Saturday, June 27, 2015

#50: A man and his music and his imaginary dice

Fanfare, please. I've made it all the way to #50. "Luck Be A Lady" was written by Frank Loesser and arranged by Billy May.

If you don't own the Man and His Music videos, you're missing some primo Sinatra performances. After ten years and many viewings, I'm still in love with this one, from the way Frank mugs it up to the dice blowing-and-throwing to the dancing around between choruses. And, oh yeah, the singing. Frank and the band combine for a tour de force:



Ain't that perfection? The song wasn't written for Sinatra but he surely owns it now.

That's from A Man and His Music Part II from 1966.

Purely by coincidence, this song is also Bob Belvedere's #50. I'm thinking Mark Steyn will cover it as well so I'll update with a link and quotes if he does.

***
It's #46 on Mark's count-up. A bit:
As for the acting, it's weird to see Brando and Sinatra together. Sinatra was a two-take actor: it wasn't going to get any better. Brando liked to take all day. "I don't buy this take and retake jazz," said Frank. "The key to good acting on screen is spontaneity, and there's something you lose a little with each take." But Brando liked to do every line over and over and over, uncovering subtle nuances of meaning with every shift in emphasis. As Frank told Mankiewicz, "Don't put me in the game, Coach, until Mumbles is through rehearsing."

Their relationship degenerated. Knowing Sinatra's aversion to multiple retakes, Brando took to sabotaging each shot, doing the whole scene perfectly and then screwing up the last line. Back to square one. One scene required Frank to eat a slice of Lindy's cheesecake while Mumbles yakked away. Brando chose to "forget" his lines over and over, so that every retake began for Frank with a fresh slice of cheesecake. Nine takes and an entire cheesecake later, Sinatra hurled his plate across the set, stabbed his fork deep into the table, and yelled, "These f**king New York actors! How much more cheesecake do I have to eat?". Victory to Mumbles.  
Read it all

***

Mark Steyn at #43 has one of the very best, Cole Porter's "I Concentrate On You." More on that sometime in the fall. Ms. EBL features the beautiful "Time After Time," which means it's time for another plug for She & Him's Classics CD. Here's the duet:


Timeless.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Blame it on the bossa nova

It's wreaking havoc with my list. The week before last I was browsing through Will Friedwald's excellent book, Sinatra! The Song Is You, seeing what he had to say about the recording of Johnny Mercer's "Drinking Again" (#54). The song was arranged by Claus Ogerman, who also arranged Frank's lovely 1967 bossa nova album with Antonio Jobim.

Then I came across this passage:
Rather than tentatively dipping his toes into this particular lagoon, Sinatra elected to dive in headfirst. His rationale seemed to be that although other singers [. . .] had gotten there first, he would get there with the most. No other American pop star would so thoroughly immerse himself in the world of bossa; he not only recorded two whole albums' worth of the stuff but sacrificed his signature stylistics in order to more smoothly fit into the new vernacular. The two albums were Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) and Sinatra-Jobim (1969), although the latter was not issued as Sinatra had originally intended. (p 426)
What? Two albums? I only knew about the first one. Mind you, before embarking on my year-long tribute I tried to cover my bases and make sure I was familiar with most of Sinatra's work. But there's a heck of a lot of it, and, somehow, I missed this album altogether. Normally, though, with Frank's later LPs, a blind spot wouldn't have mattered much as far as my list was concerned; if there was anything really great on it, I'd already know it. And if I had found this CD a few months ago, I could have made room for a new favorite or two, if any of them were that good.

It turns out the songs are that good. The album is great, in fact, maybe better than the first one. So if the bad news is that, at the halfway point, it's too late for me to squeeze new favorites into my countdown, where several of them surely belong, the wonderful news is that I've been given a gift I didn't anticipate: new (to me) top-tier Sinatra songs.

If I had it to do over again, instead of one song from the first Jobim album (coming up in a few weeks), I would have included four or five, two from the first album and the rest from the second.

