Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Frank SINATRA: Portrait Of Sinatra

(#182: 2 April 1977, 2 weeks)

Track listing: Let’s Face The Music And Dance/Nancy (With The Laughing Face)/I’ve Got You Under My Skin/Let Me Try Again/Fly Me To The Moon/All Or Nothing At All/For Once In My Life/Bonita/My Kind Of Town/Call Me Irresponsible/All The Way/Strangers In The Night/Didn’t We/Come Fly With Me/Second Time Around/In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning/Bad, Bad Leroy Brown/Softly, As I Leave You/Cycles/Send In The Clowns/That’s Life/Little Green Apples/Song Of The Sabia/Goody Goody/Empty Tables/I Believe I’m Gonna Love You/Stargazer/I Sing The Songs/You Are The Sunshine Of My Life/It Was A Very Good Year/Something Stupid/Young At Heart/You Make Me Feel So Young/Yesterday/Pennies From Heaven/If/Something/Star/Love’s Been Good To Me/My Way

“I go back…I know that I’ll go back”
(“Song Of The Sabia”)

“A gallery full of ghosts”
(“Empty Tables”)

In keeping with the general Moebius-like nature of this tale, our next entry takes us right back to the beginning; Sinatra was the first artist I wrote about on Then Play Long, and even the first song on entry #1 reappears here, albeit a different recording. In those early days it sometimes seemed like he was at number one all the time, although only five albums featuring him – three under his own name, including an earlier compilation, and two movie soundtracks – actually went all the way. Still, those were five out of the first thirteen entries, so his omnipresence then was easy to acknowledge.

Less easy to understand was his return to number one in 1977. For overseas readers scratching their heads, I should point out that Portrait Of Sinatra - bearing the portentous subtitle “Forty Songs from the Life of a Man” – was a UK-only release, timed to coincide with the singer’s visit to Britain, including a residency at the Royal Albert Hall. A portrait, seen on the gatefold sleeve in several stages of completion, was undertaken by one Michael Noakes, “President of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.” The inside of the sleeve also includes encomia of varying value from Bing Crosby, Hoagy Carmichael, Frankie Valli, Nelson Riddle (very good on the art of the Sinatra arranger), Count Basie and, poetically, Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Exhausted confessions”).

If all of this sounds potentially overbearing, you are not alone in your concern; this is the first of no less than four 40-track double compilations to make number one in 1977 (only one of which has since made it onto CD), and while I remember enough of the time to know that back then size meant everything – more albums! Bigger albums! – am I alone in finding these bumper packages rather bullying? I can’t imagine anyone who bought Portrait sitting down and listening to the whole thing – well over two hours – at one stretch, and doing so feels somewhat like being hit repeatedly on the head with a cast iron steam shovel. I felt the listening experience akin to being bludgeoned, and am sure that is exactly what was intended. I recognise that in the pre-CD world, scholarly collections meant cumbersome multi-vinyl album boxes, but without the ease of cherry picking and flitting from track to track that one gets with a CD, the concept is oppressive, designed to hammer the greatness of Sinatra – or any of the other three acts getting similar treatment that year – into the listener’s head.

This is a pity, since as a record Portrait is not dispensable; although it misses out several key performances from Sinatra’s Reprise years, it compensates by including several genuine rarities, including otherwise non-compiled single-only releases and two selections from the never-released 1970 Sinatra-Jobim album (one of which, “Song Of The Sabia,” ended up as a B-side). I found that the only way to listen to all of it and remain sane, however, was to do so one side at a time, and having now listened to the whole album, I am still unclear as to what sort of picture of Sinatra these forty songs paint; the order is semi-random, leaping from decade to decade, style to style, track by track. But let us see what I was able to discover (N.B.: the bold headings are mine, and not what you find on the sleeve or label).

Side One: East
His “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” is a bizarre starter (“There may be trouble ahead” – what kind of warning are we being given?) and Johnny Mandel’s actively aggressive big band chart almost overwhelms the singer with its constant barging dodgems of brass and reeds. Also, his timing and phrasing aren’t quite what they were back in the fifties; at several points here he slurs the words (“bi-i-i-ills,” “Moooooon-liiiiiight-annnnn-muuuuu-sickkkkkkkk”) or lets them go (“Face the music!”). “Nancy,” written by Phil Silvers and Jimmy van Heusen for his infant daughter, is handled with much more sensitivity (his “hello”s are the essence of humility), so it is a shame that Sinatra spoils it with an ad lib final verse having a go at Audrey Hepburn and Liz Taylor (for an interesting variant, see the Elton Dean Quartet’s reading of the same tune on their live 1977 album They All Be On This Old Road).

