Directed by Frank Sinatra himself, and sponsored by the good people of Bulova and Chesterfield, it’s surely one of the classiest Christmas specials ever to go out over the airwaves: twenty-five minutes of unassuming Yuletide excellence. And it’s currently available via YouTube (and embedded below). Continue reading Frank Sinatra’s 1957 Christmas Special (with Bing Crosby)→
There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.
In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.
To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra→
It would always be a great time to rediscover this wonderful treasure, but it’s especially apt now, in this, Frank Sinatra’s centenary year. On April 17th, 1973, Frank Sinatra performed at the White House, on the occasion of a state dinner in honor of Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti of Italy, with President Nixon, First Lady Pat and assorted dignitaries as his audience. It was a sterling show, and it was recorded, but never officially released. For my part I didn’t even know that a complete film of the evening even existed, although the audio has been released over the years in bootlegged form. (My first encounter with the concert was hearing the great Jonathan Schwartz play some extracts of it on New York’s old WQEW in the early 1990s, when I also happened to be in the first full flush of Sinatra fan-dom.)
“Send in the Clowns”: It’s an odd song, isn’t it? A bit queer, you could even say. It’s not so easy to get a handle on what it’s about. But undeniably it’s also rather rich, in terms of its musical dynamics and lyrical drama, and I do think that’s why so many singers have been drawn to taking it up and seeing what they can make of it. It’s been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Grace Jones to Roger Whittaker to Van Morrison to … well, maybe that’s quite enough range right there for any song to claim. Continue reading Frank Sinatra – “Send in the Clowns”→
Back when the album Shadows in the Night by Bob Dylan was first announced, in May of 2014, Rolling Stone magazine and others were all labeling it as “Dylan does Sinatra.” Although Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan have long been the sun and moon in my own musical consciousness (and I’ve always been fascinated by any even-tentative connections between them) I greatly hesitated about jumping on that notion, knowing that a lot of people who don’t know better tend to regard any old popular standards as “Frank Sinatra songs.” We didn’t have a track list. It wasn’t clear what the album was really going to be based upon.
Then we got the track list, and it was immediately obvious to any serious Sinatra aficionado that this album was in fact centered around songs closely associated with Frank; it included songs written for him, songs debuted by him, one cowritten by him, no less than four from a single Sinatra album (1957’s Where Are You?), and most were songs where Sinatra’s rendition is indisputably the one that matters most in musical history. (“That Lucky Old Sun” is an exception, and “Some Enchanted Evening” is assuredly a song that almost everyone has done.) Continue reading Shadows In The Night: A Sinatra Tribute or NOT a Sinatra Tribute?→
“Some Enchanted Evening,” by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, is not a song owned by Frank Sinatra, in the sense of him having recorded a version so definitive that others wilt before it. It’s been recorded by way too many singers and sung on far too many stages in productions of South Pacific for that to possibly be true. However, Sinatra recorded it on three separate occasions during his career, qualifying it at least as a special number for him. He recorded it first in 1949 for Columbia Records, when the song was brand new, and was being recorded by a whole clutch of competing singers, as was the way of the music world back then. Sinatra’s version hit number six on the U.S. hit parade, but Perry Como’s got to number one. Sinatra revisited the song in 1963, as part of his “Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre” series, where he and musical cohorts like Dean, Bing, Sammy and Rosemary Clooney got together to record sets from several great musicals, including South Pacific. And then he took it on again for his 1967 album (also on his Reprise label) The World We Knew.
In the context of the musical, the song is a recurring romantic refrain which underlies and lifts the love story between a middle-aged man and a younger woman. Divorced from that, as a popular song, it sounds like gentle advice from someone who has lived and loved and lost and maybe loved again, urging those who are younger to seize that enchanted moment when it arrives and hold on to the love they have found. So, one might assume that the older Sinatra would have pulled it off better. But I don’t think so. I think that Sinatra’s first recording in 1949 on Columbia, arranged by Axel Stordahl, is the best of the three. It’s true that Sinatra was relatively young (34), but because his voice then had a kind of celestial quality, he could pull off a song like this one quite well, as if issuing the profound guidance contained in the words from atop some heavenly cloud. (To me, that’s the same reason his Columbia version of “Hello Young Lovers” works so well, although it seems like the song of a much older man.)
