Sinatra at 80: A Frank Top 10

As Raymond Chandler once wrote, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.”


Frank Sinatra’s first great record was “All or Nothing At All,” but “I’ll Never Smile Again,” a 1940 Tommy Dorsey disc, was his first hit, and offers the earliest evidence of Young Blue Eyes synthesizing his influences: the lyric-driven, storytelling approach of Bing Crosby, the intimacy and vulnerability of Billie Holiday, and ultralegato timing of Dorsey. The song was written by Ruth Lowe, a pianist in Ina Rae Hutton’s all-girl band, and its success undoubtedly reflected her state of mind at the time. As Sinatra recalled, “It was a sad commentary because [Lowe] had a brand new husband, a Canadian flyer, who got killed in the early part of World War II.” She presented the song to Dorsey, who let his rival Glenn Miller make the first (unsatisfactory) record, before trying it himself. Arrangers Freddie Stulce and Axel Stordahl used just the rhythm section, Dorsey’s trombone, and the Pied Pipers; Sinatra suggested that pianist Joe Bushkin switch to celesta. As Jo Stafford, the most famous of the Pipers, remembers, “It was very tough to hold the pitch, because there was so little background from the band.” They required two sessions to get it right, but “I’ll Never Smile Again” became the sig­nature song of the Sinatra-Dorsey collabo­ration, and Sinatra would reprise its combi­nation of achingly slow tempo and supertight multivoice harmony throughout the decade and at least as late as the 1954 “Don’t Change Your Mind About Me.”

Cole Porter’s 1932 song proved the most constant and diverse of all Sinatra career mantras. Apart from using it as the open­ing theme for many seasons on radio, he has sung “Night and Day” in every conceivable fashion, resulting in six officially released versions. Sinatra first recorded it early in 1942 at his first solo session, which predicted the development of his mature ballad style. While the original Bluebird version maintained the vestiges of a dance tempo, later ’40s recording of the Stordahl chart gradually slowed the piece down into a concert feature. In 1956, with Nelson Riddle, he reconceived “Night and Day” in a post–”I’ve Got You Under My Skin” style for A Swingin’ Affair, yet that uptempo version is only marginally faster than the ’42 ballad treatment. Sinatra then reworked the Riddle chart, once for sextet and once as a concerto grosso that alternates between Red Norvo’s Quintet and full orchestra. Over the years Sinatra came up with at least four other ver­sions — Latin with flute and bongos, lush with strings, mano a mano  with guitarist Al Viola, and, regrettably, a disco-style sin­gle. No singer has possessed a song more completely than Sinatra does “Night and Day.”

Just as Ellington tailored tunes for his great instrumental voices, the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne and orchestrator Axel Stordahl helped Sinatra mastermind a brilliant stream of ballad performances in the mid ’40s. Where pre-Sina­tra pop vocal arrangements tended to be strictly off-the-rack, every element of the Cahn-Styne-Stordahl-Sinatra performances is precisely cut to fit the singer’s jib. On “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the team deploys the deep-lung singing style that Sinatra had inherited from Dorsey — even the longing title is too much for most pop singers to address in a single breath. In moving beyond the dance-band sound of his apprenticeship, Sinatra and company so understate the rhythm that the pulse is suggested rather than stated. Cahn’s lyrics played a vital function in stabbing the overall Sinatra character of ’40s radio and film — the supersensitive young swain blown about by winds of emotion beyond his control. The recording has the “quiet” ending device he used long in­to the Riddle years.

The Sinatra of the ’50s is associated chiefly with a hard-swinging style, although he had actually sung fast tempos since his Harry James tenure. More than simply singing fast, what Sinatra achieved with Nelson Riddle on Capitol Records was a renais­sance of the great swing band tradition, refitted with a harmonic sophistication our of early-20th-century classical music. The Sinatra-Riddle swing albums are rarely up­roariously fast, mining instead what the singer described as a highly danceable, Sy Oliver-inspired “heartbeat” tempo. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956) is faster than most, giving Sinatra and Riddle the opportunity to build from tender whispers to orgasmic screams. These are expressed not only by Sinatra himself but by trombonist Milt Bernhart, who, atop a polyrhythmic pattern inspired by Kenton-arranger Bill Russo’s “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” emerges from the ensemble as Sinatra’s instrumental alter ego. His solo has a raw, atavistic energy partly because he hadn’t realized he was expected to improvise on the song’s bridge and so he ignored the chord changes Sinatra renders with transfiguring passion and excitement for an incomparable climax. (See Milt Bernhardt’s story for more details)

“The wonderful thing about Nelson and Frank,” arranger Billy Byers commented re­cently, “was they were so strong in the com­mercial department that they could turn around and make a really artistic album, like the one with the string quartet, which sold about five records.” That album, Close to You, derives from a unique subsection of the Sinatra idiom. While Sinatra alternat­ed between uptempo swingers and heart-wrenching torchers in the ’50s, he and Riddle also explored the kind of optimistic love songs the singer had done so well with Stordahl. Sinatra’s preferred vehicle when traversing this beat was a double quartet chamber group (not unlike the one Max Roach leads today) — tour strings plus four rhythm, with rotating soloists. Sinatra in­troduced the format in his first-ever album, 1945’s The Voice, and brought it to a boil with the 1956 Close to You. “With Every Breath I Take,” a song introduced in a Bing Crosby film, is a flawless Sinatra performance; as the title coincidentally infers, every breath, every vocal gesture, every phrase is exactly where it ought to be — not a microscopic nuance is out of place.

