Herb Alpert, history, music

Stayin’ Alive: Herb Alpert

Herb Alpert is 83 years old. You probably don’t know who he is. Or maybe you’ve heard of him but don’t know much abut him. My “Stayin’ Alive” series attempts to shine a light on legends who are still with us. It’s surprising how many major contributors to pop culture are still alive but, the way ‘celebrity’ works, they don’t get near as much love as they deserve. After they die, the tributes fly but I am hoping to point out the impact these people had before they go to meet Houdini.

First and foremost, Herb Alpert is a trumpeter. However, the list of other things he is goes on for quite some time: composer, arranger, producer, songwriter, singer, record executive, painter, sculptor, philanthropist, actor… I like to refer to him as a mogul. I’ve seen mogul described as “a great personage, an important or powerful person, especially in the motion picture or media industry”. “An influential person: big gun, big hitter, high level honcho, superior”. My favourite is “power derived from experience and skill, not popularity (most celebrities, while called moguls, are in fact not)”. An apparently low-key guy like Mr. Alpert would likely cringe at being described as such and I think in Herb’s case, I would tend to use the word “influential” more than “powerful”. Definitely, though, he was a major player in a major market at a major point in the history of the music business.

Herb was born near the start of spring in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles to Tillie and Louis, two Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine and Poland. When Herb was growing up, Boyle Heights was a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood. Later, the area saw an influx of Latinos. While today Boyle Heights is made up of 95% Latinos, the neighbourhood has a history of Jews and Latinos working together, politically and civilly, to improve living conditions. As a musician, Herb embodies this combination of Jew and Latin; he was of Jewish heritage and immersed himself in a Latin sound that he sought to share with the world. Record producer Lou Adler also grew up in Boyle Heights and became an associate and good friend of Herb (Adler, once married to Shelley Fabares, is also ‘stayin’ alive’ at 84 years of age). Other notable one time residents of the area include: Verve’s Norman Granz, will.i.am, Mickey Cohen and Anthony Quinn.

Herb’s whole family was musical and Herb began to play trumpet at age 8 and he experimented at an early age recording himself. He went to Fairfax High School which, at the time, had a predominantly Jewish student body. The school boasts an impressive list of notable alumni, everybody from Carole Lombard and Darla Hood to Mickey Rooney and Ricardo Montalban and up to Phil Spector, Anthony Kiedis and Demi Moore. Herb graduated in 1952 and then joined the Army. After his hitch, he tried his hand at acting, appearing as an extra (“drummer on Mt. Sinai”) in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments”.

In 1957, Herb took to songwriting and wrote hits for Jan & Dean (“Baby Talk” – #10) and Sam Cooke (“Wonderful World” – #12) before starting a recording career of his own. Herb took his son’s name, Dore, and released a handful of singles, none of them making much of an impression on the charts. It was at this point that he joined forces with his good friend, Jerry Moss. The two buddies decided to start their own label to release Herb’s recordings and also to record other artists they hoped to discover and develop. A&M Records was born.

The fledgling record company set up shop in Herb’s garage where Herb started working with a song a friend had written called “Twinkle Star”. On a break from working on this track, Herb went to Tijuana, Mexico to watch the bull fights. Alpert was taken with the atmosphere and the enthusiastic roars of the crowds. When he got back to his garage he took a different direction with “Twinkle Star”, adding crowd noises and double-tracking his mournful trumpet. He was happy with the sound which was decidedly “Mexican”. Alpert released the single as A&M’s first, renaming it “The Lonely Bull”. Still using their own money to fund operations, Alpert and Moss shopped the single around to various radio stations. The song began to receive airplay and eventually struck fire, reaching #6 on the pop charts in the fall of 1962. Oh, to be back in an era when a song like this could be Top Ten in the country. Now that they had a hit on their hands, Alpert needed an album. “The Lonely Bull” LP was released at the end of the year credited to “Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass”; in reality this was Herb’s trumpet backed by the legendary session band, the Wrecking Crew.

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The simplicity of the early 1960’s. The bare-bones cover of the first album released on A&M Records.

For later releases and live performances, Herb would put together an actual band and released “Volume 2” in 1963 and “South of the Border” in 1964. “South of the Border” may be considered the first “essential” TJB album. The disc signaled a move away from predominantly Spanish flavoured songs to a more easy listening style which would become their trademark – the style is more easy listening. However, 8 of the twelve titles contain Spanish/Latin references. Their versions of “The Girl from Ipanema” and “All My Loving” pointed the way to a lighter, middle-of-the-road sound.

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A decidedly “Mexican” setting is actually the Patio del Moro apartment complex in West Hollywood. The model is Sandra Moss – wife of Jerry – and the boys are billed as “Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass”.

