Mojo, July 1998
Mojo , July 1998
MY MAM TELLS ME THAT one of my first words was 'skin'. I was not an especially precocious child; I couldn't say whole sentences but I knew how to request I've Got You Under My Skin on the family record player. I was probably listening to that song ever since I was born, as both my parents were (and are) great admirers of Sinatra. When you're exposed to something so young it obviously goes in deep.
Although as I grew up it was only natural to be caught up and distracted by all the great music of the moment, Sinatra never seemed square or old-fashioned. As it says on the lapel badge that I once found in a junk shop: 'It's Sinatra's world. We just live in it.'Granted, he wanted little to do with beat music or rock'n'roll, but remember this: Sinatra may have occasionally enjoyed clams but, unlike Elvis Presley, he was never persuaded to sing their praises. When I started earning some money I invested in some familiar old Sinatra albums and found that they spoke very clearly about the adult things I was just beginning to understand.
In the last few days I've been thinking about those special recorded moments, the finesse that lies beyond the popular landmarks of New York, New York or My Way. Top of any list would have to be that famous vocal bridge after the solo in I've Got You Under My Skin, when Sinatra hits the most beautiful long blue wail on the first word in the line: 'Don't you know little fool'. For me, this is the greatest single moment in recorded music.
I think the best tribute one can pay to Sinatra is to remember some of these special moments. Ask 10 people to pick 10 favourite Sinatra songs and they are likely to come up with scores of different titles. Some fantastic recordings have ended up as outtakes because Frank's standards were high. Recently, I was looking for a really good version of My One And Only Love, and the catalogue surprisingly listed a Sinatra recording. It turned out to be the most beautiful reading of the song, which had been added to the CD edition of Nice 'N' Easy. This track had been in the vaults for over 40 years, probably because it didn't really fit into Sinatra's meticulously programmed theme albums. The performance is a glimpse of a singer in transition from the sweet-voiced 1940s crooner to the more world-weary singer of later years.
Sinatra endured a short but dramatic period without success and in vocal crisis during the early '50s. When his Capitol recordings returned him to the top, people said that his voice was changed by experience. However, I wonder whether there wasn't also a shrewd agreement between the singer and his inspired arrangers for him to sing in this lower, richer register. At times the lowest note of a melody becomes almost spoken, giving him a much greater sense of intimacy.
In his most anguished performances, such as I'm A Fool To Want You, the words are plainly spoken and raw . Whether the lyrics were magical or hackneyed, most songwriting teams obeyed the romantic conventions of the time: the door closes before things really get sticky. In Frank's versions, the music expresses the unspoken details.
Even when recording the finest compositions, the singer makes minute but crucial decisions that place his mark on the song. Take Rodgers & Hart's Dancing On The Ceiling. I imagine it was written as a whimsical fantasy number, with a clipped 1930s dance rhythm. Sinatra adds one crucial word to the lyric in All through the night and drags out the thought to give it a real sense of longing. The concentrated meaning he brings to certain lines transforms a polite and charming song into something visual and erotic.
The Johnny Mercer song P.S. I Love You is basically a catalogue of mundane domestic failings and weather reports to an absent spouse. He's not done the dishes and he's a bit of a clown for not being able to look after himself in a men-are-hopeless kind of way. However, all this is reported with some of the most tender and beautiful singing of Sinatra's career, almost teasing until the real postscript: 'Nothing more to tell you, dear, except each day seems like a year...' The feeling that he pours into just two words: 'dear' and 'seems' is indescribable. You have to hear it for yourself.
The albums In The Wee Small Hours, Only The Lonely and No One Cares form a mighty trilogy. Only The Lonely is my personal favourite. It contains a wonderful revival of What's New?, an old Bing Crosby number. Crosby might have been the first singer to treat the microphone as a friend and not bellow at it, and his influence on Sinatra's early records is obvious. As Sinatra developed his adult style he went back and recorded songs like What's New?, having respect for the past but also the confidence to give the song a new and deeper identity.