The 1963 rendition (actually two takes: one with Rosemary Clooney and one without) is very enjoyable, with a light, cheerful arrangement, but it hardly distinguishes itself from so many other versions. Sinatra’s 1967 take on the song is adventurous in that it is a swinging and bopping rendition, but to these ears it unfortunately doesn’t quite get where it’s aiming to go.
So it is the simplest arrangement, the purest and most romantic reading of the song, from 1949 on Columbia Records, that this listener at least would recommend most fully.
(This post is in honor of Frank Sinatra’s centenary, which we’re marking at the present moment by looking at some of the songs as sung by Frank Sinatra that Bob Dylan selected for his new album Shadows In The Night.)
“Where Are You?” is the title track of the first of the two dark albums that Frank Sinatra recorded during his 1950s’ artistic peak with arranger Gordon Jenkins (the second being 1959’s No One Cares). It’s funny: Sinatra himself was known sometimes to refer laughingly to his loneliness-themed concept records as “suicide albums,” but when he was behind the microphone he was clearly nothing but totally serious about each syllable and every note, and was masterful at constructing these albums with an almost terrifying emotional precision.
The song treads riskily on an interesting line (I think) between poignancy and blandness. The lyric is so very straightforward, so plain, so seemingly devoid of device, that its very plainness is its only device. Continue reading Frank Sinatra – “Where Are You?”→
In a career not short on greatness, “Why Try to Change Me Now” is an especially great Frank Sinatra song, and a great Sinatra moment, all the more so as it is actually two moments: two great studio recordings. There are of-course many songs that Sinatra recorded twice (and more) and they’re always very good for providing a window into how he developed as an artist, as this one is. It can also be noticed that the songs he revisited through his career are all great songs. He recorded his share of cheesy or schlocky tunes over the years—a few of which were big hits, indeed—but each of those he recorded just once.
His first recording of this tune was in 1952, and it was his final recording for the Columbia record label.
Sinatra had signed with Columbia in 1942, at the age of 27, after leaving the Tommy Dorsey band, and it was during this era that he came to be known as The Voice, and what a voice it was. Although no longer as purely angelic as on some of those great Tommy Dorsey sides, Frank’s voice wasn’t straying in these years so very far from paradise; it was deeply romantic, and he could conjure with it just the sufficient level of ache when needed. It was the voice that brought out the bobby-soxed girls and made them faint (and worse). But it was a voice anyone could appreciate, with wonderful expressiveness and the remarkable vocal and breath control that Sinatra had worked for years to achieve. It can be heard at its best on the great ballads that Sinatra sang in those Columbia years, like “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” “She’s Funny That Way,” “Try A Little Tenderness,” and “I’m Glad There Is You,” often with the great Axel Stordahl conducting and breaking new ground in the musical framing of a vocalist. Sinatra could swing pretty good too, on tracks like “S’Posin'” and “Five Minutes More,” even if he would find his best shoes for swinging years later with Nelson Riddle and Billy May.
On that final recording date in 1952, the bobby soxers and the acclaim must have seemed to be in the very distant past. His divorce from his first wife, Nancy, and his relationship with actress Ava Gardner had knocked him off any angelic cloud in the popular consciousness, and he’d been struggling as a recording artist and performer. He’d been let go by not only his record company, but also by his movie studio and talent agency. He’d been having real problems with his all-important voice, having difficulty just getting through performances. For his own part, Sinatra maintained that he was glad to get away from Columbia Records: he’d fought for years with producer Mitch Miller over matters of taste, Miller being very fond of novelty records (most infamously represented in Sinatra’s case by the record “Mama Will Bark“) and had to have been dreaming of the freedom to record just what he wanted, just how he wanted. The only problem was that he had no replacement record contract and poor prospects for one. No one on earth could have predicted then how well Sinatra would be doing in just a few short years, following his own muse (albeit ably abetted by other great talents in the studio).
The title of this song, “Why Try to Change Me Now,” seems almost too pat in retrospect as his final turn at the microphone for the record company that he’d felt was trying to change who he was as an artist. But it being Frank Sinatra with a great song in his hands, the record is far, far more than merely a gimmicky goodbye.
The composer, Cy Coleman, noted that Sinatra slightly changed the melody at the opening of the song. He is quoted by Will Friedwald (in the best book I know on Sinatra):
I listened to the record and it sounded so natural, the way that Frank did it, that I thought to myself, “He’s right.” So I left it that way. So I changed the music! That’s the first and only time I’ve ever done that.
The arrangement was by Percy Faith. You can hear the record (or at any rate a digital shadow of it) via iTunes, via Amazon, and currently via YouTube.