Their fourth album was a legendary release and remains their most popular record. “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” has been called the “Sgt. Pepper” of easy listening. It is the pinnacle of the early style of the genre and is firmly entrenched in pop consciousness. With this record, mass audiences became aware of Herb Alpert’s music. Songs from this album were used on “The Dating Game” which started a trend of hip, contemporary music being used incidentally on television. The cover alone is iconic and features model Dolores Erickson – three months pregnant at the time – covered in what is supposed to be whipped cream. The quality of the music and Alpert’s arranging both peaked with this album as best heard in the stunning and emotional “Lemon Tree”. The album reached number one and sold 6 million copies. It is the quintessential adult LP of the mid-1960’s. The sound and the cover spawned scores of imitators.

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If you scrounge through the second hand stores, as I do, you’ve seen this record a thousand times.

Other albums that deserve mention are “What Now My Love” and “Christmas Album”. The title track of the former won Herb two Grammy awards – one for arranging – and is the example I always use when I talk about what a great arranger Alpert is. This song – and you can hear it in many different forms from Sinatra to Presley – is just gorgeous in Herb’s hands, one of my favourites. “What Now My Love” was the #1 album in the country for 9 weeks – the longest stay at the top for any Brass album. The Christmas album may be an acquired taste. Most of the songs feature wordless vocals arranged by Shorty Rogers. This whispering chorus will gently introduce a song and then Herb and the boys come in with their jaunty TJB sound. This technique threw me at first but now all I can tell you is that it is one of the albums – not just Christmas albums – that I am most fond of. Herb has written some special arrangements of seasonal chestnuts that make for wonderful fireside listening. With many significant LP releases then, Herb and the TJB became among the first of the great “album artists” and they became known for their album releases – a full program of music as opposed to singles. In the days of the “hi-fi” and the bachelor pad, their records sold impressively and charted well. Seven of their first nine albums reached the Top Ten, five of these reaching #1. 1965 through 1967 was a particularly successful period for Herb and the Brass. In this era that is remembered for the cultural and musical contributions of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the hippie movement and the origin of hard rock, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass outsold them all, winning six Grammy Awards along the way. For 81 consecutive weeks during this time, the Brass had at least one album in the Top Ten. And the oft-quoted fact is true – in 1966, the TJB sold 13 million records, more than the Beatles did. Also in ’66, the Guinness Book of Records acknowledged that, at one point, Herb had 5 albums in the Top 20 at the same time, a feat that has never been repeated. Consider that, in April of 1966, four of the Top Ten albums in the land were Herb Alpert records. Even more ridiculously, Herb took a rare vocal on the Bacharach/David song “This Guy’s in Love With You” and it went to #1.

Herb’s original record-setting run with the Tijuana Brass came to an end in 1969. He disbanded the group, reforming the band for a few album releases over the next 15 years. Having conquered the pop charts with the Brass, Herb – and partner, Jerry – now turned their attention to expanding their label, A&M Records. Headquartered at the famous Charlie Chaplin Studios at 1416 North La Brea Avenue in Hollywood, A&M’s roster grew to include an impressive list of artists across different genres. Herb himself discovered Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, an act that enjoyed colossal success with their mod brand of jazzy Brazilian pop. Sergio and Herb began a lifelong friendship and business relationship and Herb married Lani Hall, one of the vocalists in the group. Herb and Lani – who has also released albums on A&M – are still married 45 years later.

The list of artists who recorded for A&M Records is as impressive as it is long. To be fully appreciated, though, you have to remember that most of the major record labels of the time were off-shoots of or owned by large movie studios or conglomerates. They had buckets of money to place at artists’ disposal. Herb and Jerry – remember, this label was started in a garage – were able to attract some very big names because of their reputations in the industry, because of their savvy and because of their ability to personally deal with artists and take care of their needs, both in the studio and out. The list of artists on the label includes: Burt Bacharach, Baja Marimba Band, the Sandpipers, We Five, the Carpenters, Captain and Tennille, Quincy Jones, Stealers Wheel, Liza Minelli, Gino Vanelli, Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond, Paul Williams, Joan Baez and Billy Preston. Later, A&M added to their roster Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Procol Harum, Humble Pie, Fairport Convention, Carole King, Cheech and Chong, Nazareth, Styx, Supertramp, Chris DeBurgh, Chuck Mangione and Peter Frampton. The 1980’s saw the label continue to sign notable acts including Janet Jackson, the Police and later Sting, the Go-Go’s, Bryan Adams, the Human League and Amy Grant. Next time you’re looking through some records at a garage sale, look for records with the A&M Records logo – the one with the trumpet.

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Started by two buddies in their garage. The trumpet is the perfect touch.