The “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here comes from his 1974 television special The Main Event, recorded with an orchestra augmented by Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd (minus the leader), and despite his heartfelt spoken introduction (“Cole Porter’s shining hour”), this reading is snarling and lecherous, completely missing the awestruck anticipation of his 1956 version (“It repeats, it repeats, it REPEATS!”). He sings “I know damn well” instead of “I know so well,” growls his “skin”s and doesn’t even attempt those two unwritable notes in the final lap, settling instead for an unattractive signoff of “Where does it hurt ya, baby?”

Then, without rhyme or reason, we are suddenly pushed into his 1973 comeback record, “Let Me Try Again,” a French-Italian melody requiring lyrical assistance from the seldom-united duo of Sammy Cahn and Paul Anka. Sinatra does it as though going for broke in Eurovision, though I note he can’t quite reach the final “We can (have it all)” following the key change (“Pride is such a foolish mask”). After that we are shifted back into 1966 and the first of several visits to the Sinatra At The ‘Sands’ live album, with Quincy Jones arranging and conducting the Basie band, and for many Sinatra followers the epitome of the Sinatra they can identify with; masculine, rat packing, gambling, boozing, chopped-off one-liners, frankly not giving a damn. “Fly Me To The Moon” comes from here, but as elsewhere, its bluff ebullience works better if you listen to the Sands album as a whole, unfunny ten-minute stand-up sequence included, though it is useful here to note (and many thanks to Lena for noting it) that Sinatra’s birth planet was Jupiter, a huge planet with many satellite moons, the Zeus of planets, an unrepentant spirit who has the power and confidence to do what he wants exactly when and how he wants to do it.

And then “All Or Nothing At All,” his first hit from 1939 with Harry James, here present in the Don Costa 1962 re-recording for the superb Sinatra And Strings album. The arrangement’s slightly overstated melodrama actually suits the song well, and for the first time we get a glimpse of why Sinatra was not just loved, but venerated; he is fully able to meet the challenges the song’s ambiguities present to him – you feel the tearing of his pain as he muses: “I’ve got to say no – NO!” and as strings counterpoint him and arise around him, there is a brief pause – is he going to go for that final high C or not – before – my God! – he actually does it; and the emotional impact is overwhelming – these were emotions not available to him as a 24-year-old bobbysox scream screen. Here you can see why he was “The Voice.”

After that, the big band romp through “For Once In My Life” is foolish – his problems with “contemporary” songs will recur throughout the record – and his “You WON’T take it!” (in comparison with Stevie’s “You CAN’T take it!”) gives the song a completely different, and nowhere near as attractive or compelling, perspective.

But then, the first of the Jobim tracks. The reason why the Sinatra-Jobim album was pulled at the last minute was that Sinatra was worried about whether it might sell, and apart from his (sadly unrepresented) 1969 collaboration with Gaudio and Crewe, Watertown, it did contain some of the most challenging material Sinatra was ever given. Claus Ogerman’s arrangements have more than a touch of Gil Evans about them – now there’s a collaboration I would have paid to listen to – and the singer handles Jobim’s tricky harmonic modulations with an ease which disguises an ineffable sadness. “Capture you…like a soft evasive mist,” Sinatra muses to himself as a walking bass stops dead to usher in multiple flute antiphonies, underscored by Jobim’s whole tone piano chords; he sounds as though singing to himself, his “Bonita,” whose name he repeats over and over, in near infinite variations, as though summoning a spirit (“Maria”?), is, in this context, the “it” of “My Elusive Dreams.” “If you loved me,” he sings at one point, “life would be beautiful,” and the banks of dissonant harmonies strongly recall Evans’ “Where Flamingos Fly.” With “My Kind Of Town,” complete with Basie’s “April In Paris” comping, we are, jarringly, back at the Sands, and I wonder whether inside Sinatra there are two competing Sinatras, each constantly striving to be the dominant character. The closing “Call Me Irresponsible,” handled as a low-light lounge cooler (with flutes and celeste), does not resolve this conflict.

