Sunday, January 3, 2016

Favorite Sinatra albums, et cetera

Happy New Year, Sinatra fans! Because, due to the looming Christmas holiday and other obligations, I was barely able to drag myself over the finish line with my #1 song, I dropped all things Sinatra rather abruptly on December 12th. Now that I've come up for air, I'd like to tie up a few loose ends and maybe start posting my second hundred Sinatra favorites (in no particular order), as time permits.

But first, some more lists. Here are Bob Belvedere's top ten albums:

#10: Swing Along With Me
#9: Nice 'n' Easy
#8: I Remember Tommy
#7: Where Are You?
#6: Ring-A-Ding Ding!
#5: Swing Easy!
#4: All Alone
#3: Come Dance With Me!
#2: No One Cares
#1: Songs for Swingin' Lovers!

I thought sure he'd have a Basie album in there.

Here's my top twenty, or eighteen, depending on how you count them. Four of Bob's top ten made my top five:

#20 Sinatra's Sinatra

#19 Sinatra and Swingin' Brass

#18 It Might As Well Be Swing

#17 Come Swing With Me!

#16 Come Fly With Me

#15 I Remember Tommy

#14 Swing Along With Me

#13 & 12 Songs for Young Lovers/Swing Easy! (originally two separate albums but only available together on CD)

#11 & 10: Sinatra-Jobim
Frank did two albums with Antonio Jobim but the second one wasn't released until much later and then only as half of a set with the first. If I had to do it over again, I'd include two songs from the first one ("Change Partners" and "Dindi") and three from the second ("Wave," "Desafinado," and "Drinking Water").

#9 Sinatra-Basie

#8 Only the Lonely

#7 Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!!

#6 In the Wee Small Hours

#5 Nice 'n' Easy

#4 A Swingin' Affair!

#3 Come Dance With Me!

#2 Songs for Swingin' Lovers!

#1 Ring-a-Ding Ding!

The top two are virtually a tie, but RDD scored 12 songs on my list, beating SSL by two. But in my heart they're both at the top.

Mark Steyn has been busy producing Sinatra audio specials. You can find links to all of them here. I'm so far behind that I haven't even listened to them all yet. But I'll catch up soon.

As I mentioned previously, Cole Porter wins hands-down as the top composer on my list. Here's the rundown:

Cole Porter: 13
Sammy Cahn: 11
Jimmy Van Heusen: 10
(Cahn and Van Heusen together: 8)
Johnny Mercer: 9
Irving Berlin: 9
George and Ira Gershwin: 5
Dorothy Fields: 4
Jerome Kern: 4
Jule Styne: 4
Harold Arlen: 4

If you're interested in any particular songwriters you can look for them in the labels list on the side. (Scroll down.)

I thought it would be interesting to tabulate the songs by date of composition and identify the golden decade of the American songbook:

1910s: One song
1920s: 10
1930s: 41!
1940s: 19
1950s: 22
1960s: 7

No contest -- the Thirties were the greatest.

I'll be back soon with some more favorites.


Saturday, December 12, 2015

#1: Sinatra, here to stay

George and Ira Gershwin wrote "Love Is Here To Stay" in the late '30s for the film The Goldwyn Follies. It was the last song written by George, who died of a brain tumor in 1937. Ira was left behind to complete the song alone and wrote the words while he was still grieving -- the show had to go on. They say the song is Ira's expression of his unending love for his brother. But it's also a regular-old love song. Here's how it was done in the movie:



Thank goodness Sinatra was born a baritone.

Now compare and contrast:



There's magic in there. Riddle's classically Riddle-esque arrangement and Frank's vocal -- and what prime voice he was in! -- exude so much warmth. And, of course, it swings, sweetly, this time; between choruses, can't you just see the couples swaying and swishing on the dance floor?

For me, the song is about the constancy and permanence of married love, and couples who've gone "a long, long way" together can perhaps appreciate it best. That stuff about the Rockies and Gibraltar crumbling and tumbling may strike us, almost eighty years later, as worn-out, corny old lines, But I think Ira nailed a profound truth: all that solid, seemingly "permanent" stuff, isn't, really. It's just "made of clay," as are we. But love is transcendent, and it's really all that matters.

If you find my #1 a bit of a letdown, think of it like a Sinatra song that peaks about seven-eighths of the way through and then comes in, as Mark Steyn says, for a soft, sweet landing.

In case you missed them, here are the other 99:


Happy Birthday, Frank! We love you!

***
Over at SteynOnline, Mark has "a cornucopia of print and audio delights" for your pleasure this birthday weekend. And don't forget to visit Ms EBL and Bob Belvedere, who've paid their own faithful tribute to The Voice all year long. I regret that I wasn't able to comment on much of it, or even to link to it all. I just couldn't keep up. But it's all there, and there's no reason not to extend your Frank-a-bration into the next year, savoring it all at your leisure.