The darker Sinatra-Riddle albums maintain a sense of epic tragedy (developed earlier with Stordahl and later with Gordan Jenkins) tempered with raw intimacy. Sinatra refers to his heavier ballads as “saloon song,” yet in the most celebrated of those songs, he mixes in more parts from symphony hall than the corner pub to produce a downer of a cocktail. Indeed, Only the Lonely (1958), the album on which “One for My Baby” was released, combines harmonic textures inspired by Ravel with a rhythmic sensibility informed by Lester Young. It’s the high point of several thousand Sinatra concerts, also signifies the most famous collaboration of Sinatra and Bill Miller, his pianist since 1951. As percussionist Emile Richards opines, “There’s no one who plays saloon piano like Bill docs on ‘One for My Baby’ He’s really the boss of that.” Not merely an accompanist but a featured actor in this Mercer-Arlen music noir, Miller’s subtle keyboard established the barroom rise-en-scene. Sinatra communicates such overwhelming pain partly because his mood contrasts so strikingly with Miller’s spare deadpan background. What does the cocktail pianist care about the drunk unburdening himself to the bartender? Paradoxically, Miller supports Sinatra while sounding as through he were ignoring him. In 1993, Sinatra and Miller rerecorded “Baby” in a harrowingly moving performance, making that long, long road seem more traveled than ever.

As Sinatra once observed, “Billy May almost always uses the extra percussion, like vibraphones, xylophones, bells and chimes and all that jazz.” Where Riddle excelled at saloon-like tunes, May — an arranger for Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller — helped Sinatra make merrier melodies. Over the course of three similarly titled albums for Capitol (Come Fly/ Dance/Swing With Me), the two perfected their approach and then brought it to a boil with the 1961 Sinatra Swings (a/k/a Swing Along With Me), recorded for the Chairman’s own label, Reprise. This album improves upon all the key strengths of its predecessors: the three­-chorus, spectacular “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” amplifies the hyperswing of “Come Dance With Me”; the travel selections, “Granada” and “Moonlight on the Ganges” restore the blend of whimsical humor and irresistible rhythm that made Come Fly With Me a classic. On “Ganges,” which Sinatra gleaned from Tommy Dorsey, May creates a shimmer­ing seventh veil of strings around the most imposing percussion section this side of Sun Ra.

Raymond Chandler once wrote, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Most musicians admired Gordon Jenkins’s successes as a songwriter, but many found his string-heavy orchestrations a trifle old hat compared to Riddle and May. Yet even cynical Bill Miller admits, “Frank has an old-fashioned side, and Gor­don Jenkins represents that. As a singer, he doesn’t hear the harmonies the way we would. He hears those high-swinging strings that were Gordon’s gimmick.” Although Jenkins scored some great saloon songs for Sinatra, his gorgeously grandiose textures were often marshaled for material a lot simpler than, say, Lorenz Hart. A 1961 hit for the Kingston Trio, “Very Good Year” depicts life as a succession of vintage wines and rendezvous with ever more cosmopolitan dames. Sina­tra and Jenkins inflate this repetitious faux-­folkie feature into a piece of performance art with a power that suggests a grand aria. Structurally, it consists of four parallel choruses, each a discrete reminiscence. Be­tween these episodes, Jenkins reprises a wailing string-and-oboe passage that moves between minor and major keys and grows increasingly severe with each seg­ment, ultimately sobbing and throbbing in a searing finish.

This 1961 Sinatra & Strings arrangement (an earlier Stordahl treatment was issued on V-Disc) has proven to be not only the most durable of many orchestrations by Don Costa, but in recent years has emerged as the most powerful vehicle of Mr. Very Old Blue Eyes in concert. Composer Arlen provides a perfect bridge between Sinatra and the blues: the singer evokes a gospel feeling even in a song that uses predominantly major chord and a bridge, which Sinatra really tears his teeth into. In ’61 Sinatra could hardly get as earthy as Ray Charles, whose version his alludes to in the use of solo wind players in the intro. But by the ’90s, with much of Sinatra’s chops and his ability to sustain notes gone with the wind, he puts more and more em­phasis on this tune as a vehicle to express his earthier side. While Sinatra is as tender and loving as ever, a blues-tinged under­current of aggression runs through the song today.

“Strangers in the Night” was Sinatra’s biggest selling single of the ’60s, but the singer and his audience prefer his and Nel­son Riddle’s last great collaboration, “Summer Wind.” Johnny Mercer adapted a German song, composed by Henry May­er, providing an English lyric that Perry Como first rendered in a dull country rendi­tion in 1965. The lyric describes a strong breeze that blows across Italy from North Africa, signaling the end of summer. Sinatra plays the unrequited lover, while the or­chestra and a Hammond organ share the role of the wind. Riddle has constructed a characteristically catchy hook to represent the elements, first wafting gently, then wailing in counterpoint to the singer. As Sinatra’s emotions mount, the wind lifts the music ever upward with the help of two modulations (D-flat to E-flat to F), into a hurricane crescendo, before drifting away as tenderly and cruelly as it entered. ❖

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 7, 2020