Throughout the 1970’s, Herb continued to record as a solo artist. His records from this era have a wonderfully smooth sound. Today’s listeners may dismiss them as lightweight but they all possess Herb’s particular brand of exquisite musicianship and are infinitely listenable. With the Brass in the mid-’60’s, Herb was tops among the artists that were purveyors of a “middle-of-the-road” sound that began to be favoured by a specific demographic. “Easy listening” can trace it’s roots back to the early ’50’s albums of Paul Weston and others but through the 1960’s, Herb and the TJB took this sound to the masses. Into the ’70’s, Herb was still practicing his brand of jazz-flavoured easy listening. Actually, his sound at this time helped give rise to what came to be known as “smooth jazz”. Significantly, smooth jazz can trace it’s roots to three albums that guitarist Wes Montgomery made with producer Creed Taylor. These three albums, from 1967 and 1968, featured Wes’ incomparable playing on renditions of pop hits of the day. What label were these three albums released on? A&M Records. Though the sound of today’s smooth jazz may have gone in an unfortunate direction, the origin of the genre is a further example of Herb Alpert being instrumental in yet another aspect of the industry.

My regular readers have heard me reference the “victory lap” that can occur in a performer’s career. After the initial blaze of popularity, often an artist’s career will wane. Then, sometimes circumstances will align and a singer will make a sort of comeback – release an album that cements his or her place in history and elevates them to “legend”. It allows their earlier work to be reassessed and appreciated all over again. Sinatra and Bennett both wrote the template for the “victory lap”. Think also of Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart. Herb Alpert’s victory lap – as a recording artist, at least – came quite out of the blue. After years of releasing quality albums of jazz/pop, Herb teamed with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela for a couple of interesting albums. Then, in 1979, Herb was given a song by his nephew, Randy Badazz Alpert. “Rise” was a departure of sorts for Herb. Randy Alpert and his production partner Andy Armer had written the tune as an up-tempo dance number. At the recording session, it was decided to slow it down – this decision has been credited to both Herb and the drummer on the session, Steve Schaefer. The slower tempo was key. A highlight of this slow funk groove is the bass line laid down by studio legend Abe Laboriel – it is my all-time favourite bass line. Clocking in at 7 minutes and 40 seconds, the tune is an aural delight combining a disco/early hip-hop mood with Herb’s flawless, ethereal playing.

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This is how much I love this record.

The single was released in the summer of ’79 and was immediately picked up by club DJs who would play it on two turntables at once, imaginatively staggering the records to make the song play longer and playing one off the other. As the song began it’s ascent up the charts, it received an unexpected boost in it’s promotion from it’s use as a back-drop for the relationship of “Luke and Laura” on the daytime soap opera, “General Hospital”. With the success of the single, Herb went into the studio to record an LP. The result – also titled “Rise” – is one of my favourite albums of all-time. It’s a fantastic record that manages to sound like the late ’70’s but still sound engaging and somehow relevant almost 40 years later. The album starts with the fanfare “1980”, which had originally been commissioned for use during the Summer Olympics but was instead used as the official theme of the 1986 FIFA World Cup. “Rotation” is another Badazz/Armer track that shimmers along at a nice easy pace. It also was released as a single and hit the top 30. I heard it used once on an episode of “Sex and the City”. “Rotation” has been called one of the first “chillout” tunes making Herb a pioneer in yet another sub-genre. The glowing gem of side two is undoubtedly “Angelina”. The gorgeous song features lyrical playing from Herb and steel guitar. Co-written by Gary Brooker, founder of Procol Harum, this song sounds like sunset looks. This song sounds like a young California guy in love with a Mexican girl. Her family doesn’t like him and her brothers want to kill him but the two lovers manage to steal away for walks down by the water, watching the boats come back in while the sun dips golden behind the horizon. *sigh* The album closes with Herb’s interpretation of “Concierto de Aranjuez” by Joaquin Rodrigo. The guitar piece, written in 1939, is considered the pinnacle of Spanish music. Miles Davis had done a version of it on his “Sketches of Spain” album and here Herb takes it to the night club. The piece is titled “Aranjuez (Mon Amour)” here and is an exhilarating piece that combines the drive and flair of Spanish music with the snapping hi-hat of disco and the R&B/funk of the late 1970’s. The album is, simply put, fantastic and the single release of the title track went to Number One. As if Alpert hadn’t achieved enough, this chart-topper makes him the only artist in history to have a number one song as a vocalist (“This Guy’s in Love With You”) and as an instrumentalist. “Rise” was notably sampled by Sean Combs for “Hypnotize” by the Notorious B.I.G.