***
Sinatra, a Catholic, was born on an important feast day. Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray for Francis Albert Sinatra.

Friday, December 11, 2015

#2: This one will grab you . . .

. . . oh, you know where. Cole Porter finishes strong here with "I've Got You Under My Skin."

Frank Sinatra first got under mine on Christmas night of 2004. That's when I popped my new Man and His Music DVD into the machine. The first number instantly sealed the deal between me and Frank. Unlike the guy in the song, I didn't try at all not to give in:



At 2:38 in, listen for the greatest and ever sung!

It took me a while to realize that this great performance, so very dear to my heart as my first real Sinatra favorite, was missing something -- just the entire, iconic Milt Bernhart trombone solo from Nelson Riddle's groundbreaking arrangement for Songs for Swingin' Lovers. Here it is:



Mark Steyn on how it all came about:
As always on his best work, he knew what he wanted, telling Nelson Riddle, "I want a long crescendo."

"I don't think he was aware," said Riddle, "of the way I was going to achieve that crescendo, but he wanted an instrumental interlude that would be exciting and carry the orchestra up and then come on down where he would finish out the arrangement vocally." 
Go read Mark's story of the recording session. It took twenty-two takes and a box fetched by Sinatra himself for Bernhart to stand on, but they got it right in the end.

Sinatra recorded "Skin" again in 1963 for Sinatra's Sinatra, again with the Riddle arrangement. The main difference is that Sinatra's vocal is edgier:



Mr. Bernhart wasn't available to reprise his solo so trombonist Dick Nash took it on. Will Friedwald quotes Mr. Nash:
Of course, everyone has to end that solo with the phrase that Milt uses . . . which is Milt's trademark. I felt you had to use that, it fits the tune so well.
Friedwald adds:
Sinatra gets "damn well" animatedly aggressive here . . . . (p 260)
Yes, he does, and I prefer it to the kinder, gentler original version, probably because it's basically the same as the Man and His Music version, the one I fell for first.

The Sinatra at the Sands performance is terrific, too. Run for cover!



That adds up to thirteen Cole Porter songs on this list, making it legit to say he's my favorite songwriter. Here are the previous twelve:

#77: Anything Goes

#63: In The Still Of The Night

#62: You Do Something To Me

#26: You'd Be So Easy To Love

#22: Night And Day

#18: At Long Last Love

#17: From This Moment On

#13: What Is This Thing Called Love?

#12: You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To

#11: I Concentrate On You

#10: Just One Of Those Things

#8: I Get A Kick Our Of You

Not only are there more songs here by Mr. Porter than by anyone else, but nine of them made my top twenty-six picks, constituting roughly a third of the top quarter and making him the hands-down winner. What is it in Cole Porter's songs that grabs me (and the rest of the world)? Well, his songwriting is witty, elegant, clever, romantic, mellifluous. But the best descriptors come from Mark Steyn: ardent and intense:
A lyric is not merely a matter of the right words, but the right words for those notes, and, when the music demanded it, Cole was unashamed to be ardent. I had a few conversations with Alan Jay Lerner, author of Camelot and My Fair Lady, about Porter, and the word Lerner always used was "passion". Nobody would ever describe Ira Gershwin or Irving Berlin as a "passionate" writer, but Porter was, and when he had the melodic and harmonic end working overtime he let the lyric verbalize them. 
He adds:
Porter was also sufficiently deferential to his passion to let it dictate the form of the song. As Stephen Citron notes, most composers and lyricists use the middle section - the bridge, the release - as an exercise in contrast . . . [Porter's] releases aren't contrasts, but intensifications. 
Sinatra and Riddle were all about intensifying, too, and nowhere do they do it better than in their treatment of the very ardent "I've Got You Under My Skin."

One more day and one more song yet to come. Mark has gotten up to #98 of his Sinatra Century and I'm very eager to see what he's chosen as his last two songs.

***
As I mention below, I goofed (must've looked at an older draft of my list) and mixed up the order of the previous two songs. I thought about leaving them as is but I just couldn't. Apologies for any confusion and broken links.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

#3: Guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end?

I think you know the answer to that -- it's the "Summer Wind,"* a late masterpiece (the latest-written song on this list) from the Sinatra/Riddle/Mercer body of work:



Oh, Nelson. Thank you. That was lovely. It swings, but at the perfect tempo, slowish but not too slow.

