frank in the void
[the final curtain]
.
[preamble: a week after his death]

The memorial site put up by Frank Sinatra's family begins, after the usual interminable wait, to play an excerpt from "Softly, As I Leave You", the title track of a 1964 record--one of his better for Reprise.

"Softly...", the familiar voice sings, "...I will leave you softly."

After his long illness, presided over by a half-hearted tabloid deathwatch, and preceded by the long winding down of his recording career, Frank Sinatra did leave us rather softly.

"After all the years," the Voice sings, "I can't bear the tears..."

Sung in a swelling crescendo, you can imagine a longtime fan, patiently waiting for the song to download, being brought to tears. For those of us less lachrymose (or living at a more ironic distance from our emotions), you wonder whether Frank chose this song, of all songs, to be his epitaph, or whether this is yet another more or less questionable lapse of taste on the part of the family that have used his name to sell us ties, pasta sauces, belt buckles, champagne, and a cigar (not yet available).

"Softly..." the song begins playing again, "...long before you miss me." It's not a bad song, not as good as other songs he recorded over his fifty-year career, but the carefully controlled pathos eventually gets to you, and you realize how many songs from those five decades might have made just as decent a memorial.

"Softly...as I leave you there.

The bastard, you think--he did it again.


LOOKING BACK, Frank Sinatraís life was lived on an epic scale. His career lasted over fifty years, and spanned eleven presidents, three major wars and countless small ones. Through it all, there was barely a month where Sinatra or his music wasnít playing somewhere, his career acting as a soundtrack to his life and the times. He witnessed the creation and destruction of the Eastern Bloc, the rise of television, the moon landing, the Civil Rights movement, Rock and Roll, and three major phases in recording technology: the 78rpm record, the LP, and the compact disc.


It might be said that there would be more musical "geniuses" if so-called secondary musical figures were given unrestricted access to the recording studio and the pressing plant.

Frank Sinatra was not a secondary musical figure. Frank Sinatra rarely suffered from lack of access.



Young Frank

FROM HIS YEARS at Columbia as the biggest recording star in America to ownership of his own label, Reprise, Sinatra recorded exhaustively. Sometimes the settings were far from his taste, sometimes his taste had to be questioned, but the results were undeniable: a sort of musical autobiography reflecting, as any good biography should, both the state of the man and the state of the times.

Frank began recording in 1939, the year of the New York World's Fair, Hitlerís invasion of Poland, and the beginning of the end of the swing era. His first big break, with Harry Jamesí band, led to a series of recordings as James' "boy singer", supplying vocal refrains to the band's sweet swing. As collected on Harry James and his Orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra (Sony), they reveal an embryonic Sinatra, polite and hushed, not daring to "swing hard" since, near as we can tell, he hasn't been asked. Sinatra only cut ten sides with James, so Sony fills out the package with alternate takes and a radio transcriptionof the band playing live that shows Sinatra in a looser, more aggressive mood. It's important to remember that radio was immensely important for an artist in the thirties, and that more people probably heard a musician over the airwaves than on record. Radio, like early television fifteen years later, was a live medium, and this slightly less "house-trained" Sinatra appealed to many listeners.

[the james years]

His popularity on the rise, Frank was poached from James by Tommy Dorsey, a much higher profile band, but an even "sweeter" one than James. Nearly the whole of the first two discs of the 5-CD The Song is You (RCA/BMG), a collection of Sinatra's work with Dorsey, are stultifyingly slow fox trots. The first few are pleasant, but after twenty minutes, you're driven to distraction. Dorsey, the "Sentimental Gentleman" of swing, had a formula, and he was going to stick to it. For Sinatra, it was adapt or perish, and these endless, sluggish sessions taught him to inhabit a ballad with real personality. Still, you're only as good as your material, and our ears perk up when, out of the polite tempos, there emerges a "Polka Dots and Moonbeams", "Fools Rush In", or "Imagination".

[the v-discs]

Sinatra left Dorsey just months after Pearl Harbour, already riding his first wave of stardom. Frank Sinatra: The V-Discs (Sony) is an interestingway to bridge the Dorsey years and his -- triumphant but later tragic -- years at Columbia. While the bobbysoxers were already screaming in the aisles,and Sinatra's voice was on radios all over the country, there was only one problem: no one could buy any records. A strike by the American Federation of Musicians ensured that no band could be booked into a recording studio from 1942-1944, the first two years of Frank's contract with Columbia. The V-discs, tracks taken from radio broadcasts or special sessions allowed by the AFM, fill in the period when Sinatra really found his voice.

