Who says there’s any such thing as settled science? And it’s where science and art meet that we find ourselves, in a collision of controversies where we may ultimately prove that no fact is ever too old to be upended.
In other words, I came across, in a local thrift store, a monophonic LP edition of Frank Sinatra’s Come Swing with Me—as opposed to the stereophonic version I was familiar with—and reality will never be the same. The album is one from Sinatra’s golden era at Capitol Records; it’s arranged and conducted by Billy May, and was released in 1961. Sinatra never put out mere random collections of songs, least of all at Capitol Records, where he effectively invented the notion of concept records, beginning with Songs for Young Lovers in 1954. Come Swing with Me, then, has a marked approach. It is self-evidently a swinging record, with a positive and energetic mood, featuring a lot of songs that Frank had recorded in his younger days with Columbia Records, now given the full treatment with his more mature, aged-in-a-whiskey-cask voice. Billy May also supplies instrumentation and arrangements that are quite novel and distinctive. There are no strings on the album; there is only brass and rhythm, and a LOT of brass: eight trumpets, four French horns, tuba, six trombones, and two bass trombones.
According to Will Friedwald in his authoritative Sinatra! The Song is You, Frank had heard and liked Billy May’s Big Fat Brass instrumental album, and it was his idea to take a similar approach with Come Swing with Me. (Friedwald also notes that May, being overstretched by other projects, actually called on fellow musician/arranger Heinie Beau to write seven of the twelve charts, albeit in the Billy May style. He assuredly succeeded because there’s no telling the difference.)
Another novel aspect was the rather dramatic use of stereo separation. So, there is something of a call and answer effect, with some horn sections or subsections coming entirely from the left speaker and some entirely from the right. The intention was … well, I assume it was to create for the listener a sense of being front and center of a stage where the musicians were performing, some to the left and some to the right. It adds dynamism, as they say. But here’s the thing: for yours truly, it has always been kind of annoying. Although I can recognize that Come Swing with Me is a unique album, with great material, peerless singing and witty, vivacious arrangements, I just have not listened to it nearly as often as the comparable Come Dance with Me or Come with Fly with Me albums. The bleating of some horns from the left and the blaring of others from the right has always struck me as a distraction, and the album just sounded kind of harsh to my ears (which is not a word that comes easily to me when characterizing any Frank Sinatra recording). And to be clear, what I’m describing is the experience of listening to the regular old CD edition of the album, on a fairly regular stereo system; so, not any hi-falutin’ hi-fi room, and not any esoteric remastering of the album—your mileage may vary in those respects.
Back to the thrift store: Vinyl records are usually 50 cents at this place, but they had a half-price sale, so it was a quarter per platter. Someone had recently donated a raft of Sinatra LPs, in relatively rough condition, but at 25 cents each, it was hard to turn down any of them. I mean, you never know. And the truth of that maxim has never been more soundly vindicated.
I believe it wasn’t until I was back home that I noticed the Come Swing with Me LP was a mono edition. You can tell with these old album covers when they write “High Fidelity” and other praise upon it but don’t explicitly say “stereo.” Stereo was something to advertise back then. So, obviously in 1961 they were still pressing records in mono—even when originally recorded in stereo—for the many folks who still had monophonic turntables. (Indeed, in my benighted childhood I was limited to a mono record player even in the 1980s … but please don’t get me started on that.)
So, let’s get to it: I cleaned the dust as best I could from this 60 year-old vinyl record, and put it on. It looked rather worn, but it played well enough, with little noise and no skips. I always find that miraculous, when it occurs with these old records that have clearly not been kept in archival conditions. But more miraculous to my ears was the absence of all that tooting and bleating from one speaker to another. The album just sounded right. Where before there was harshness to my ears, now all was soft and relatively salve-like. Strong and muscular, to be sure, but smooth. In fact, I marveled that had I not known that the album was all brass and no strings, I probably wouldn’t have cottoned on to that fact. It was all arranged and played so well; there was nothing to jar the listener from just enjoying it.
I was taken to such an extent with how wonderful it sounded, compared to the stereo-separated version, that I thought this must have been the original that Frank approved, and later they jiggered it with the new-fangled effects. But history reports this is not so. Sinatra was apparently as excited by the chance to use the stereo in this dramatic way as anyone. It surprises me in particular because I thought Frank was not fond of overbearing or showboating musical distractions from his voice; yet, to me, that’s exactly the ill effect that is achieved by the excessive stereo separation.
Well, what can you say? Can we dig up Sinatra and Billy May and bawl them out? They were human, after all. Actually, I don’t think they’re making humans anymore the way those guys were made, and it’s our loss.
So it seems I’m commending to you, dear reader, something which you may well find impossible to acquire. (You’re welcome.) I don’t know that Come Swing with Me was ever officially issued in CD or any digital format in mono. (With Sinatra it’s a bit hard to keep track of all global releases.) You might find a “vinyl rip” of the mono LP in the dark webs, but of-course we at THE CINCH REVIEW do not advocate lawlessness. Just be assured that if you do come across this mono LP (Capitol W 1594) in your local thrift store, secondhand shop or elsewhere, it’s likely to be well worth the 25 cents to you, and perhaps considerably more.
Frank’s not putting out much new stuff these days. Come Swing with Me, in mono, is unquestionably the best new album I’ve heard all year.
For the record, the track list is:
(Side One) Day by Day
Almost Like Being In Love
Five Minutes More
American Beauty Rose
(Side Two) On The Sunny Side of The Street
Don’t Take Your Love From Me
That Old Black Magic
I’ve Heard That Song Before
They’re all total winners. Despite the fact that Sinatra at this time was running out his contract with Capitol and extremely eager to move on to his own new label (Reprise), his singing here is pure dynamite. For the ages.