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!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

#7: May swings Mercer

"Day In, Day Out" is one of the great tracks from the great album Come Dance With Me, recorded in the swingin' late '50s and arranged by the uber-swingin' Billy May.

It was a couple of decades earlier when Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom first asked these musical questions:
Can't you see it's love?
Can there be any doubt?
Let's see, a pounding heart and tingles at the thought of her. Well, yes, actually, I can think of something else that could cause that, but let's ignore that for now and revel in this exuberant evocation of new love or infatuation or whatever you want to call it, because it's three minutes and fifteen seconds of awesome:



Sometimes the smallest Frankism can add so much. His addition of "on" to "Come rain, come on shine" always makes me smile.

Mark Steyn hasn't written about this song yet but he covers it in part two of his audio tribute to Johnny Mercer, One For The Road, starting about 14 minutes in. At about 18 minutes in Mark plays part of a very lovely ballad version of DIDO arranged by Axel Stordahl that wasn't released, Mark reports, until the late 1980s.

I don't want to leave out the wonderful live version from Sinatra and Sextet Live in Paris in which Frank juices it up even more with some extra intensifiers and a very Frankish change of verb:
Then I grab your lips
And the pounding becomes
A very large ocean's roar
Just about nine thousand drums

"Day In, Day Out" is the eighth song (so far) from Come Dance With Me, the eighth song written by Johnny Mercer (so far), and the nineteenth song arranged by Billy May (yes, so far), to make my list. There will be one more to come from each of them.

Frank's birthday is on December 12th, when I'll wind it all up with my #1 favorite. Prepare to be disappointed. It's very unlikely that it's your favorite. I see that it didn't make Bob Belvedere's list at all, and Mark hasn't covered it yet and very well may not. But I love it.

***

Mark Steyn comments:
No disgrace in that. Introducing her old friend at the Royal Festival Hall in 1970, Princess Grace of Monaco marveled: "How many of us have a favorite Sinatra song! And how many of them are different songs!" There are Sinatra fans who love just the hits, and Sinatra fans who loathe the hits - "My Way", "Strangers In The Night", "New York, New York". There are Sinatra fans who love the swingers but are bored by the ballads - and vice-versa. I once heard the BBC's venerable Hubert Gregg, hosting a show on the unparalleled genius of Sinatra, linger lovingly over every aspect of the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey and Columbia days and then, just as I was looking forward to hearing what he had to say about Nelson Riddle, the show ended: as Gregg saw it, Sinatra's voice began to deteriorate in 1953, and nothing thereafter was worth bothering with. Each to his own. Frank's respective bodies of work with his principal arrangers - Stordahl, Riddle, May, Jenkins, Costa - would be more than enough to fill a greatest hits album. 
No other recording artist comes close to Sinatra's accomplishment.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

#8: Two or three teriffffic kicks

Number eight is Cole Porter's iconic "I Get A Kick Out Of You," recorded in 1953 for the album Songs for Young Lovers.

There's a fun Neal Hefti arrangement of the song but it's just a little too slick for me; there's something almost mechanical about it. I very much prefer this wonderful, gently swinging arrangement by George Siravo:



That's just right. Though not everyone agrees with me. Mark Steyn:
Bill Miller, Sinatra's longtime pianist, once told me he thought Siravo's "Kick" was "kinda square". 
Square?! I don't think so. And neither did Frank:
Maybe he [Miller] got bored with it over half-a-century. But Frank never did. And, when Miller was taking a break from Sinatra for a few years in the late Seventies/early Eighties, Frank and his replacement pianist Vincent Falcone revitalized "Kick" as a freewheeling number for rhythm section only. This was the jazziest Sinatra had been in a couple of decades, and, when he wanted something to kick around, the best kick remained "I Get A Kick Out Of You". Some get a kick from champagne and cocaine, but at 70 Frank Sinatra got a kick from an ancient George Siravo layout and kicking around with the four or five musicians he knew best.
I love it. But if that doesn't give you a boot, there's another version that might. It's the one Frank sings in 1965 in his first Man and His Music television special. It swings harder than the Siravo version but is quite different from the Hefti chart:



I'm guessing that's a Riddle arrangement. It's terriffffic, too.

Mark and Bob discuss the champagne/cocaine/from Spain/refrain, et cetera, lyric variants, here and here.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

#9: Swoon Easy!

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie wrote "You Go To My Head" in 1938. Twenty-two years later, Sinatra and Riddle worked their magic on it for their one-of-a-kind album, Nice 'N' Easy:



That's some serious magic, no? What a gorgeous arrangement from Riddle. And what a performance from Sinatra.

