Saturday, January 31, 2015

#92: An upbeat song about feeling bad

"Learnin' the Blues" by Dolores Silvers:

A #1 hit for Frank in 1955, it must have been a great jukebox song. You can find it on the Capitol Singles Collection or just get the individual track here.

Frank swings it again later with Basie but I prefer this Nelson Riddle arrangement.

I'm updating to add a link to Mark Steyn's definitive piece on this great song and its surprisingly controversial history. Here's Mark on the two versions:
It's an up song about feeling down, with four terrific trumpeters - Harry "Sweets" Edison, Conrad Gozzo, Manny Klein, and Mickey Mangano - blowing very cool, and Frank Flynn, the guy who wallops that monster gong on "Road To Mandalay", taking over on vibes for the last part of the first chorus. And it was a big hit: Number Two in Britain, Number Two on the Cashbox charts, Number Two on the Billboard bestsellers chart, and Number One on Billboard's airplay chart, where on July 16th it got knocked off by "Rock Around The Clock" and then came roaring back and toppled Bill Haley from the top spot on July 23rd. That's to say, it held its own with a record that wasn't merely a hit but came to embody the triumph of a new and dominant form that would crush the music Sinatra loved. "Learnin' The Blues" isn't rock'n'roll, but it has an insistence and energy that matches anything Haley's Comets can offer. Ben Barton was so impressed he gave Stanley Cooper a $100 bonus.

Frank liked "Learnin' The Blues" and seven years later he remade it on his first LP with Count Basie. This is one of the great vocal albums in the entire history of recorded music, and Neal Hefti's arrangements are spectacular - on "I Won't Dance", "Pennies From Heaven", "I Only Have Eyes For You"... But, along with the remake of "Tender Trap", "Learnin' The Blues" is a very slight disappointment. It's one of the longer tracks on the set - four-and-a-half minutes - and it shows off the band nicely, but almost immediately settles into an easy Basie groove with a characteristically Hefti back-and-forth between the muted trumpets and the saxes. Where Riddle's version is restless and driven, Hefti's chart sounds a long way away from the sleepless nights and cigarettes and all the other imagery. "Learnin' The Blues" is what it is: a rough-and-ready pop song, and in smoothing out a lot of those rough edges something gets lost along the way.

Bonus: this wonderful version by Ella and Louis:

Oh yeah.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

#93: One from the Forties

It's Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies":

(Don't be misled by the image: the song isn't on that album.)

Wikipedia lists only two recordings of "Blue Skies" by Sinatra, both from the 40s, and sure enough I can't find anything later. I'm guessing this is the 1946 version. I wonder why Frank never revisited this classic? How I wish we had a few more takes on it, perhaps a heartfelt treatment a la Bing that implies some clouds on the horizon, or maybe a gently swinging Riddle arrangement in the style of Songs for Swingin' Lovers.

It's got to be one of the greatest songs of all time and more singers have recorded it than you can shake a stick at. Here's one I'm especially fond of:

Chuck Brown could sing.

Friday, January 23, 2015

#94: Sinatra and Basie swing a classic

It's "Pennies From Heaven" written in 1936 by Johnny Burke (words) and Arthur Johnston (music). This version was arranged by Neal Hefti and recorded by Frank and Count Basie and co in 1962.

Since this is supposed to be a list of favorite recordings rather than favorite songs, I was forced to choose between this Basie version and the earlier Nelson Riddle arrangement from the wonderful Songs for Swingin' Lovers. The latter is a kinder, gentler version, but swingin' for sure, just not in that muscular Basie band style. Either one will do very well, depending on your mood.

***Update: Bob Belvedere lists this "mothery" Basie version of "Pennies From Heaven" at #45.

Don't miss Mark Steyn's piece on "Pennies From Heaven," #34 of his Sinatra Songs of the Century. He ranks Johnny Burke "in the very top tier of lyric-writers." The catalogue is impressive, indeed, including, among others standards, "Imagination," "Misty," "Swinging on a Star," "What's New," "But Beautiful," and a particular favorite of mine, "It Could Happen To You," swung here by Diana Krall. I love these lyrics:
Hide your heart from sight,
Lock your dreams at night
It could happen to you
Don't count stars or you might stumble
Someone drops a sigh and down you tumble

Keep an eye on spring,
Run when church bells ring
It could happen to you
All I did was wonder how your arms would be
And it happened to me
Sinatra recorded this only once, as a ballad. It's lovely but didn't make my list. If he had done an up-tempo version, it would be here. I can almost hear it . . .

A Ring-A-Ding Ding! trivia question

Mark Steyn writes, in passing:
Bob Belvedere, proprietor of The Camp Of The Saints, has also begun a Frank hit parade. And, as with the Pundette, there are (so far) no duplications: Number 100 is "It's A Wonderful World" (one of four studio records on which Sinatra sings "ring-a-ding-ding").  
Okay, so in addition to "It's A Wonderful World," we've got the obvious "Ring-A-Ding Ding!" itself. And I've thought of a third one, but I'm still stumped on the fourth. Don't tell me yet -- I want to think of it by myself! But if I don't come up with it by Sunday afternoon feel free to tell me, here in a comment or on twitter (@pundette).