The 1969 album was arranged by Eumir Deodato. Here's the quirky duet with Jobim, "Desafinado." Sinatra's last part, starting with "Possibly in vain," is as beautiful as anything he's ever sung:



That melody is a lovely, delicate creature and Sinatra handles it with care. If only he had finished the song himself. But it's delightful as it is.

Next up, "Wave," (included on the Ultimate Sinatra CD):



I don't know how this stunning recording escaped my attention but I'm thrilled to know it now. Easily a top 25 or 40 song.

The third one, my current favorite, is "Drinking Water." I don't think I've played a track over and over again like this since I was a brand-new Sinatra fan and had just gotten my hands on "Summer Wind."



Oh my. That first line --
Your love is rain, my heart the flower
-- has Sinatra ever sounded better? And the lines he sings in Portuguese -- wow.

All the songs were written by the prolific, immensely talented Jobim. Sinatra's work with him is right up there with his Basie stuff. There's some serious bossa nova exploration in my future.

The two Jobim CDs -- perfect summer music -- have been combined into one CD. Find it here.

(When I get up to my already-planned song from the first Jobim album, I'll piggy-back a newly emerged favorite from that CD onto the post. Stay tuned.)


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

#51: One thing leads to another . . .

. . . Too late to run for cover
She's much too close for comfort now

I think of "Too Close For Comfort" as the companion piece to my previous pick, "Something's Gotta Give," with their common theme of irresistible temptation and their exuberant, swinging Billy May sound. It's impossible to choose between them:



Will Friedwald notes that "Sinatra is never more exhilarating than when he returns for his outchoruses [on CDWM] (p 291). Yes, indeed. I live for his outchoruses.

Wikipedia tells me that the song was written by Jerry Bock, George David Weiss, and Larry Holofcener in 1956 for Mr. Wonderful. Which man wrote the lyrics is not clear but I think it must have been the multi-talented Mr. Holofcener.

I love the opening lines (and the way Frank sings them):
Be wise, be smart, 
Behave, my heart
Don't upset your cart
When she's so close
And so on. Just wonderful.

***

Filling Mark Steyn's 42nd slot is a big, big favorite of mine, "The Coffee Song." I'll comment (and quote) more on that later, but for now, here's a little of what Mark has to say about coffee songs in general:
Still, as time goes by, it seems to me that many coffee songs belong increasingly to a lost age when you'd swing by the diner, growl, "Hey, Cindy, shoot me a cuppa joe," and she'd pour it for you right there and then, and for 30 cents you could sit till sundown enjoying all the free refills your bladder could handle. Hard to credit in a world in which coffee has evolved into a knickerbocker glory with a shot of espresso, requiring sprinkles, squirts, slices and soupçons, all for six bucks and a 20-minute wait. Don't worry, I'm not warming to my theme - I've a whole chapter on that in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, if you're that interested. I'm just saying the great American coffee song seems to belong to the pre-barista era.
Uh huh.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

#52: Frank and Billy tear it up

Oh, yeah:

\

If that doesn't make you feel good, you might be dead. Play it again just to make sure.

Words and music by Johnny Mercer, arrangement by Billy May from his fabulous, exhilarating, hard-swinging Come Dance With Me!

Pretty much the opposite of my previous selection, no? Spinning daydreams or swinging from the rafters, Sinatra was the master of all moods. This is my fifth Johnny Mercer song, my fourth track from CDWM, and my 11th Billy May arrangement. What an immense talent he was. His centenary is coming up next year. Tribute, anyone?

(Heinie Beau, an arranger to whom Billy May sometimes farmed out charts, wrote some of the CDWM arrangements, perhaps three. I'd be interested to know which songs were Beau's. Anyone?)

Saturday, June 20, 2015

#53: Sinatra in reverie

I only discovered this recording a few months ago and had to make room for it on my list. It's Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair. Sinatra recorded the song early on with Columbia and then did it twice more for Reprise.