The song's not bad either. This line --
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
-- is one of my all-time favorites from any song.

"You Go To My Head" is a potent intoxicant from beginning to end. Some highlights from Sinatra's masterful vocal:

The word "round" --
You go to my head
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne
"the very mention of you" --
You go to my head
Like a sip of sparkling burgundy brew
And I find the very mention of you
Like the kicker in a julep or two
"makes my temperature rise" --
You go to my head
With a smile that makes my temperature rise
And then the climax:
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
You intoxicate my soul with your eyes

Am I right, ladies?

And the very last line, sung on a single low note -- it's a perfect ending.

"You Go To My Head" is not quite what you'd expect from the songwriting team that came up with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."  I'm hoping to hear from Mark Steyn, who has in fact recorded the latter song, on this one.

(There's an earlier Axel Stordahl version. The melody sounds quite different. Did Riddle alter it when he wrote his arrangement?)

Friday, November 20, 2015

#10: Just one of those perfect things

Fanfare, please, as we get into my top ten favorite Sinatra songs.

Here are Frank and Nelson Riddle, swingin' easy with Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things," the first song from their first real album together. I can't think of any word but perfect to describe Riddle's arrangement and Sinatra's vocal, perfectly paired to each other and to the song:



Regrets, the guy may have a few, but they don't penetrate much below the skin; the style is too breezy and cool for someone with a broken heart.

But Mr. Porter has written a complex song, and it all depends on how you approach it, as Sinatra points out during a 1961 show at the Sands:
This is a song that you wouldn't consider a sad song . . . normally, I mean, because of the way you hear it done [. . .]. But when you hear it this way it really has a different connotation. 
And there's nothing breezy about what follows -- a softly sung, pensive vocal  accompanied only by Bill Miller's piano. (That's from the new multi-disc Vegas set which includes the 1961 live show. I haven't worked my way through all the discs yet but the '61 performance is primo. Tracks listed below.)

Frank goes in the opposite direction on Sinatra '57, tossing in a "mothery" and switching out a whole "yes, it was one of those things" for one long, low, growly "yeahhhhhhhh."

Here's another great take on the song from the movie Young at Heart. It falls somewhere between the sad, saloony Sands version and Riddle's easy-swingin' chart:



Coming soon is #9, which, unlike the previous four songs, will not be a Cole Porter tune.

***

Sinatra at the Sands, November 1961:

The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else
Don't Cry Joe
Imagination
Moonlight In Vermont
Without A Song
In The Still Of The Night
Here's That Rainy Day
The Moon Was Yellow
You Make Me Feel So Young
The Second Time Around
River, Stay 'Way From My Door (parody)
The Lady Is A Tramp
Just One Of Those Things
You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You
Young At Heart
Witchcraft
On The Road To Mandalay


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

#11: Concentrated awesomeness

Fasten your seat-belts for this 1960 Riddle arrangement, souped-up at Sinatra's demand, of Cole Porter's glorious 1939 creation, "I Concentrate On You":



Mark Steyn has made this one easy for me:
This is Nelson Riddle less in his famous "tempo of the heartbeat" and closer to Billy May's hard swing. "Concentrate" is one concentrated blast, starting with Riddle's tip of the hat to André Previn, the main theme of whose goofy beatnik anthem of a couple of years earlier, "Like Young", provides the arrangement with a driving vamp, Sinatra takes his cue and gives a three-exclamation album a four-nay fire:

When fortune cries "Nay, nay, nay, nay" to me
And people declare that you're through...

The nays have it! Bad mood or not, Frank certainly responded to the band. Riddle, unusually, had written in some bongos - unusually for Sinatra, that is: he used bongos a lot when he wrote for Judy Garland. But the singer sure taps into them. It's a wild two-and-a-quarter minutes and Sinatra is seriously juiced by the time he returns for the outro :

And so when wise men say to me
That love's young dream never comes true
To prove... The wise men can be wrong
I Concentrate On You...

I infiltrate...

Concentrate...

On you...

And back to that Previn vamp to close. His harmonic sense and his phrasing - the pause on that "wise men" line - are so surefooted it doesn't matter that you're never quite certain what he means by "I infiltrate".
Yes, "infiltrate" is baffling, but who cares. And YES, Frank's timing before and after "to prove"(coming in a shade early, then the perfect pause that follows) is an exceedingly satisfying musical moment.