Side 2: North
With the old songs – the lost art of the inter-war popular song – Sinatra was instantly more comfortable. He fits into this “All The Way” with such ease that there is little difference from the 1957 original, apart from a slight vocal gruffness. With “Strangers In The Night,” a song he professed to hate, he also found himself surprisingly able to adapt to mid-sixties easy listening modes, with the song’s effective dramatic pauses, especially the slightly longer one before the final key change, Hal Blaine’s dustbin lid drumming and Sinatra’s throwaway scatting to fade, so compelling a picture that most buyers of the record didn’t stop to think what the song was about.

His “Didn’t We” proves him to be an excellent interpreter of Jimmy Webb, using the old Sinatra trick of gradual build-up, from voice and piano alone (and out of tempo) to strings, then alto saxophone and rhythm, Sinatra’s grieving vocal effortlessly fighting its way through curtains of brass, percussion and woodwind to reach an almighty climax, before abruptly falling back into quietude, or non-existence. What this has to do with the admittedly warm and horny reading of “Come Fly With Me” (again from the Sands, where Sinatra delivers virtually all these songs with a barely concealed subtext of “Let’s Fuck”; he signs off here with a ludicrous and slightly worrying “And don’t tell your papa!”), however, is beyond me.

“Second Time Around,” written by Cahn and van Heusen (who also wrote “Come Fly With Me”), is one of the record’s quietest tracks and also one of its most moving, Sinatra surrendering to his second and better chance, as the strings slowly and gently do a closing descant, from violin down to bowed bass. “In The Wee Small Hours” is a re-recording, but like “All The Way” the difference is hard to discern for those who don’t know the originals, and it proves, again, that when Sinatra gave himself a chance, he was capable of greatness.

But then it’s back to 1973, and Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” with its bad, bad female backing singers, dated arrangement and Sinatra’s wholly unconvincing swamp growl (he concludes the track with a junkyard dog-emulating “Ruff! Ruff!”) and once again it is nearly impossible to correlate one Sinatra to the other. Matters are not helped by his bombastic 1965 reading of “Softly,” a big hit in the UK three years earlier for Matt Monro, one of the very few male singers for whom Sinatra expressed his admiration, and despite its European origins, a uniquely British performance, Monro tiptoeing around his suitcases as quietly and sadly as he can – it is an English equivalent to “By The Time I Get To Phoenix,” though unlike that latter song it only hints at the reasons for his leaving (“After all the years…”). Unfortunately, Sinatra bellows the song – including all the “softly”s – over a Red Army Choir backing and the delicacy of the original is lost; you can imagine his Other waking up amidst all the row and yelling, “OK, so go then, gimme some rest!”

After that, back to a more satisfying quiet; “Cycles” sees Sinatra getting to grips with contemporary (1968) modes and is a quietly optimistic performance; everything in the world has happened to him – his girl walked out on him last week, and, “Friday, I got fired.” So he is lying in his bed, thinking and not giving up, although at the song’s end he warns “Please don’t ask me now.” Its Reprise (or Brother, or Caribou) equivalent would be “Long Promised Road” from Surf’s Up. And although no “Send In The Clowns” sung from the male perspective is going to convince the listener fully (but listen, for a surprisingly successful attempt, to Bruce Forsyth’s version from 1975, from the same album that has “Sandra,” a song that would not be out of place on Reed’s Berlin).

Half the album done, and I’m still not sure what’s going on here or what it’s all supposed to be about.

Side 3: South
Ah, “That’s Life,” the Sinatra life summary for men; R&B organ (Michel Rubini), growling, grunting and yet sometimes surprisingly hesitant vocals (“I don’t let it…let it get me down”) – James Brown could have done this song (and perhaps he did) – Sinatra was born a Sagittarian, the sign of the centaur, half man, half beast, and the album is perhaps a struggle between the two. Here, though, this is the beast’s story, and triumph; he doesn’t even sound as though death will finish him (“My MY!!”).