It's not often I'll prefer a Don Costa arrangement over a Nelson Riddle one, but there's no contest here. It's not that there's anything really wrong with the Riddle version, done for Days Of Wine And Roses, etc. etc., in 1964. It swings gently and Frank sounds fine, but his style is just so on the nose. For once, it seems like the singer just wasn't into it.

But the Costa version, done a couple of years earlier for Sinatra and Strings, is pure magic:



The lovely descent of the line, "like a nightingale without a song to sing," the very low "Oh" at the beginning of the next line, and his musing repetition of "spinning,spinning daydreams" are highlights for me. And I always love it when he lets his voice get just a little raspy, as he does here when he sings "in a melancholy way."

Did the arrangement inspire that performance? It's very lovely, especially the way the violins come in after "as a baby on a swing." I can't think of another Sinatra vocal quite like it, with its particular kind of gentleness, and a reflective, daydream-like quality that he manages to maintain all the way through.

Over at The Camp of the Saints, Bob Belvedere has picked some doozies to fill his #37 - 35 slots. (In fact, he's crammed five songs into three slots -- I don't think it's going to add up to 100, Bob, but you get extra points for enthusiasm.) Of the five, three will be coming up on my list. Stay tuned.

Mark Steyn chooses "Soliloquy" for his #41 slot (he's counting up). It's not on my list, not really my kind of thing, but as I was listening to it in the car recently, I found myself unexpectedly in tears. So yes, it's very much worth a listen.

Ms EBL features "Call Me," not a Sinatra favorite of mine but I still love the Chris Montez version from 1966.

***

Mark Steyn provides insight on the Costa arrangement:
The Costa of the Sinatra and Strings album is a little different from what came later. Two months before the S&S sessions Sinatra had recorded what would be his final album with a cancer-stricken Axel Stordahl, Point of No Return. Sammy Cahn told me years ago that on Sinatra & Strings Frank wanted Costa to be "a new Axel", whose string arrangements were just ravishing. Costa did a magnificent job - as on "It Might As Well Be Spring" - and then spent the next two decades as the arranger charged with finding some kind of accommodation between Sinatra's style and whatever passing pop novelty they thought might work for him - hence, "My Way", "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, "Just The Way You Are", etc. A long way from Sinatra and Strings.
Makes sense. Thanks, Mark.

Monday, June 15, 2015

#54: A great Johnny Mercer saloon song

But probably not the one you're expecting. It's the perfectly executed "Drinking Again," arranged by Claus Ogerman and recorded in 1967:



Music by Doris Taubert and words by Johnny Mercer, who knew whereof he wrote when it came to drinking again. Will Friedwald on the performance:
The singer tempers his perfectly poised declamation with just the right amount of self-pity and self-consciousness, and with minuscule, never overtly noticeable tinges of the inebriate's slightly sloshed phrasing. By the fadeout, in which -- replete with self-crucifying humor -- he inwardly intones "Look at me, I'm drinkin' again," Sinatra has concocted a perfect cocktail of tragedy and noir comedy, followed by a chaser of irony. (Sinatra! The Song Is You, 427-8)
Yes, indeed. And one has to agree with Mr. Friedwald that Mr. Ogerman, who also arranged Sinatra's first album with Antonio Jobim, the gorgeous Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim, "could have been the next great Sinatra collaborator." It says something about Sinatra, that though he recorded thousands of songs, we still want more -- more of a particular style, or recordings of songs which, for whatever reason, he missed. I have a little wish list somewhere of omissions and Ms. EBL features one of them: Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time You Say Goodbye."  What would you give to hear him sing these lines?
But how strange the change
From major to minor
Sigh. Moving on.

"Drinking Again" was released on the album The World We Knew, as was "Somethin' Stupid," Frank and Nancy's charming duet listed by Mark Steyn as his 38th Sinatra Song of the Century. Mark followed that up with the ebullient classic "You Make Me Feel So Young" and then brought us down, but in a good way, with the sweetly melancholy "I Get Along Without You Very Well," also covered by Ms. EBL.

