Thursday, July 30, 2015

#42: I like (another) Gershwin tune

. . . how about you? It's the classic song from the classic Astaire-Rogers movie Shall We Dance:

It's really an uber-classic, the title of which has entered the language. And it's a song so nice Bob Belvedere listed it twice, in two very different arrangements. Like Bob, I prefer the earlier one, but unlike Bob, I don't list the Swingin' Brass version among my favorites. It's a breezy, jazzy, fun treatment, but breezy doesn't work for me with this song. The singer's heartfelt emotion, anything but breezy, is for me the foundation of the song's appeal. Frank's '53 version retains that.

There are many, many things that will keep me loving George Siravo's  arrangement: it varies from sultry to sweet to jazzy to "lilting" (to quote Bob), always swinging gently. Sinatra's obviously in top form here -- note the way he sings "on that bumpy road to love." And his seemingly involuntary interpolation of "doo doo doo doo doo doo" -- that alone might earn this song a place on a list of favorites.

I must include the original version from the film (ending at about 3:30 in). It's old-school romance, very nicely done:

Never mind for the moment that appreciation of Fred Astaire, golden-era musicals, and old-school romance itself is rapidly waning into oblivion. We've still got the audio and the video and they can't take that away from us.


Bob's put up another selection of honorable mentions, and again, he includes two songs that are very dear to my heart. One is coming up soon and the other occupies the rarefied air of my top twenty. But the fun track here for me is the ballad-turned-swinger "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." It's not on my list but I love it, and it will make my second-hundred favorites list for sure.

Mark Steyn covers a Big One that I will get to later on, but for now, you'll love this:
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.

Ms. EBL covers Sinatra's two lovely versions of another Big One, "The Nearness Of You," and includes [ahem] another version as well. (She's also got the trailer to The Wrecking Crew film, which I'm going to watch tonight on Netflix.) Go check it out.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

#43: A Gershwin tune that "just cooks all the way to the end"

It's "A Foggy Day" by George and Ira Gershwin, 1936. This version, my favorite, was arranged by Johnny Mandel for the fabulous Ring-a-Ding-Ding!:

Frank recorded another excellent version in 1953 arranged by George Siravo for Songs for Young Lovers. Mark Steyn features the song at #21 on his Sinatra 100 count-up and writes, of the earlier version:
In the hundreds of records he made before and after that date, you'd be hard put to find one in which he sounds so rhythmically energized, but he's also in sync with the instruments in a way that few singers had been: the orchestration sounds the way he feels.
Bob Belvedere prefers the older version:
Frank recorded this number twice and this one is clearly the better of the two versions for it has a jauntiness about it that fits-in perfectly with the ‘wistful loneliness’ the Gershwin Brothers incorporated in the song. It’s also the better recording because it includes the verse, which is a perfect fit, unlike many you find.
Yes. But I still prefer the Mandel version -- Sinatra's vocal and rhythmic skills and Mandel's jazzy, swinging chart leave jaunty in the dust. Steyn on the 1960 take:
There's no verse, no tempo changes, no contrast in instrumentations, and in that sense the storytelling is less interesting than in the George Siravo version. It starts out with Emil Richards' pealing bells and then just cooks all the way to the end. But it's a useful lesson in the Sinatra style. It's a fatter band than on the earlier session and, in the first chorus, when the strings come floating in, he's as smooth and sustained as they are - and for the first and only time he sings the line as Ira Gershwin wrote it:

I viewed the morning
With alarm
The British Museum
Had lost its charm...

But the second chorus cranks it up a notch, with the bass and drums moving from a two- to a four-beat feel and the strings replaced by stabbing brass, and so Sinatra, again perfectly attuned to what the band's doing, chops up the lines and goes for a more rhythmic, staccato approach:

I looked at the morning
With much alarm
The British Museum
It lost its charm...

His phrasing on that last line is super-cool.
Yes, indeed. Mark also discusses the song's history and gets into the controversy over the liberties Sinatra takes with the lyrics. My late mother loved this song and she and I once shared a little chuckle over Frank's "and it also had me down" -- so typically Frank, and just right for that moment in the song. That little "also" is very dear to me. So I'm not a purist when it comes to juicing up the lyrics, though I do think there's a line and I can't say Sinatra never crossed it. But I'll keep his "A Foggy Day" just as it is.