Herb Alpert and his partner and friend Jerry Moss decided to sell A&M Records in 1989. There’s a really interesting interview with Jerry Moss that I can highly recommend. In this interview, Jerry explains that he and “Herbie” (as Jerry affectionately refers to Alpert), while they weren’t ‘shopping’ A&M, had a good relationship with PolyGram when that company offered to purchase A&M. Purchase price? $500 million. Jerry says the purpose of selling A&M was to expand it, to make it bigger. By the mid-’90’s, artists were getting huge advances from record companies and A&M simply couldn’t compete. And PolyGram liked Jerry and Herb and wanted them to stay on and run the label. It’s an interesting story and I’ll try to give it to you in a nutshell. Jerry had a good connection with a guy at PolyGram. This guy, though, soon retired and his replacement wasn’t into A&M and didn’t like Jerry personally. This type of breakdown was the opposite of what Herb and Jerry had been promised when they sold. Instead of working with Alpert and Moss, PolyGram bought them out of their agreement. For $200 million. So, in the end, PolyGram purchased the organically birthed and nurtured label, a label with humble beginnings, that started with two employees and a garage, a label that had built a reputation as one that treated their employees and the stars on their roster well, for $500 million. Add to that the $200 million buy-out money and the total is $700 million. Think about that. This is a part of Herb’s story that I love and it puts me in mind of Berry Gordy, Jr. who started Motown Records with an $800 loan and sold it 25 years later for $61 million. Regular Joes who thought they’d try their hands at making records. In the end, not surprisingly, considering today’s record industry, A&M was absorbed into it’s parent company and A&M Records, as an active entity, was no more. The lot on La Brea was shuttered. Jim Henson Productions took over the old Chaplin studios and Herb and Jerry’s adventure was over – and they were $700 million dollars richer.

Herb Alpert’s “retirement” years have been busy. He has indulged his love of creating abstract expressionist art and sculpture and has enjoyed exhibits of his work. He and Moss (at Jerry’s urging) started another record label – Almo Sounds – predominantly to release Alpert’s subsequent albums. But here again they ran a label that nurtured new acts, signing Garbage and Lazlo Bane. In 2000, Alpert regained the rights to his past albums and began lovingly remastering and re-releasing them. Alpert has been embraced by purveyors of electronic music and many of his tracks have been remixed by DJs. The “Whipped Cream” album was remixed in it’s entirety in 2006 with Herb offering up some new trumpet work. Yet another genre that has thrown a nod to Herb Alpert.

Herb has received several lifetime achievement awards and in 2012 the National Medal of Arts award from then President Obama. Sting inducted Alpert and Moss into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 as non-performer lifetime achievers. Today, Herb continues to maintain a social media presence and still releases what he calls “positive” music. In 2017, he released “The Christmas Wish” and “Music Vol. 1” with more volumes on the way.

Herb himself may be most satisfied with his work as a philanthropist. In the 1980’s, Herb founded the Herb Alpert Foundation, which supports youth and arts education as well as environmental issues. Herb and wife, Lani, have donated millions in scholarships to various arts schools in the US. This includes $30 million to UCLA, $24 million to the California Institute of the Arts, $10 million to Los Angeles City College and $5 million to the Harlem School for the Arts. All of these gifts are aimed at providing education to youths who otherwise may not have the opportunity to pursue these avenues of learning.

Herb Alpert’s career has checked all the boxes. He may not be regularly referred to or often heralded but the fact remains that he is a legend of serious weight, one that is still active in the fields he loves. Herb’s fingerprints are all over the record industry and through his foundation, he and Lani are doing what they can to ensure that the next generation has a chance to excel. For me, Herb’s greatest legacy is the music. Constantly seeing Tijuana Brass records in thrift stores fascinated me and got me into collecting vinyl. “Rise” means the world to me. And all this is capped off by the fact that Herb Alpert is ‘stayin’ alive’ – still with us, still making us feel good. Thanks, Herb.

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In a shady industry, the Alpert’s seem like good people.

Postscript: I’m a “ranker” so I can’t close out this tribute without running down Herb Alpert’s Top 5 Best Songs. OK, maybe not his best but here’s five tracks that can serve as a sampler of Herb’s work. Check out these tunes and see if you’re not hooked.

5. “Jerusalem” (1971 – from “Summertime”) — From the final stages of the initial run of the TJB, this dramatic track was written by Herb.

4. “Lemon Tree” (1965 – from “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”) — Trini Lopez’ jaunty version has nothing on Herb’s arrangement. This song – and #2 on this list – are the best examples of Alpert’s expertise and unique touch as an arranger. The TJB’s version of “Lemon Tree” is mournful yet beautiful with gentle playing from Herb and some great chord changes.

3. “Angelina” (1979 – from “Rise”) — I can’t say much more about this track than I already have. It is sublime and can evoke an extreme flutter in the chest. Emotional. Wonderful.

2. “What Now, My Love” (1966 – from “What Now My Love”) — This French song has been done many different ways by many different singers, from Sinatra to Presley to Andy Williams. All excellent. But again here Herb adds his special touch with a fine arrangement. The bouncy joy of this track does not totally avoid the wistfulness of the chord changes and the melancholy of the lyrics – omitted here, of course. Herb’s playing is clipped and precise while still exhibiting warmth. Delightful acoustic guitar from, I’ll assume, John Pisano. Probably the finest Tijuana Brass song.