The song opens:
I’m sentimental, so I walk in the rain
I’ve got some habits even I can’t explain
Could start for the corner, turn up in Spain
But why try to change me now?
It is in this verse, the next verse and the bridge the song of a misfit, someone who feels himself a bit off-kilter, something of an odd man out in the conventional, modern world. This is not such an unusual theme for a popular song: one could make a very long list of songs with similar sentiments. “Pretty Vacant,” by the Sex Pistols, would be one. “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” by Bob Dylan, would be on that list too. And both are enormous fun in their distinct ways. But the beauty and grace of this take on the theme is just that much more conspicuous when you compare it to such others. There is a restraint in the anguish and alienation that is being expressed with merely a wry shrug (as opposed to a molotov cocktail) and there is no singer better able to distill and express that than Frank Sinatra. His voice is beautiful here, but, knowing where he was at in his life, you can just read the great weariness between the lines.
And then there is the final verse, where the song reveals itself as being addressed in just one all-important direction:
So, let people wonder, let ’em laugh, let ’em frown
You know I’ll love you till the moon’s upside down
Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
Why try to change me now?
It is a plea to someone whose acceptance matters more than all the rest of the world. And Sinatra voices that last questioning couplet with an exquisitely unstrained sense of yearning and of heartbreak. It is inexpressibly masterful.
Envision, if you will, a tragic twist of fate or two, and this might have been the last record Frank Sinatra ever made.
But, thank God, it was not. And seven years later, in 1959, Sinatra was standing in front of a microphone to sing “Why Try To Change Me Now” again, this time for his album No One Cares.
In the preceding years, under a new contract to Capitol Records, Frank Sinatra had recorded masterpiece after masterpiece, and along the way defined the potential of the long-playing record in popular music. In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Only the Lonely, Come Fly with Me: these and others can be seen now not merely as great records but irreplaceable cultural treasures. (We’re lucky indeed that millions of copies exist.) Sinatra’s very voice had changed; it had gathered maturity, acquiring some cracks that weren’t there before but only an ever-deeper capacity to communicate a song to a listener. Working with brilliant arrangers and musicians, but commanded finally by his own discerning vision, Sinatra recorded some of the most refined, truly adult and simply marvelous popular music that has ever been committed to any medium, before or since.
By this point, he was coming close to the end of this near-perfect run (though he had lots of great stuff still to come). No One Cares was without doubt one of his “mood” albums, the mood succinctly expressed in the title. For these LPs, a crucial element was the way in which Sinatra chose songs without regard to their vintage. There were songs specifically written for the project (like the title track by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) and others from decades previous (like “I Can’t Get Started,” by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, from 1936). The point was to create a whole that held together, greater even than the sum of its great parts. The arranger in this case was Gordon Jenkins. He is not treated by critics as untouchable to the same degree as fellow arranger Nelson Riddle; he had an approach that could sometimes be considered a bit repetitive or simplistic, featuring what are often described as “high keening strings.” (Riddle, by contrast, was always varied and inventive.) Yet, in these years, Sinatra did not over use Jenkins’ talents. So, the two albums from this period, Where Are You? and No One Cares, stand as great examples of Sinatra’s voice framed by Jenkins’ sparse, emotive and exceedingly dark arrangements. (Ironically enough, Sinatra also called on Jenkins for his marvelous Christmas album.)
While Sinatra, in the second act of his American life, had enjoyed enormous professional success in the middle and late 1950s, he was still a human being, and other aspects had not gone quite as well. His very anguished relationship with Ava Gardner was officially ended with their divorce in 1957.
But from wherever it came, there was never much doubt that great darkness was there under the surface for Frank, and he could tell the truth about it, like no one else, when he was in front of a microphone.
So, his second recorded reading of “Why Try To Change Me Now” is taken significantly more slowly than the first, every note and syllable carefully measured out. It can be heard via iTunes or via Amazon and currently via YouTube.
Frank’s singing still possesses enormous grace and restraint, but the song is performed as if treading on a ledge that is now substantially thinner. Sinatra’s voice has that added depth that maturity has brought and at the same time some added weaknesses, and he puts all of this into play with devastating but still ultimately unstrained effect (and therein lies a crucial element of his genius).
When he reprises, in the end, the final questioning lines of the song …
Don’t you remember I was always your clown?
Why try to change me now?