Johnny Mercer's words, written "along the same theme" as the original German lyrics by Hans Bradtke, reveal a songwriter at the top of his game. All those vivid visual images -- of golden sand, painted kites, a blue umbrella sky -- make it special. But it's the emotional content, the story of love and loss, so deftly rendered, that makes it great. The loss is grievous but the lyrics never approach the maudlin,* though certainly we feel the man's pain -- he lost her, and his lonely days and nights "never end":
The summer wind came blowin' in from across the sea
It lingered there, to touch your hair and walk with me
All summer long we sang a song and then we strolled that golden sand
Two sweethearts and the summer wind

Like painted kites, those days and nights they went flyin' by
The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you
I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind

The autumn wind, and the winter winds they have come and gone
And still the days, those lonely days, they go on and on
And guess who sighs his lullabies through nights that never end
My fickle friend, the summer wind

The summer wind
Warm summer wind
Mmm, the summer wind
Ditto, of course, for Sinatra, whose maturity adds something essential to the performance. The year was 1966, making him just about fifty when he recorded it. I can't imagine a young person getting it right. It feels like a song by, for, and about grown-ups.

Coincidentally, Bob ranks "Summer Wind" in the number four position, too. Mark hasn't written about it yet but I'll be very surprised if he doesn't. I'm counting on him to discuss Mercer's intricate, wonderfully effective rhyme scheme. (My favorite rhyme might be sighs/lullabies. Feels so good.) Watch the sidebar for a link to his essay when it comes. I'll update this post with the link, as well, and add one or two choice excerpts.

*There's an earlier version of the lyrics that actually does descend into self-pity, thereby ruining the entire effect of the song. (I found it in this book.) Will Freidwald on that:
"Summer Wind" was recorded that year [1965] by Perry Como in a deadly dull, teutonic hillbilly treatment whose only plus is that the touching second chorus (unsung by Sinatra) is included. (p 273)
I guess one fan's "touching" is another's maudlin. I for one am very grateful that Mr. Mercer re-wrote his lyrics. If you really want to hear Mr. Como's version (and you probably don't) you can find it on YouTube.

(I credit this Mastercard commercial featuring the song for sparking my interest in Sinatra about a decade ago. I heard that voice and that sound and needed to hear more.)

*I mixed up my #3 and #4, now corrected. Like it matters. :)

#4: Let him sing, and swing, forevermore

"Fly Me To The Moon"* was written by Bart Howard in 1954. Ten years later, with an out-of-this-world arrangement by Quincy Jones, the star-powered Count Basie band, and his own stellar performance, Sinatra planted his flag and made it his own:



Mark Steyn tells us that it started out as a ballad, but it didn't "take flight" until Frank and Q got ahold of it:
Frank knew what he wanted that day. Quincy Jones' arrangement didn't build: It started with the band at full strength, and there they stayed. "I dunno," said the singer, after the run-through. "Up there at the beginning, it sounds a little dense, Q." So Jones told most of the guys to sit out the first bars and leave it to Frank and the rhythm. Sonny Payne's brushes set the tempo, Basie provides a couple of plinks an octave apart, and there's Sinatra:

Fly Me To The Moon...

And suddenly Bart Howard's sideways cabaret ballad is head on and literal: it flies to the moon, a love song for the space age, a wild ride with a well-stocked wet-bar.
Read the rest. It's all there.

Frank opened his second Man and His Music TV special with it, adding some heavy drama up front (is this the original "dense" intro?) to match the drama of the camera panning up from under the stage for the big reveal of . . . The Man! And his Music! I prefer the studio recording, especially the quieter but jazzier intro, but I'm very attached to this performance. Even Ed McMahon's introduction (edited out here) can't ruin it for me:



I do regret that he sang "life" instead of "spring" -- "Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars" is such an evocative line.

There are lots of great live versions out there. I think this one is particularly terrific:



*Yeah, I mixed up my #3 and #4, so I fixed it. It's a good thing this is almost over. :)

Sunday, December 6, 2015

#5: Someday, when you're awfully low, when the world is cold . . .

. . . just play this record and you'll feel a whole lot better. "The Way You Look Tonight" was written in 1936 by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for the Astaire-Rogers movie Swing Time. Almost three decades later it was arranged by Nelson Riddle for Sinatra's Days of Wine and Roses album:



It's Bob Belvedere's #6 pick:
Mrs. B. and I always dance to this recording when it’s played at weddings — it’s one of Our Songs.
I know they aren't alone. "The Way You Look Tonight" has it all.

Mark Steyn, in his great piece on the song, quotes Miss Fields, one of his favorite songwriters, on the melody her partner had written:
"The first time Jerry played that melody for me, I went out and started to cry," Dorothy Fields recalled. "The release absolutely killed me. I couldn't stop, it was so beautiful."
It surely is beautiful, and her lyrics are deeply romantic. Mark on the release:
The middle section - the release - keeps the song's flowing quality. Most composers will opt for contrast - a legato middle following a choppy, staccato main theme - but Kern's "release" seems just that: a natural development of the principal strain, moving in the sheet from E flat to G flat and then noodling back in one of those quintessentially Kern transitions:

With each word your tenderness grows
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose
Touches my foolish heart...