1. “Rise” (1979 – from “Rise”) — Just perfect. A stone groove. Drama in the song structure while maintaining a relaxed playfulness. Exciting electric guitar punctuations and a thrilling bass line, my favourite ever. Very “’70’s” and timeless at the same time. This tune has heavy street cred as Herb expertly blends ’70’s dance music with the R&B origins of hip-hop.

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 5

I have a family friend, a lady who was a teenager during Elvis Presley’s ascendancy in the late ’50’s-early ’60’s. She knew I was an Elvis guy and would often talk about how much she loved him. She was one of those people of a certain age who claim Elvis as their own and say things like “I have all his records”. I always have a feeling with people like this that they love Elvis the Superstar, Elvis the Icon. They collect the cheesiest Elvis artifacts and souvenirs. In a way, it’s similar to the way Britons loved American blues and rhythm and blues in the 1960’s perhaps even more than Americans did. The thinking being that – in the UK – they were observing things from a distance and therefore could see the glory in the music that much better. People born in the same era as Elvis – people that grew up with him – definitely see him in a different way and love him for different reasons. Those of us born, say, in the early 1970’s perhaps look at him from a more historical standpoint. Our generation is maybe more apt to dig beneath the surface and to study a performer like Elvis Presley the same way we might research the Vietnam war – digging in and wanting to know the origins and the significance. Those of us who begin to grasp the importance of the King do the research, look into all his recordings from all the eras and collect it all because we want to know it all. Back to my family friend and her generation. When the 45s came out in the ’50’s, they bought them – they bought them all until they themselves got married and had kids and life took over. Therefore, they say “I have all his records” when really they’ve never even heard 80% of what he recorded. And they don’t look at Elvis or GRASP him in the same way. A perfect example is the time when this lady family friend brought me her Elvis cassette. She said I would appreciate it and I could have it. I looked at it and actually it was interesting. It was his “Gold Records Vol. 4” album. Cool, I’m thinking, that’s different. I open it and take the cassette out. Oddly, the songs listed on the tape are “Kentucky Rain” and “Don’t Cry Daddy” and others from that era. This was not the same album the cover showed! I looked at the tape more closely: “As Sung By Ronnie McDowell”, it said. I was dumbfounded. I carried on with my thank you’s but I was floored. It got me thinking: this woman was there when it was happening. She should be a bigger fan than me. Yet one of her prized possessions was an album of songs sung NOT by Elvis but by the world’s premier Elvis sound-alike. But here’s the thing: she was happy. She loved Elvis. He made her feel good. He was a part of her fondest memories of life. I thought she was crazy but she got just as much out of Elvis as I – the ‘Elvis scholar’ – did. And that’s The Thing About the King. People LOVE him. The people that think Ronnie McDowell is Elvis and have never heard “Just Pretend” and wear the airbrushed jackets and t-shirts from the flea market with Elvis riding on the clouds or something, they love him. And the people that research his time spent at Crown Electric or dig into his relationship with his step-brothers or try to figure out if Toby Kwimper is really the predecessor of Forrest Gump, they love him, too. Us scholars may scoff at these older fans but, look at them, they’re happy. They love Elvis, too. The only thing I would say, though, is those people could be so much happier if they really dug in to Elvis World. They love the tip of the iceberg. I think the other 80% would be exciting for them to learn about, too.

And that goes for music fans in general. I don’t know if any iconic superstar suffers more from being not fully understood than Elvis Presley. The image, as the man himself once said, is one thing. The man is another. People that reject the suggestion that Elvis may be more significant than Bruce Springsteen don’t really know the whole story. It’s a shame to think that the coming generation sees Elvis only as the black and white rebel with the curled lip, or the Hollywood victim being neutered by endless ‘playful romp’ films or the bombastic jump-suited ’70’s prince from another planet. They may love “Don’t Be Cruel” and that’s great. But if you want a real treat, look into Elvis Presley. Dig a bit deeper. I guarantee you you’ll be glad you did. His is essentially a sad story but it’s riveting.

Wow. Sorry. I don’t think I intended to get so deep. After all, we’re here to celebrate the 83rd anniversary of the birth of Elvis Presley by trying to figure out what his best songs are. We’ve been through the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s and also looked at the movie music. And don’t forget; he also recorded some stellar Christmas music and some truly stirring gospel, the music he maybe connected with most. I need to thank you all for reading these posts. It’s fun for me to write them but it’s always better when someone reads them. I hope I’ve made some sense – I don’t always! In the end, these posts were read by over 600 people in 23 countries; “Elvis World”, indeed! Once again, thank you. Thank you very much.

Finally, I’ve submitted for your approval The Ten Greatest Recordings of Elvis Presley. Let the debating – and the listening – begin!

10. “What a Wonderful Life” (1961) — Movie song from “Follow That Dream”. The lyrics reflect the freedom depicted in the movies.