Over at The Camp of the Saints, Bob is under the weather, but his latest selections -- he's already down to #38 -- feature a beauty that Frank got to very late in the game. It wasn't until 1979 that he sat himself down and recorded "It Had To Be You." But more on that later . . .


Friday, June 12, 2015

#55: He's got it bad

"I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)" was written in 1941 by Duke Ellington and Paul Francis Webster and was beautifully, perfectly arranged by Nelson Riddle for 1957's A Swingin' Affair:



Sinatra plays to a T the part of the desperately smitten guy whose girl just isn't that into him. The song follows the classic Riddle/Sinatra pattern, starting quietly, building to a climax, and then "coming in for a soft landing" and a very satisfying conclusion. Like all the best Sinatra recordings, it holds up to repeated listening on a grand, even obsessive, scale. And it contains one of my all-time favorite lines from any song:
Like a lonely weepin' willow who's lost in the wood 
What would that look like, exactly? No matter; it's something a guy wallowing in self-pity might actually say, or at least feel, and it also provides a rhyme for the next line, which is just terrific:
And the things I tell my pillow, nobody should 
It's a great song with great lyrics by Mr. Webster, who demonstrated his linguistic flair in another, probably better-known, song, the theme to the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon show. And, oh yeah, he also wrote the lyrics to (among others) "The Shadow Of Your Smile," "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing," "April Love," and the steaming-hot "Black Coffee":



Peggy's centenary is coming up in five years. Meanwhile, she'll be appearing here again, much later in the year.

Monday, June 8, 2015

More notes on Nancy

After reading Mark Steyn's great piece on "Somethin' Stupid" I just had to post the song here:


Mark blames it on the bossa nova:
In this case, the fact that he was coming off the Antonio Carlos Jobim session helped. The Claus Ogerman arrangements for him and Jobim were among the most lightly shimmering in his catalogue. "I haven't sung so soft since I had the laryngitis," said Sinatra. Had Frank just finished a session of "Fly Me To The Moon" and "New York, New York", he'd have bit into Carson Parks' song and "ate it up and spit it out". But having Jobim and the bossa boys as the warm-up act helped put him in the mood.
What wonderful luck. I'm charmed by it every time.

In honor of Nancy Sinatra's birthday, here are a couple of fun and endearing TV duets she performed with her old dad:



Demure in 1960 and rockin' the fringey pink go-go dress in 1966:



Yes, sir, gotta love that Sinatra smile.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

#56: Swinging with Irving

My fifth Irving Berlin song so far and the second selection from Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!!:



I love the Frankified lyrics at the end. Just right.

Wikipedia says that Mr.Berlin wrote "Always" as a wedding gift for his wife-to-be Ellin in 1925. Sinatra recorded it as a heartfelt ballad in 1947 and thirteen years later recorded this carefree, confidant, joyfully swinging take arranged by Nelson Riddle. The versions could hardly be more different. Spending your always with the 1947 Sinatra would surely be romantic and secure, but committing to the guy singing the Riddle chart would mean a much wilder ride.

Ella Fitzgerald couldn't choose between the ballad and the up-tempo, so she did both, in one song:



Nice.

Continue the Sinatra feast with Mark Steyn, Bob Belvedere, and Ms. EBL.

And don't miss Fausta's excellent piece on Sinatra's collaboration with Antonio Jobim, "An exqusitely civilizing moment: Sinatra and Jobim." Sinatra's album with Jobim is a beauty, but more on that later.

