Christmas, music, Top Ten List

The Greatest Christmas Songs

Now, I know what you’re thinking and you’re right: music is subjective. And Christmas music all the more so. Mainly because of the immense amount of sentiment attached to the Christmas season. Your heart and spirit can latch on to a song, maybe you heard it as a child or it relates to memories of the past, connections to family members, etc. Not only that but I’ve always felt that anything was OK at Christmas; meaning nothing was too cornball to listen to or watch. Even things overly sentimental that may even have made you cringe in your better instincts were not only acceptable at Christmas but welcomed. After all, it is the season of such things. So, those who love Christmas music love it. All of it. Well, most of it. Lists like the one I’m about to present are almost redundant because of the sentimental connection I’ve tried to explain. My list of the best Christmas songs will bring blank stares from a lot of you because your own Christmas memories usually are accompanied by your own Christmas soundtrack which may be very different from mine or anyone else’s. However, what I’ve tried to pinpoint are the songs that are generally accepted as favourites, songs that are significant historically and culturally. Yes, opinions will vary but this list, I think, contains songs that serve to enrich the Christmas experience. Chances are, if Christmas is your thing, if you truly love the season for Christ-related or Santa-related reasons or both, than you love most of these songs. Or at least you understand and accept them as priceless elements of the season. For each track I’ve tried to state a case for their inclusion on anyone’s Christmas playlist. And, yeah, ranking can be really sketchy but I went ahead and ranked them anyways. Lastly, there are no carols here as they deserve their own post.

10. “Here Comes Santa Claus” – Gene Autry (1947) — Sub-titled “Down (or Right Down) Santa Claus Lane”, this perennial favourite was written by “The Singing Cowboy”, Gene Autry in 1947. Christmas of 1946, Autry was riding his horse in the Santa Claus Lane Parade (now the Hollywood Christmas Parade) and heard the spectators chanting “Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus!”. This inspired Gene to write the lyrics to the song. (Gene relates this story on one of his Christmas albums) Autry recorded his song three times. The first came out on Columbia Records and was a Top Ten hit on the pop and country charts. It’s appreciation was increased by it’s use in the Rankin-Bass Christmas special from 1974, “A Year Without a Santa Claus”. It’s a pleasant, charming song that sings the praises of good, ol’ Saint Nick. And, again, people of a certain age no doubt grew up with Gene Autry’s Christmas music, specifically the “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” LP. “Here Comes Santa Claus” was also recorded notably by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Mariah Carey and Billy Idol (!?).

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9. “Christmas Time is Here” – Vince Guaraldi (1965) — Here’s a perfect example of the ‘connection’ thing I was talking about. People my age grew up with the Peanuts gang and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in particular. The special from ’65 is notable for it’s assertion that the ‘real meaning of Christmas’ is the Nativity. Because we all grew up with Charlie Brown and Snoopy, this special is near and dear to us, that includes the music that goes with it. Peanuts specials were unique in that they presented the adventures of these kids against a backdrop of jazz music. The man who created it all was Vince Guaraldi. His soundtrack to the Christmas special featured not only “Christmas Time is Here” but also the immortal theme, “Linus and Lucy”. The album featured an instrumental version of “Christmas Time” and a version featuring vocals from the children’s choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California. The song reminds you of the special, which is all is has to do. But, on top of that, it is a quiet gem, driven by Guaraldi’s gentle piano and drummer Jerry Granelli’s brushes. The song has been covered countless times but it is rare among Christmas songs in that Guaraldi’s version is the only one that ‘counts’. Oddly, it wasn’t covered at all until 1982 – and then it was flood gates. Other artists recording versions include: Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, R.E.M., Stone Temple Pilots (!?), Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and LeAnn Rimes.

8. “Jingle Bells”/”Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” – Bing Crosby (1943) — I’ve cheated a bit here with this tie but these are two similar recordings from the greatest of all the Christmas crooners. In 1935, Bing Crosby recorded the most beloved of all Christmas carols, “Silent Night”. As a religious man, Bing was hesitant to record the venerable song as he thought it was inappropriate for a singer of popular songs – and an owner of racehorses – to profit from so sacred a song. But record it he did and it began his 40-year run as the finest interpreter of seasonal warmth. By 1943, Bing Crosby was just about as big as you can get and the thing you need to understand about Bing is that, in Artie Shaw’s words, “he was the first hip white man born in the United States”. His jazz sensibilities and his sense of “swing” were highly tuned by this point. Never was this more apparent than in these two seminal recordings both recorded the same September day in 1943. Teaming with his regular singing partners, the Andrews Sisters, Bing swings like nobody’s business on these two numbers. “Jingle Bells” should have it’s own post. It may be one of the most recorded songs in history and lends itself well to a swinging treatment. “Santa Claus…” is taken at a more middling tempo but the rhythm inherent in Bing’s vocal and the spry accompaniment from the brass make for an excellent recording. Two definitive Christmas recordings from a man at the very height of his powers. “Jingle Bells” has been recorded countless times, most notably by: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Booker T. and the MG’s, Jose Feliciano, the Hollyridge Strings, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Ben Rector and about a thousand others. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”: the Crystals, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, the Jackson 5, the Beach Boys, Michael Buble and Dokken (!?).

7. “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)” – Darlene Love (1963) — Where do I start? Bing Crosby was at the vanguard of the initial wave of popular singers recording Christmas music in the late 1930’s-early 1940’s. Then, with the advent of rock ‘n’ roll, few artists indulged in seasonal sounds, the Drifters and Presley notable exceptions. And then, in November of 1963, Phil Spector released “A Christmas Gift for You”, a Christmas record filled with songs by artists in his stable. It has been called the greatest Christmas album ever made and it started the second wave of prolific pop/rock Christmas recordings. The only new song on this album, “Christmas…” is absolutely heartbreaking. The lyrics speak of separation at Christmas but what is most gut-wrenching about it is the chord changes. The song itself – vocals aside – is filled with longing. It’s songs like this that Springsteen channeled for his most emotive work. Indeed, “Bobby Jean” from “Born in the U.S.A.” is almost a carbon copy. Add to this the power of the voice of Darlene Love and you have a potent package. Thing is, the potency of this track does not necessarily come from it’s “Christmas-ness” but it is a Christmas song, often called the greatest Christmas rock song ever. It is heavy. Unsuccessful when it first came out, it has since been covered by U2 (Love sang back-up), Michael Buble and Mariah Carey.

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6. “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” – Vaughn Monroe (1945) — The hardest Christmas song title to type. There are a handful of staples in this genre and this is one of them. If you are going to put out a Christmas album, this is going to be on it, particularly if you operate in the traditional pop idiom. Big-voiced Vaughn Monroe introduced this tune with an RCA Victor release in 1945. It was written by legendary and prolific songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn and is one of those tunes that make no specific reference to Christmas. It is a great swinger that rolls at the end of “Die Hard” and has been covered – and covered well – by virtually every jazz/traditional pop singer, including: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin (twice), Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Krall, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Robert Goulet and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass slow it down for an outstanding mellow version.

5. “An Old Fashioned Christmas” – Frank Sinatra (1964) — What a shock for me to learn that the biggest swinger of them all did not really swing at Christmas time. When I first heard Sinatra’s Christmas albums (technically three), I could not immediately connect until I realized that what he was doing so well was being reverent. In 1964, Sinatra teamed up with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians and put out the hard to find “12 Songs of Christmas”. Written by regular Sinatra writers (and pals) Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and sung solo on the album by Frank, “An Old Fashioned Christmas” is the perfect mid-century Christmas song. If you’re like me – and I sincerely hope you’re not – you love any depiction of the past, be it in novel, film or song. Whether it’s 2017 or 1964, the song is all about nostalgia. It’s about a swinger who’s domain is the happenin’ city. But it’s late in December and this cat is thinking of home: “Give me an old-fashioned Christmas…my heart remembers smoldering embers warmly aglow. I’d trade that whole Manhattan skyline, the shimmering steel and chrome, for one old-fashioned Christmas back home”.

4. “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” – Andy Williams (1963) — Everything needs an opener and this song is the perfect opening tune for the Christmas season. George Wyle was a songwriter who worked for “The Andy Williams Show”. George wrote this song for Andy’s second annual Christmas show and it was released on Andy’s first Christmas record that year. (George Wyle also wrote the theme to “Gilligan’s Island”) All this makes it one of the more recently introduced Christmas standards. It’s an exciting composition in triple time and the lyrics are chock full of Christmas imagery. It is one of the most regularly heard Christmas songs of them all, as it is a celebration of all that we love about the season. For such an iconic song of the season, it has not been covered often. Johnny Mathis did a carbon copy version while Harry Connick, Jr. – as he is wont to do – wrote a very unique arrangement for it and recorded it on his Christmas album of 2008.

3. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” – Elvis Presley (1957) — The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll recorded two Christmas albums, one in 1957 and one in 1971. Only 20 Christmas songs and yet he has a sizable Christmas rep. “Elvis’ Christmas Album” of ’57 is the highest selling Christmas album of all-time (U.S. sales) and this was the first track on it. Presley went into the studio to make this album of Christmas and gospel classics and found himself one song short. His regular songwriters – Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame-ers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller – adjourned to a quiet room and emerged a short time later with this simple gem. The magic here is in Presley’s performance. King recorded many timeless rock ‘n’ roll classics between 1956 and 1958 – the years that cemented his legacy for all time – but few of them really display the sheer savage power of his voice. One example is “Jailhouse Rock”. And another is “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. How odd. Christmas songs are generally tender, warm, lovingly nostalgic and evocative of home and hearth. This tune is a beast. The Jordanaires chanting “Christmas”, J.D. Fontana punishing his drums and some stellar blues piano from Dudley Brooks all combine to make this a Christmas rock ‘n’ roll standard.