On these records, issued only to the armed forces, we hear Sinatra and his arranger, Axel Stordahl, creating the ideal setting for the Sinatra sound. Strings sigh and harps swoon as Frank creates an intimate relationship with the song and his audience. Contrary to perceived wisdom, Sinatra's voice was not the most beautiful of instruments. Crosby's tone was rounder and more immediately pleasing, and Ella Fitzgerald's pipes purer, while Frank tended to an occasional flatness of pitch and, at least until the fifties, a lack of resonant bass.

Still, unlike Crosby and, certainly, Ella, Sinatra sang each line like he really meant it, never relying on any technique he didn't have to spare, going straight to the heart and power of the best songs. Without the constraints of A&R men, Sinatra was able to choose, for his unsponsored radio shows like "Songs by Sinatra", the songs that he, and others, would essay repeatedly for decades to come. Will Friedwald, in his exhaustive Sinatra! The Song is You (Scribners), makes the point that, before Sinatra, there really were no standards, just last year's songs. We have standards today because, basically, Sinatra made them standards.

["swoonatra"]

There are three ways to appreciate the Columbia years. Three years before Sinatra died, Sony released all of the master takes plus some rarities in a gigantic 12-CD box set set -- literally a wooden box, that epitaph of music packaging -- that should keep the completists and obsessives happy. A year later, a four-disc selection, The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-1952(Sony) was released, and presents the interested but sane listener with a more than representative collection. Single discs from the mammoth box as well as compilations are also available.

The four-disc set begins with two of the a capella tracks recorded by Columbia before the AFM strike ended, but it's on track three that the set comes to life. "If You Are But A Dream" is the Sinatra/Stordahl team at its best, a lush, pained ballad with swooping dynamics hovering on the edge of restraint; the benchmarks of what would be the best of Sinatra's work. For nearly three discs, things proceed very nicely, with Frank making his first or second attempts on songs he would come to own over the next forty years: "Where or When", "That Old Black Magic", "Night and Day", and "I'm A Fool to Want You" among others.

Still, truth must be served, and a few examples of the kind of material forced on Sinatra by arch-cynic A&R man Mitch Miller surface: "Let's Take An Old-Fashioned Walk" ranks among the worst things Irving Berlin ever penned, and if only for its gratingly perky arrangement, "American Beauty Rose" has me jabbing at the fast forward button every time. Owners of the 12-disc set will have to suffer through the execrable "Mama Will Bark" as punishment for their extravagance.

Best of the Columbia Years ends, ironically, with "Why Try to Change Me Now", and with declining sales further souring Sinatra's combative relationship with Mitch Miller, Sinatra left Columbia ten years after signing his contract, now a star in decline. Sinatra signed with Capitol after being turned down by RCA, and his signing was met with groans from company executives when announced at their annual convention. He had, literally, nowhere to go but up -- which is exactly where he went.

[the golden years begin]

PERHAPS EVEN MORE than his voice, Sinatra's great talent lay in his ability to choose his material, not only as isolated songs, but in context. At Columbia, he was sequencing tracks in "albums"-- bound books of 78s. At Capitol, his talent for songs linked by a theme, a mood, or even just a tempo was given full reign; feeling perhaps that they had nothing to lose, Sinatra was given freedom to choose his material and arrangers by Capitol. The risk paid off.

[nelson riddle: the "suicide albums"]

The first album for Capitol, Songs for Young Lovers, was also Sinatra's first with Nelson Riddle, who would go on to arrange his other acknowledged "classics": In The Wee Small Hours, Close to You and Only the Lonely, a quartet of records known as "the suicide albums", thanks to their morose atmosphere, popularly considered to be the best thing to result from Frank's doomed relationship with Ava Gardner. Certain tracks on these records have been overplayed -- "Angel Eyes", "Blues in the Night" and "One for My Baby" from Only the Lonely in particular -- but the austere Close to You, which backs Frank up with little more than a chamber orchestra, has yet to be discovered by many new listeners.