Notes on "Nancy"

Mark Steyn's latest Sinatra Century feature is "Nancy (With The Laughing Face)." The story behind it is interesting in many ways, but this part might give you a lump in your throat:
In June 1945, the USO sent Frank on a European tour for all those GIs who'd just liberated a continent. And, that being so, the singer thought they ought to have a say in the programme. So he asked for requests and, as Phil Silvers recalled, "the first scream from 2,000 men was for 'Nancy (with the laughing face)'". They knew the song from the V-disc, and, like "White Christmas", it had been enlarged by the times: Frank's ode to his little girl made hundreds of thousands of US soldiers think of their own daughters far away - maybe not Nancys, but Bettys and Marys and Janes and Joans. For their fathers, Phil Silvers' first line - "If I don't see her each day I miss her" - brought a real jolt of pain. "Nancy" remains the only standard song introduced to the world by V-disc, beloved by America's men in uniform before most of the planet had even heard it.
That changes my experience of the song.

Mark confesses to past doubts about this couplet, which happens to be my favorite part of the song:
She takes the winter and makes it summer
Summer could take some lessons from her...

"Summer"/"from 'er"? I once had an argument with Gene Lees (lyricist of "Quiet Night Of Quiet Stars" and other Sinatra bossa novas) over that couplet, Lees insisting it was a false rhyme that disfigured the song and me objecting that it was a somewhat ungainly rhyme, especially for Van Heusen's almost Kern-like melody, but it was not, technically, false. Lees said Shakespeare had used the same rhyme, although where I can't recall. But that was an ancient dispute, and these days I'm not sure I'd even say it was "ungainly". It's precisely because Johnny Burke would have eschewed such a rhyme that [Phil] Silvers' couplet is so distinctive and particular.
It's lovely. Who knew Sgt. Bilko had it in him?


But what really gave me pause was this:
Most name songs don't really flesh out their eponymous subject matter much beyond the rhyme: "Rosie (You are my posy)", "Ida (Sweet as apple cider)", "My three o'clock thrill/Is a girl named Jill", etc.
Hold the phone! Why have I never heard of this song before? A quick visit to YouTube answered that: because it's terrible. Oh well. I guess I'm stuck with "Jack and Jill," the bane of my childhood existence. If only I had a nickel for every time I was asked, "Where's Jack?"

MsEBL features both of Sinatra's Nancys with some great photos and videos. Check it out, along with Bob Belvedere's latest offerings, here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A little gem mined from the Columbia collection

There's no room for this on my list but I think you'll enjoy it:



"Walkin' In The Sunshine Of Your Love" was written by Bob Merrill, arranged by George Siravo, and recorded in 1952 not long before Frank signed with Capitol Records. I think I love it.

It's always fun to find out what else a songwriter has done. Mr. Merrill's resume includes words and music for "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked A Cake" (a title that has entered the language, at least my own) and the lyrics to the songs from Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, a cartoon classic dear to my heart. The great Jule Styne wrote the music. I had no idea.

This part always scared me a little. Very dark:

#57: Ring-a-ding Zing!

I still recall the thrill a couple of years ago when I learned that this track had been added to the Ring-a-Ding-Ding! CD:



"Zing!" appears twice on Bob Belvedere's top 100 performances list, here and here. Bob also prefers take 04 which, counter-intuitively, is a tad slower than the other but has more zing. 

Alternate versions: Sixteen-year-old Judy Garland's sweet, luminous performance from 1938's Listen, Darling and The Trammps' disco take from 1972. :)

Words and music by James F. Hanley, 1934. 

***

The musical feast continues with Mark Steyn, Bob Belvedere, and Ms. EBL. See my sidebars for easy browsing through Mark's and Bob's lists, and click on the Evil Blogger Lady link for her latest tribute to Frank. She remembered Nelson Riddle's birthday yesterday with a lovely, artsy track from Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. Bob's latest picks include "Zing!," above, along with my #75, a beauty that didn't quite make my list, and a very big favorite yet to come. Mark's latest, "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry," is a keeper that I'll be referring to later on. Of Mark's latest seven entries, only one doesn't make my list, and of the other six, one appears at #94 and the other five make my top fifty, including a top ten, a top twenty, and a top twenty-five.