2. “The Christmas Song” – Nat ‘King’ Cole (1961) — For almost all of the songs on this list I’ve gone to ‘the source’. Actually, it’s better stated to say that most of the greatest Christmas recordings ever are cases where artists are introducing a song to the public. Another great example of this is “The Christmas Song”, first recorded by Nat ‘King’ Cole – often subtitled either “Merry Christmas to You” or “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”. Like “Let It Snow!”, it’s a case of songwriters sweltering in mid-summer and imagining the cooler, cozier vibe of Christmas time. Legendary singer Mel Torme wrote the lyrics and Robert Wells composed the tune. Nat Cole and his trio debuted the song in the ’40’s. The definitive 1961 version was their third recording of it. There is a sublime gentleness in the opening two guitar notes and the sweeping strings that transport you to a dimly lit, warm, cozy room. The fireplace is aglow. The tree is lit. And Nat Cole’s smoky voice sings of the many charms of the season. The ’61 version is actually a perfect recording, Christmas or no. Mel’s lyrics add to the warmth and heartfelt sentiment.

1. “White Christmas” – Bing Crosby (1947) — A no-brainer. An easy, even unimaginative choice for #1. Not even a choice, really. If you decide to write about Christmas music, you are going to talk about Papa Bing and his glorious 1947 version of “White Christmas”. It is the reason secular Christmas music exists. This song really deserves it’s own post so I’ll keep it simple. Written by Irving Berlin and first recorded by Bingo in 1942, it is the world’s best selling single. Crosby’s initial recording in 1942 was incredibly successful. In 1942, the song spent 11 weeks at #1. In 1945 and 1946, the song went to #1 again – no other single in history has reached the top of the charts in three separate years. Although the song has been recorded over 500 times, it has always been associated with Bing Crosby. Crosby always downplayed his role in making the song legendary: “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully”. Along with Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song”, this is one of the very few perfect recordings in history.

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So…what do you think? It may be hard to argue with these choices as they are, for the most part, universally loved. But did I miss any? Do any of these songs place too high? Aside from some really obscure stuff I could name, there really is no bad Christmas music. By definition, it is pleasant, warm, tenderly nostalgic and evokes memories of home. It truly is one of the joys of the season.

Stay Tuned for my next post when we’ll look at the lesser known Christmas classics

– the Deep Cuts…

 

 

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Frank Sinatra, music, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 4: Later That Day…

We finish up our look at the recordings of Frank Sinatra with Part 4. I’ve tried to break down Frank’s career into sections that represent different eras. We started in the Big Band era and Frank’s work with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey then followed Frank as he went solo and recorded for Columbia Records. In Part 3, Frank moved to Capitol and enjoyed a reign that is like no other in history. Now, in Part Four, we look at a point in Frank’s career that could be called the ‘victory lap’. By the late ’60’s, with nothing left to prove, Frank just made records. Or he didn’t. And they charted. Or they didn’t. None of these things mattered anymore. He was Sinatra. In the late 1960’s, musical tastes and trends went through a mammoth transition. Things had been changing since 1956 but singers of popular song like Frank and Dean Martin and others had continued to stay somewhat relevant and also to enjoy some pop chart success. But by the time Frank turned 50 near the end of 1965, he himself was ready to change and capitulate somewhat to the changing tides in popular music.

Part Four encompasses Frank’s recordings between the “Strangers in the Night” album, released in May of 1966, and the end of his recording career which, in this case, we are calling “L.A. is My Lady” from 1984. I’ve chosen the “Strangers” album as a turning point in his recording career because of the marked difference between the “Moonlight Sinatra” album, released March of ’66 and “Strangers” two months later. While there may have been indicators previous to “Strangers”, that album introduced Frank in a ‘contemporary’ setting – the back cover declared “Sinatra Sings for Moderns”. Frank began to embrace the sounds of the time, if, at first, only slightly. “Strangers” features Frank’s take on two recent Tony Hatch-written hits for Petula Clark. “Call Me” was soon to become an easy listening standard and “Downtown” had been a major international hit for Clark in 1964. FS sounds comfortable breezing through “Call Me” but he seems to have disdain for “Downtown” which comes off weakly. Frank even manages to make an “ewww” sound during the recording. The other two contemporary-sounding numbers on this album would fare much better historically. The title track became Frank’s biggest chart hit, reaching the #1 slot on the pop charts, the easy listening charts and the UK singles chart. The song won Frank two Grammys and added a third for Best Arrangement for Ernie Freeman. “Summer Wind” appears second on the album after the title track. It topped the easy listening charts but only reached #25 on the pop charts. Through time, however, the song has become legendary as distinctly “Sinatra” and one of his most revered and referred to songs. These four tracks on the “Strangers” album were presented by arranger Nelson Riddle in a contemporary setting, emphasizing the rhythm section and a jazz organ Riddle utilized throughout the record. On the strength of the title track, “Strangers in the Night” has become Sinatra’s most successful and biggest-selling record and it ushered in a new pop/rock sound for the Chairman.

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Frank Sinatra’s records from the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s sound like sunset to me (Later That Day…). They just have a unique feel. They always bring to mind the era in which they were released and how, at that time, Frank was perhaps looked on as old fashioned. But he still had his legion of fans who hung on every word. I always feel like these fans literally traveled through their lives with Frank. In the late ’60’s, he was in his 50’s just like they were. The fans may have felt older and out of touch, like Frank was perceived. Maybe their kids had left the nest and they found themselves in a new era of their lives. Maybe they looked at their spouses differently. Maybe they felt a strain. But – like Bruce Springsteen a generation later – Frank was right there with them. To his fans, he was still the pinnacle. To me, there is all this story to these recordings. There is an oaken quality to them. They sounded like the times – which was a new thing for Frank, having presented the standards for all his life – and yet they sounded different than the other records being released at the time. There was a quality, a class about them. It’s hard for me to describe this feeling in words – you’re either going to feel it or you’re not. I say all this to explain that the Top Ten list that follows does not represent the ten best recordings of Frank’s from this era. They are the ten recordings that exemplify this feeling best. Subsequently, nothing from “She Shot Me Down” (1981) appears on the list although this is his last truly great album and features many stellar performances. There is nothing from his 1984 outing with Quincy Jones, “L.A. is My Lady”, mostly because it was generally a return to standards and contains a high ’80’s polish which goes against the vibe I get from these years. Of the two “Duets” albums I won’t even speak.

After “Strangers in the Night”, Frank continued to record good albums consisting of some of the best from the current crop of pop songwriters while still fitting in some traditional pop sounds. If you were to pick up any of these albums, you would hear exactly what I’ve been trying to get across to you. All of them are good but I can particularly suggest “Cycles” and “Watertown”. And I simply must say a word about Frank’s 1967 release “Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim”. Although the bossa nova craze of the early ’60’s had died down, Frank got together with the architect of that sound, Jobim, and recorded simply one of the greatest albums of his career. It is one of my all-time favourites and it features some of Frank’s best singing. It is a cruelly short album but is absolutely gorgeous. Again, the reason the songs don’t figure on my list is that they don’t fit the ‘vibe’ although they are some of the finest vocals of his career. Sinatra ‘retired’ for a year-and-a-half in 1971 and returned in ’73 with “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back”. Over the next 11 years, he would record only four more albums. Without further ado, here are the ten recordings that best reveal the wonderful sound of Frank Sinatra between 1966 and 1984.

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10. “That’s Life” (1966 – from “That’s Life”) — A great example of that hybrid sound of Frank’s from this time: hip and current but still old school classy. This dynamic recording was released as a single and reached #5 on the pop charts in this era of the new rock sounds. Helping to make it sound hip was undoubtedly the personnel that played on it, consisting of some of the Wrecking Crew, the best studio musicians of the day: Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine, Plas Johnson and Darlene Love. Legend has it that producer Jimmy Bowen was looking for a certain sound from Sinatra for this song. He just wasn’t getting it but how do you tell Frank Sinatra that he’s not really doing it the way you want it? So, Jimmy decided to keep calling for additional takes which was sure to rile the Chairman. Sure enough, eventually Frank was ticked enough to growl through the record the way Bowen wanted. You can certainly hear it, especially near the end.

9. “Somewhere in Your Heart” (1964 – single, 1968 – from “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits”) — Here’s a song that no one would ever call one of Frank’s best. It appears on this list partly in honour of “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits”. The first album in Sinatra’s catalog to claim to be a ‘best of’, this album does not contain anywhere near his greatest hits. What it does contain is singles from the era that serve as perfect examples of the “feel” I was talking about. Non-descript, easy listening, adult pop. Mature, contemporary and almost bland, “Forget Domani”, “Tell Her (You Love Her Each Day)” and “When Somebody Loves You” are delightfully interesting to listen to in the proper context. “Somewhere in Your Heart” is the best of the bunch and, although it was released as a single in 1964, it contains that late ’60’s feel I love.

8. “I Will Drink the Wine” (1971 – from “Sinatra and Company”) — An odd album from Sinatra. It was supposed to be a follow-up to his legendary bossa nova album with Antonio Carlos Jobim but at the last minute it was changed. In the end we got a record with a first side of great new songs with Jobim and a second side of middle-of-the-road pop/rock. Sinatra covers “Leaving on a Jet Plane”,  “(Just Like Me They Long to Be) Close to You” and “Bein’ Green”. Two other songs on this side are “Sunrise in the Morning” and “I Will Drink the Wine”, which has some interesting lyrics. It’s as if Sinatra is passing on the whole hippie scene and longing for something more substantial: “Someone gave me some small flowers, I held them in my hand. I looked at them for many hours, I just didn’t understand…I’ll give you back your flowers and I will take the land. I will drink the wine”. This song went to #16 in the UK.