The beast, aggressive, forthright and domineering, versus the man, thoughtful, sensitive and reticent; and once again the man takes over on “Little Green Apples”; again, much of the song is performed out of tempo – drums do not come in until nearly two minutes – and Sinatra sings as somebody dazed by unconditional love; he can’t believe she’s sitting there, smiling, to greet him even though he’s always late for lunch, and wonders at the wonders of the world and beyond, that such love is his to have forever. Towards the end it stops being “Little Green Apples” and instead becomes an abstract meditation on the song which could theoretically wander forever.

The song slips seamlessly into the majestic “Song Of The Sabia,” with “All Or Nothing At All” this record’s great masterpiece. Here Sinatra sounds hypnotised throughout, Jobim’s melody always probing, gently nudging the singer. There is an extremely moving moment towards the end where Sinatra slowly realises that maybe he’s just been looking in a mirror for too long. “All the love I made to forget myself…all those mistakes I made, just to find myself.” After a very meaningful pause he returns, still bewitched (“where I can hear the Song of the Sabia”), crucified by awe – and he is answered by a wholly unexpected crescendo of atonal, stinging flutes and brass, as though waiting to be devoured.

After that the ringy-dinging of “Goody Goody” simply will not do – emotionally it does not fit at all with “Sabia” – and yet one of its co-writers, Johnny Mercer, was also in part responsible for the extraordinary stand-alone single “Empty Tables.” We are back in the lonesome saloon bar at closing time as state of mind – there is, crucially, no “One For My Baby” here (the original was done for Capitol, and although there is a quite spellbinding version with Bill Miller’s piano alone on Live At The ‘Sands’, one can understand the compilers’ wish not to exhaust that particular mine) – but, quite aside from re-calling an old, abandoned love, Sinatra seems to be singing to, and about, himself. “I’m singin’ the same old numbers/And I’m tellin’ the same sad jokes”; it is a striking moment of self-analysis, and the volume never rises above quiet, just enough to make you hear that, when love is gone, death might be the only option.

This is succeeded by the 1975 single “I Believe I’m Gonna Love You” – Sinatra’s last British Top 40 hit for over a decade – which is somewhat woolly and cheery in a Perry Como sort of manner but he appears to be concerned with a higher level of devotion; there is a hymn-like vulnerability to Sinatra’s performance which transcends the material. Neil Diamond’s “Stargazer” gets a zippy “Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool” reading and Sinatra gets pretty worked up, at one point exhorting the tenor soloist to “Jump on that jam! Get all over that thing!” (what did I say about James Brown?)

On the other hand, “I Sing The Songs” – a.k.a. “I Write The Songs” – is Eurovision time again, with two challenging key changes; in the first, Sinatra doesn’t quite land on the high sustenato the “SING” of “I SING” requires, but at the end of the second, he hits and holds on the climactic “SONGS” with room to spare. It is showbiz cheese, though, as is his “You Are The Sunshine Of My Life” which he concludes with a disturbing, low-voiced chant of “Light my fire, light my fire…”

But then the side concludes with “It Was A Very Good Year,” the Sinatra life summary for women. Clearly an art song, it reunited Sinatra with his best arranger, Gordon Jenkins (their Capitol collaborations Where Are You? and especially No One Cares should be approached with extreme caution by those susceptible to the sadness of the bereaved), and like Randy Newman on the song’s later female counterpart, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?,” Jenkins is careful to vary the accompaniment from verse to verse; flutes and oboes for age 17, strings for 21, clarinets for 35 and contrapuntal woodwind and strings for the autumn. Through the song’s gently twisting pathways, Sinatra sings of a life where, although he seems tired but happy with it, he appears to have done the same thing again and again, in different guises, and with different “girls”; his adolescent “And it ca-a-a-a-a-a-aaame undone” is balanced by the later, reflective, quietly sorrowful “But now the days grow short.” But it is clear that he has never found any “real” happiness, or satisfaction, or even love, and the song hints more than once that he went out of his way to avoid such things occurring. Behind and around him, Jenkins’ orchestra weeps the tears he cannot; he is “a broken man, too tough to cry” (and let’s remember who the broker was in terms of Brian Wilson meeting with Van Dyke Parks), now silently awaiting extinction, inwardly cursing himself for all the people who were, all the time, waiting for him.

