Saturday, August 29, 2015

#33: Crazy 'bout the spin he's in

And so am I. In spite of Frank's voice not sounding (to me) quite right, and his serious attitude problem toward Capitol Records, he does a terrific job with "That Old Black Magic." It wasn't at all clear, at first, how to approach it:
"We went through [the repertory] together, and Frank said, 'These bastards [at Capitol] want me to do these standards.'" [Billy] May reports, "He said, 'I don't know what to do with "Sunny Side of the Street." I don't know how to make it.' He realized that I had the same problems he did, and he was right. What are you going to do with 'Black Magic'? Frank had been singing that son of a bitch for twenty years. What more could we do with it? (Friedwald, p 294)
Heinie Beau, who arranged this song and several others for Come Swing With Me, figured something out:

The song was written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer in 1942. Mercer's lyrics might make you dizzy, but in a good way:
That old black magic has me in its spell
That old black magic that you weave so well
Icy fingers up and down my spine
Same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine

The same old tingle that I feel inside
And then that elevator starts its ride
And down and down I go, round and round I go
Like a leaf that's caught in the tide

I should stay away but what can I do?
I hear your name and I'm aflame
Aflame with such a burning desire
That only your kiss can put out the fire

You are the lover I have waited for
The mate that fate had me created for
And every time your lips meet mine

Baby, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, lovin' the spin that I'm in
Under that old black magic called love

You are the lover I have waited for
The mate that fate had me created for
And every time your lips meet mine

A-baby, down and down I go, all around I go
In a spin, crazy 'bout the spin I'm in
Under that old black magic called love

That old black magic called love
That old black magic called love
That old black magic called love 
Of the similarly themed "Witchcraft," Mark Steyn writes, "I've always loved songs that use magic as an image of romantic seduction and intoxication." About three-quarters of the way through "Black Magic," when Frank hits the peak with "And every time your lips meet mine" he's singing not just about physical attraction, but about love, too. I find it a lot more romantic than "Witchcraft," which seems to be only about the "tingle." But to each his own "magic" Sinatra numbers.

(Spoiler alert: my favorite intoxicated-by-love song will be coming up in a couple of months, so stay tuned.)

Monday, August 24, 2015

#34: Call this indescribably good

In which a mature Sinatra delivers an exquisite performance. The Voice, in his late forties, knew exactly how to sing Cahn and Van Heusen's "Call Me Irresponsible":

The humming! And the arrangement by Nelson Riddle -- perfection!
Sammy Cahn was understandably proud of his five-syllable rhymes, a gimmick of sorts upon which he managed to build a very non-gimmicky sounding song. He discusses it, and sings it, in Mark Steyn's Sammy Cahn podcast, which Mark immediately follows with this terrific cover by Michael Buble:


I've been away, so I'm playing catch-up with my fellow list-makers. Here are some hasty takes on their recent picks:

Evil Blogger Lady has been busy paying tribute to Frank, featuring "This Nearly Was Mine," "Stardust," "Stars Fell On Alabama," "In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening," and "Soliloquy." Only one of those made my list: "Cool, Cool" at #100. It's a testament to the immensity and high quality of Sinatra's body of work that his fans can have quite discrete sets of favorite songs.

Over at The Camp of the Saints, Bob Belvedere is swinging swiftly toward his #1. His #25-20 include "At Long Last Love" (a Big Favorite of mine), "That's Life" (I don't like it at all), "Angel Eyes" (great song but didn't make the cut), "My Funny Valentine" (wish I liked it but it just makes me sad), "Nice 'N' Easy" (but of course), "I'm A Fool To Want You" (yes), "The Song Is You" (yes!!!!!11!!), and "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" (which I love but somehow let fall off the bottom of the list -- I will rectify that a little with my second hundred favorites, coming in 2016, God willing).*

Mark Steyn's recent picks include Dolores Silver's delightful "Learnin' The Blues," a real favorite of mine that came in at #92. (It probably should have been ranked higher but the competition is fierce!) Mark's #57 is Cahn and Van Heusen's "The Tender Trap," always great fun to listen to, followed by "Stars Fell On Alabama" (a must-read) and the Coleman-Leigh classic, "Witchcraft." (Stay tuned for a similarly-themed song coming up here soon.)