7. “There Used to Be a Ballpark” (1973 – from “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back”) — Sinatra returned from a brief retirement with a new nickname. This album has a great title (Frank’s name doesn’t appear on the jacket) and a great photo on the cover. Interesting songs on this album. Some of them sound like showtunes; big songs with big sounds. Wordy with heavy orchestration. Ostentatious. Like other things in the 1970’s – neck ties, lapels, Robert Plant’s hair, Freddie Mercury’s voice – the songs here are audacious and brimming with bombast. Four of the nine songs were written by Joe Raposo, who wrote the aforementioned “Bein’ Green” for Kermit the Frog. “There Used to Be a Ballpark” is Raposo’s sad lament of a bygone era, the lyrics also perhaps serving as a commentary on Sinatra’s career at this point and the theme of this list. “And the sky has gotten cloudy when it used to be so clear. And the summer went so quickly this year…” It’s wonderfully orchestrated by Gordon Jenkins and the lyric reminds me – unfortunately – of “This Used to Be My Playground”.

6. “What’s Now is Now” (1970 – from “Watertown”) — Here is a bright, shining moment from a harrowing album. Sinatra gave birth to the “concept album” in the mid-’50’s and he returns to it here. “Watertown” is the heart-breaking story of a man losing his wife and the mother of his two children to the lure of the big city. The songs were co-written and produced by Bob Gaudio of the Four Seasons. It is Frank’s only album to not crack the Top 100 and it’s the only time in his career that he did not record live with an orchestra – he added his vocals to pre-recorded tracks. The album is absolutely crushing to listen to. The ending, devastating. “What’s Now is Now” is a wonderful song that lives outside the album due to it’s inclusion on “Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2” (1972).

5. “Let Me Try Again (Laisse-moi le temps)” (1973 – from “Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back”) — Ottawa’s Paul Anka had a knack for adding English lyrics to French melodies. Four years before this, he had added hopelessly pompous words to a French song called “Comme d’habitude” and handed it to Frank as “My Way”. That song may be the one most people identify with Frank but Frank didn’t like it much and neither do true Sinatraphiles. “Let Me Try Again” has a wonderful melody and it fits well on it’s album owing to it’s grand presentation. Arranged by Don Costa, it is well orchestrated and powerfully sung.

4. “Anytime (I’ll Be There)” (1975 – single) — And here’s Paul Anka again. Paul wrote this one all by himself and Frank put it out as a single in 1975. Full-on, mid-’70’s pop/rock. Female back-up singers pushed forward, strings in the back. Most Sinatra-types likely have no use for this obscure song. For me, it exemplifies the whole aura of Sinatra at this time. When I hear it, I can see the 1975 of my childhood. I see the sun coming up, the market opening for the day, the Italian barbers turning on their lights, stepping out onto the sidewalk. I can’t help but wonder who bought this single when it came out and why? What were they thinking when they bought it and when they played it? Who likes the song now and why? It’s a nugget buried so deep. My mother and stepfather used to run a bar. There was an old jukebox there and this record was in it. When I would hear it, it always amazed me that it was Frank Sinatra. A fascinating and pleasant record.

3. “Love’s Been Good to Me” (1969 – from “A Man Alone”) — In 1969, Sinatra put out this album featuring the songs of poet Rod McKuen. McKuen was at his peak popularity in 1969 and many of his songs had been recorded by numerous artists. His world-weary, emotional lyrics often lamenting lost love were a perfect fit for Sinatra at this time. “Love’s Been Good to Me” is a song that looks back on a life lived in a more realistic and melancholy way than the bombastic narcissism of “My Way”. Recounting loves past in a voice resigned to living without someone, a voice that accepts past joys with the full knowledge that they may never come again. The knowledge that nothing really lasting and good came out of them but they were satisfying at the time. The singer can still look back with gratitude even though he has nothing now to show for it. Nothing but memories. Another lovely melody and a sensitive and moving orchestration by Don Costa. Johnny Cash had the good sense, late in his life, to record this tender ballad.

2. “Cycles” (1968 – from “Cycles”) — This album has been savaged by critics as ‘wimp rock’ but this song speaks to me in the same way that “Love’s Been Good to Me” does. Indeed, “Cycles” serves as sort of a companion piece to the McKuen song. Both speak about the vagaries of life and love. I’m not deaf; I know “Cycles” is a little cornball and the lyrics come off as sounding pathetic but I think that here again Frank sounds weary, as if he is comforting the listener by telling us he has been there, too. Maybe it is a bit wimpy to say “So I’m down and so I’m out…” but the fact is that sentiment is real and the travails he mentions in this song are ones dealt with by all of us. A tinkling piano starts us off in waltz time and the orchestra builds as the song goes on. It’s just life but it hurts. And then it doesn’t. Cycles. Very emotive singing; listen to his voice on “I got fired”.

1. “Summer Wind” (1966 – from “Strangers in the Night”) — This is where I came in. This is the first Frank Sinatra song I ever heard. Before I was into Frank I was into Mickey Rourke and he made a film called “The Pope of Greenwich Village” that dealt with small time Irish/Italian Mafia. “Summer Wind” was used three times in the film and I watched the film several times, usually in autumn. I tried earlier to explain my whole “oaken quality” thing regarding Frank songs from this era and here is where that feeling originated. “The Pope” was made in 1984 so the small time criminals had an ’80’s look to them. I was more used to Mafia movies like “The Godfather” that take place in the ’50’s and ’60’s. So, here I’m seeing the depiction of a ‘crew’ long after the glory days of the Mob have passed. But they’re still doing their thing. Still doing gangster stuff and still listening to Sinatra. Even though by the 1980’s the ship had sailed on so many cool things of mid-century, Sinatra still meant something. There was something about that ’80’s visual paired with this gem from 1966 that really stayed with me whenever it came to latter-day Sinatra. It helped that the film was set in autumn and I watched it in autumn. That seems to go hand-in-hand with my feelings on Sinatra and the ‘autumn’ of his career. The song itself is an absolute classic. It was up second on the “Strangers” album after that celebrated title track. But it was “Summer Wind”, as the years went on, that emerged as the true favourite, the one everybody loved. Again, here’s older, wearier Frank singing about loves coming and going. The wind blows in gently – is there a more pleasing opening 15 seconds in any other Sinatra song? – reaches a peak and then drifts off; a “fickle friend”, indeed. This was Nelson Riddle’s last album with Frank and his use of organ and saxophone on this track are part of what makes it their greatest collaboration of the ’60’s. Going by feeling alone, this is Frank Sinatra’s greatest single recording. It’s the first one I ever heard and my absolute favourite. (Historical note: cool enough to be used in “Blade Runner 2049”)

 

This has been really fun for me. I really appreciate all of you who have read these posts.

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“May you live to be 100 and may the last voice you hear be mine.”

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Frank Sinatra, music, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 3: Frank’s World

It’s 1953 and Frank Sinatra is at the bottom. Like…the bottom. The public doesn’t like that he left his wife and kids to be with Ava Gardner. Mitch Miller at Columbia figures Frank is done so it’s time to sing with dogs. On stage – playing to a half-empty house – Frank’s voice gives out: “dust” comes out, he says later. A new batch of singers is eclipsing his popularity: Johnny Ray, Frankie Laine, Perry Como. Frank marries Ava but they battle constantly and this takes a toll on his health. And yet… There’s buzz around Hollywood that Sinatra’s work in the in-production “From Here to Eternity” is stellar. And there are a couple of very astute men working for Capitol Records who feel Frank still has it and they plan to bring him on board and pair him with a young arranger named Nelson Riddle. When they do, the rest, as they say…

Long story short: Sinatra wins the Oscar for “From Here to Eternity”. Then, he records “I’ve Got the World on a String” with a vibrant chart from Nelson and effectively declares his return. Not only with a vocal full of character and life but with an attitude and a declaration of intent. The very title of this number states his creed. Here, in Part Three of this series, Sinatra’s work starting with joining Capitol in 1953 and ending at a proposed pivot point in the spring of 1966 is explored. It is an era of supreme dominance in all areas of celebrity by Sinatra. Here, of course, we are focusing on his recordings and the way in which they repainted the landscape of popular song craft. This story will be told by looking at seminal recordings from this era and also at the albums he recorded that became hallmarks of genius and definitive representations of the pinnacles of artistry.

Sinatra arriving at Capitol coincided with the Long Playing 33 1/3 RPM album becoming the standard of the industry. Sinatra embraced this format immediately putting out his first long-player at Capitol. Ever wonder why “Strangers in the Night” is usually the only song of Sinatra’s people can name? Because there are few other single songs they are aware of. He was NOT a ‘singles artist’. Sure, he had chart hits but he didn’t burn up the singles charts. He never had a gold record (million dollars in sales) until 1966 (“Strangers”). He used to joke with Princess Grace that she had a gold record (“True Love” with Bing Crosby) before he did. And that perfectly illustrates my point – it was about the package, the album, the ‘tale’. He was an auteur, a storyteller and it took him longer than 3 minutes to tell his story whether it was one of jubilation or one of suicidal despair. However, you can point to sublime moments found on these albums as prime examples of a singer’s art. Briefly, a word on the albums themselves. If you really want the skinny on the Chairman of the Board, go out and buy “In the Wee Small Hours” (1955) and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” (1956). With the former, you get a torch album that is perfect. It has a mood and a tone coupled with Nelson Riddle’s subtle orchestrations and topped off by Frank at perhaps his best. His voice is expressive and desolate without being sappy. On the latter, you get another Sinatra/Riddle combination that is perfect. This time, the jams get kicked out. Never has a singer been presented in a more ideal setting. “To swing” is defined for a new age. This is the album that all traditional vocal albums after it have aspired to. A similar twosome was presented in 1958 with the releases of “Come Fly With Me” and “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely”. “Come Fly” has maybe the greatest album cover of the era and it is rare for Frank in that it mixes ballads with uptempo numbers. “Lonely” is a torch album, yes. But here the landscape has been absolutely leveled. Where “Wee Small” presents resigned depression, “Lonely” showcases open-wound suicidal despair. To wrap up great albums from this era, Frank’s second outing with Count Basie – “It Might As Well Be Swing” – is the aural representation of a strutting, suit-wearing, hat-tilting, finger-snapping, life-living time. “The Capitol Collectors Series” offers a great sampler of some better-known singles from this era. It’s actually the first FS CD I ever bought. Here are your Top 20 Sinatra recordings from 1953 to 1966: the “swinger” era.

