Frank Sinatra – Sings His Greatest Hits

Sings His Greatest Hits

Frank SinatraSings His Greatest Hits Legacy CK-65240 (1997)

This album makes an excellent introduction to Frank Sinatra’s music.  It’s not a perfect collection, but it features some great songs from the 1940s and early 1950s.  There are a few alternate versions and previously unreleased tracks included. I would recommend this album over the more popular Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years if you only want a single disc Sinatra collection, and also over the bloated box set The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952.  However, The Capitol Collectors Series and Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits are also good collections for later time periods (picking up both of those along with Sings His Greatest Hits would provide a fairly complete overview of his entire career — they cover basically non-overlapping periods).

Interesting aside:  did you know that “The House I Live In” was the title song to short film Sinatra starred in that was organized by the communist party?  Or that as a consequence of those sorts of activities he was barred from performing for troops during the Korean War?

Frank Sinatra – Sinatra At the Sands

Sinatra at the Sands

Frank Sinatra With Count Basie & The OrchestraSinatra At the Sands Reprise 2F 1019 (1966)

Sinatra with Count Basie, arranged by Quincy Jones — what’s not to like?  Well, for starters, Sinatra was starting to sound a little sluggish in his vocals, and the Basie Orchestra was kind of an anachronism by the 1960s.  This is music from Sinatra the institution, and as such lumbers along in adherence to a formula that leaves little room for spontaneity or individualism.  The song selection pares away the more youthful love songs in favor of quite a few about longetivity and nostalgia.  Still, even if this represents the artist past their prime, it still beats most of the lounge concert records that Broadway singers without any swing released in this era.  Not a great one, but fans will get reasonable enjoyment from it.

Frank Sinatra – Songs for Young Lovers

Songs for Young Lovers

Frank SinatraSongs for Young Lovers Capitol H-488 (1954)

Sinatra was the perfect representative for the American WWII generation.  In the 1940s, he had a somewhat frail and scrappy voice, capable of sounding very vulnerable and unsure.  He sang many maudlin pop songs.  By the 1950s, that all changed.  His voice was more confident and debonair, with a cocky sense of swing.  He recorded more music with jazzy arrangements.  Songs for Young Lovers is Sinatra accomplishing his aims flawlessly.  All of these songs are great.  The album as a whole conveys a sense of contentment, a “top-of-the-world” feeling that is unshakable.  Of course, in the aftermath of WWII, American geopolitical power peaked in the early 1950s (1951 to be exact), and the country was well into a period of unparalleled prosperity that would stretch out until the early 1970s, when Europe had rebuilt and the Third World started to fight against and (partly) overcome legacies of imperialism.

Nelson Riddle provides the arrangements and conducts.  Although there are horns, strings and a jazz combo rhythm section, the accompaniment conveys a large and full sound with relatively few performers.  It helps that almost every song has slightly different instrumentation, from electric guitar, to harp, to saxophone, to violins, piano…it is all here.  The jazz treatments aren’t innovative.  They take the best of what the genre had achieved over the last decade and distils it to a highly potent elixir.  Sinatra, for his part, is just perfectly matched to the music.  While the vocals and accompaniment do complement each other, Sinatra always finds ways to capture a listener’s attention with a whole range of techniques from brash vocal gymnastics to subtly nuanced shadings, while maintaining an impeccable sense of balance.  He can change up his approach in an instant.  In lesser hands this would come across as arrogant posturing.  For Sinatra, though, it just seems like part of a world of limitless possibilities.

