fully understands that he is now utterly alone:
Now I even have to scratch my back . . . . . . . myself.
That long pause speaks volumes, as does the tortuous delivery that precedes it. With one brilliant phrasing decision, Sinatra transforms the song into an indictment of routine in relationships and a moment of hard revelation . . . a striking example of his ability to discern the subtext behind the lyrics.
Instead of a woman gliding gracefully down a smoky stairway, we now encounter a woman dancing on the ceiling in defiance of the laws of gravity. Despite the scientific absurdity, “Dancing on the Ceiling” is a delightful little number with a suitably whimsical arrangement integrating celeste, piano and guitar. Sinatra is in fine form, singing on and off the beat, shaping the placement of the lyrics to the feel of the song and displaying again his thoroughly remarkable breath control. On the last line of the bridge, he holds the note on “there” all the way through the first line of the last verse without a discernible drop in power or expressiveness in his delivery. I’d use the word “breathtaking” to describe that passage, but that would be both obvious and the worst pun I’ve ever written, so I’ll slip into advocacy mode and urge every singer in any genre to study Frank Sinatra’s vocal techniques.
The one song where I think Riddle’s arrangement is off is “I’ll Never Be the Same,” a song that began life as an instrumental with the cutesy-wutesy title “Little Buttercup” but morphed into something heavier once Gus Kahn added the lyrics. The problem I have with the arrangement is the use of the flute, and coming from someone who’s been blowing flutes (and other long hard instruments) since she was eight (make that fourteen for other long hard instruments), that’s what I call a pretty damning indictment! Specifically, the flute flurries here call up images of pleasant spring days when butterflies and birds glide over the warming breeze. Unfortunately, the lyrics describe a dark existential crisis where the narrator observes “And when the songbirds that sing/Tell me it’s spring/I can’t believe their song.” 86 the goddamn flutes and give me a goddamn cello! Sinatra tries his best to make it work, but even great singers lack the power to overcome an out-of-sync arrangement that contradicts the main story line.
The closing track finds Sinatra revisiting a tune he recorded with Tommy Dorsey and the Pied Pipers back in 1941, “This Love of Mine.” This is the only song on In the Wee Small Hours where Sinatra receives songwriting credit, having written the lyrics. The song was definitely in need of a refresh, as the original reveals a rather stiff Sinatra who still had a long way to go to master syncopation and conversational phrasing: he hits all the notes, on time, in sync, and oh my, the result is really, really boring. Fortunately for history, Frank Sinatra was a lifelong learner dedicated to continuous self-improvement:
“Syncopation in music is important, of course, particularly if it’s a rhythm song,” Sinatra said. “It can’t be ‘one-two-three-four/one-two-three-four’ because it becomes story. So, syncopation enters the scene, and it’s ‘one-two,’ then maybe a little delay, and then ‘three,’ and then another longer delay, and then ‘four.’ It all has to do with delivery.”
—excerpt from The Chairman by James Kaplan
In the updated version, Sinatra’s phrasing is more relaxed, reflective and natural, giving the lyrics far more weight than was apparent in his rather formal recital in the original. The most noticeable difference can be found in the delivery of the line, “Since nothing matters, let it break” (referring to his heart). In the original, the pause indicated by the comma is just that: a short break in the flow before Sinatra sings the notes on time, like a good boy should. In the revised version, the comma turns into incredibly long ellipsis, amplifying the meaning of “let it break” to something stronger—more like “Let the world go to hell, I’m done.” There are numerous subtle differences between the two versions that demonstrate Sinatra’s progress from apprentice to master, and re-recording this number must have been an ironically triumphant moment for him—ironic because it took fourteen years and too many failed relationships for Sinatra to grasp the real meaning of the words he himself had written.
Riddle’s arrangement here is as perfect as perfect gets, a supportive background dominated by rich, tempered strings with a touch of celeste. In a masterstroke, Riddle ends the song that ends the album with the instrument that introduced the album: the celeste. What we hear is a rising figure that seems to fade naturally, like the sound of wind chimes, reinforcing the musical and emotional themes while adding a gentle reminder of the transitory nature of human feelings and human life.
In the Wee Small Hours ushered in a period where Sinatra could do no wrong, collaborating with Riddle to produce a string of universally acknowledged masterpieces of the vocal arts. After a brief pause in the action during his transition from musician-under-contract to record company mogul, Sinatra would hit another peak period in the mid-60’s with different collaborators (including daughter Nancy). He continued recording and performing well into the 1990’s, constantly refusing to roll up into a big ball and die.
In my promo tweet for this review, I described Sinatra as “the most American singer of them all.” I said that because his life story embodies the full range of the American experience, and the contradictions in his personality are uniquely American. He was the Horatio Alger hero, the guy from Hoboken with no connections who worked his way to the top—and sometimes his legendary ambition led him to step on others to get what he wanted. His equally legendary temper led him to respond violently to provocations—but he was also one of the first to celebrate diversity in song and to use his privilege and influence to demand that Vegas hotels and restaurants serve black customers. At the beginning of the 1950’s he existed in the living hell of depression and with the embarrassment of commercial failure—but by the end of the decade, he was the top recording artist in the world and a major box office star. Frank Sinatra was the ultimate rugged individualist who could never quite get rid of the chip on his shoulder, but he balanced that with a strong streak of generosity and a willingness to help others who were getting screwed by the system. He loved hard, hated hard, partied hard and worked hard. He was the personification of intense.
Individualism, competitiveness, generosity, the drive for success, the violent tendencies, the rise, the fall, the comeback—Sinatra was a man who integrated American myths and many of the characteristics of the American hero into his personality. But what makes In the Wee Small Hours so very special in addition to its beautiful arrangements and stunning vocals is that Frank Sinatra had the courage to shatter one of those myths: the myth that boys don’t cry, the myth that men dare not display vulnerability or weakness. The truly great Americans were people who broke boundaries, and through a combination of emotional honesty, artistic excellence and a vision of the possibilities inherent in the long-play format, Frank Sinatra broke cultural and artistic boundaries with In the Wee Small Hours.
Americans! If you’re going to celebrate anything on the Fourth of July, celebrate Frank Sinatra, a truly great American.
Sadly, this is my last review of American artists for the foreseeable future. You can read why I made that choice here.