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20. “Falling in Love With Love” (1961 – from “Sinatra Swings”/”Swing Along With Me”) — Someone says to you “explain Sinatra to me”. Tracks like this are a great start. Nothing spectacular just 1 minute and 49 seconds of breezy, fluid, languid, cool, confident singing. The best example? No, but a fine starting point.

19. “I’ve Got the World on a String” (1953 – single) — The song that reintroduced Frank to the world. Not the first song he recorded upon arriving at Capitol but the first one that declared his intent. Confident singing, brash lyrics. The first song that gave us the Frank we know from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

18. “Mood Indigo” (1955 – from “In the Wee Small Hours”) — This Ellington song is second on the album after the title track. Just a wonderful performance that helps set you up emotionally for the long journey into night to come.

17. “You Make Me Feel So Young” (1956 – from “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”) — Like #20, this track is just textbook Sinatra. This particular recording is celebrated all the more because it is the perfect kick-off for the greatest album ever made in this idiom.

16. “Nice ‘n’ Easy” (1960 – from “Nice ‘n’ Easy”) — One of the better singles from the Capitol years, this one’s title says it all. Frank is chill and this one stands out partly because you can hear him snapping his fingers. A rare case of a single being used as a title track for an album. Unfortunately in this case, the rest of the songs on the album are slow ballads – as opposed to the cool/breezy title track – from the Columbia era.

15. “(Love Is) The Tender Trap” (1955 – single) — From the film of the same name, this one benefits from it’s association with that excellent movie featuring Debbie Reynolds and Celeste Holm. Great lyrics and another great swinger. FS revisited it years later on his first album with Count Basie.

14. “Come Rain or Come Shine” (1962 – from “Sinatra and Strings”) — A moody, elegant and powerful reading of a dramatic song. Showcases Sinatra’s ability to emote and “act out” a lyric.

13. “The Song is You” (1959 – from “Come Dance With Me!”) — “I alone have heard this lovely strain…” Such a wonderfully sung line from one of the most satisfying uptempo numbers of Frank’s career. A straight-up swinger from an album that won three Grammys and stayed on the charts for 140 weeks!

12. “Hello, Dolly!” (1964 – from “It Might As Well Be Swing”) — Talk about a swinger. This track is almost heavy metal. With shout-outs to Louis Armstrong, Frank and “Splank” (Basie – check the cover) and Co. absolutely blast their way through this. It is as energetic and hard-driving as anything FS did. Smokin’!

11. “This Was My Love” (1960 – b side of “Nice ‘n’ Easy” single) — The “No One Cares” album was an early Frank purchase for me. I was really thrown by the fact it was all ballads. Once I got over that, “This Was My Love” – included as a bonus track – really bowled me over. Such quiet, tender singing from The Swinger and such a sumptuous orchestration. Gorgeous. “Others may cherish fortune or fame. I will forever cherish her name”.

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10. “Ring a-Ding-Ding” (1961 – from “Ring-a-Ding-Ding”) — One of a handful of tracks that can be used to perfectly describe Sinatra and his world at this time. The boys had their own language and this phrase meant “let’s go, let’s get it on, let’s party!”. Frank had his songwriter’s come up with a lyric and he swung through it on this his first album release for his newly created label, Reprise Records.

9. “All the Way” (1957 – single from the film “The Joker is Wild”) — One of the more popular singles for the Chairman. Introduced by Frank in the movie in which he portrayed comedian Joe E. Lewis, this tune won the Oscar that year for Best Original Song. A wonderful string-laden chart and strong singing. This one is very “Sinatra” and has been covered dozens of times.

8. “Come Fly With Me” (1958 – from “Come Fly With Me”) — Similar to “Ring-a-Ding-Ding”, this is a textbook swinger and theme for Sinatra. It’s also very of it’s time, being from the era of continental jet-setting. The lyrics urge the young lady to board the plane and throw caution to the wind. This one is also very “Sinatra” in attitude. In a later recording for Reprise, he sneaks in “and don’t tell your mama” at the end.

7. “It Was a Very Good Year” (1965 – from “September of My Years”) — Another song that is readily identified with Frank. In 1965, he turned 50 and marked the occasion with this album of songs sung from the perspective of a middle aged man looking back. In many ways, the album was an end point of sorts and ushered in a more mature sound as Sinatra led his legion of fans into the ‘September of their years’. The song itself features another stunning chart from Gordon Jenkins. Originally a folk song, Jenkins loaded this version with lush strings that state a phrase that grows in resonance as the song goes on. The lyrics are poignant and this song is a unique triumph in Sinatra’s oeuvre.

6. “Ol’ Man River” (1963 – from “The Concert Sinatra”) — I’m actually coming to this song late in my life and my journey through Frank’s music. “The Concert Sinatra” was an ambitious undertaking from Frank and Nelson Riddle. Frank had always been interested in longer song forms and this was his chance to embrace his highbrow aspirations and record eight songs with a larger-than-normal orchestra. The timeless “Ol’ Man River” is just one example of the many high points on this record (“Lost in the Stars”). A showpiece of mammoth proportions, Sinatra cements his reputation as a serious and gifted vocalist with his performance here. The dark wood quality of his voice was never brought to the fore in a more spellbinding setting than this. Truly remarkable. Headphones suggested.

5. “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” (1958 – from “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely”) — Those who know, know. This is the track. The performance that displays what makes Sinatra Sinatra more than any other. He’d tell you himself; at heart, he was a saloon singer. He sang in the dead of night, after the joint had closed. And this was the song. When he sang this live, it was showtime. He was lit by a single spot, lit a cigarette and sang while just his pianist, Bill Miller, played. This is Sinatra. “It’s quarter to three. There’s no one in the place except you and me…” (This song was recently featured in the film “Blade Runner 2049”)

4. “Fly Me to the Moon” (1964 – from “It Might as Well Be Swing”) — Meanwhile, in outer space… On a lighter note, here we are again at yet another lesson in swing from Francis and Bill Basie. Finger-snapping, grinning, head-bobbing perfection. In 1964, Frank’s version was played on the Apollo 10 mission that orbited the Moon. Five years later, it became the first music heard on the Moon when Buzz Aldrin took a portable cassette player with him when he stepped onto the Moon. Outta sight.

3. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” (1955 – from “In the Wee Small Hours”) — In my opinion, his finest torch song. It’s the lyric: “In the wee small hours of the morning, when the whole, wide world is fast asleep, you lie awake and think about the girl…”. It’s the gentle Nelson Riddle arrangement: not grandiose or dramatic but quiet. An orchestra but a small orchestra. It’s the album cover: Frank, alone on a street corner in the middle of the night, no one around. For me, this is the perfect track to set up the perfect album of songs of lost love. Indeed, it sets up a long career of singing for the lonely in the wee smalls.

2. “The Way You Look Tonight” (1964 – from “Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River and Other Academy Award Winners”) — Kind of out of the blue, on an album with a ridiculously long name, Frank puts on a clinic. He ‘plays’ his voice like an instrument here. It’s an amazing vocal. And you know what? Nelson Riddle… Listen how he starts things off with tooting saxophones and those gorgeous muted trumpets. Frank here sings effortlessly. The man is 49 years old and yet he sings it breezy, light and youthful – and those reeds tooting all the while behind him. Not enough is said about this wonderful recording, this wonderful melding of Frank and Nelson, voice and orchestra.

1. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1956 – from “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!”) — Commonly referred to as Frank’s shining moment, the absolute pinnacle of his craft. His appeal, everything that we love about Frank is embodied in this recording. FS chose the songs and arranger Nelson Riddle for this album of uptempo numbers. A great many legends surround Frank’s recording of this song. He was a busy man and moved fast. This often put pressure on his arrangers to have charts ready when it came time to record. One legend claims that, called into action suddenly one night during recording of the “Swingin’ Lovers” album, Nelson finished up this arrangement in the back seat of a car as he was being driven to the recording studio. Another one states that after the band had learned the chart and ran through it the first time, the musicians gave Riddle a standing ovation. What is undoubtedly true is that the arrangement is commonly held as the zenith of the collaboration between Frank and Nelson. The chart features a general building – a crescendo – in terms boldly stated by the horn section. And then there is trombonist Milt Bernhart. His four-bar solo riding the crest of the climax of this crescendo has been singled out as a definitive moment in Frank’s recording career. It is exceedingly energetic and has been described as “startlingly out-of-control”. It “has become one of the most widely heard trombone statements in history…(it was) something hysterical, something historical”. All things considered, the recording is the preeminent example of high art in this idiom. Scholar Will Friedwald has gone so far as to suggest that Bobby Darin based the entire ‘lounge singer’ portion of his career on this one recording.

Up Next: The Long Journey Into Evening…

 

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Frank Sinatra, singing, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything Part 2: Sinatra Goes Solo

There was only ever going to be one path for Frank Sinatra. While he enjoyed tremendous success with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, Frank was single-minded enough to feel the need to go it alone. Trouble was, singers simply didn’t do that in 1942. As I’ve said before, the comfortable place for a singer to be in this era was as part of a big band. Solo singers, while not unheard of (Al Jolson), were certainly not the norm. Sinatra informed Dorsey he was leaving. Dorsey reportedly said “I hope you fall on your ass”. There is lots of interesting ‘story’ to their parting which you should look up and read. Sinatra took his Dorsey arranger, Axel Stordahl, with him and began making his own records for Columbia.

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The years 1943-1952 warrant their own story as these years are a unique mini-era in Sinatra’s career. The Columbia sides are an origin story of sorts for me. In the early ’90’s, as I was just beginning to discover jazz and traditional pop, I really had no clue what artists to look for. I wasn’t even really sure what it was I was after: jazz, pop vocals, funk, lounge. All I knew was that something else was going on in the ’50’s besides Elvis Presley and Little Richard. And I knew who Sinatra was. The first music I owned as I began to ‘look elsewhere’ was Harry Connick, Jr.’s “Star Turtle” album (New Orleans funk), the soundtrack to the Clint Eastwood film on Thelonious Monk, “Straight, No Chaser” (jazz) and a cassette that made up half of a box set devoted to Frank’s Columbia-era recordings. Subsequently, I knew and loved some of these lesser known recordings before I knew the more popular Capitol songs of the 1950’s.

