Frank Sinatra – “Where Are You?”

Sinatra Where Are You

Frank Sinatra Where Are You?

“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.

All of that would have to start with the selection of songs. “Where Are You?” was a song written by Jimmy McHugh and Harold Adamson in 1937 for the film Top of the Town. It was introduced by Gertrude Niesen (and at the moment you can hear all 78 rpms of her rendition via YouTube).

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?””

Frank Sinatra – “Why Try To Change Me Now”

Frank Sinatra Why Try To Change Me Now

Why Try To Change Me Now - Frank Sinatra
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).

Sinatra Why Try To Change Me Now
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.)

Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, 2015: A Very Good Year

Frank Sinatra Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan Frank Sinatra 2015
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”

Bob Dylan, “Stay With Me,” Studio Audio Released

Stay With Me Bob Dylan studio audio
Way back in May of last year we first heard “Full Moon and Empty Arms” from the forthcoming Bob Dylan album, Shadows in the Night. Today we have the release of the studio audio of “Stay With Me,” a song that Bob Dylan was closing his live performances with on his most recent tour, written by Jerome Moss and Carolyn Leigh and first recorded by Frank Sinatra. The audio can be heard via NPR (thanks to David H. for the tip). UPDATE: And now you can hear it below via YouTube: Continue reading “Bob Dylan, “Stay With Me,” Studio Audio Released”

“It’s Sunday” – Frank Sinatra with Tony Mottola

Frank Sinatra It's Sunday

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”

Full Moon, Empty Arms, Bob Dylan

The Cinch Review

Bob Dylan Full Moon and Empty ArmsIn 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”

Three Must-Have Christmas Albums

The Cinch Review

‘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

Christmas In The Heart by 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.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

(And Dylan’s proceeds in perpetuity go to providing food to the needy.)

A Jolly Christmas ~ Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas from 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.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

Baby It’s Cold Outside ~ Cerys Matthews

Baby It's Cold Outside Christmas Classics Cerys Matthews

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.

Via Earthquake. Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

Bonuses!

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.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

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.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

So maybe we should all try to follow our better angels. Merry Christmas.