*Since writing this, Bob has put up numbers 19-17. More on those later.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

#35: Sinatra swings an über-standard

It's "I'll Be Seeing You" by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (words), written in 1938 but emblematic of WWII and the painful separations of that time. Mark Steyn has a fascinating discussion of the song and its enduring appeal:
As much as "It Had To Be You" or "The Way You Look Tonight", "I'll Be Seeing You" belongs to a select group of über-standards, the ones we'll still be singing when 90 per cent of the rest have fallen away. 
Mark does a little geometry on the various recordings Sinatra made of it:
Which is the real Sinatra "I'll Be Seeing You"? Both. There's no correct way to do the number. The definition of a standard is a song you can do in a zillion different ways - and sometimes with the same singer, and all in the same year. Grab a piece of paper and draw a triangle. Point A is Frank's 1940 record of "I'll Be Seeing You". Point B is Sy Oliver's May 1961 swinger. Point C is Axel Stordahl's September 1961 ballad version. The lines between A and B and between A and C mark Sinatra's artistic growth, and the line between B and C marks his emotional range. 
Here's the 1961 Stordahl ballad version recorded for Point of No Return. Very lovely. But it will come as no surprise to the three or four people interested in this list that I prefer Sy Oliver's exuberantly swinging take from I Remember Tommy:

Bob Belvedere ranks it at #36:
Francis recorded several versions of this Great American Songbook tune [see Mark Steyn’s top-notch take on this wonderful tune here], but whereas the others are more serious, I find this celebratory one much more satisfying. I like sad, but not dispirited. Life goes on, pal.
Frank swings it mightily but somehow -- as usual -- still retains the emotional content of the song.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

#36: Sinatra and Mandel, fully caffeinated

It's "The Coffee Song," in which arranger Johnny Mandel outdoes himself. Wake up and brace yourself for two minutes and fifty-one seconds of fully-caffeinated fabulousness:

If you missed Frank's incredibly elegant/breezy -- breezelegant? -- treatment of the word "dill," in the line "Coffee pickles way outsell the dill," you'll just have to play it again. I'm trying, in vain, to think of a better recording of a novelty song.

"The Coffee Song" was written by Dick Miles and Bob Hilliard in 1946 and Sinatra recorded it shortly afterward. But that version is like a cup of watery Sanka compared with the bold and sizzling 1961 chart for Ring-a-Ding Ding! When I first heard it (and the rest of the album), which was only about ten years ago, I had that how-long-has-this-been-going-on feeling -- where had I been all these years, missing out on all this great music? I've been playing catch-up ever since.

Mark Steyn has already written about this one so pour yourself a fresh cup and enjoy. Just a bit here:
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.

But "The Coffee Song" is the coffee song:

Way down among Brazilians
Coffee beans grow by the millions
So they've got to find those extra cups to fill
They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil...
Read the rest and stay tuned for more great music.

Friday, August 14, 2015

#37: I like a Lane-Freed tune

"How About You?" is a light-hearted, kinda corny song that sounds exactly like what it started out as, a 1941 duet for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sinatra and Riddle got hold of it and made it into something even better:

I like everything about this song: Sinatra's phrasing and timing, Riddle's gently-swinging but intensifying arrangement, matched by Sinatra all the way, and the singer's final descent at the finish. Go ahead, play it again.

The song was written by Burton Lane and Ralph Freed. Why does it work so well? Mark Steyn:
The mistake composers make with list songs is to assume it's all about the lyric and to phone in the tune. But Burton Lane wrote what Alec Wilder called "a marvelous, healthy, rhythmic ballad". Even the title phrase varies in unusual ways - the third "How about you?", in the 15th bar, puts the "how" on a high D sharp, full of romantic yearning. And the irresistible device of the rat-a-tat-tat repeated notes - "I like po-ta-to chips/Moon-light and mo-tor trips" - returns even more dramatically in the conclusion:

Holding hands
In the movie show
All the lights are low
May not be new...