This is the tenth Cole Porter song (so far!) to make my list. I'm going to have to quote Mark again to explain Porter's greatness. First, this analysis of the rhyme scheme, which warms my English-major heart:
Porter was a flamboyant and exhibitionist rhymester, but here he rhymes in a complex but very subtle way. They're rhymes across the quatrains: "grey to me" rhymes with "'Nay, nay' to me" 16 bars later, and then with "say to me" after the release. Likewise, "brew" rhymes with "through" rhymes with "true". And "strong" with "song" and "wrong". "Sunny Side Of The Street" does something similar - "Just direct your feet... Life can be so sweet... Gold dust at my feet..." - but on a far less ambitious scale and on a conventional tune of eight-bar rather than 16-bar sections. Porter's using rhyme here mainly to support the musical architecture and help with the forward momentum, but unlike, say, "You're The Top" you're not meant to notice them, or be aware of them. But it's awfully skillful writing.
Yes indeed. And then there's the emotional content:
Porter wrote more ardently than most of his contemporaries, and his best love songs are really about obsession: "This torment won't be through/Till you let me spend my life making love to you..." "I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near..." "So taunt me and hurt me/Deceive me, desert me..." Well, if you insist.

"I Concentrate On You" operates on the slightly less psychologically unhealthy fringes of that territory.
And, finally, Mr. Porter knew how to put words and music together for maximum effect:
You can only write at that heightened level of passion when the melody and harmony are good enough to support the sentiment. His always are.
Sinatra recorded "Concentrate" early on as a ballad with an Axel Stordalh arrangement. And in 1967 Frank and Antonio Jobim did an awesome bossa nova version. But for me there's no contest: the Riddle version is unbeatable. (More on Sinatra's truly excellent, not-to-be-missed work with Jobim here, here, and here.)

(This is our fourth pick from SSS!!!, a must-have for every Sinatra fan.)

Monday, November 16, 2015

#12: Delight in domesticity

Intense delight, that is. From 1957's A Swingin' Affair, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," an underrated jewel from the Sinatra/Riddle/Porter songbook:



This is one gorgeous piece of writing:
You'd be so nice to come home to 
You'd be so nice by the fire 
While the breeze on high sang a lullaby 
You'd be all that I could desire

Under stars chilled by the winter 
Under an August moon burning above 
You'd be so nice, you'd be paradise 
To come home to and love
What woman doesn't want to hear that she's "all that I could desire"? And Frank, as usual, is very convincing.

I get a strong visual image from Porter's lyrics, kind of a Chagall-esque view from "on high" of a swirly, deep-blue, star-filled sky, a little house beneath it, and then, somehow looking right through the roof, a couple inside snuggled in front of the fire.

The arrangement is classic Riddle, building in intensity as the song progresses, with the same wonderful intensification from Sinatra.

But he came close to sabotaging it. Listen closely to the very end of the song. You'll probably have to turn up the volume. If Frank had added his little comment at regular volume he would have broken the spell. I'm so glad he didn't.

Stay tuned for more Cole Porter.



Sunday, November 15, 2015

#13: Sinatra noir

Tired of Cole Porter yet? I hope not, because there's a lot more CP to come. Here's my eighth Porter-Sinatra favorite:



Mr. Porter wrote "What Is This Thing Called Love?" in 1929. Twenty-six years later Sinatra and Riddle made the above masterpiece, early in their partnership. I have to quote Mark Steyn's piece on the song, which he featured as #10 on his Sinatra 100 list:
By contrast with the music, the words are simple, at least by Porter's standards - no flashy rhymes, no wordplay, no allusions or imagery. On the page they can look rather trite - one wonderful day you threw my heart away:

That's why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What Is This Thing Called Love?

But Porter knew what he was doing: The words are simple, but the music tells you that the answer to the question is complex and profound and ultimately unknowable. Its the combination of unaffected directness in the lyric and great depth in the music that gives the song its power.
Powerful and beautiful. Read all of Mark's essay.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

#14: "The sound he was born to sing"

"I've Got The World On A String" was already twenty years old when Frank Sinatra made his iconic single with Nelson Riddle in 1953, an event which ignited a creative relationship for the ages:



From Mark Steyn's great essay on the song:
Frank Sinatra liked "World On A String" and had been singing it on stage for a year or so, including using it as an opener for his run at the Chez Paree in Chicago. But it had never sounded like it did in the Melrose Avenue studio on April 30th 1953. At the end of the first run-through, Sinatra seemed puzzled. Alan Dell came in from the booth to adjust a microphone or replace a cable or whatever and, as Alan told it to me many years ago, Frank buttonholed him and said, "Hey, who wrote that thing?"