[billy may, gordon jenkins]

With Billy May, Frank recorded the hard-swinging Come Dance With Me, Come Fly With Me, and Come Swing With Me, testaments to the insouciant cockiness that Sinatra had moulded into his public persona. With Gordon Jenkins he recorded No One Cares and Where Are You?, dramatic, downbeat albums seemingly meant to complement the Riddle "suicide albums" with new dimensions in depression: heartache, desperation, numbness, and resignation. It's easy to be sarcastic until you listen to the records: all those years of living inside Dorsey's elegaic slow-dances and Stordahl's lush seduction pieces gave Sinatra a touch with a ballad unequalled among singers. I can't honestly think of a singer who could rival Frank for sustaining a low-key, down-beat mood for forty minutes or more, record after record.

[stordahl again; the golden years end]

Finally, Point of No Return, on CD, collects Sinatra's work with Axel Stordahl, both at the beginning and the end of his Capitol years. It's an underrated record, and might have boded well for Frank's upcoming work at his own label, Reprise. Unfortunately, at least artistically, Frank's luck ran out.


Twilight of the Gods:  The Rat Pack in 1978.


[reprise]

MITCH MILLER NEARLY SANK Sinatra with silly, quickly-dated novelty numbers at Columbia, and Frank responded by digging his heels in and focusing on the kind of classics that held the fort against the apparently threatening depredations posed by rock 'n roll during the Capitol years. Frank could afford to ignore the generation gap during the Fifties because, at least until Reprise, he had the numbers. With the Sixties, things changed and Frank responded in two, unfortunate, ways. His voice, which had become slightly less supple but deeper and richer in the fifties, took on an ugly blare, a stridency that seemed to hint at arrogance and intransigence, all the more ironic since it was in the face of outright hostility from a generation that had no time for him or his audience that Frank -- totally in control of his career as he had never been before -- made concessions for the sake of fashion.


The Reprise years have been collected in a twenty-disc set, The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings (Warner), a bizzarely-appointed package that, in it's original release, resembled little more than an early-seventies Lincoln Continental dashboard. It's hard to recommend this box, or many of the single albums it collects. Alongside new versions of songs Frank sang in more pleasing voice ten or even twenty years earlier, there are bum choices of material better suited to MOR stalwarts like the winsome Andy Williams: "Downtown", "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World", "Yesterday", "Mrs. Robinson", and "From Both Sides Now" appear between 1966 and '69. Personally, I don't think even the originals of these songs have aged well, but the spectacle of Sinatra covering these products of the Brill Building and the singer/songwriter phenomenon, with all their vague profundity and sophomoric rhyme schemes, compounded by a stunning lack of humour, sounds worse than slumming.


The joke becomes grim with 1974's Some Nice Things I've Missed, since I don't think anyone would have missed Frank's essays on "Tie A Yellow Ribbon", "You Are The Sunshine of My Life" or "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown". In the face of all this blatant compromise, "My Way" was the biggest joke of all.

[duets]

Which brings us to the Duets records, and his return to Capitol. There's little to say about these marvels of technology except that Frank's own sense of humour, mordant as it may be, is the only explanation for, among other things, his duet with Bono on "I've Got You Under My Skin". Itís ironic that, at the end of his career, the pop world that forced him to record such inappropriate material clamoured to join him on such grim defacements of Porter, Gershwin, and Berlin.

_________________________________


Frank in Excelsis.

AT THE BEGINNING of his career, Sinatra had an audience but few decent records. That audience stuck with him, gathering numbers, willing to go from sitting in movie theatres to nightclubs and casino showrooms to the bleachers at stadiums, showing itself as much in love with the idea of Sinatra as the increasingly disappointing reality. At the end, there are plenty of records; too many, you might say, if you felt uncharitable. Now that Sinatra is just an idea, there's only the hope, both for his loyal fans and his memory, that posterity will -- with a judicious squint into the increasingly more distant past -- favour the legacy of a man who had everything we wanted and nothing he could keep.


This article ©1998-2001 Rick McGinnis, all rights reserved. Originally published (minus the preamble, which was, honestly, written a week after Frank's death), in a rather butchered form, in the Globe and Mail.

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