That's the very definition of songwriting: not words, not notes, not a lyric, not a melody, but the two so inextricably linked that they're indivisible. Was the tune written to accommodate the lines or vice-versa? I asked Burton Lane and he couldn't recall. "All I remember is that I thought it was a terrific idea for a song," he said, "and we were so enthusiastic about it we wrote it very quickly, and I knew we'd got it right. Sometimes that happens."
"How About You" had to be the inspiration for this Bert & Ernie number by Jeff Moss, which turns the theme of having things in common on its head but winds up in the same place:

Way to pour it on at the end, guys!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

#38: It's just too very very

Why do I love this song? I dunno -- words fail me. And that puts me in good company:

Music by Richard Whiting and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1937.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

#39: From Bing to Ring-a-Ding Ding!

Irving Berlin wrote "Be Careful, It's My Heart" for the Bing Crosby - Fred Astaire musical Holiday Inn. Bing's performance in the movie isn't available on YouTube but here's a recording he made in 1942. Sinatra's recording about two decades later doesn't seem to have been influenced by Bing's zing-less, ring-a-ding-ding-less version at all:

I love the way Frank sings "remembuh" and tosses off "it's my heart," breezily yet pointedly. But I have to admit, the way he finishes on that high note has not grown on me over the years. This is the one song on Ring-a-Ding Ding! that Johnny Mandel had no part in arranging. He was pressed for time and had Skip Martin ghost-arrange it. From Frank Jr.'s liner notes:
This orchestration, actually written by Skip Martin of MGM fame, finishes with Sinatra hitting a double "F." Martin says, "When I first heard the playback, I asked him 'Why did you reach for that high ending?' He smiled at me and said, 'There was nowhere else I could go.'"
Oh, well. Nobody's perfect. I still like it enough to rank it in my top forty.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

#40: And the bell goes . . .

If you haven't heard it yet, give yourself a treat and listen to Mark Steyn's Sammy Cahn podcast now. Part two starts off strong with this:

For sheer exhilaration that's pretty hard to top, no? My favorite line might be
Don't know if it's morning, night time, winter or spring
What's the difference?
How perfectly Frank tosses that off.

Will Friedwald calls "Ring-a-Ding Ding" "an almost perfect piece of manufactured Sinatriana" (p 418) and that it is. Frank wanted to kick off his new label with a bang and commissioned Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen to write a song using the Rat Pack catch phrase. (Mind you, you don't have to be a Rat Pack enthusiast to love the song or the LP.) As he does with every track on the album, Frank sings this one like he means it, but with a jazzy, elegant insouciance that makes RDD one of my two or three favorite Sinatra LPs. Johnny Mandel's fabulous, jazzy arrangements surely have something to do with that.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Gal That Got Away

Mark Steyn's #53 -- go read his piece and come back to watch this great performance mentioned by Mark, in which Sinatra accidentally sings the original girl lyrics at the end:

Just wow. This isn't on my list but easily makes my second hundred.

#41: The sweet spot

Mark Steyn quotes Charles Granata on the quality of Sinatra's voice in "I'll Be Around":
This moment is one of the pluperfect examples (in my opinion) of the 'sweet spot' - the 12-18 month period where his voice sounded like warm, satiny honey. In this period it displays vibrant color, superb depth, and a rich, rounded tone that was unmatched.
Oh yes. Like "This Love Of Mine," it's a song you can immerse yourself in like a warm bath:

Alec Wilder wrote both the words and the music in 1942 and Nelson Riddle arranged the song for 1955's exquisite In the Wee Small Hours. Bob Belvedere mentions Sinatra's performance very honorably, calling it "perfect," and recommends it for wee-small-hours listening.

It's #32 on Mark's Sinatra centenary hit parade and you know he's got the entire back-story on Mr. Wilder, his friendship with Frank, and the song itself:
Over 11 years later, Sinatra returned to "I'll Be Around" for a recording that always held a special place with the composer: "God bless Frank Sinatra for singing the definitive version of this song," said Wilder. Sinatra's take on In The Wee Small Hours (1955) has a spare but gorgeous Nelson Riddle arrangement that matches the translucence of the melody. The recording was made in the actual wee small hours, and using just a four-man rhythm section, on which Sinatra's pianist Bill Miller and guitarist George Van Eps are particularly strong. Frank goes his own-way in the final half-chorus, singing in the fills, but Wilder respected the art of interpretation, and in any case Riddle doesn't mess with the composer's harmonies.
Translucent it is.