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#95: A little treat from Rodgers and Hart

"Falling In Love With Love," music by Richard Rodgers and words by Lorenz Hart, was recorded by Frank with Billy May's dandy arrangement in 1961. Sinatra gets the most out of those internal rhymes -- much, such, trust, just:

Brief though it is, this song has staying power. I've had it in my head for weeks on end. Once my daughter-in-law, not a young woman overly interested in show tunes, heard me humming it and recognized the song. It seems she knew it from the 1997 Disney movie Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Bernadette Peters. That's when the song migrated from the old Rogers and Hart musical it was written for, The Boys from Syracuse (based on The Comedy of Errors) to the less old (1957) Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella, written for television. (The 1965 TV version with Leslie Ann Warren is the one I remember from my own childhood.) Here's Bernadette Peters doing the number in the movie.

Bob Belvedere's Sinatra 100

I'm so pleased to see that my virtual pal Bob Belvedere is doing a Sinatra 100 list, too. His choices so far:

#100: It's A Wonderful World
Great song! One of those upbeat numbers that just makes you feel good. It's not on my list but given another ten, twenty, or fifty slots, it would be. The competition is wicked, and the list of recordings that fell off the bottom constitutes a pretty impressive body of work.

#99: I'm Beginning To See The Light
I love this song and -- spoiler alert -- it's going to come up later on my list, so I'll reserve comment.

#98: Let Me Try Again -- not even on my radar but very nice. I'm guess I'll have to take a look at that Ol' Blue Eyes album.

Bob says he's going to post his Sinatra stuff every Friday. I'll link to all of it in the sidebars as I'm doing with Mark Steyn's list and my own. It'll be a Sinatra feast. Enjoy!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Steyn's #4 -- After You've Gone

Oh yes:

I love this song! See Steyn for the deep and fascinating background on the song and Frank's recording of it. One of the great things about Mark's Song of the Week feature is the connections he makes that you never knew were there. Today's oh-my-gosh moment was his mention of Freddy Cannon's "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," a bit of detritus from my childhood that I hadn't thought of in I don't know how many decades. My older sister almost certainly had that 45. But I digress. Go read and then come back here for more videos.

I'm unable to embed this one, but here's Suzy Bogguss and Chet Atkins with their sweet take.

And sorry about the dizzy camera work and poor sound quality, but you might enjoy this take by Hot Club of Cowtown's Elana James, Whit Smith, and Jake Erwin as they join Frank Vignola, Vinny Raniolo, and one other guy whose name I don't know. I think that audience got their money's worth:

I can't believe I blew a chance to see Frank and Vinny live, but husband and I have seen Hot Club of Cowtown a couple of times and they're terrific. Two favorites from their latest CD: The Continental and I'm In The Mood For Love.

Friday, January 16, 2015

#96, from the Sinatra "Come Cry With Me" collection

I usually go for the up-tempo, swingier numbers (I'm shallow that way), so be warned that the slower, sadder songs will be under-represented on my list. But this one's a keeper: "I Could Have Told You"

Words by Carl Sigman (of "Marshmallow World" fame), music by Jimmy Van Heusen. Arranged by Nelson Riddle and recorded as a single in 1953. It was later added to the No One Cares CD.

Bonus: Here's a fabulous, jazzed-up version by the unlikely but wonderful duo of Eva Cassidy and Chuck Brown.

*Update: I see that Mark Steyn's audio tribute to Carl Sigman is once again available. I hadn't heard it since 2008 or so and had forgotten how entertaining it is. Quick, go burn a hard copy while you still can!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

#97 of my Sinatra top 100

Another Cahn and Van Heusen number. It sounds to me like a song from Sinatra's early years as a band singer and it's easy to picture 40s-era couples swaying to it on dance floor, but I believe it was written in the late fifties shortly before Frank recorded it. Very romantic, no?

That's the Reprise version from 1960, arranged by Nelson Riddle. But Frank recorded a slower version a couple of years earlier for Come Dance With Me (arranged by Billy May) that's also lovely.

*Update: For more background on the song from the lyricist himself, listen to Mark Steyn's Sammy Cahn podcast. It's an absolute must for Sinatra fans.

Friday, January 9, 2015

#98: A duet!

Or two! I've never been able to decide which of these Keely Smith duets I like better, but I'm only making room for one on the list, so I'll go with "Nothing in Common":

Modern fans like me know these from Sinatra's Come Dance With Me CD, but they didn't appear on the original 1958 album. Apparently, they were put out as two sides of a single (that round object pictured in the video) and added to the CD as bonus tracks later on. You can purchase them from Amazon here and here, but if you don't own Come Dance With Me you might want to rectify that right away.

