Sunday 12 October 2008

Frank SINATRA: This Is Sinatra!

(#8: 2 March 1957, 1 week; 16 March 1957, 1 week; 30 March 1957, 1 week; 27 April 1957, 1 week)

Track listing: I’ve Got The World On A String/Three Coins In The Fountain/Love And Marriage/From Here To Eternity/South Of The Border/Rain (Falling From The Skies)/The Gal That Got Away/Young-At-Heart/Learnin’ The Blues/My One And Only Love/(Love Is) The Tender Trap/Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me

The first compilation album to make number one, and a useful reminder that at the same time Sinatra was pioneering the concept of the long playing album he was still obliged to service the needs of the jukebox users and the singles buyers. Billed in the sleevenote as “a dozen of his recent and best hits,” This Is Sinatra! rounds up the pick of his 1953-6 singles and B-sides; it was part of a running Capitol promotional series (other This Is… albums featuring Dean Martin, Nat “King” Cole and so forth) but the only one to chart, and although it has since been superseded by dozens, if not hundreds, of Capitol Sinatra compilations it remains a fascinating listen in itself, even if in terms of tentative steps towards the mastery of aesthetic and delivery that Sinatra achieved in the album format.

It begins, as most Capitol Sinatra compilations do, with his fumblingly celebratory “I’ve Got The World On A String” from 1953, the song and performance which marked his permanent return from the coldness of semi-obscurity; a titanic fanfare from Nelson Riddle’s brass (Riddle arranges and conducts all of the selections except for “South Of The Border”) promises to herald a returning conqueror, but then Riddle quite unexpectedly turns the orchestra sotto voce, a brooding rubato sax section over which Sinatra sings the title line, slowly and slightly cautiously, as though still doubting whether he’s really earned his return, or dazzled with disbelief that he’s back in the spotlight. Swift reassurance is provided by a bright trumpet section exclamation mark and Sinatra quickly settles into the song’s easy swing – “What a world! What a life! I’m in love!,” a triple flush which announces the new Frank, the confident, suited, self-mocking but fundamentally right-minded middle-aged Frank, the man who has burst forth from the chrysalis of his previous gangly boyish self. “I can MAKE the rain go!” he exclaims, and there’s no doubt in his mind or in our ears that his Other will be more than prepared to get next to him. A hard snare accent takes the comeback to its crescendo as he proclaims, “Man, this is the life! Hey now…I’m so in LOVE!” and hangs on to that “LOVE” for a long, long sustain, just as he would do in “You’re Sensational” but in terms of achievement rather than hope.

“Three Coins” gave him his first UK number one single in 1954 but does indicate the drawbacks inherent in the short-play Sinatra model. Many of these singles were made for and taken from the movies, and Riddle had to arrange to order; thus Sinatra’s very tender delivery of the song – his unusual emphasis on the word “thrown” as though contemplating throwing himself off a tenth-storey balcony and on the “will” of “which one will the fountain bless?,” the whispered prayer of “Each heart longing for its home,” and the very rare (for Sinatra) use of the two-syllable upward elision in the “mine” of every third “Make it mine,” all of which point to his sublime development as a ballad interpreter – tends to be drowned out by Riddle’s over-florid cascades of strings and harps. Likewise, the very real hurt of “From Here To Eternity” – a heartbreaking “Dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeyou” segue between the word “die” and the phrase “you gave your lips,” the boyish bafflement of “how could I know?” which was about as vulnerable as Sinatra allowed himself to get in this period, the dehydrated desperation of “this endless DESIRRRRRRRRE” – is obscured by bluff, hearty brass to signify the presence of a war.

In light comedy, too, Sinatra still couldn’t help being a morose and dark presence, like a reformed crook who can’t quite get used to going straight; thus he sounds somewhat ill at ease with the bland optimism (because there are no shadows) of “Young-At-Heart.” He did better with the Kurt Weill lite slapstick of “Love And Marriage” and while I note with some melancholy the absence of words like “disparage” from contemporary song, the song’s brash broadness ensures Sinatra has a good (if slightly laboured) deal of fun, rapidly switching from deadpan to vibrato while singing the title, tossing out the occasional “You can’t have none!” snarl, rolling his tongue on “othurrrrr” and zipping up his fly in time for the closing double bassoon parp. Meanwhile, “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” is amiable fluff (albeit clever fluff, with each chorus summing up the preceding verse, complete with internal rhymes) masquerading as a growl but is now best viewed as a training run for the unutterable confidence of Swingin’ Lovers – “and suddenly you’re sighing sighs” leading to the seamless sigh of “Muuuuuusic in the breeze,” his varying attitudes to the words “tingle” and “single,” his half-regretful, half-priapic “nice” and – again – the climactic sustenato payoff of “LOVE!”; the ingredients are all there but not quite yet solidified into a forward-thinking whole.