The reason this era is often overlooked is because, almost from the moment he went out on his own, Frank Sinatra’s career went into a general decline. The material and Frank’s ability to deliver were both at their lowest point. It’s hard to believe but, for myriad reasons that you should look up and explore, for a time in the early ’50’s it looked as if Frank was just a flash in the pan. A singer who flamed brightly with a popular big band but one that couldn’t sustain his momentum as a single. Also, in this era of high moral standards, Sinatra’s personal life was in turmoil. He had left his wife, Nancy, and was in a tumultuous relationship with one of the most beautiful and popular actresses of the time, Ava Gardner. At this time in history, such a lifestyle could be very damaging to a career as the public demanded a certain decorum from it’s stars. Frank’s stormy relationship with Ava had it’s effect on his talent and his judgement. This was also the time of the ‘novelty’ song; screwy songs with hokey lyrics about inane subjects. While Frank did descend into madness with the recording of the infamous “Mama Will Bark”, he was generally incapable of ‘dumbing down’ his aspirations to be the best and he found there was little room and a lesser acceptance of high quality vocalizing. Also though, the sound emanating from his throat was certainly not what it used to be. Amidst all this tumult, Frank persisted but, after some strong years in the mid-1940’s, he found his popularity – and his craft – was waning.

If you explore the recordings he made in this era, however, you will find another segment of Sinatra’s career that brings immense pleasure and warm feelings. Similar to his big band recordings, the Columbia sides make for wonderful living room/rocking chair listening. It’s an era often overlooked due to Sinatra’s general decline but, while the recordings may not stand up under critical scrutiny, they are really fun to listen to as a fan. And that’s the essence of this era: still great from a fan’s perspective but lackluster from a critical standpoint. I can highly recommend “The Complete Recordings: The Columbia Years 1943-1952”. It’s on iTunes for $100 and I see one on eBay for $130. It’s close to 300 tracks. For a sampler, there is “The Best of the Columbia Years”. 4 CDs. I see it, used, on Amazon for about $90. Here are your top ten Frank Sinatra recordings from the time between leaving Dorsey in 1943 and joining Capitol Records ten years later.

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10. Dream” (1945) — If you read part one, you know that a lot of Frank’s early material has tremendous nostalgic appeal. If you’re a fan of the ’40’s and ’50’s, this music takes you right there. “Dream” is the perfect example of this. It seems to shimmer as it descends from the heavens. Written by the great Johnny Mercer, it was a #5 song for Frank. He would revisit it – as he would many of this era’s songs – on 1960’s “Nice ‘n’ Easy”.

9. April in Paris” (1950) — Everything I said for “Dream” I could say here. Another standard that young Frank sings wonderfully: “…no one could ever repriiiiise”. Absolutely gorgeous. Frank recorded it again seven years later for his “Come Fly With Me” album for Capitol. Also a signature song for the Count Basie Orchestra.

8. Castle Rock” (1951 – with Harry James) — Here we have a real barn-burner. Columbia had the idea to re-team Sinatra with his old boss, Harry James, for three songs – two of which appear on this list. “Castle Rock” was an explosion of energy arranged by Ray Conniff. Sinatra and James both tear into this number, both sounding tremendous. Personal note: as I said, at this point in my life I owned very little of this music, Sinatra and Harry Connick among early purchases. Connick was known for singing standards in what could be called a ‘Sinatra vein’. Just before a James solo on “Castle Rock”, Frank exhorts the trumpeter to “go get ’em, Harry, for ol’ times sake!”. When I first heard this – not knowing Harry James was playing on it – I thought it was eerie that Sinatra seemed to be giving Harry Connick his blessing! Historical note: Harry James didn’t think much of this number. He called it “the worse thing that either one of us ever recorded”. I beg to differ, Harry.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (1946) — You can’t really call Frank Sinatra a ‘jazz singer’. Except on numbers like this. Sinatra’s vocal ‘swings like a mother’ in this early example of his using his voice like an instrument; his phrasing and timing are perfect. Also perfect? “The Metronome All-Stars” jazz ensemble that backed him on this track. There are many great solos here and some great piano playing by a pre-superstar Nat ‘King’ Cole. “Sweet Lorraine” would also become a signature tune of his.

6. “Deep Night”  (1951 – with Harry James) — Another of the three numbers cut by the reunited Sinatra and James. This one – like the title suggests – is perfect late-night listening. Wonderful cadence and flow to Sinatra’s vocal and James summons up all the noir nuances possible in three minutes. Like he’s standing on the fire escape blowing over the alley. At one point, all the brass players join him in a few blasting notes before Frank comes sauntering back in: “Coooome to my arms, my darling…”.

5. “Saturday Night (is the Loneliest Night of the Week)”  (1944) — If you’re making a playlist of this era of Sinatra – and you’re not going chronologically – this is the song you start with. Not only for it’s blast-out-of-the-gates opening but for it’s lively horn arrangement and Frank’s swinging performance. This was one of his most notable uptempo numbers from this era. Great fun.

4. “Autumn in New York” (1949) — Much like “April in Paris”, here is a gorgeous song that Frank puts his quality stamp on. He would also revisit this on “Come Fly With Me”. Lovely string arrangement takes you right to a sidewalk in post-war Manhattan, golden leaves falling to the ground. Another standard, Frank’s is the only version to have charted in the States; number 27 in 1949.

3. “You Can Take My Word for It, Baby” (1946) — Sinatraphiles will look askance at this one ranking so high. On this little known track, Frank is backed by the Page Cavanaugh Trio, a group who borrowed heavily from the style of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio. Critics would lump this one among the lighter tripe that Sinatra recorded at this time in an effort to recapture the spark of his fading presence at the fore of pop music. I just think this tune drips with charm and is indicative of what is so good about this era of cozy, pleasant little ditties. It’s a wonderful light jazz performance.

2. “I’m a Fool to Want You” (1951) — Again, this tune not being #1 would cause me to suffer at the hands of music critics. Admittedly, if you had to pick 4 or 5 songs throughout Sinatra’s career that serve as signposts of where his craft was at a given time, this would be the brightest light of the pre-Capitol era. Some context is necessary to fully appreciate this recording. At this point in his life, Frank was smack in the middle of his tumultuous relationship with Ava Gardner. With similar personalities, the two stars would battle constantly. Frank felt everything in life deeply and when things were bad with Ava it greatly affected him. One of the few songs for which he has a songwriting credit, the Sinatra legend tells of him tweaking the lyrics to better reflect his situation with Ava. Another legend goes that, nearing desolation, Frank went into the studio late at night, laid down his gut-wrenching, emotional vocal in one take and walked out the same door, off into the dark night. Whether or not the one-take thing is true, what is true is that this is one of the most heartfelt performances of his illustrious career. He did revisit this for his “Where Are You?” album of 1957 but I don’t know why. His original ‘sounds’ like an open wound. Historical note: most Sinatra people will know of the absolute low point of Sinatra’s recording career, the novelty song “Mama Will Bark”. This abomination, recorded with non-singing actress Dagmar and actual dogs, was released as a single in 1951 – with “I’m a Fool to Want You” on the B side. Inexplicable.

1. “Poinciana” (1946) — Here, again, Sinatra people are going ‘what??!!‘. And here, again, I say it’s all about the charm. Frank’s only recording of this Cuban melody drifts into your consciousness subtly, seemingly from out of the ether. If you’re on a classic episode of “The Twilight Zone” and there’s an old radio in your grandmother’s attic that can transport you back in time, this recording is coming out of the speaker. There is a certain quality in this recording. Sometimes, yes, it’s a positive to say that a song is ‘timeless’ but, sometimes, what you really want is a song that is stuck in it’s time, is so very of it’s time. “Poinciana” is that song for me. It is just delightful. Frank’s plaintive “poiiiinciana…” is complimented by a lilting flute and sweeping strings. It’s dreamy.

Up Next: Frank Takes Over the World

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Frank Sinatra, music, Top Ten List

The Best of Everything: Your Guide to the Finest Recordings of Frank Sinatra

I’ll always remember being asked by a friend who wanted to start a Frank Sinatra CD collection what he should buy first. As this was also early days for me collecting Frank I had to pause; what do you buy first? Also, around the same time, a family member bought the two volumes of Frank’s ‘greatest hits’ released in 1968 and 1972 and was sure to play them when I visited. Those two early compilations are anything but a collection of Frank’s best recordings but basically they compiled recent singles of his, not many of which are remembered by neophytes today. I remember thinking ‘poor guy. He bought these CDs and now he’s wondering why he’s never heard of these songs’. So, I’ve known from early on that Frank Sinatra is no regular artist, particularly where his catalog is concerned. Frank was a pioneer of the ‘concept album’, a term (like ‘supergroup’) that has been misused many times over the years. With the advent of the 33 1/3 RPM LP, Frank found he was able to tell a story over the course of 12-16 tracks that couldn’t be told on single 45s or any other format, really. He would plan his albums carefully, picking the songs, the arrangers/conductors/orchestrators and he would also choose the overall theme for the album: ballads and torch songs or swinging, uptempo numbers. One of the many things that sets him apart is the fact that he would go into the studio to make these albums and then, on separate dates, go in to record singles for the juke boxes. Therefore, Frank Sinatra became the first true ‘album artist’ and the public looked forward to each subsequent release. The singles kept the kids interested and kept him on the radio and in the diners. What does all this mean? It means that Frank became a pioneer in another way: the ‘compilation’ did not and does not function properly as a means by which you get the full impact of Sinatra’s artistry. To really understand Sinatra you almost have to buy ALL of his albums – the singles are good fun and some are outstanding but they do not represent his best work. The people early on who asked me what to buy? My answer really should’ve been “all of it”. This also illuminates a severe problem with my intention to highlight the best recordings of Frank’s career. I may give you three or four great lists but you will have to collect the albums that all these individual cuts are on to obtain all these songs – unless you have a subscription to a music service that would allow you to build a playlist. Along with his greatest recordings, we’ll also look at the albums that house these great tracks and present a case for buying each of them.