Both songs were written by Cahn and Van Heusen and arranged by Billy May.

*Update: Mark Steyn comments:
Pundette said she had trouble deciding between "Nothing In Common" and "How Are Ya Fixed For Love?", but settled on the former. I'd have plumped for the latter, which is very playful and sexy, and a masterclass in duet chemistry.
As for "All I Need Is The Girl", that's a great Billy May arrangement of a Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim number from Gypsy. Jule Styne told me he'd always wanted to write for Fred Astaire, but the opportunity had never arisen. So in 1959 he decided to write a Fred Astaire number for the young kid to do in Gypsy. At the first-night party, Astaire walked up to Jule and sang, "Got my tweed pressed, got my best vest..."

Styne never got an Astaire record on the song, but Sinatra did it with the Duke Ellington band - and Frank humming along to that Billy May vamp is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

My Sinatra 100: #99

"All I Need Is The Girl," chock-full of those wonderful Sinatra consonants, along with some humming and finger-snapping:

Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne wrote the song for the 1959 musical Gypsy. (Here's the number from the film.) It was arranged by Billy May and recorded in 1967. Amazon track is here.

Belated edit: Mark Steyn adds:
As for "All I Need Is The Girl", that's a great Billy May arrangement of a Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim number from Gypsy. Jule Styne told me he'd always wanted to write for Fred Astaire, but the opportunity had never arisen. So in 1959 he decided to write a Fred Astaire number for the young kid to do in Gypsy. At the first-night party, Astaire walked up to Jule and sang, "Got my tweed pressed, got my best vest..."

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sinatra in the studio: It Was A Very Good Year

Mark Steyn's first of 100: "It Was A Very Good Year." Go read what would make a perfect first chapter in a Steyn book on Frank, then come back for this incredible video.

Can you imagine being one of those people in the studio?

*Edited to add a confession: Though I think this video is a treasure of inestimable value, I haven't included IWAVGY on my list. I was ten years old in 1966 when the song was all over the airwaves and it just made me sad. I've never really gotten past that. The lyrics are evocative, the arrangement is gorgeous, and Sinatra's artistry is undeniable. And I love the video of its creation -- how I wish we had a couple hundred more videos of Frank in the studio. But the song isn't for me.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Steyn on Sinatra's 100th

This is too marvelous for words. From Mark Steyn:
2015 is Frank Sinatra's centenary year, which necessitates a few modifications to SteynOnline's music, film and entertainment coverage. Our official observances commence tomorrow when our Song of the Week department becomes a Song of the Semi-Week in order to squeeze in 100 Sinatra songs of the century between now and December. Several other folk seem to have opted for this approach, too - our old friend the Pundette has launched a dedicated Sinatra Centenary site for that very purpose - so we hope you'll have lots of finicky fun nitpicking through competing hit parades and demanding to know why this or that song hasn't made the list.

Don't worry, we'll still make space for other musical content this year, not least because I need to come up with pretexts for plugging Goldfinger. And we'll also be looking at the various secondary strings to Sinatra's bow in our movie feature and other appropriate departments.

But, as a curtain-raiser for the New Year and Sinatra centenary year here's an encore presentation of a SteynOnline audio special originally aired two years ago to mark Sammy Cahn's hundredth birthday. Aside from being the fellow who introduced me to Frank, Sammy was a prodigious hitmaker and a prolific lyricist who put more words in Sinatra's mouth than any other songwriter.
Go read the rest, and then listen to the podcast.

As for me, now that I see this little blog is going to get some traffic, I'm going to have to spruce it up a bit. It's not at all ready for prime time, which is to be expected when you launch a site 10 minutes after you create it.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Sinatra Centenary kickoff: #100

Happy 2015! I hope it will be a very good year for you. We've got twelve whole months to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Frank Sinatra, who was born, quite conveniently for our purposes, near the end of the year, on December 12, 1915. Let's kick it off with a party song. 

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael:

That was arranged by Nelson Riddle and recorded in 1964. You can purchase the track from Amazon here.

My plan is to post two songs a week until the end of the year, counting up to my #1 favorite.

*Please note that this list is not intended to be an objective "Sinatra's 100 Greatest Hits," but merely a list of my personal favorite recordings. I'm certain that it will omit some of your favorites, but . . . that's life. I've got to do it my way. (Neither one of those made the cut.) I'd get a kick out of seeing your lists, either in the comments or posted on your own sites.

**I'm going to post videos whenever possible, but they may go away sooner or later as they disappear from YouTube. I'll try to identify the recording by year, by a link to the track on Amazon, or in some other way. Sinatra did multiple recordings of many songs so identifying a specific recording can be confusing. Wikipedia has a great list here which includes the dates of the various recordings.

***Mark Steyn features this song in his great Johnny Mercer tribute podcast, a must-listen for all Mercer, Sinatra, and American Songbook fans. I've got a hard copy for the car. Like my Sinatra top-100, it has held up well to multiple listenings.