In his piece on "Why Try To Change Me Now?", Mark covers Sinatra's time at Columbia with his nemesis Mitch Miller.
When he wasn't recording Miller's idea of the next surefire hit - "Mama Will Bark", the doggy duet that's "the doggone-est thing you ever heard" on which he was accompanied by the small-voiced but big-breasted Dagmar, or "Tennessee Newsboy", on which he was accompanied by a man who could make chicken noises with his guitar - Sinatra's song list in his last years at Columbia reads like a cry for help for a fast vanishing career: "Life Is So Peculiar", "I Guess I'll Have To Dream The Rest", "There's Something Missing", "Birth of the Blues" ...and finally "Why Try To Change Me Now?"
I thought this was interesting:
I heard Diana Krall on the radio a while back talking about how much she loves the song, and how she's attempted to make her own version of it on a couple of occasions. And she does great until:

So let people wonder, let them laugh, let them frown
You know I'll love you till the moon's upside down

Don't you remember? I was always your clown...

And at that point she stops and goes, "Nah, I'll leave it to Frank."
Read the rest. You can listen to Frank's 1952 version here and his 1959 version here.

Bob Belvedere has posted four more "honorable mentions" -- great songs that didn't quite make his list. Of the four, two didn't make my list, either, but the other two sure did. One falls into my Top 30, and the other occupies the rarefied air of my Top 10. Stay tuned to find out which is which.

Ms. EBL has some awesome video of Frank on TV in the 1950s. The "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" video occupies a special little place in my heart. And that rendition of "Baby, Won't You Please Come Home" is terrific! How I wish we had a more bluesy arrangement of that.

Friday, July 17, 2015

#44: A cautionary tale

From makin' eyes to "Makin' Whoopee":

The song was written in 1928, music by Walter Donaldson and lyrics by Gus Kahn. Nelson Riddle arranged it for Songs for Swingin' Lovers in 1956. I've listened to it about a thousand times and I still can't get over what Sinatra and Riddle did with it. Frank's voice never sounded better and the arrangement is terrific.

Bob Belvedere places it at #33 and recommends you listen to the Eddie Cantor version from the 1930 film Whoopee! If you do, you'll hear a different set of lyrics, with things not ending well for the couple. I'm not sure where Frank got the verses he sings -- I imagine they're original but just omitted by Cantor, though perhaps we can give the singer some credit for these lines:
It's really killin'
This cat's so willin'
To make whoopee
Anyway, I'm glad Frank sang the verses he did. I like the ending just the way it is, with the guy drowning in dishwater.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

#45: Frank swings sweetly with Nelson

If Ella swings gently and brightly with Nelson, Frank swings sweetly with him here. It's "Swingin' Down The Lane," written by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn in 1923. Thiry-three years later it was arranged by Nelson Riddle and recorded by Sinatra for their phenomenal album, Songs for Swingin' Lovers!:

That's three minutes of perfection. Mark Steyn calls it a "killer arrangement" and so it is. It's also pretty much the polar opposite of our previous selection; when it came to love and romance, Sinatra could handle every possible nuance, and he wasn't at all afraid to tackle a sweet, old-fashioned song like this one. Mark writes:
It's melodically charming, and the absence of any fill or pick-up notes in that space between "might have known" and "nights like this" is very surefooted on Jones and Kahn's part. Still, it was an old-fashioned song by 1956 that sounds as if it belongs to a pre-automobile Lovers' Lane. Yet Sinatra's reading is utterly sincere, and Riddle scored it in what he called "the tempo of the heartbeat", and with such attention to detail, from the stellar trumpets to the celesta:

When the moon is on the rise 
Baby, I'm so blue 
Watching lovers making eyes 
Like we used to do 
When the moon is on the wane 
Still I'm waiting all in vain 
Should be Swingin' Down The Lane 
With you... 

I'm not even sure "swingin' down the lane" is a thing, or ever was. But by the time it's over Sinatra and Riddle have made it a song for all time. 
And what could sound more dated than "making eyes"? But it doesn't matter, at all. Add it to the list of Sinatra/Riddle jewels (and to the short list of my husband's favorites :) )


Mark's #47 is a keeper. I will sheepishly admit that I habitually skip this track when I listen to SSL -- it just doesn't fit with the rest of the album (it's more of a Nice 'n' Easy number), and I lack patience for the slower songs in general (though I've gained a lot more appreciation for them this year). But "We'll Be Together Again" is a beauty. I had no idea it was written by Frankie Laine, or that he wrote songs at all. Read and learn from Mark.