Frank Sinatra’s career is so unwieldy that I’ve broken it up into chronological sections. Sections broken up not only by years but by stages in Sinatra’s recording career. Again, the purpose of these posts is to inform you of what he was doing and when and what is the best of each era. We start, of course, at the beginning.

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FS at the mic with Dorsey to his right. Buddy Rich at the drum kit and the Pied Pipers at right. 1940.

PART ONE: Boy Singer — Hard to believe, but the ‘singer’ wasn’t always the biggest attraction. That distinction went to the bandleader and the big band itself. A big band would have many parts or sections: brass, reeds, rhythm and singers. Quite often a band would have a boy singer, a girl singer and/or a group or chorus. The man widely considered to be the greatest interpreter of popular song in history, Frank Sinatra, got his start as a boy singer. Some of you will know that he was working as a singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin in New Jersey when trumpeter and bandleader Harry James came in, heard our boy and hired him. Frank’s first major professional work came with the James band and lasted little over a year but is a notable time, nevertheless. Firstly, while James’ outfit was not number one in the land they did enjoy success and put out some fine material. James himself has been called one of the greatest trumpeters of this era. In terms of recordings, Sinatra’s time with James is very notable thanks to a number they released in 1939: “All or Nothing At All”. This sublime record represents the first peak of Sinatra’s career but only gained traction on the charts three years later in 1943, by which time, FS had moved on.

Unlike the Harry James organization, Tommy Dorsey’s band was one of the biggest in the land, second only, perhaps, to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. When Dorsey had a boy singer vacancy, he approached James and Sinatra about hiring Frank. To his credit, James did not stand in Frank’s way and FS joined the big time. One thing certainly that would have been a challenge for the ultra-confident Sinatra was his middling status as simply the ‘boy singer’ in Dorsey’s group. Dorsey was a notoriously difficult taskmaster who didn’t brook any displays of ego. It was the BAND (and a little Dorsey himself) that came first. Sinatra had to keep himself in check but still applied himself to being a part of some of the finest recordings of the big band era. Years later, Frank had only good things to say about Dorsey. Frank would stand behind Tommy when Tommy would take a solo on his trombone. FS paid particular attention to Dorsey’s breath control; Frank would watch for the rise and fall of Tommy’s torso, indicating when the master was sneaking a breath to better play the long, languid passages he achieved on his instrument. Frank, though, was not content to stay in the background and would lobby for more prominent vocal work on the records and in live performances and also for having his and the other singers’ names listed on the 78s Dorsey was putting out.

Frank’s time with Dorsey was his first taste of stardom. His ‘bobby-soxer’ audience embraced him as a surrogate for the many men who were overseas fighting in World War 2. He was the most popular singer in the land and he enjoyed the type of worship seen only once before in the case of matinee idol, Rudolph Valentino. Frank’s recordings with Dorsey are definitive of the era. Do they match up with some of his spellbinding performances of the Fifties and Sixties? Well, no, but it’s different. ANY big band music has immense charm attached to it. ‘Nostalgia’ only begins to describe how wonderful this music is. It truly does transport you back to the ’30s and ’40s and along with that comes such cozy, wistful feelings. If you are a completist, like me, you need to own some Dorsey-era Frank. It’s part of what makes him unique. His 50+ year recording career checks off most of the boxes in music’s history, starting with the big band era.

As I’ve said, ALL Frank’s recordings with James and Dorsey are basically delightful. If you like big band music you will obviously love this era of Frank’s career. I’ve gone ahead and ranked these 10 tracks anyways but, really, it’s more like 5 or 6 are tied for 1st and the rest are tied for 2nd. I can highly recommend “The Popular Frank Sinatra”. It’s three discs that collects most of Dorsey’s recordings with Frank singing. There’s also an import I’ve seen on Amazon called “The Complete Studio Recordings”. It’s four discs for (currently) $14! I may get it myself. Here’s your Top 10 Frank Sinatra recordings, 1939-1942. All were recorded by Frank when he was with Dorsey unless otherwise noted.

10. “Whispering”  (June 30, 1940) — My comments on each of these tunes could all be the same: delightful, charming, make you feel like you’re sitting by the radio in a cozy, well-lit living room in the early ’40’s. “Whispering” is no exception. Wonderful, mid-tempo tune with great and fun vocals from all of TD’s vocalists.

9. “Without a Song” (January 20, 1941) — Recorded by Bing in 1929, Frank’s vocal here is an early example of him in strong voice. The lyric contains the unfortunate term ‘darkie’ which FS sings here but doesn’t in two subsequent versions in the 1960’s.

8. “The Sky Fell Down” (February 1, 1940) — Not much needs to be said about this track. Gorgeous muted brass, particularly Tommy’s smooth trombone playing. Frank drifts in on a cloud and it’s like Dreamland.

7. “I’ll Be Seeing You” (February 26, 1940) — A gentle, nostalgic song that has been a standard almost since the beginning. Bing had a hit with this one, as well. Dame Vera Lynn perhaps wrung the most emotion out of it but Frank’s wistful version with Dorsey is another perfect tune for rocking-chair listening. Lovely clarinet solo by Johnny Mince. Frank revisited it twice, once as a ballad and once with a bit more jump, both early ’60’s.

6. “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” (April 23, 1940) — This beauty is an early example of Dorsey going with a smaller group as opposed to a full orchestra. He achieved a jazzier sound with the Sentimentalists and this tune starts off with some wonderful muted trombone phrasing from the leader. Frank ambles in aided and abetted by the boys in the band singing hep lines behind him (“you can really lay it on me”). This tune is normally sung as a straight ballad but Frank really swings it.

5. “I’ll Never Smile Again” (May 23, 1940) — Little Canadian content here. Toronto songwriter Ruth Lowe wrote this sad lament after her husband of one year died during surgery. Fellow Torontonian Percy Faith debuted the song on the CBC. Lowe got the song to Tommy Dorsey who loved it and had it arranged for Frank. Another Sentimentalist setting featuring a celesta. This version was number one on Billboard’s first official national music chart. A gorgeous recording. Frank would revisit the song later in his career.

4. “The One I Love Belongs to Somebody Else” (June 27, 1940) — A lot of the best Dorsey/Sinatra sides are mid-tempo numbers that swing and have great interplay between FS and the other singers in the group. Here, the Pied Pipers echo Frank nicely with some more hep lines (“papa, you know”).

3. “Oh, Look at Me Now” (January 6, 1941) — Frank Sinatra continues to invent “swingin'”. In this finger-popper, FS shares the vocal duties with Connie Haines and the Pied Pipers. This is a good track for those who think this music is outdated. This is ‘cool’ before cool was a thing. Listen to FS in reply to the Pipers; “I’m a lover”. Swank!

2. “All or Nothing at All” (with the Harry James Orchestra, 1939) — One of Frank’s earliest recordings (he was 24 in 1939) became his earliest hit. But not right away. The song was released in 1939 and went nowhere. Then, in the midst of the musician’s strike in 1943 (look it up), this – and many other old recordings – was reissued and sped up the charts. It became the first of Sinatra’s 116 Top 40 recordings. The song itself, though? Fantastic. Frank is in strong, full voice and James has such a clear, ringing sound. This is another song Frank would record again throughout his career, most notably on the “Strangers in the Night” album in 1966.

1. “Let’s Get Away from it All” (February 17, 1941) — This extravaganza is ranked number 1 for many reasons. Dorsey shot the works here making this extra long (for it’s time) track two sides of a 78RPM and utilizing all seven of his singers; Frank and Connie Haines trading playful lyrics and Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers providing breezy support taking verses themselves. Throw in some outstanding solos from TD and others and you’ve got a really fun travelogue. Listen close for some of the hippest vocalizing of the big band era (“off to Niagara – solid!”).

NEXT: Sinatra Goes Solo

 

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music, Nat King Cole, singing, Top Ten List

But Beautiful: Your Guide to Nat Cole

If pressed, a lot of people nowadays, but certainly not all, could name three or four singers of American popular standards. One name they would probably be able to come up with would be Nat ‘King’ Cole. Most people would know the name, the fact that Natalie Cole was his daughter and that he sang Christmas music. But there is SO much more going on with Nat Cole that needs to be known and appreciated. As opposed to an in depth look at his life and career, what I propose to present is a quick run-through, focusing on the wonderful music he recorded and how it varied throughout his tenure as one of the smoothest voices in popular song. Lastly, I’d like to run down, in order, the ten greatest recordings of the man born Nathaniel Coles.

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There are a few key things about Nat Cole that I would present to a beginner who is wanting to know what all the fuss is about and who is wanting to know what to listen to based on their interests. The first thing I like to point out – the thing that perhaps makes Cole cooler than anything else – is that, at the beginning of his career, he was a jazz pianist. And he was good. He was a student of the recordings of the great Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines and Cole was considered one of the leading jazz pianists of the late 1940’s-early 1950’s. So much so that he was the featured pianist on the original “Jazz at the Philharmonic” concerts originated by Norman Granz that featured all-star line-ups of the finest jazz musicians in the land. Also notable is the make-up of Cole’s early trio – piano, guitar and bass. Those three instruments in particular (no drums) was a unique set up especially in the big band era and it was emulated by many combos that emerged later. It’s amazing to think that, with a voice like his, Nat originally sang only occasionally. Legend has it that he sang live for the first time because a drunken customer demanded it. Nat sang “Sweet Lorraine” and was tipped 15 cents. The recordings of the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio – with or without vocals – are wonderful. They present perfect, smooth, small combo jazz. It’s only Nat’s tremendous success later as a vocalist that somewhat relegates this part of his career to the background. In 1942, songwriter Johnny Mercer founded Capitol Records and a year later Johnny signed Nat and the trio to the label and they began enjoying great success there. The trio was so successful that the revenue from their record sales propelled Capitol to the forefront of the record business, allowing them to build the famous Capitol Tower as a home base. The world’s first circular office building is often referred to as ‘the House That Nat Built’.