Another song from this album shows Sinatra's unrivalled ability to sustain a mood over a long piece and still reserve the knock-out blow for the final eight to 16 bars. In Gordon Jenkins's Goodbye, pathos and fatalism are wrung out to an extraordinary degree. Nelson Riddle's arrangement breaks over the voice from time to time, only to ebb away and create the illusion that this is really a soliloquy By the time you reach the lines, 'It's time that we parted, it's much better so,' the melancholy has become dream-like. All this is achieved with singing that is passionate hut never over-wrought. The album is not for the faint-hearted.
Many fans will prefer the swinging records, or the brashness of Reprise singles like That's Life, the prouder man singing Come Fly With Me. Sure, I prefer Glad To Be Unhappy but you can't help falling for the charm and panache as Sinatra tosses the words and the slang around. He's chasing shadows away, chasing the bad stuff of life away.
Even on a recording like the recently issued Live In Paris, a small group recording from the mid-'60s, where the artistry is gradually overwhelmed by the audience's desire to share some time with their buddy 'Frank' - and I am almost paraphrasing the sleevenotes- you can hear some of the most astounding vocal control as Sinatra shrinks the room with a barely uttered meditation. He makes just a few lines of Vincent Youmans' rather arcane Without A Song seem like something that shouldn't be happening in anything as profane as a nightclub.
On the last occasion I saw Sinatra perform, at the Royal Albert Hall in 1983, he was being slated for the quality of his voice. But then again, you could go back to When Your Lover Is Gone, from the 1957 Live In Seattle recording, and hear how he could turn his then-rare vocal frailty into an asset. He had obviously learned that lesson well. At the Albert Hall, with even less voice, he more or less talked his way through a sequence of stoic, I'll-carry-on songs like Don't Worry 'Bout Me and, possibly, Here's That Rainy Day. He lingered on the line, 'Children, when you shoot at bad men, shoot at me,' but just when the audience were about to give him their last breath he unleashed a knockout The Lady Is A Tramp with all the vocal power and energy that he had reserved.
A couple of years earlier I was fortunate enough to hear Sinatra in excellent voice at the Royal Festival Hall. Midconcert he typically acknowledged the composers of his next song. As he announced 'words by Ira Gershwin and. . .'I drew my breath; then he added, 'music by Van Duke'. Suddenly, the wonderful introductory verse of I Can't Get Started was underway 'I'm a glum one. It's explainable/I met someone unattainable/Life's a bore/ The world is my oyster no more...'
Silly maybe, but beautiful. You always hope your favourite singers will sing your favourite obscure songs, but you resign yourself to only hearing the most popular. Given Sinatra's repertoire, this was unbelievable luck. At the back of the souvenir programme there was a long list of every song that he had performed in England, going back to the concert my Mam saw in Liverpool in the late '40s. He had never sung the song here before. That's when you go peculiar and begin to feel that weird sense of connection. Sinatra had that ability to make it seem as if every song was just for you, when in reality most of the audience were feeling exactly the same way.
I Can't Get Started is one of those songs where the singer is simply worn out by his own success, the way people used to be in romantic comedies. He flies around the world in a plane, 'settles revolutions in Spain', has a great golf handicap, has tea with 'Franklin D.' and is asked to star in MGM movies. Sinatra's real life story was only slightly more fantastic. Speaking of which, I'd like to recommend Bill Zehme's book The Way You Wear Your Hat - Frank Sinatra And The Lost Art Of Livin. It's not really a biography, but it's funny and illuminating without being either lurid or sentimental.
If you cherish any of these performances then you already know what I'm talking about. But if you don't know Sinatra's catalogue, then you may wonder what all the fuss is about. To some, he is just the legend in the hat, that occasional actor and ladies man with the sinister friends, who sang tunes beloved by drunken bores and karaoke singers. That's just the easy take on a great and complex artist. Before you fall for that line, I would say skip the compilations and go straight for one of those great Capitol albums. At times they've been the only records worth playing.