Today is the centennial anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra. William Ruhlman provides an excellent overview of Sinatra’s long career. According to William Butler Yeats, “The intellect of man is forced to choose/perfection of the life, or of the work…” If there is such a choice, there aren’t many artists to whom it is available, but Sinatra would be one, wouldn’t he?Omniscient Twin Cities deejay Pete Lee calls Sinatra “Saint Francis of Hoboken,” an appellation that situates him within the musical frame of reference.
It was Sinatra’s nearly three-year tenure with the Dorsey band that prepared him to launch his solo career in the fall of 1942. In his first post-Capitol recording on his own label, Sinatra paid tribute to Dorsey twenty years later on I Remember Tommy, his tribute to Dorsey with arrangements by former Dorsey arranger Sy Oliver. The liner notes to the I Remember Tommy compact disc quote a 1965 Life magazine interview of Sinatra:
“How in the hell did he do it? I used to sit behind him on the bandstand and watch, trying to see him sneak a breath. But I never saw the bellows move on his back. His jacket didn’t even move. Finally, after a while, I discovered that he had a ‘sneak’ pinhole in the corner of his mouth — not an actual pinhole, but a tiny place where he was breathing. In the middle of a phrase, while the tone was still being carried through the trombone, he’d go shhh and take a quick breath and play another four bars with that breath. Why couldn’t a singer do that too?”
Sinatra learned something about technique from Dorsey, but Sinatra’s technique was entirely subservient to interpretation. James Kaplan gets to the heart of the matter in the second volume of the Sinatra biography he has just published. “[A]s soon as he began singing professionally,” Kaplan explains in a related Wall Street Journal column, he started a practice that he continued throughout his career.” Kaplan quotes Sinatra:
“I take a sheet with just the lyrics. No music,” he once told the casino mogul Steve Wynn. “At that point, I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing, the words so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together.”
As we can hear with our own ears.
In a Wall Street Journal profile of songwriter Jimmy Webb several years ago, Webb simply described Sinatra’s interpretive mastery: “He took possession of the material.” As for Sinatra the man, Webb said that “to me, he was an absoute gentleman. His behavior was beyond reproach.” Webb also spoke of the experience of hearing Sinatra interpret one of Webb’s own songs:
“A couple of Christmases ago I was driving along and a song came on called ‘Whatever Happened to Christmas?’ which I had almost forgotten. I sat and listened and tears came to my eyes — he and arranger Don Costa had done such a wonderful job with my song. It was an epiphany. Saying, in effect, ‘I thought highly of you.'”
In Sinatra’s Capitol albums of the ’50s, there is a mature perfection in the singing, the arrangements and the songs themselves that sets them off in the Sinatra catalogue. Among the many, many highlights of these recordings are “Old Devil Moon” (incredible!) and “At Long Last Love” from 1956’s upbeat Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!. Sinatra’s take on Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On” (video below, the favorite recording of Sinatra aficionado Buddy Ladd) comes from 1957’s A Swingin’ Affair!
Speaking of perfection, mention should be made of In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely (1958). Sinatra recorded “One For My Baby (and One More For the Road)” several times. His classic version (below) is on the Only the Lonely album. The music is by the great Harold Arlen. The lyrics by Johnny Mercer (another artist who chose perfection of the work) come about as close to poetry as it is possible to get in popular music.
“From This Moment On” provides a striking example of the joy that suffuses Sinatra’s music. I also love “I Thought About You” (video below) from Songs for Swingin’ Lovers. We have music by Jimmy Van Heusen, lyrics again by Johnny Mercer, arrangement by Nelson Riddle, muted trumpet by Sweets Edison, and the sheer mastery of Sinatra’s understated interpretation.
The video below presents Sinatra in an unfamiliar setting, singing “I’ll Never Smile Again” with the Hi-Lo’s. The song was Sinatra’s biggest hit with Dorsey, reaching number one in 1940. On the recording Sinatra was backed by a slimmed down version of the Dorsey group called the Sentimentalists and accompanied by the Pied Pipers (including Jo Stafford).
“There was practically no band,” Stafford recalls in Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song Is You. “It was very sparse. It was a very tough idea. It was hard to hold the pitch because there was so little background from the band. You really had to mind your p’s and q’s keeping it in tune.”
The vocal arrangement of the song with the Hi-Lo’s closely follows the original, but Sinatra’s singing has achieved its mature mastery. Perfection.