By the early-to-mid 1950’s, Nat had – unfortunately, some jazz purists lamented – jettisoned the small group sound and stepped to the fore as one of the premier proponents of the smooth vocal pop tune with orchestral accompaniment. In 1953, Nat scored a hit of immortal proportions with his first recording with an orchestra: “The Christmas Song”. Many hit singles followed and Nat was paired with all the major arrangers of the day: Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May. He delivered album after album of sublime vocals. Indeed, you could look at Nat Cole as an ‘album artist’. Yes, he placed many tunes on the charts (28 top 40 hits between 1954 and 1964) but his main contribution to traditional pop or jazz vocal is a string of excellent albums with great arrangers and attractive album covers.

Nat Cole was a pioneering black entertainer. He became one of the first African American’s to host his own show – “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show” aired for a year starting in 1956. The show was well done and featured many big stars of the day but it could not maintain sponsorship as many brands were hesitant to support so visibly a black artist, even one as universally loved as Nat Cole. Finally, Nat had to shut the show down. Referring to the inability to maintain sponsorship, Nat quipped notably “Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark”. Nat was a quiet and gentle crusader for equal rights. He was an inspiration to all black entertainers at the time. Nat had married singer Maria Ellington and eventually had five children, two of them adopted. During his peak years, Nat moved his family to a affluent neighbourhood in Los Angeles where they were met with hostility from their neighbours. Nat attended a community meeting at which a spokesmen boldly stood up and proclaimed that the area did not want any “undesirables”. Nat responded by rising and saying “Neither do I. If I see any undesirables, I’ll let you know”. Nat’s home was vandalized (racial slurs burned into the lawn) and a family pet was killed (poison meat thrown over the fence). Nat soldiered on, dignity intact.

Into the 1960s, Nat began to work with lesser known arrangers and orchestrators. The results yielded many additional hits – “Ramblin’ Rose”, “Dear Lonely Hearts”, “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” – but the old-timey, sing-along quality of this period represented the nadir of Nat’s recordings. Even still, with his vocal charm, he was able to squeeze out a couple more charming tracks. He does a version of “The Girl from Ipanema” on the last album released during his lifetime that is excellent and “Let Me Tell You Babe” is a track released after his death that purists probably hate as it has a late-60’s-pop-soft-rock sound to it but I like it. Throughout his career, Nat had been one of the sharpest dressed cats in the business, always in a sharp suit or sweater, sometimes sporting a fedora – and always, but always, smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder. This wretched vice became the undoing of Nat ‘King’ Cole. You have to understand that – and if you look into it, you’ll see it’s true – everybody loved Nat Cole. All reports indicate that there was not a classier person in show business. A loving husband and father, he quietly blazed a trail for black artists and was a genuine human being. When Nat fell ill in the early 1960’s, many friends and associates expressed their concern to him. The hazards of nicotine were not as widely known as they are today and people were simply worried that his constant smoking would wreck his voice and his health. A visit to the doctor confirmed a lung cancer diagnosis. The historic Surgeon General’s report confirming the negative effects of cigarette smoke was issued in January of 1964. Nat Cole received his death sentence 9 months later. The disease progressed rapidly and Nat was confined to hospital. He left one last time for an afternoon drive in February of ’65 looking gaunt and aged. He graciously allowed photographers to take pictures of him and his wife outside the hospital. As Mr. and Mrs. Cole drove away, the photographers wept.

Nat ‘King’ Cole died on Valentines Day, 1965. In his last days, he reportedly pressed his doctors to get him well so that he could tell people to quit smoking. His cancer death – along with the Surgeon’s General report – were early events in the worldwide crusade against the evils of smoking and it’s link to cancer. While he was not without his transgressions, Nat Cole was truly and dearly loved by his family, his friends, all of his contemporaries, the press, the recording industry and fans the world over. His legacy is unique and his gifts to all of us are immense.

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Let’s return to that which never dies; the music. You have to be careful with record companies. They will often stick with an established and well-known group of songs and – with little deviation – reissue these tracks ad nauseum. Beware the many redundant ‘greatest hits’ packages. It seems, with Cole, that many of his most popular “hits” are actually some of his most mediocre recordings. Keep in mind that, as you scan this list, you may not see songs you thought you would. In compiling this list, I took many things into consideration and I found that sometimes ‘immense worldwide familiarity’ did not necessarily indicate a quality recording. Not only are there many Cole songs you know by heart and you don’t need me to tell you about them but also, as I’ve said, the recordings embraced by the masses don’t always represent high quality material. Helping you to know what is good based on what you like (trio jazz or pop vocal) is the goal of this list of the ten greatest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

10. “Baby, Baby All the Time” (1946)  This track from the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio was written by Bobby Troup. I notice that the little known Troup penned two songs in this top ten. Better known as the husband of chanteuse Julie London and as Dr. Joe Early on “Emergency!”, Troup wrote jazzy little numbers for small jazz combo settings and Cole and company introduced this track which quickly became a jazz standard. It’s gentle gait and pleading lyrics are straight down the Trio’s alley. It’s a cozy piece that serves as a delightful example of what Cole and his trio did best.

9.  “That’s All” (1953)  Written in 1952 by singer Dick Haymes’ younger brother, Bob, here’s another standard that was introduced by Nat. This song is unique in that it really had no initial ‘hit’ phase and instead went straight to ‘standard’. Bobby Darin helped popularize it when he presented it as the energetic title track of a 1959 album. Nat’s version was one of his early successes with the great conductor and arranger Nelson Riddle. Riddle’s name is synonymous with the very best recordings of Frank Sinatra but the Chairman himself has said that it was Nat’s records with Nelson like “That’s All” that made him want to work with the arranger. This recording of Cole’s is sublime and is an early example of him plying the sound that would become his trademark.

8. “Answer Me, My Love” (1954)   This song has it’s origins as a German piece to which English lyrics were added. It was a hit in 1953 for both David Whitfield and Frankie Laine. Another of Cole’s outings with Nelson Riddle, Nat had the best-selling version of the song which was popular throughout 1954. It is another marriage of the very finest of Cole’s ballad singing and absolutely gorgeous strings and orchestra directed by Riddle. The chorus of white, female voices detracts from it only slightly. Like “That’s All” before it, this track is quintessential, sigh-worthy Nat Cole balladry. Celestial.

7. “Sweet Lorraine” (rec. December 15, 1943)  Perhaps the oldest song on this list, “Sweet Lorraine” was written in the late 1920’s and featured lyrics by Mitchell Parish who also contributed the words to such perennials as “Stardust”, “Moonlight Serenade” and “Sleigh Ride”. It is another song that has become a jazz standard. This is a significant recording in Nat Cole’s oeuvre. Earlier recordings than the 1943 edition I’ve chosen here represent the first of Nat Cole’s truly fine vocals. Singing this song early on in clubs gave audiences their first taste of Cole’s fine voice and provided him with an opportunity and the confidence to hone his vocal skills. This Trio recording from ’43 – like “Baby, Baby…” – is just another fine example of this small group at it’s subtly swinging best. You can notice a slight lisp that never gave Nat much of a problem – except when he sang “Sweet Lorraine”. Listen for him to sing “I’m as happy as a baby boy playing with a brand new choo-choo choy” – as opposed to “toy”. Three years after this recording, Frank Sinatra recorded a version also employing the Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio’s intimate sound. After Cole’s death, Tony Bennett sang “Sweet Lorraine” in tribute on his “If I Ruled the World: Songs for the Jet Set” album (1965).

6. “L-O-V-E” (1964)  Our first selection on this list from the latter part of Cole’s career. Actually, the last part. “L-O-V-E” is the title track of the final album of Nat’s to be released during his lifetime. He finished making the album with his final recording sessions in December of ’64. This means that this swinging number was recorded so sublimely by Nat when he was already sick with the disease that would take his life only months later. This track was written by legendary German Bandleader Bert Kaempfert and Nat, again, was the first to sing it. Although any list of the finest recordings of Nat ‘King’ Cole will undoubtedly be laden with ballads, the cat could swing, as this song attests. It starts off gently trotting and sounding like Bobby Darin’s “Hello, Dolly!” and then – also like the Darin track – builds to a brash climax. It is a joy to sing along to and is a prime example of how good Cole was at uptempo material.

5. “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66” (1946)  I realized as I was compiling this list that Nat Cole can give Fred Astaire a run for his money when it comes to introducing some of the most enduring songs in the history of American popular music. Here he is again with his Trio being the first to record another standard written by Bobby Troup. In this case, the song is considered to be an R&B standard and has been covered by an extensive and varied list of artists: Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Them, Depeche Mode, the Cramps and John Mayer. Cole’s first version with his trio is an uptempo swinger featuring lyrics about traveling the expanse of the American country side on the famed highway. It is one of the very few quintessential Cole recordings not only in terms of quality but also popularity. An absolute delight featuring Cole in great voice and displaying his light-fingered chops on the keys.

4. “Straighten Up and Fly Right” (1943)  A companion piece to “Route 66”.  Many similarities exist between these two seminal Trio recordings. The main difference being that while this is also a song that Cole introduced to the world before it became a standard, this was one that he actually wrote himself. He took the lyrics from an old, black folk tale that Cole’s father – a Baptist minister – had used as a basis for a sermon. A lighthearted vocal from Nat is paired with the Trio’s charming brand of breezy small combo jazz. The song’s popularity has been sustained through uses in the 2010 video game “Mafia II” and more recently in the TV series “This Is Us”.