… his voice conveys an expectation that is different than before. In the Columbia recording, the singer has a love, and he is at least yearning for a positive, accepting answer to his questions. Here—it seems at least to these ears—the words are sung as if to an abyss, to a lover who he wishes would answer him, but one who he knows is no longer listening …
(This post is in honor of Frank Sinatra’s centenary, which we’re marking at the present moment by looking at some of the songs as sung by Frank Sinatra that Bob Dylan selected for his new album Shadows In The Night.)
Some of us are date-oriented and some of us are not. By dates, I refer neither to the fruity nor to the romantic kind (though the same statement would probably apply to both) but rather the chronological sort: anniversaries, birthdays, milestones and the like. Some of us are date deniers, wondering whether it matters that such and such happened so many years ago on this date. This day is still little different from yesterday or tomorrow, after all; it’s just another day, significant only for what it achieves for itself, surely, and not its numerical coordination with some other day.
Bob Dylan, however, has apparently been paying some attention to dates. The first track (“Full Moon and Empty Arms”) to be heard from his forthcoming Sinatra-themed album was released to the world last May 13th, the day before the anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s death in 1998 (perhaps someone’s itchy promotional trigger finger caused it to come out a few hours early, at least state-side). And the album itself is being released right here in the first part of 2015 A.D., which happens to be the centenary of Sinatra’s birth (his birth date being December 12th, 1915). Continue reading Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, 2015: A Very Good Year→
The 1980s did not produce many great Sinatra recordings (although by then, after all, he’d already put enough in the can for three or four “normal” great careers). She Shot Me Down (1981) certainly has some marvelous tracks, but L.A. Is My Lady (1984) is a strange disappointment as what turned out to be his last proper studio album; it must have looked good on paper, with Quincy Jones producing and some solid material, but Frank sounds oddly absent throughout and it’s not entirely clear if anyone else truly showed up. (In part at least this may be a mastering problem — but that’s a whole other subject.)
Still, Sinatra was doing some very fine live work during this time. His voice had declined technically as an instrument, but he knew extraordinarily well how to use it, and had the courage on stage to tackle new and interesting arrangements even with those aging pipes. A highlight of his shows in this era would always be a “duet” with the superb guitar player (and his fellow New Jersey native) Tony Mottola, on something like “As Time Goes By” or “Send in the Clowns.” There would actually be three instruments on stage during these interludes: Tony Mottola’s guitar, Sinatra’s voice, and Sinatra’s microphone. Each was played masterfully. Continue reading “It’s Sunday” – Frank Sinatra with Tony Mottola→
In one of those brilliantly-orchestrated-completely-unanticipated-moves, Bob Dylan posted to his website today his version of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a song written circa 1945 by Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman, with a melody based on a Rachmaninoff tune. It reportedly heralds a forthcoming album release which may or may not be titled “Shadows in the Night” (based on some artwork also posted on his website today). Continue reading Full Moon, Empty Arms, Bob Dylan→
‘Tis the season to remember three of our very favorite Christmas albums, all of which have been reviewed at greater length in these pages in the past. So, in capsule form here and now:
Christmas in the Heart ~ Bob Dylan
Many groaned when they heard Bob Dylan had recorded a Christmas record, and many still think that he himself groans his way through it, but they’re the ones missing out. Immaculately produced in what might initially seem a cheesy fashion but actually features exceedingly smart and classic stylings, it sets the smooth instrumental and vocal backing against Dylan’s hoarse singing, and brings to mind nothing so much as Louis Armstrong in the latter part of his career doing “What a Wonderful World.” The voice is so lived in, the owner of it has seemingly seen it all, and yet at the end of it all can guilelessly sing lines like: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It counts so very much coming from that place. And, as expounded on at (likely) painful length in my original review, Dylan’s Christmas album manages to blend the secular and religious songs of Christmas together in a startlingly effective way, finding a spirit that unites them. It’ll surely make you laugh and at times it ought well make you cry. You must have it.
(And Dylan’s proceeds in perpetuity go to providing food to the needy.)
A Jolly Christmas ~ Frank Sinatra
Set down right amidst the high water mark of Frank Sinatra’s career and talent in the mid-1950s, this sensitively-made long playing record, arranged by Gordon Jenkins, provides posterity with essential Sinatra readings of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and others. Essential because Sinatra remains the greatest male popular singer to ever lift a microphone to his lips, and he is heard here as the great musician that he was and not the caricature too often present in the popular consciousness. And, as expounded on at (possibly) painful length in my original review, this Christmas album by Sinatra is one particularly apt for listening to when one is alone during the holiday season: not necessarily lonely, but simply by oneself. It’ll take you places. You must have it.