9. “Separate Ways” (1972) — The saddest song I ever heard. An absolutely heartbreaking commentary on the break-up of Elvis and Priscilla written by Red West.

8. “I Got Lucky” (1961) — A sublime pop vocal. Like a personal family heirloom to me. A cherished gem.

7. “Rubberneckin'” (1969) — The King struts through this balls-out rocker recorded back home in Memphis.

6. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — A stunning, savage vocal on the greatest Christmas rock ‘n’ roll song ever recorded.

5. “Burning Love” (1972) — Polished sound. Ringing guitar. Full-throttle, crowd-pleasing iconic rocker.

4. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of his two or three best vocal performances ever. Fan favourite and the title track from one of his two or three best movies ever.

3. “Promised Land” (1973) — Maybe the single most energetic song I’ve ever heard. And probably the coolest. An absolute freight train.

2. “A Little Less Conversation” (1968) — Probably my favourite Elvis song. A thrilling late-’60’s rock ‘n’ roll song from maybe his greatest soundtrack. Just a delight to listen to – and sing along to.

1. “Suspicious Minds” (1969) — And here we are. The King’s “masterpiece”. A shining moment from some unbelievable sessions and the second-most significant set of recording dates of his career. Of history, maybe. The most confident, assured and vibrant rock vocals you could ever ask to hear.

I can’t thank you enough for reading. I’ve had a blast sharing my thoughts with you. Happy Birthday, EP! And thanks.

Me and My Man

**the image used in this post I actually own!**

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Elvis Presley, rock 'n' roll, Top Ten List

This is the Story: The Best Recordings of Elvis Presley Part 1

The holidays are over so depression automatically sets in? I don’t buy that. Gladys Love Presley saw fit to have her baby, Elvis Aaron Presley, on January 8th, 1935. That means that January’s Elvis Week begins on January the 2nd. New Year’s Day marks the official end of the Christmas season and the next morning you wake up and – bam! – it’s Elvis Week!

For this Elvis Week, I’ve decided to tackle the enormous task of ranking the best recordings of Elvis Presley. In a way, though, this is an easy task. He has SO MANY stellar records that a Top Ten list could include many different songs and still be valid. It would be pretty hard to debate any one person’s choices. And how do we define “best”? I’ve tried to be really clinical and highlight songs that are sung and played well – which is a ridiculous statement, they all are but what I mean is: songs that are universally held to be “great”, with maybe some personal faves thrown in. This “greatness” will also include intangibles like a wonderful turn of phrase, a stellar performance from a musician, a connection to an event in Elvis World, or historical and cultural significance. I’ve also broken his career down into decades: ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s, all distinct eras of Presley recordings. Other categories could have included best movie songs, best Gospel songs, best live recordings, best Christmas tunes… I’ve decided to go with the three decades and movie music. As a fifth and final post, I’ll try to take the best from each list and arrive at “The Best Elvis Presley Song”. This will obviously not be definitive but instead will simply serve as a good starting point for debate and comparison. Although, again, I have to say that it will probably be hard to say that the song that emerges here as his ‘best’ is NOT his best – it just may not be your favourite or the one you think is the best representation of the King at the top of his form.

Anyways, blah, blah, blah. I think you know what I mean. Here’s my Top Ten Elvis Presley Song: the ’50’s:

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On the cusp. Publicity photo, early RCA days. January, 1956.

10. “(There’ll Be) Peace in the Valley (for Me)” (1957) — It could be argued that Elvis Presley was a gospel singer who got stuck singing rock ‘n’ roll just to pay the bills. (https://wordsbywellsy.wordpress.com/2017/11/04/paying-the-bills/) Indeed, in the early days, he auditioned to join legendary gospel quartet the Blackwood Brothers but was turned down. In 1956, Presley burst onto the scene and the powers that be denounced him as ‘evil’. The idea of him singing gospel or revered Christmas carols was repugnant to the establishment. But I have always maintained that, as the Lord had blessed him with his singing voice, that voice shined particularly bright when he sang certain gospel music. “Peace in the Valley” was written by Tommy Dorsey – not that Tommy Dorsey but gospel songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey. It appeared on the biggest selling Christmas album of all time, “Elvis’ Christmas Album”. His recording, featuring the Jordanaires and some fine, mellow guitar playing, is stellar. In a particularly moving moment, EP performed it on his third and final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957. The screaming teenagers quieted down and Presley showed the frowning parents watching at home another side of his talent and personality. Watch how he backs up into the Jordanaires as he looks down and sings “there will be peace…”. It’s not showmanship – it’s the singing he had done in his church and in his homes all of his life. Sullivan had once sworn to never have Presley the reprobate on his show. After King sang “Peace in the Valley”, Sullivan came out and solemnly declared Elvis to be a “decent, fine boy”. It is actually an emotional moment and one of great cultural significance.