The legendary jazz trumpeter and bandleader Miles Davis credited Sinatra’s singing (and Orson Welles‘ speaking voice) as being a big influence on his own playing.  Davis was onto something.  Sinatra, at least on an album like Songs for Young Lovers, absolutely commands attention.  This is a master class on how to be a star soloist.  For every riff the band offers Sinatra has one more move to offer.  The band leads, in a sense, yet Sinatra operates by his own rules and always pushes things further.  Each step comes across as effortless.  The effect is that his voice is unstoppable without ever being forceful, angry or merely loud.  Maybe he had no basis for this confidence, or was overestimating his own personal independence (never acknowledging the structural social factors that made it possible for Sinatra to sing this way, unlike, say, the European songstress Lotte Lenya on her Lotte Lenya singt Kurt Weill of the following year that relied upon a fractured, scrappy elegance), but Sinatra never once flinches and he can convince just about anyone that this is the best pop music around.  Take “The Girl Next Door,” with a part near the end in which a single violin plays a tremolo, like what accompanies silent movies in a sentimental scene with one character longing for another, supported by a gentle run on a harp, in which Sinatra comes in and calmly holds some notes to melt away the sentimentality.   He follows that song with a solid, sturdy yet smooth delivery of “Foggy Day.”

For clear-eyed delivery, Sinatra was never better.  No doubt, one of his best.

Frank Sinatra – September of My Years

September of My Years

Frank SinatraSeptember of My Years Reprise FS-1014 (1965)

A great one.  What really makes the album are the strings, arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins.  They are Sinatra’s burden.  He doesn’t sing with the strings as against them.  Rather than cater to rock music (gaining popularity over traditional pop by this point), here he’s singing lush pop songs fit for a “mature” place in life.  Many songs explore the idea of looking back.  The strings have a rather generic quality.  They are suited to the songs, but not especially tailored to Sinatra’s voice.  So when Sinatra sings, he has to sort of carry the songs over and above those strings, which are like a lifetime of baggage.  And Sinatra is a singer who can absolutely carry these things along with his voice alone.  This is Sinatra at his somber best.

Frank Sinatra – The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952

The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952

Frank SinatraThe Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952 Legacy C4K 64681 (1995)

Few singers have established themselves the way Frank Sinatra did.  He is instantly recognizable.  Even people who don’t really listen to much music, and certainly not Sinatra, probably still know who he was. He got his start in the mid 1930s as a singer with big bands, and his solo career took off in the early 1940s.  But his later career, once he had crossed over into the movies, and became associated with Las Vegas and the “rat pack”, for a long while took precedence in the popular consciousness.  So The Best of the Columbia Years 1943-1952 is an opportunity to go back to Sinatra’s formative years.  These are the recordings that helped make Sinatra Sinatra, and set up everything that came later.

There is a nearly cloistered quality to this music, particularly in the earliest songs of this batch.  It is as if that music tries to take a moment in time and encase it in a hermetically sealed vial.  Sinatra and his primary conductor and sometimes arranger of this period Axel Stordahl made music that seems to fit a particular constellation of the period of WWII and the immediate post-war period.  The gentle orchestration with sedate rhythms, with the lightest possible syncopation, horns and strings that appear at the “proper” times in response to Sinatra’s vocal statements — it all contributes to a sense of an agreed desire for safety and security.  Although the song lyrics often deal with romance and associated heartbreak, the way that Sinatra and Stordahl deal with those themes is to, in a sense, belittle them.  Heartbreak and romantic loss are trivialized.  In the aftermath of a major war, these are treated as trifling concerns, or at least ones that can be taken in stride.  A dutiful resolve is all it takes to move on from such hurts, or so it would seem from these recordings.  “The Night We Call It a Day” is emblematic of the way these songs assign a proper place to emotion.

On the other hand, the earliest songs lie in the realm of simple pleasures.  There is never a sense of pretension that this was “great” music.  These are meant to be popular tunes, a far echo of “highbrow” European classical music, though at the same time also clearly indebted to a type of orchestrated pop music with quasi-operatic bel canto singing that was still popular two decades or so earlier.  It also is nearly indistinguishable from a great deal of film music of the black and white Hollywood era before the McCarthy hearings.  The orchestration rests on very familiar and recurrent styles.  Typical is a kind of cradling effect, with swooping swells of strings embellished with vibrato.  Hushed vocal choruses back Sinatra more frequently than in the later years too.  The effect is like a velvet-lined case for a luxurious piece of jewellery.  And, make no mistake, the jewel it cradles is Sinatra’s voice.