Alan replied, "He did," and indicated the conductor: "Nelson Riddle."

"Beautiful!" said Frank. "Let's do another." And so was born perhaps the greatest singer/arranger partnership in popular music.
You gotta love this: it was suspected that "ballad boy" couldn't swing! Mark writes:
It was Alan Livingston and Voyle Gilmore who thought Riddle's jazz side would be perfect for Sinatra. Some of the musicians, until that April 30th session, weren't so sure. "Sinatra hadn't done much of that at Columbia," Milt Bernhart, his trombonist, said. "It was mostly lush string arrangements... There wasn't any reason to believe he could really handle the jazz phrasing correctly, because most of what he'd been doing was so square."

You heard that right: Milt Bernhart, who would go on to do the all-time great trombone solo on "I've Got You Under My Skin", thought Sinatra was a square. Frankie was a pretty little ballad boy, and he could sound aggressive and faintly menacing on rowdy novelties like "Bim Bam Baby", but who's to say this square could swing? "I wasn't convinced that he was going to be able to sing jazz style," said Bernhart. "I didn't know him that way at all..."

"I've Got The World On A String" is two minutes and change. When did Bernhart figure Mister Squaresville could groove with the cats after all? Maybe 30 seconds in:

I got a song that I sing 
I can make the rain go... 

The little spin he puts on "make" lets you know this is the sound he's been waiting for, the sound he was born to sing. 
I always start smiling right here:
What a world, what a life, I'm in love
Bob Belvedere ranks "String" at a rarefied #8 and loves it for its optimism:
This is Francis Albert announcing to the world that he’s back for his Second Act and he’s taking no prisoners. A joyous and eternally upbeat song, if it doesn’t lift your spirits then, man, get to the Doc’s right away — there’s something cloggin’ your noggin’.
And I think the advice is sound: Don't be a silly so-and-so -- hang on tight to that string!

This is our third song by the songwriting team of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. The exquisitely weary "Ill Wind" comes in at #65 and the terrically exuberant "Let's Fall In Love" is my #23.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

#15: Frank and Peggy: Who could ask for anything more?

Sinatra made a couple of studio recordings of George and Ira Gershwin's "Nice Work If You Can Get It," written in 1937 for a Fred Astaire film with a PG Wodehouse connection.

Much as I love Sinatra's work with Basie, their treatment of "Nice Work" leaves me totally cold. I vastly prefer the 1957 version from the Riddle-arranged A Swingin' Affair:



But this performance, ladies and gentlemen, is the crème de la crème:



(It's hard to look at Peggy and not think of cream.)

This duet dates from 1957 when the fabulous Miss Lee was a guest on Sinatra's ABC TV show. It has been preserved for the ages on Classic Duets, available (used copies only) on both CD and DVD. Either or both are well worth owning, as is any music produced by Frank during this period.

Nelson Riddle worked on the show as the conductor of a large orchestra, so I'm assuming he's responsible for the lovely, very spare arrangement which adds enormously to the intimacy of the performance. They could have used the Swingin' Affair arrangement or something similar, but someone -- a genius -- decided that just piano and a little percussion were all that was needed.

Sure, the singers make some little mistakes here and there, like early on when it seems that Frank expects Peggy to come in but she doesn't, or that charming little flub at the end which Peggy fixes so gracefully with "you show me and I'll tell you." Even Frank's ad-libbed jokes don't break the spell of romance and intimacy, at least not for me. Do not miss the very beginning when Frank scoots over to get cozy with Peggy, who's looking demurely down and away from him. Another highlight: Peggy's "ooh" and Frank's response. It's all pure gold.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

#16: One of Cole Porter's favorite songs

But "Just In Time" wasn't one of Mr. Porter's creations. It was written in 1956 by Jule Styne (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (words) for the musical Bells Are Ringing. A few years later, with the help of Billy May and some great musicians, Sinatra recorded this:



I've always wished that, in addition to this Billy May version, Frank had done a quieter recording of "Just In Time," along the lines of George Siravo's 1954 arrangement of "I Get A Kick Out Of You." I can just hear it. (More on "IGAKOOY" soon.)