The most fun track on This Is Sinatra! is “South Of The Border,” done with Billy May’s band, and immediately we get May’s characteristic sliding saxes, blaring raspberries of trumpets, sceptical trombones and surprisingly adventurous harmonic voicings, but Sinatra takes his self-induced jilting with laughing grace and enjoys himself with May’s responses, for instance the muted trumpet nyah-nyah-underpants figure which comes after Sinatra’s “old Spanish lace,” amusing him enough to sing of a “smile A-pon her face” and with great insouciance shrug off the “down” from “down Mexico way.” Following a brief, broad exchange between saxophones and snare drum Sinatra sneaks back down south to find to his dismay his one night stand kneeling down to pray in the church; from his shoulder-shrugging tone it isn’t clear whether she’s getting married or become a nun, but Sinatra adopts a carefree what the hell stance, as confirmed by his throwaway “The mission bells told me – ding dong,” with that jaunty “ding dong” the ash of regret tapped off the cigarette of careless adventure; he does some “ay ay ay ay” trading of fours with the band and is still more than happy.

Another huge hit included here is 1955’s “Learnin’ The Blues” and it is a matter of extreme regret that this song - #2 as a single in Britain that year – has drifted into something approaching obscurity since it is clearly a transitional recording; the sleevenote refers to “the rhythmic and torchy lesson Frank taught willing millions via juke boxes, record stores and disc jockeys” and it’s an astute reflection since “Learnin’ The Blues” bridges the upbeat, confident Sinatra with the deeper and more shadowy slow motion Sinatra. Riddle’s arrangement is confident, brightly thrusting and on the beat – perhaps indicating a very early response to this nascent rock and roll thing – with textural variety provided by Harry Edison’s trumpet (he even quotes Ellington’s “Creole Love Call” in the intro) and Red Norvo’s restless vibes.

But the lyric goes the other way entirely. “You play the same love song/It’s the tenth time you’ve heard it,” and it’s clear that Sinatra is suffering (the second person singular/plural adopted for the song may well be a deflection from his own pain) since the phrase “your first lesson” is answered by a wagging teacher’s finger of alto saxes, and soon one realises that this is a world of unbearable, involuntary solitude: “The cigarettes you liked, one after another…/You’re only burning a torch you can’t lose,” and indeed we are in Trojan horse torch song territory here, Billie Holiday sentiments smuggled into a primary coloured hepcat bop. We feel the “taunt” the victim feels at home, and the “haunt” when he’s in the crowd; Norvo’s vibes irritably tickle Sinatra’s “sleepless nights,” and by the time he’s arrived at the tragedy of “But you can’t forget her/Soon you even stop trying” his performance is at discomfiting odds with the tune and arrangement, his rumbling “mmmmm the nights” leading into the final, hopeless key change – it is as if the landscape of Swingin’ Lovers is built but still empty; he has not yet learned how to reinhabit that place, or has been locked out of it and is watching the merriment from outside the barring gate.

And so it is that we must pass to the remaining four ballad performances, a matter of particular importance since the ballad Sinatra will not be intruding too directly on this tale; Where Are You?, the first of his beyond-extraordinary collaborations with Gordon Jenkins, was a top three album later in 1957, and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (with Riddle’s finest ballad writing, particularly on the devastating “What’s New?”) went top five in 1958; 1960’s devastating No One Cares (with Jenkins) was too strong and bitter a pill to chart at all. Perhaps the bravest of these four tracks is Sinatra’s take on “The Gal That Got Away,” a role reversal of the song which Garland had unquestionably and irrevocably made her own in A Star Is Born; Sinatra tries his hardest but can’t match Garland ’s natural hurt. Still, Riddle pulls most of his stops out here, the opening striptease trumpet quickly giving way to hushed saxes, strings and brushes, Sinatra staggering over barlines like an inconsolable drunk, or limping down the highway with a twenty-ton backpack weighing him down. However, Riddle can’t sustain the emotion; the alto sax as “girl” metaphor was running out of steam even then and again (and this time, I think, not by intent) the arrangement is at variance with Sinatra’s incrementally increasing despair (his apocalyptic “tomorrow she may turn up”), his fading cries of “please come back…won’t you come back…”