3. “That Sunday, That Summer” (1963)  And here we are at probably the only recording on this list that I would really have to defend. This song was published in 1963 and, as far as I can tell, Nat Cole was, again, the first to record it. The problem is it appeared on his “Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer” album, the title track of which went to #6 for Nat in the spring of ’63. He followed that up with an album of the same name made of turn-of-the-last-century sounding songs singing the praises of summer. A lot of banjo. The album was successful for Nat but it is a good example of one of those times when public adoration did NOT mean quality work. The title track is delightful but this old-timey setting simply does not mesh well with Nat’s dulcet tones. The exception is “That Sunday, That Summer”. This is the only track on this list that charted in the top 40 on the pop charts during the “modern era” of the tracking of chart activity which began in 1954-55. Fittingly, in September of ’63, after summer frolicking had given way to autumn studies, the nostalgic “That Sunday” spent 9 weeks on the charts peaking at #12. The banjo is present but subdued and adds to the wistful nature of the lyric and compliments Nat’s dreamy vocal. Again, we’re assaulted with an inappropriate chorus of angelic female voices but it doesn’t matter here. The track never appears on any compilations you’ll find at the record store but that just supports my theory that the real ‘best of Nat’ is not that easily found. Seek out this gorgeous number and drift away.

2. “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” (1961)  Here’s a song that deserves it’s own post. Let’s just take it slow and from the beginning. This song was written by singer Mel Torme and Bob Wells. It was written on an exceedingly hot day in an effort to keep cool. Here’s also another example of a new song making it’s way to Nat Cole first. The Nat ‘King’ Cole Trio recorded the song first in 1946. Cole then convinced Capitol to let him record it again months later but this time with a small string section – an auger of things to come for Nat. This second version became a massive hit on pop and R&B charts. Cole again recorded an orchestral version during his productive year of 1953 with Nelson Riddle. Nat’s fourth recording of it took place at Capitol Studios in March of 1961 with the Ralph Carmichael Orchestra. This is the version that you hear every Christmas. Cole issued a Christmas LP in 1960 called “The Magic of Christmas” and then, in 1963 while his newest version of “The Christmas Song” was becoming legendary, Capitol decided to reissue “The Magic of Christmas” as “The Christmas Song”, adding the new title track and deleting “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen”. This version of his Christmas album (complete with new cover replacing white kids admiring tree with Nat chilling in sweater by the fire) has sold untold scores of copies and is still a seasonal favourite. (All this, of course, makes Nat’s “God Rest Ye Merry” the ‘lost carol’!) “The Christmas Song” – the track – is sublime but here’s the funny thing: Nat Cole has an incredibly huge rep as a ‘Christmas artist’ but the truth is that the rest of “The Christmas Song” album is quite boring and plain and since Nat never again recorded a full album of Christmas music this means that his huge Christmas rep is based solely on these three minutes of absolute perfection. There may be no finer recording in Nat’s catalog than his 1961 version of “The Christmas Song”. From the opening two notes, this tune manages to encapsulate all the warmth, peace and joy, all the emotion of the Christmas season. Nat’s vocal is the pinnacle of excellence and the unheralded Ralph Carmichael provides an appropriately lush setting featuring a wonderfully mellow guitar solo. It conjures up all the wonderful feelings usually associated with a night in late December relaxing in a warm room lit only by your Christmas tree and surrounded by those you love. The only reason it’s not number one on this list is because it would’ve been too easy. It benefits so much from these external things.

#1 “Stardust” (1957)  “The Christmas Song” is a resplendent recording. However, part of it’s immense charm certainly comes from the Christmas season itself and all of our thoughts, feelings and memories regarding it. “Stardust” does to you what that Christmas classic does to you but all on it’s own. “Stardust” is the aural manifestation of Nat ‘King’ Cole in all his glory. This standard among standards was written in 1927 by the great Hoagy Carmichael (who not only wrote great songs but possessed one of the greatest names in history) with lyrics added by Mitchell Parish. It is one of the most recorded songs of the 20th century with 1,500 recordings of it to date. Nat recorded his version in December of 1956 for his album “Love is the Thing”. The orchestral accompaniment for this album was arranged for strings alone and conducted by the great Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins provides strings so lush that “Stardust” takes on an ethereal quality. It seems to drift down out of the heavens. Nat does well with any type of material but his legacy and his strength is definitely ballad singing and “Stardust” is the quintessence of this strength and represents one of the peak experiences of vocal balladry in the history of recorded sound. It is that good. “Love is the Thing” was the first of four albums Nat would make with Gordon Jenkins. This album was one of the earliest stereo albums made at a time when such albums were made specifically for a niche stereo hi-fi market. The album was also very successful for Nat reaching #1 on the charts while “Stardust”, released as a single, reached #79. What more can be said? It is a flawless vocal performance wrapped in a plush and almost surreal environment of dreamlike beauty. The album is perhaps the finest single moment in either Nat’s or Gordon’s career and provides us with the finest example of the art of Nat ‘King’ Cole.

In compiling this list one of the many things I discovered is that looking at single recordings maybe isn’t the best way to explore Nat Cole. As Bennett has said, it’s about the catalog, the whole, as opposed to single moments. Nat’s entire career is a joy. Do yourself a favour and grab an album – not a compilation – of his. You won’t be disappointed.

Honourable Mentions: “Unforgettable”, “Walking My Baby Back Home”, “Mona Lisa”, “Embraceable You”, “When I Fall in Love”, “Too Young”, “Somewhere Along the Way”, “Say It Isn’t So”, “Lights Out”

 

 

 

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Centennial, Dean Martin, music, singing

Dino 100: Part 3

Dean Martin hit ‘legend’ status early. By the late 1960’s, his records weren’t charting anymore and he wasn’t starring in hit movies. But it didn’t matter. He performed on stage in Las Vegas and elsewhere to sold out crowds. Dino played it “drunk” and sang all the old songs and the people loved it. He gathered his celebrity friends together to put on one of his legendary “Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts” and the people laughed. Funniest of all was watching Dean, laughing harder than anyone. And not just at Don Rickles ripping people to shreds, either. You could believe that he was laughing mostly because he truly had it made. He could sustain a career and reap the rewards with very little effort. He just had to be himself.

The thing about Dean Martin is that he didn’t care. Now, as soon as you say that, it sounds negative. But I don’t mean to say that he had a poor attitude toward things or he was indifferent to his family and friends. When I say he didn’t care I mean that, for the most part, he wasn’t consumed with striving to attain a level of greatness in his singing or his acting. He could sing. He could sing well. He liked to sing. So, he sang. Period. And the record buying public loved it. His talent was based on ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘craft’. He had ‘a way with a song’. While making movies, he was laid back and jovial on set. When the cameras rolled, he acted naturally and his charisma shone through. But that’s not to say he wasn’t good – very good – at what he did. Watch him in his films with Jerry Lewis and you’ll see that Jerry is bang on when he talks of Dean’s comedic timing and his handling of a funny line. Not to mention the looks and expressions he could pull off in place of a spoken punch line. It all came so naturally to him. That is what is at the root of his greatness – it was all so seemingly effortless. He was so completely confident and sure of himself that he was able to simply be himself his entire career. This is what people today remember most about Dean Martin. His attitude, his coolness. He was also successful when he went looking for a stretch and played it serious in films like “The Young Lions” with method actors Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift or “Rio Bravo” with John Wayne. While making records, he could delight you with joyous recordings like “That’s Amore” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” but he could also make you close your eyes while his voice washed over you with the smoother sounds of “Once in a While” or “My One and Only Love”. With a change of sound upon moving to Reprise in the ’60’s, he could still delight listeners with a jaunty run-through of “I’m Gonna Change Everything” or make them shake their heads and sigh with the heartbreak of “Nobody’s Baby Again”.

In the interest of taking care of business, it should be noted that the last years of Dean Martin’s life were not happy ones. One of Dean’s sons was Dean Paul Martin, who was known as “Dino”. Young Dino was a noted tennis player and a minor actor. He starred in a TV series in 1985-86 called “Misfits of Science” that also starred Courtney Cox. Dino was also a pilot. He joined the California Air National Guard and rose to the rank of captain. He died in 1987 when his jet crashed into the San Bernardino Mountains, the same mountains that had claimed the life of Frank Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. Losing his son devastated Dean and he was truly never the same. In 1988, Frank Sinatra organized a series of reunion shows featuring himself, Dean and Sammy Davis, Jr. Frank reportedly said that the main purpose of the reunion shows was to give Dino something to do, to get him out and about, to maybe forget his troubles. But Dean’s heart was never in it. He lasted only five performances before bowing out. In the fall of 1993, Dean was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died Christmas Day, 1995 of acute respiratory failure resulting from emphysema. He was 78.

But enough of that. We’re here to celebrate Dino’s LIFE. His legacy is remarkably full and varied. He made many great comedy films in the golden age of Hollywood with one of the greatest and most celebrated comedians that ever lived. He recorded timeless music in his early days, sprinkling lovely Italian melodies amongst gems that are the very definition of mid-century crooning. His alliances with other legends added a luster to his personality as regular joes looked at him as the ultimate ‘pally’: the perfect guy to hang out with. In a tux at Romanoff’s or a sport shirt in the clubhouse after a round of golf. He epitomized the swank Las Vegas lifestyle and aura that appealed to royalty and working stiffs the world over. With his many westerns he won over many fans of that hardy, masculine genre. Adding to this was the appeal of his style of country crooning throughout the 1960’s – just one more way he endeared himself to the majority of the adult record buying public. It seems today he is remembered for one major thing. His most lasting legacy seems to be COOL. When hip, happening people of today look back for inspiration when it comes to handling the lady, handling the cocktail, handling the situation no matter what it is – and handling it dressed to the nines – they all seem to land on Dean Martin. He may have had equals but was there ever anybody cooler than Dino? I don’t think so. As Dean’s character in “Ocean’s 11”, Sam Harmon, said: “Everywhere I go people stare at me in dumb admiration”. Yes. We do.

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