But, as it turns out, there is an earlier recorded version, though it's nothing like the gently swinging track of my imagination. It's an earlier May arrangement and can be had and heard by purchasing the Australian version of The Ultimate Sinatra (I got mine on Ebay). I find the arrangement a little wonky, especially in the beginning with all those ups and downs. Another strike against it is the Frankism near the end, in which our hero substitutes "and changed my lonely life" with "and changed my very dull life that lovely day." Doesn't that undermine the entire point of the song, that love came just in time and made life not merely more interesting or exciting, but worth living? This guy's life was saved by love:
Just in time
I found you just in time
Before you came my time
Was running low

I was lost
The losing dice were tossed
My bridges all were crossed
Nowhere to go

Now you're here
And now I know just where I'm going
No more doubt or fear
I've found my way
"Just In Time" is Bob Belvedere's #82. He writes:
Those of us who didn’t find true love until middle age can relate to this one. ‘Nowhere to go’ became ‘I found my way’…just in time. Billy May’s arrangement sparkles like the Fourth Of July.
Well that just makes me smile.

Mark Steyn, who writes the definitive piece on the song, likes the newly-released version more than I do:
They recorded it on December 9th 1958. But a couple of weeks earlier Sinatra and May had laid down another version, a little faster still. It's a looser version of what would become the finished arrangement, with much more pizzicato jumping around on Styne's musical seesaw. This first run-through dances with a fizziness that matches the rest of the album, although at that clip Frank sounds at times as if he's having a little difficulty settling in the saddle. "I can hear Dad's wheels spinning," said Tina Sinatra of this first "Just In Time". I'd never heard it until a few months ago when it was released as a bonus track with the Sinatra centenary box set - but only in certain territories and formats. So you can get it as a download in Slovenia or on a cassette in Belarus or whatever. But, when you find it and hear it, you won't forget it. It was evidently a little out of Frank's comfort zone, so Billy May slowed it down and smoothed it out. And the rewrite pretty much supplanted all other versions of the song. Yet that original session strikes me as much closer both to the rest of the Come Dance With Me! album and to Jule Styne's original Vincent Youmans inspiration.

Still, you can't argue with Sinatra's vocal on the modified chart. He made his own adjustments, too, notably to the emotional peak of the song - "Now I know just where I'm going" - lowering "I'm" to C so that the D of "go-" would seem more climactic. But Styne told me he never cared much for Sinatra's record, mainly because Sinatra had told him he didn't care much for the tune. So then they didn't speak again for another year or so.

Both men were wrong. Pace Styne, it's a great record of what, pace Sinatra, is a great tune. Cole Porter told Jule it was one of his all-time favorite songs, and it was the one the composer was always happy to hear the band strike up when he walked into a nightclub.
Read the rest. And stay tuned for #15. (Hint: It's a duet.)

Monday, November 2, 2015

#17: "Only hoop-dee-doo songs"

"From This Moment On" is a perfect jewel from subtle beginning to intense finish:



Nelson Riddle outdoes himself with this arrangement and Sinatra's performance is nothing short of tremendous. He invests a great deal of feeling in the recording, proving that a song doesn't have to be a ballad to move the listener emotionally. When, near the end, he sings "we'll be riding high, babe," there's a vulnerability in his voice, born of his joy, that makes me worry just a little that he and his love may be riding for a fall. But that's probably just me. Overall, it's an ecstatically optimistic, hoop-dee-doo song and I love it.

Written in 1951 by the great Cole Porter.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

#18: A fancy well worth thinking of

Cole Porter may or may not have written "At Long Last Love" as he lay waiting for help in the immediate aftermath of having his legs crushed by a horse in a horrific riding accident. But we know for sure that it was written for the 1938 flop You Never Know. Two decades later, Frank and Nelson got their hands on it and recorded it for A Swingin' Affair:



I'm not sure why I rate this song so highly. Maybe it's the premise: a guy who's been waiting for love for a long, long time, and whose hopes have been raised, along with doubts. I also like Mr. Porter's elegant language: the title phrase, and words like "lark" and "fancy." I guess there's no way we could bring those back into usage? I didn't think so.

The arrangement is classic Riddle, starting gently and building in the usual gratifying way:
Is it an earthquake [pow]
or simply a shock [bop]?
I love the way Sinatra sings "or is it merely the mock?" And he finishes so strong:
Is it a fancy not worth thinking of?
Or is it at long, long, long last love?
I think it's the real thing. Go for it.

Frank did another recording of "ALLL" in 1962, this one arranged with verve by Neal Hefti for Sinatra and Swingin' Brass. Bob B. likes it better, and it surely swings, but I can't quite warm up to it; the emotional content just isn't there for me.

A couple of other takes: Here's the Live in Paris version which swings with just a sextet and in which "cocktail" becomes "whisky." And here's a fun TV performance, using the Riddle arrangement, that swings from the top. And another here. Enjoy.