Each side of the album concludes with a far more satisfactory ballad interpretation; side one finishes with “Rain” which despite the needless sound effects at its beginning and end sees Sinatra and Riddle in rough concordance; the opening high strings/alto flute shimmers directly anticipate Scott Walker’s “It’s Raining Again” (and everything that developed from the latter), Sinatra sounding as though he’s just scampered underneath a shop doorway for scant shelter, with a very direct rain/tears analogy (“Streeee-aming…down my face”) which soon turns into ardent prayer for deliverance (the “skyrain” segue which comes out of the first “praying that a new tomorrow will put the sun back in the sky”). Following an eerie, almost ahuman topline for high violins (predicting Percy Faith’s “Theme From A Summer Place”), Sinatra returns with intensified emotion; this time his “in the sky” is succeeded by a long, acappella and heart-rendering cry of “PLEEEEEEASE!” to lead into the final key change, Sinatra now begging – out of tempo, with just strings and one French horn to accompany him - for the rain to “wash away my tears” even as he’s crying them, clinging to the “SUN” like a disappointed God in “so when that SUN appears” and leading to “I’ll see my looooooooove again” with a final harp/celeste caress signifying that once he is able to wash those tears away, his love will be there, waiting for his soul to clear, patient and smiling and welcoming.

Side two’s closer, “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me,” similarly points to Walker – and, of course, to Jerry Butler - since it is the direct ancestor of “Make It Easy On Yourself,” a selflessness so heartfelt it threatens to render its singer in half, as we already know from Sinatra’s first, unaccompanied “Don’t” and the funereal saxophones which enter thereafter. He knows it’s over, that she mustn’t cling on (“cling to some fading thing” perhaps a double bluff to his audience; go on then, I’m pushing forty but I can still live and love and be loved), and wants her to be happy but his performance indicates that he’s tearing himself apart while doing so – the Tosca sustenato of “I’ll,” the hopelessly hopeful upward “be-e” in “be happy my love” and sentiments such as “look out for yourself” and “don’t be a fool” – but Riddle’s fortissimo trumpet break betray the truth; the screaming horns echo his blazing, internally suppressed soul. Then, the last comedown and one of the most moving moments on any Sinatra record when he sings, hushed, “If you can’t forget,” and is answered by a saxophone section, head bowed, sadly shaking its head in response.

But I’m not going to leave This Is Sinatra! or indeed Sinatra like that; I want a happy ending, so it’s back to side two, track four, and one of the most sheerly beautiful performances he ever gave, “My One And Only Love,” where all the ingredients of his sadness are turned on their heads and sides and become a recipe for profound joy and happiness. Against, once more, strings and alto flute – or, I should say, now with them, rather than against them – Sinatra sings with the awe of a borderline believer whose prayer has unexpectedly been answered, “The very thought of you makes my heart sing” and does so in one unbroken, astonished, flying cry of a syllable of joy. Also the subject of a gorgeous interpretation on 1963’s John Coltrane And Johnny Hartman album, “My One And Only Love” is such an intrinsically lovely song that it’s almost impossible to ruin, and Sinatra builds a tender temple on its foundations (Robert Mellin, the unsung hero of inter-war popular song). The “mystic dreams” takes it virtually into the realm of Astral Weeks transcendence and Sinatra stunned and happy is a wonderful thing to hear; one trembles at his “hush of night while you’re in my arms,” TOUCHES the flesh of “I feel your lips so warm and tender,” ascends to the skies with the contented, if dazzled, sigh in the middle of “The touch of your hand is like heaven…a heaven I’ve never known,” the simple ecstasy of “the blush on your cheek whenever I speak”…we are virtually in his heart, sensing his breath as he bows down (in worship) to the wonder of love. The second middle eight sees his “touch of your hand” accompanied only by rubato trombones, the “heaven I’ve never known” just by violins, and then both together, with the addition of a harp and his “tells me that youuuuuare my own,” almost going beyond what language is able to articulate. His ardent “You fill my eager heart with such desire” is noble in the best of senses, the “SOUL” of “Every kiss you give sets my SOUL on fire” is aquatic and self-exceeding, his gladly tearful “I give myself in sweet surrender,” again out of tempo, unspeakably beautiful, the final modulations culminating in harp ripples of confirmatory consummation. This is Sinatra, but this is also life, and all that makes us want to keep on living it.