Mark and Ms. EBL explore Frank's French connections with the lovely "When The World Was Young," "I Love Paris," and more. Bob Belvedere chooses four really fun songs for slots 28-26, all of which I like but only one of which made my list! A top 200 list would have been a lot easier to execute. If I can I'm going to keep going through 2016 -- there are just too many great songs to stop at one hundred.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

#46: The warm-up's underway ...

"The Best Is Yet To Come" was written in 1959 by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. Sinatra recorded it with the Basie band in 1964 for It Might As Well Be Swing.

Quincy Jones really outdid himself with this arrangement:

Oh my.

Friday, July 10, 2015

#47: The tempo of joy

This is not a "big" song but it's one of those jewels that happens when song, singer, and arrangement come together perfectly. Nelson Riddle arranged it in 1961 for Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!! It starts out kind of sweet and gets jazzier as it goes:

Riddle talked about the "tempo of the heartbeat." Let's call this the tempo of joy. The guy really can't believe his luck (and his friends can't, either!) and the arrangement conveys that. It's one of the older songs on my list, written by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill in 1926.

What I think of as the companion piece to it is "You Do Something To Me," also from SSS!!! and my pick for Fave #62.

Stay tuned for more Sinatra greatness -- the best is yet to come. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

#48: A politically incorrect love song

A woman making herself beautiful in order to attract a husband -- what an outdated concept. "Baubles, Bangles, and Beads" was written in 1953 by Robert Wright and George Forrest for Kismet.

Sinatra made two great recordings of it. My favorite is the terrifically swinging Billy May arrangement from Come Dance With Me. Listen for the finger-snap the second time around. Frank was into it:

But the bossa nova arrangement by Claus Ogerman is fabulous as well:

So nice. (See my Jobim post here.)

This Peggy Lee version is just wow. Imagine turning the TV on nowadays and coming across a performance like this. I know just using the word "nowadays" makes me sound old. So be it. Another fogie thought: how in the world was Peggy able to breathe in that dress?

It's all about the real estate over at Bob's, with numbers 31-29 being "Street Of Dreams," "The Brooklyn Bridge," and "A Cottage For Sale." That middle one, from the 40s, was not on my radar but it's pretty sweet.

Ms. EBL brings it on with Jimmy Van Heusen, the guy Sammy Cahn said Sinatra wanted to be. (Listen to Mark Steyn's Sammy Cahn podcast here.)

Mark likes a Burton Lane-Ralph Freed tune that I will get to in due course.

"B, B & B" is Mark's pick for #54. You can read it all here. But here's just a bit which I can't resist quoting:
That's the Wright & Forrest version from Kismet. In the show it's a duet between the beautiful Marsinah and the young Caliph. Whoa, don't worry. I don't mean "caliph" in the al-Baghdadi ISIS head-hacking sense. This was back in the Fifties, when caliphs were cuddly and Islam was just a bit of local color for a hit musical set in l'il ol' Baghdad town. 
And this:
Peggy Lee was the first top-flight vocalist to sing it, and five years later, recording Come Dance With Me at the end of 1958, Sinatra and Billy May took a swingin' arrangement way beyond a Broadway operetta set in Baghdad and made it everybody's bag, dad. 
:) And one more thing. Will Friedwald (p 291) seems to think Sinatra is singing "and them cool, cool beads." But I'm with Mark -- I don't hear any 'l' in there, and anyway, Frank was a lot more likely to interpolate "koo-koo" than he was "cool, cool." Koo-koo, or maybe "cuckoo," it is.

#49: "A sarcastic love song"

According to the author of Mark Steyn's American Songbook, that's what composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Dorothy Fields called it. This recording is from Sinatra's awesome 1961 album Ring-a-Ding-Ding!, arranged by Johnny Mandel:

Sometimes I think Frank was at his vocal peak in 1961 - jazzy, rhythmic, elegant, carefree, and in perfect voice -- but he does so many great things later, and earlier, that I guess I should only say that he was surely in the zone when he recorded Ring-a-Ding-Ding!

Here's Fred and Ginger's take from Swing Time, my favorite Astaire-Rogers musical. You'll notice Frank didn't use most of the lyrics that were sung in the film, which is a pity:

In his must-have book linked above Mark Steyn writes:
This one's a keeper -- more and more recordings every year. If you want a fun one, try Marilyn Monroe's, of all people. (p 25)
So I did, and it is --

Wow! I had no idea!