Richard Nisley

3 X Frank
Pop Culture Released - Nov 01, 2015

Frank Sinatra—Three Album Reviews

ONLY THE LONLEY — It’s Fall, 1973: after a semester off I’m back in school, and after a brief retirement Frank Sinatra is back as well, playing a benefit concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. My older brother calls. He has tickets—would I like to go? Sinatra? Are you kidding? We have good seats. Sammy Davis, Jr. is on the bill, and Leslie Uggams, and the Andrew Sisters. They perform their hearts out—singing and dancing up a storm. Then Sinatra takes center stage, poised, elegantly dressed. He doesn’t dance and he rarely moves. The most he does is stomp his foot to emphasize the word “kick” while singing “I Get a Kick Out of You.” The sell-out crowd bestows upon him the evening’s only standing ovation. Then the auditorium darkens and the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion becomes an intimate and very lonely place. A single light beams down upon a bar. Sinatra seats himself, lights a cigarette, and says he’s always been a saloon singer. To the accompaniment of piano, he sings “One For My Baby.” It’s an electrifying moment. Sinatra has the audience eating out of his hands. Which brings us to “Only the Lonely.” It’s a peerless collection of saloon songs that includes “Angel Eyes,” “Blues in the Night,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” “Willow Weep For Me,” and, of course, “One For My Baby”—12 songs in all, of lost love and heartache, of lonely nights spent in lonely places. Yes, Sinatra invented the concept album—a dozen or so songs of similar theme and mood and subject—but with “Only The Lonely,” recorded in 1958, he overstepped the boundary he alone had set, to establish a standard so far reaching in depth of emotion and intelligence it has yet to be equaled. With “Only the Lonely,” critics began writing about Sinatra not as a singer of American standards, but as a poet and artist.

SINATRA SINGS THE SELECT RODGERS & HART — What more can be said about the lyrics of Larry Hart? That he can rhyme anything? How about the New York drama critic, in a review of Shakespeare in the Park, who extolled Shakespeare as the greatest poet in the history of the English language—with the exception of Larry Hart? Who but Hart could successfully write a song of romantic love extolling the virtues of imperfection as the idea of affection, as in “My Funny Valentine”? And what of Frank Sinatra, who has done more to perpetuate the Rodgers & Hart songbook than any dozen singers combined. Sinatra’s recordings of “I wish I were in Love Again,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Bewitched,” “My Funny Valentine” and so many more, according to Stephen Holden of the New York Times, “constitute a passionate dictionary of romantic predicaments. The chemistry between singer and the lyricist has everything to do with a sense of inner frailty and a trust in that frailty as an artist’s resource.” Which brings us to “Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Rodgers and Hart.” Sinatra didn’t believe in doing an album dedicated to a single songwriter, but the folks at Capitol Records have done so anyway, by pulling together all the Rodgers & Hart tunes Sinatra recorded with that label—18 songs in all. Included are the five tunes from the “Pal Joey” movie soundtrack, which sound right at home among this collection. This is first-rate Frank, singing to the charts of master arranger Nelson Riddle. According to “Sinatra 101: The 101 Best Recordings and Stories Behind Them,” a number of these recordings are definitive—never topped.

CYCLES — On paper it looked like a good idea. An album of contemporary songs sung in the soft and sensuous voice of “Sinatra-Jobim.” Why not? Critics loved “Sinatra-Jobim.” It had been a change of pace that worked brilliantly. Why not take a stab at 1960s’ soft rock? In the past Sinatra had covered songs by the likes of Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Tony Bennett and so many others and made them his own. And now, in the rock era, Andy Williams, Johnny Mathis and even Tony Bennett were enjoying very successful careers doing covers of current hits. Why not Sinatra? With this is mind, Sinatra hooked up once again with arranger Don Costa who (unlike Nelson Riddle) understood and appreciated rock music, having produced the likes of teen heartthrob Paul Anka. Sinatra and Costa looked over a list of recent hit songs and picked 10 candidates. Over the summer and fall of 1968 Sinatra took the plunge and recorded his first soft-rock album, “Cycles.” The reception? Disappointing would be an understatement. Critics hated it, Sinatraphiles avoided it, and the kids ignored it. Soft and sensuous? Try soft and wimpy. Reprise thought so little of the record that when they got around to compiling “Frank Sinatra: The Reprise Collection,” 81 songs from Sinatra’s very good years, they ignored “Cycles” completely. Which begs the question: was “Cycles” really that bad? Don Costa’s sensitive arrangements fit the tunes nicely—guitar, harpsichord and piano, strings. Indeed, had the singer been Andy Williams or Johnny Mathis, the record likely would have been a hit. Why not for Sinatra?

The problem lay with the man himself. While Sinatra could dispense with the hat and the suit & tie and trade them for a Nehru jacket and love beads, as he had done in the late ‘60s, he couldn’t stop being who he was. He was Las Vegas: hip, urbane, anything but ‘60s laid-back. He was peerless at plumbing the depths of sophisticated lyrics and making the emotional connection that sells a song. It served him well with the songs of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers & Hart, even with the songs of Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim. But what about with the songs of Jimmy Webb (“By the Time I Get to Phoenix”), Joni Mitchell (“Both Sides Now”), John Hartford (“Gentle on my Mind”) and Gayle Caldwell (“Wanderings”)? For Sinatra, the connection just wasn’t there. Their life experiences were totally different from the songwriters of Sinatra’s generation. They hadn’t lived through a depression and a world war. Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis were from a later generation as well, and therefore more in tune with the 1960s. Sinatra was old school, a street kid, a scuffler, forced to scramble in his early days, a person with incredible singing talent who had risen from his ethnic background of Hoboken, New Jersey, to become a boy singer in one of the Big Bands before launching out on his own. He had reached the heights and plunged the depths. He had suffered setbacks that might have broken a less-determined individual. These very qualities and life experiences worked marvelously with songs from the American Songbook, but not, alas, with the soft rock of the 1960s. The world had changed. The songs being written had no real meaning for Frank Sinatra, and it showed up in his singing. Try as he might, his heart wasn’t in it. “Cycles” was a very good album, imaginatively arranged and well recorded—it just wasn’t Frank Sinatra.

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