That's beautifully poised. The lyric trembles on the brink of grandiosity, but then settles for a rueful, human, goofy sentiment - the potentially overblown fear-tearing balanced by the nose-wrinkling, an image of great intensity and intimacy and true tenderness. Lesser writers were wont to give serious love songs to the serious love interest and funny songs to the comedy couple and ne'er the twain shall meet. But most of us are serious and funny, romantic and hokey, sensuous and foolish all at the same time – and few songs walk that tightrope as adroitly as this one.
And in the hands of Sinatra and Riddle, the whole lovely thing swings, awesomely. Mark Steyn again:
"Once while I was driving," said the trumpeter Zeke Zarchy, "I heard an old record by Frank and Nelson, and I had to get out of the car and call the radio station. It was 'The Way You Look Tonight", the greatest thing I have ever heard! I defy any instrumentalist to swing like he does with his voice on that record."
How about the way Frank comes in with that last "lovely"? I wait for it every time, and it never fails to satisfy.

On the humming near the end, Will Friedwald, author of Sinatra! The Song Is You, writes:
"The Way You Look Tonight"[...] finds the two men [Sinatra and Riddle] making particularly effective use of the extralyrical four-note "humming" phrase that Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern incorporated in the melody. The strings play it in a slightly different register at the end of each A section until the end of the track. At that point, Sinatra, who has rarely exuded so much energy, warmth, and vitality, splits the phrase with the ensemble as if they were breaking open a bottle of Chianti Classico together. (p 262-3)
That humming is friend @paulgallagher's favorite part of the whole song. I like it, too. It's perfect.

Be sure to read all of Mark's essay, which includes some advice on love from The Man himself (Sinatra, not Steyn). I'll be back soon with more crème de la crème from the Sinatra songbook.

***Do not miss Mark's latest podcast, The Song Is You, episode one, A SteynOnline Sinatra Century Audio Special. Can't wait for episode two!***

Thursday, December 3, 2015

#6: A beautiful rhapsody of love and youth and spring

"The Song Is You" was written in the golden age of the American standard, the 1930s, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Sinatra rescued it from obscurity, recording it as a ballad in the '40s and again for the ebulliently-swinging 1958 album Come Dance With Me, arranged by the great Billy May:



That arrangement doesn't just swing; it swings with the ecstasy of love -- "of love and youth and spring." I don't think I had ever even heard of "The Song Is You" until 2005, when, in a fevered Sinatra-induced ecstasy of my own, I got my hands on Songs for Swingin' Lovers, Ring-a-Ding Ding!, and Come Dance With Me. The music was like the elixir of life, like main-lining happiness, like a new planet swimming into my ken, et cetera. That voice, that sound, created by those great arrangers and those incredibly skilled musicians, and those songs! In short, the music was sweet and the words were true.

Mark Steyn, in this must-read piece, explains the song's history and why it was such an important one for Sinatra. His early recordings of it ended with a high, falsetto F:
And then somewhere along the way he junked the falsetto exhibitionism, and in the definitive ballad treatments he recorded in 1946 and 1947 he brings the song gently down to earth on that final "you", soft and warm and intimate: The words are true. He seems to have intuited that the falsetto was about singing, whereas the revised ending was about the song - and the story. It would become his preferred style - If you're going to do big notes and vocal pyrotechnics, do 'em three-quarters of the way in, and then come in for a soft landing, as he does even on the swingiest swingers, like "I've Got You Under My Skin". Through his many treatments of "The Song Is You" in that first half-decade as a solo singer, you can hear Sinatra learning his art.
Oh, yes. Sinatra does that three-quarters thing over and over again in his best songs, with dazzling effect.

And Mark on the real Sinatra -- balladeer or swinger?
Which is the real Sinatra "Song Is You"? The tender, vulnerable, delicate Axel Stordahl arrangement? Or the ring-a-ding-dingin' Billy May? Answer: Both. Two sides of the same man - and the same song. And, in fact, those two arrangements define what a standard is: You can do it soft and legato, or brassy and jumpin'. There's no correct way, other than what the performer hears in it: in that sense, the song is you. But it's worth listening to those two takes side by side. Sometimes there's a definitive ballad treatment of a standard, and sometimes there's a definitive up-tempo treatment of a standard, and sometimes they're by the same guy: Frank Sinatra, a man who did more than anyone to establish the very concept of the standard song.
It would be fun to make a list of songs Frank sang, terrifically, both ways. A few that appear on my list: Night And Day, I'll Be Seeing You, Where Or When, I Concentrate On You, and the recently added Day In, Day Out. I usually prefer the up-tempo take and sometimes I can almost hear in my mind's ear a swinging version of a particular ballad, for example, the gorgeous "Prisoner Of Love." Seriously! Frank could have swung it!