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
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
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...


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.