Side 4: West
Near the beginning of the record he sang of Nancy, and here is Nancy herself; no one who sent the song to number one was particularly bothered about father and daughter singing these lines, much less about whether they were singing in parallel universes, or to whom they were singing. Written by Carson Parks – and yes, he was a relation, Van Dyke’s younger brother – “Something Stupid”’s smoothness and warm alto flute cocktail comfort blankets are misleading (and probably derive from the first Sinatra-Jobim album, recorded at the same time) since this is a song about love as something to be adored, that is, until it comes to talking about love, or falling in love.

Did Sinatra ever really fall in love?

There’s “Young At Heart,” re-recorded but with Sinatra sounding absolutely comfortable; there was something of him, or in him, that doesn’t quite go with him into the sixties, or Reprise Records, except those ancient, remembered breezes of memory, the songs that were songs, the way of doing things that worked perfectly fine until time and rock and roll came and did things to it. Here’s “You Make Me Feel So Young,” the song that kicked this whole tale off, and a last visit to the Sands.

There’s “Yesterday,” and if you want the definitive string-laden crooning ballad interpretation you have to go to the unsurpassable Marvin Gaye. Sinatra and strings do their best to get involved but there’s an essence that bypasses Sinatra, that he doesn’t quite capture. You can’t really believe he’s in a state of sorrow. Here’s “Pennies From Heaven” with Basie and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Sinatra whooping it up with the boys, conjuring up that last, desperate gust one more once. There’s “If” which in itself is enough to suggest that Sinatra should have left the seventies alone entirely; despite a subtle “All The Way” quotation under the phrase “Beside you all the way,” he manages to get the words wrong twice (“And now you’ve left me too” is not what David Gates wrote, nor is it what the song means) and sings the final, crucial “fly away” as a low baritone, as though he’s too old ever to get off the ground again.

His “Something” is, alas, also a failure, despite his naming it “the greatest love song of the last fifty years” and even speaking with George Harrison about it. Why? Again, it may simply be that he is too old to sing it, but Shirley Bassey managed to draw different and refreshing things out of the same song. But the fuzzed bass is incongruous and irritating, and halfway through, any emotional resonance is demolished by an abrupt, ungainly big band rampage which even Sinatra’s inspired coda of “Don’t want to leave her now” over the song’s leitmotif does not rescue. In addition, he cannot adequately stretch Harrison’s haiku-like lyric to lengths comfortable for him to improvise.

What else? There is “Star,” the theme from the flop Julie Andrews musical about Gertrude Lawrence, and this record’s last, and entirely forgettable, ring-a-ding-ding flourish. And then there is “Love’s Been Good To Me,” written by Rod McKuen and a slightly more explicit “Very Good Year” uptake. Although it defies rationalism to picture Sinatra hiking down one highway, let alone one hundred, he plays the wanderer role quite contentedly, if not totally convincingly; again, there are hints of what might have been – Denver, Portland – and implications of unspeakable pain (“the summer storm,” “the winter chill”). Musically it is much more like Webb’s “The Yard Went On Forever” (verses only) with a hint of a more obviously hurt “Wand’r’n’ Star” about the lyric.

And “My Way,” however randomly the rest of this album has been compiled, was always going to be the only way to close; Sinatra (and Anka)’s supreme hymn to the self with any notion of regret or loss brutally cut off, a song convincing enough to the British that they kept it in the singles chart for just short of three straight years, a song used at christenings, funerals, and most events in between, for a large swathe of people to convince themselves that their life meant something more than being a drone, or a slave. Here, the man and the beast reach a sort of compromise, to enable them to continue co-existing. This is the last we’ll see of Sinatra in this tale – at least, directly – and apart from “our” parents, Portrait was an album that must have been bought and studied by many people who would go on to positions of importance in the eighties, Ian Curtis (although his importance was largely posthumous) and Martin Fry being not the least of them. But what sort of picture does this album leave us with? Perhaps it’s just one of an ordinary, smiling, middle-aged man, whose life is a mess of contradictions and hopes and falls like everyone else’s. And we know that in just over a year from now, “My Way” will make the UK Top Ten, as performed by what was, by then, left of the Sex Pistols. But Sinatra joins 1977’s bizarre last lap of honour, a summary of everything that has gone on until now. Both Sinatra and the Shadows made their reappearances here for the first time since 1958 and 1962 respectively; it’s like the Beatles never happened.

But wait a minute