Sinatra is still young across the first two discs.  And he has talent to spare.  His young voice had a confident tone, yet without any sort of brute force bombast or acrobatics that typically accompany confidence.  Take for instance Paul Robeson, who was another of the biggest stars on the Columbia roster in the 1940s.  Robeson had a voice that seemed like it was summoned from primordial depths, bringing with it all the aspirations, pain, suffering and joy of human existence.  An anthropologist took a Robeson recording to a non-western tribal village where the chief was impressed, which is really about the tone of Robeson’s voice alone.  The young Sinatra, on the other hand, often came across as scrappy, even waif-like (just compare him on his rendition of a song strongly associated with Robeson: “Ol’ Man River”).  He seemed to succeed and earn his confidence through wit and ingenuity alone.  It was a practiced sort of skill, something learned.  He embodies the kind of Horatio Alger myth of self-determination.  But that’s too harsh.  Sinatra was a tremendously talented singer.  His greatest assets from the beginning were a purity of tone and an impeccable sense of rhythm.  In the earliest parts of his career, these things were deployed mostly for sentimental ballads.  In that setting, he builds dramatic tensions through timing.  But really, it does seem like the occasional tracks with more of a jazzy feel, almost the opposite of the sentimental ballads, are where Sinatra shines brightest.  Jazz syncopation gave Sinatra a broader canvas on which to work out his rhythmic palate.  That was what he emphasized throughout most of the next decade at Capitol Records.

The problem is that much of this music seeks too much enjoyment in artificially limited aspirations.  In this way, this music includes within its vision contradictions.  Sinatra is sort of the emblem for American exceptionalism.  While, no doubt, Sinatra was an exceptional performer, most of his early recordings projects a sense of limiting the field of view to the point that answers appear just a little too easily.

Into the third disc, there are more showtunes and movie musical fare.  They are especially prevalent on disc four.  These songs have aged the worst.  They neither conjure a bygone era nor really contain the power to impress.

It is with the later recordings of this set — aside from the showtunes — that Sinatra seems to find his best voice.  Even with sub-par material like “American Beauty Rose,” with hackneyed New Orleans second-line brass band flourishes, the recording captures Sinatra’s impeccable sense of vocal timing and his clear-eyed delivery.  He even characteristically summons his deep, booming Jersey accent on the “O” sounds (like in the word “choose”).  It was a vocal affectation nearly as iconic as Buddy Holly‘s vocal hiccup a few years later when rock and roll broke.  “Deep Night”, recorded with Harry James‘ orchestra, with an arrangement by Ray Coniff, points more to what Sinatra would do through the rest of the 1950s.  It is more adult.  There is a jazzy feel, but it doesn’t swing hard.  This is an early peek at the Sinatra of Las Vegas.  It conjures the image of him with a drink on the rocks in his hand, surrounded by “The Clan” (the group’s own name for the Rat Pack).  These recordings lack the depth and pathos of Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958).  And nothing swings as hard and easy at his later collaborations with Nelson Riddle: Swing Easy! (1954), Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (1956), A Swingin’ Affair! (1957), etc.  But the cocksure swagger of the older Sinatra starts to be felt a little more, particularly when his renowned sense of timing blends seamlessly with a cutting sense of dynamics.  It wasn’t just that Sinatra had great rhythmic timing.  He also incorporated dynamics — going between loud and quiet volumes — to soften and smooth his delivery.  This was the secret for swinging hard and easy at the same time.  It was the signature of Sinatra’s singing at its best and most recognizable.  And in the later years he used it in a far more condensed and potent manner.  The earliest songs here find him using it on long, drawn out notes (legato), when he holds a note for a long time (sostenuto).  In the later songs he is using dynamics within short phrases, with dynamic changes happening quickly with each syllable, even without legato phrasing.

In the end, this patchwork collection of Sinatra’s first decade on his own as a recording star is decidedly uneven.  It lacks the kind of memorable songs he would record in the following decade.  Instead, much of this moves at an almost glacial pace to new styles, with handfuls of songs sounding almost indistinguishable from one another at times.  The average listener will find this four-disc collection to be very much overkill.  A far better distillation of only the best material is found on the singe-disc collection Sings His Greatest Hits (1997).