Sleepers in the Sinatra Canon
Pop Culture Released - Sep 23, 2018
Frank Sinatra was not easily defeated, not by critics, not by a case of tired vocal chords, and not by slumping record sales. What follows are reviews of four overlooked albums that attest not to his art but to his perseverance.
(1) SINATRA SINGS GREAT SONGS FROM GREAT BRITAIN (1962)
Even on a bad day, Frank Sinatra shines. This is a lovely LP, somewhere between the autumnal feel of "The Turning Point" and the lush romanticism of "The Concert Sinatra.” All three albums were recorded within the same year and feature some of Sinatra's best ballad work. Yes, Sinatra's voice was a bit tired from touring Europe when he entered a London studio to record "Great Songs," but the tired vocal chords add rather than detract from the melancholy mood of the songs, particularly with "Now is the Hour" and "Garden in the Rain." As always, Sinatra's delivers the goods, plumbing the emotional depths of each song and making it vibrant and alive. The key is the gorgeous string arrangements. Arranger Robert Farnon, who arranged the music for "Great Songs," was a big fan of Axel Stordahl, Sinatra's arranger from the Columbia years. In some ways, Farnon surpasses him, with string writing that is positively heavenly. As the liner notes attest, Sinatra and Farnon constituted a mutual admiration society. Among my favorites cuts are "The Very Thought of You" (one of Sinatra's rare attempts at covering a Nat Cole song), "If I Had You" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
(2) THE CONCERT SINATRA (1962)
Leave it to Frank Sinatra, to hire a 100-piece orchestra for a concert for a half-dozen close friends, and perform a set devoted exclusively to the grandly romantic show tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart. In fact the intended audience was the record-buying public, who somehow missed this great album when it arrived in record stores in the Fall of 1962, an album that was arranged and conducted by incomparable Nelson Riddle, and performed by the cream of Hollywood's high-brow musicians, most of whom were on sabbatical from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. You want Broadway songs that uplift and inspire? This album is loaded: "I Have Dreamed," "My Heart Stood Still," "Lost in the Stars," "Ol' Man River," "You'll Never Walk Along," "This Nearly Was Mine." Grandiloquent is the word for it.
(3) FRANK SINATRA: A MAN ALONE, THE SONGS OF ROD McKUEN (1969)
The album is entitled “A Man Alone”—not “Sinatra Sings Rod McKuen.” There is a difference. The key to appreciating the singular specialness of Frank Sinatra is that when a song means something to him—when he makes a connection with the words on some personal level—the song becomes his own. That’s why Sinatraphiles—and I am one—are so devoted to his music. When Sinatra is given lyrics that matter to him, no one can match him. That’s why this album is special—Sinatra was into the lyrics. Rod McKuen supplied the words, but Sinatra gave them meaning. In the end, the vision is Sinatra’s alone.
About the words—not everyone loved Rod McKuen’s poetry and music, it just seemed that way back in the ‘60s when this album was made. Obviously, Sinatra was moved by McKuen’s poetry on some fundamental level. The two met at a party. One thing led to another and Frank asked the "paperback poet" to write the lyrics for an entire album devoted to being single and alone. As always, Sinatra rehearsed at home with pianist Bill Miller–to take possession of the mood the words evoked. "The prince of pop charts," Don Costa, supplied arrangements suitable to the mood, and the album was recorded in three sessions. Not everyone knew what to make of it. The music was decidedly low wattage, and some of the lyrics were spoken. Ring-a-ding-ding it was not. Nor was it the suicide music of “No One Cares” and “Where Are You.” The music was deeply intimate and personal. The man singing was alone but not lonely. If his heart was broken, he was over it. He was wistful about lost loves as opposed to brooding over them. “A Man Alone” is unique in the Sinatra canon. That said, record sales were dismal in the U.S. but overseas the English people loved it. Today, “A Man Alone” is earning a grudging respect among Sinatraphiles and finding a place at last on the shelf with, among other recordings, “A Swingin’ Affair,” “Only the Lonely,” and “September of My Years.”
(4) WATERTOWN (1969)
“Watertown” was a pivotal moment in Frank Sinatra’s long career. The former boy singer of the Tommy Dorsey Band, the one-time heartthrob who left the girls swooning in the aisles at the Paramount Theater in New York City, the creator of the concept album, the former 30-something swinger and Rat Pack leader, the multi-media business mogul, and now, in the late-1960s, aging superstar, was struggling to come to grips with the growing youth market. In 1969, he spent most of the year in a Hollywood recording studio searching for something—anything—that would connect with the kids. Why he was so obsessed is a mystery. He had nothing more to prove. He was super-rich, owned a third of Warner-Reprise Records, was still very much a hot property in the movie industry, and yet here he was looking for a hit record, and making yet another “important” album, but most of all, as a singer, being relevant again. Sinatra liked to say he was a saloon singer, only he didn’t play saloons; there was no money in it. He was a pop singer who played to sell-out crowds in huge arenas like Madison Square Garden. More than that, he was an artist, with an artist’s temperament—impatient, demanding, never satisfied, forever wondering why others didn’t hear what he heard, feel what he felt, see what he saw. It wasn’t easy being Frank Sinatra. But in 1969 none of his former success mattered, and his artistic temperament cried out for something new.
When Frankie Vali of the Four Seasons suggested Sinatra work with the Four Season's songwriting team, Sinatra accepted without reservation. Recorded in July 1969, “Watertown” was the result. It was unlike anything Sinatra had ever done before. It was a series of connected stories told in song about a marriage breakup and the effect it was having on the children and on the husband/father. It wasn’t ring-a-ding-ding, but it was real, personal, as emotionally touching as any saloon album, and played to Sinatra's art as master story teller. The orchestral arrangements–at once retro and modern–were the perfect counterpoint to Sinatra, as the wounded, wizened, world-weary story-teller. The album was well-recorded and the deluxe record jacket appropriate to what was a concept album. Sinatra was proud of the album. Yet, of all the records he made at Reprise, it was by far his worst selling, with a reported 35,000 units moved. Not nearly enough to pay the studio musicians. It was also Sinatra’s last complete album before his retirement. In 1971, he decided he would be happier on a Palm Springs golf course than in the fruitless pursuit of yet another hit record. When the CD age arrived, "Watertown" was the last Sinatra album to go digital. “Watertown” is Sinatra’s lost album—misunderstood, unappreciated, neglected.
That is not the end of the story, however. In recent years, critics and buyers alike have rediscovered “Watertown” and decided it’s not so bad after all. In fact, with repeated listening, it’s actually quite good, better in fact than a number of albums Sinatra recorded in the three or four years before and after his 1971 retirement. In I998, a week after Sinatra’s death, Entertainment Weekly rated Sinatra’s entire discography, from 1939 through the Duets albums of ‘90s. The writer, jazz critic Will Friedwald, placed “Watertown” squarely in the middle of Sinatra’s 100 album discography—at number 50—ahead of “My Way,” “Softly As I Leave You,” “That’s Life,” “Ol’Blue Eyes is Back,” “L.A. Is My Lady,” “Some Nice Things I’ve Missed,” “The World We Knew,” “Cycles” and the two “Duets” albums. Throw in scores of favorable reviews on Amazon.com and “Watertown” is lost no more.
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