9. “Heartbreak Hotel” (1956) — In many respects, this song marks The Beginning. It’s writing was inspired by a newspaper report of a suicide and the note that was left behind (“I walk a lonely street”) and it was presented to Elvis in late 1955, before he had moved from Sun Records to RCA. Elvis loved it immediately and memorized the song vowing to record it at his next session. That came in January of ’56 and it was the second song Elvis recorded at his first session for RCA. The songwriters, upon hearing Presley’s echoy, bluesy recording, could not recognize their song. This started a trend that saw Presley take a song and make it his own. Although he almost NEVER received a credit as such, from the VERY BEGINNING Elvis was the arranger and producer at all of his recording sessions. In Sam Phillips words, the credited producer at Elvis’ sessions was “not a producer. (They were) just at every session”. “Heartbreak Hotel” became a hit of gargantuan proportions. Number 1 on the pop and country charts, top 5 on the R&B chart, 27 weeks in the Top 100, the biggest selling single of 1956 and EP’s first million-seller. It started a chart run lasting 21 years that is unrivaled in music history. Number 45 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. Co-written by Mae Boren Axton. Her son, Hoyt, wrote “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain” in the ’70’s, the latter of which King recorded. See? This is what I’m talking about. This song could easily be called his best of the ’50’s and even his best EVER but here it’s 9th! Whatever. Onward.

8. “(Now and Then There’s) A Fool Such As I” (1959) — I can see some of you have your eyebrows raised. This tune over “Heartbreak Hotel”?! Well, yeah. It’s the vocal. Maybe this tune, recorded by Elvis on a leave from the Army, serves as sort of a bridge between the animalistic singing of ’56-’57 and the pop vocalizing to come in the early ’60’s. It’s still sexy but it is delivered with such finesse, the lyrics are caressed. Simply, it’s the sounds he makes on this record that are so delightful. “I’m a fool but I’ll love you, dear…”. Written in 1952, it was recorded by Canadian Hank Snow, Tommy Edwards and Jo Stafford before Elvis released his version as the B side of “I Need Your Love Tonight”. “A Fool Such As I” went to #2 in the US and #1 in the UK. King’s version was nominated for Record of the Year at the 2nd annual Grammy Awards. It was later recorded by Bob Dylan.

7. “All Shook Up” (1957) — This song is notable in Elvis’ canon for being what I think is his most successful single ever in terms of chart activity. Number 1 on the US pop charts for 7 weeks, in the Top 40 for 21 weeks, #1 on the R&B charts for 4 weeks, #1 in the UK for 7 weeks and Billboard’s #1 song for 1957. Two million copies sold that year. Elvis biographer, Peter Guralnick, says – so it’s true – that Elvis suggested the title to songwriter Otis Blackwell which resulted in King getting one of his few writing credits. The song rolls along in mid-tempo with a vocal that is quintessential EP. #361 on Rolling Stone’s list. Listen to it again – for the first time. The Beatles recorded this during the “Get Back” sessions but it was never officially released and Billy Joel’s 1992 version for the “Honeymoon in Vegas” soundtrack cracked the Top 100. A re-release of Elvis’ version charted again in the weeks after King’s death.

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“All Shook Up” single art. March 22, 1957.

6. “That’s All Right” (1954) — It’s often said that it all started in the summer of 1954. “It” being everything. Recorded July 5 at Sun Studio in Memphis and released July 19th. Written and recorded by blues man Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946, Elvis Presley’s recording is truly the stuff of legend and it is not far-fetched to suggest that “rock ‘n’ roll” was invented by Elvis, Scotty Moore and Bill Black that hot summer afternoon. Long story short: Sam Phillips had been trying to record King in a mellow, ballad setting and things hadn’t been working. On a break, the boys worked out their frustrations by kicking out the jams with a spirited version of Crudup’s old blues. It was literally what Phillips had been looking for; marketable white boys that played music like black guys – the way it should be played. With emotion, energy and grit. Balls. Phillips hit ‘record’, had the boys run through it again and the rest, as they say… To try to understand the significance of the recording, you have to try to understand American society at the time, especially in the South. Such was the climate that, when bassist Bill Black heard the playback – he and his white buddies “sounding black” – he remarked, only half-jokingly: “Damn. Put that on the radio and they’ll run us out of town”. Probably the most significant recording in history that didn’t chart at the time of it’s release, “That’s All Right” sold 20,000 copies and hit #4 on local Memphis charts. In 2004, exactly 50 years after it’s initial release, it was released as a single in England and went to #3! Rolling Stone has argued that it is the first rock ‘n’ roll record and placed it at #113 on it’s Best 500 list.

5. “Too Much” (1957) — This one may not be as well known but it is a personal fave. I also believe it to be a wonderful example of some of Presley’s finest rock ‘n’ roll singing. He is strutting and the way his voice intentionally cracks on the “take” in “take me back, baby, in your arms” is just perfect. This song is exactly what you want from the most staggering 24-month span in any performer’s career. It went to #2 on the pop charts and was top 3 on many lists at the time: Best Sellers in Stores, Most Played by Jockeys, Most Played in Jukeboxes, #3 on the Country chart and #3 on the R&B chart.