Knew very little about Welsh chanteuse Cerys Matthews when we first encountered this album (the most recently-released on our list) but have become consummate fans since, finding that her work over many years combines remarkable spirit, talent and taste in an especially uplifting fashion. Here, in recordings that possess that spark of genuine live performance, she and her merry band perform such traditional chestnuts as “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” and “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and seem effortlessly to conjure what must have been their original joy and mystery. Indeed, as expounded on at (relatively) brief length in my original review, as well-worn a song as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is performed here “as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.” And truly, Christmas is not a small thing, after all. That’s what this album will remind you of, and it will get you singing along too. You must have it.
Under-promise and over-deliver, that’s always our motto here, so here’s two more essential Christmas picks:
Christmas with the Louvin Brothers ~ The Louvin Brothers
The aforementioned Bob Dylan once picked this as possibly his favorite Christmas album, with good reason, as the Louvin’s transcendent harmonies can transport you to a higher place from which you may return with reluctance. Originally it contained only hymns, but the modern edition includes two secular Christmas tunes as well. Ira Louvin was a troubled man, but it sure seems at least he knew where he should be looking for the light.
A Christmas Gift for You ~ Phil Spector (and various)
Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard these great tunes, by the Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals? Yet their very ubiquity might make us take them for granted. They evoke Christmas as intensely as a deep snowfall on the evening of December 24th. The producer of all of these amazing sides, Phil Spector, is spending this Christmas in jail, and likely the balance of his life, but it’s worth remembering that there were moments in which he followed his better angels and made music as beautiful and as cheering as this.
We do not here discuss the Beatles song, “P.S I Love You” (composed by Lennon/McCartney, more McCartney), fine though it is. Fifteen years ago today, Frank Sinatra died, and it’s his version of the song “P.S. I Love You,” composed by Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer, that is on my mind. It is to be found on his album Close To You (and that’s not the Burt Bacharach song, although Frank did ultimately record that tune in leaner times).
This “P.S. I Love You” was written in 1934, but it was in 1956 that Sinatra recorded it, on one of his most unusual and most superb albums. Sinatra worked on this album with a string quartet—Felix Slatkin’s Hollywood String Quartet—augmented here and there by a fifth instrumentalist. The resulting record is intimacy incarnate. Every note of every track declares that the effort is a labor of love. And indeed it wasn’t a big commercial success and remains relatively obscure.
Neil Armstrong’s death has been reported today, at the age of 82. Although—he being the first man on the moon and all—people the world over knew his name, he did not have any great public profile. The obituaries are describing him as modest and private, and surely he was both of those things.
So there cannot be for most Americans a sense of personal loss as there might be when someone famous but seemingly-very-familiar dies; Elvis Presley, say, or Andy Griffith, or Michael Jackson. Yet I think some might have a nagging feeling that something has slipped away that we might not have fully appreciated while we had it around.
In this—since most of us didn’t know Neil Armstrong as a personality—I’m referring to what Neil Armstrong seems, especially with hindsight, to have represented.
He and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon in 1969. Isn’t it so hard to conceive that forty-three years ago the United States’ space program achieved this incredible thing? These days, people absentmindedly leave at the bar small devices containing technology that makes everything NASA possessed in the 1960s look like something from the Flintstones; yet, today, in 2012, the idea of the United States putting humans back on the moon—as a stepping-stone to Mars or anything else—appears almost outrageously fanciful and out-of-reach.
Nevertheless, they did it, back then, and this guy, Neil Armstrong, seems to have taken that “one small step” in stride, not endlessly exploiting it for sponsorship deals, book contracts, speaking tours and so on, but largely just going about his life afterwards, doing serious things but avoiding the glaring limelight that his moment in the moonlight surely earned him for the rest of his life.
Bob Dylan just finished up his latest tour—or the latest leg of what people call his Never Ending Tour—with four concerts in Mexico, including one in Monterrey a few days ago. The area around Monterrey has become a big hot-spot in the Mexican drug war(s). Just yesterday, 49 headless bodies (some just armless and legless torsos) were dumped on a highway that leads from Monterrey to the border with South Texas. The authorities have been quick to offer assurances that this is only drug traffickers killing each other, although at this point they don’t actually know who the dead people are for, well, obvious reasons. Continue reading Monterrey, Music and Murder→