4. “Mystery Train” (1955) — “That’s All Right” is his most legendary Sun recording but this may be his best. Junior Parker released the song on Sun in ’53 and one of the mysteries about the track was where the title came from as it is mentioned nowhere in the lyrics. Released by Presley in the late summer of ’55, it’s enduring appeal stems from it’s ominous sound. The echo from Scotty Moore’s guitar sounds sinister in a way and the track brings to mind so many other blues songs from the past that feature lyrics depicting some dark and calamitous happenings in the singer’s life. In “Mystery Train”, the train is the villain and has taken the singer’s baby away. As a single, the song was released as the B side of the country tune “I Forgot to Remember” and made some noise on local country charts. Indeed, “Mystery Train” was the first song to make Presley known as a country singer. The fact that it is not really a country song is further testament to EP’s unique blend of country and R&B. Rolling Stone’s ranking it as high as #77 on it’s 500 list speaks to how highly it is regarded.

3. “Hound Dog” (1956) — There are fewer recordings more iconic than this one. There are fewer tracks that completely encapsulate everything that rock ‘n’ roll was meant to sound like. Like Elvis Presley himself, this song has catapulted into the stratosphere as something other than what it was originally. Like “Rock Around the Clock”, “Hound Dog” is understood historically and culturally but you need to work hard to hear it as a “song”; a song of vicious import, a feral moment in music history that has been taken for granted. Everything about this recording is the foundation of all rock music to come. A direct line can be traced starting with “Hound Dog” and running through Led Zeppelin and all the way to Jack White. Stories of the song’s history before it reached King are legendary and I suggest you read up on it. It was written by two 19-year-olds, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were soon to become legendary in their own right penning classic songs for Elvis and the Coasters. Presley’s version was not only immediately iconic and indicative of the whole rock ‘n’ roll movement but it was extremely successful for Elvis. It was simultaneously No. 1 on the US pop, country, and R&B charts in 1956, and it topped the pop chart for 11 weeks — a record that stood for 36 years. And with a preposterous 10 million copies sold it is one of the biggest-selling singles ever and is the 19th Greatest Song of All-Time according to Rolling Stone Magazine. Presley’s vocal is savage and Scotty Moore invents rock guitar with his work here.

2. “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (1957) — So, somebody from Mars – or a teenager of today, same thing – says to you “Who is Elvis Presley? What was he? What did he do that was so great?”. You would show this person some television performances or some concert footage. You would also, surely, play this person some recordings. If you had to pick only, say, five records that would perfectly pinpoint for this stranger ‘what’ Elvis Presley was, you would (or could or should) play them “Santa Claus is Back in Town”. “He’s one of the best singers ever” you would say, “his voice….” you would add, shaking your head. In this seasonal chestnut you would have one of the finest examples of what he did so well with his voice. Not only that but you have that voice in a gritty, blues setting that allows the voice to growl and claw it’s way through the lyrics. The white, clean and neat sound of the Jordanaires does not detract from the raunchy proceedings. Dudley Brooks plays the piano as if he’s recalling days pounding the ivories in seedy juke joints all over the South. And DJ Fontana pounds his snare drum like he’s back in his living room and his parents have just gone out to the hardware store. On top of all this, it’s a Christmas song, a song from a season near and dear to Elvis in many ways. The song is so ridiculously “Elvis” and it’s a shame we can only listen to it during the last six weeks of the year. This is his second-best vocal performance of the 1950’s. Bettered only by…

1. “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) — One of the best-known Elvis Presley songs due to the production number version of the song contained in the film of the same name. That’s all I’m going to say about that number in the film as I feel it neuters this remarkable recording. The song is another written by Lieber and Stoller; the top three songs on this list are Leiber/Stoller numbers. It had a goofy lyric about life behind bars, the type of song they would have written for their act, the Coasters. But Presley plays it straight and handles it as pure rock ‘n’ roll. This is the prime example of ALL of Presley’s recordings of the relationship between rock singer and rock guitarist. Both Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore lay down performances for the ages on their respective instruments. Along with his work on “Hound Dog”, it is his playing on “Jailhouse Rock” that cements Scotty Moore’s rep as the man who invented rock guitar; no less is he than the man that gave birth to Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and Slash. And Presley’s vocal? I dunno…what can I say? This is the pinnacle of what he was as a vocalist. He did well on many ballads throughout his career but this type of singing was his bread and butter and this is probably the best example there is of that type of singing.

Next: The 1960’s – Elvis returns from the Army – and the Colonel has a plan…

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Press conference, private railway car, Los Angeles. 1960.

(**the images and media used in this post are not mine**)

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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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