Friday, March 21, 2014

A Guide to the Best Compilations of Frank Sinatra

The Essential Frank Sinatra: The Columbia Years-2 disc set. He's so young!

The Capitol Years, 3-disc set, 1990. An excellent intro to the best of Sinatra's Capitol work.

The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings, 1995. This is the "suitcase" box set.
The Reprise Collection, 1990. If you don't want to invest in the suitcase, get this. It's terrific.
As I mentioned in my previous post about my ten favorite Frank Sinatra albums, Frank Sinatra recorded a ton of material over his long career, some 1,100 songs in all. And that’s not counting songs he recorded for radio or television that he never officially put on records. Sinatra was also prone to re-record songs he liked throughout his career, which gives us some fascinating insights into how his approach to singing changed over the years, but it also might make his discography slightly confusing for newcomers. So where do you start with Sinatra? It’s a tough question, and considering there are about a million different Frank Sinatra compilations out there, it makes for many possible entries into the Sinatra discography. This post is a guide to what I think are the best compilations of Sinatra’s work.

To give just one example from Sinatra’s discography of how he re-recorded songs again and again, let’s take a look at the number of times he recorded the Cole Porter classic “Night and Day.” (Will Friedwald goes through all the different versions of “Night and Day” in his excellent book “Sinatra! The Song Is You.” He also includes live versions, so his list is a lot longer than this.) The version of “Night and Day” most listeners are familiar with is probably the swinging version Sinatra recorded of Nelson Riddle’s arrangement on his 1957 album “A Swingin’ Affair!” But Sinatra had first recorded the song in 1942 for the Bluebird label, a subsidiary of RCA, while he was with Tommy Dorsey’s big band. Sinatra also recorded the song for Columbia in 1947, but this version would remain unreleased until 1993. Sinatra’s next recording of “Night and Day” was the famous up-tempo version with Nelson Riddle, recorded for Capitol in November 1956. Sinatra then recorded a ballad version in 1961 for his Reprise Records label, arranged by Don Costa. This version was released on the excellent “Sinatra & Strings” album. Sinatra’s final recording of “Night and Day” was a disco version from 1977. Nope, I’m not kidding. It’s terrible, in case you were wondering. So that leaves us with 5 different studio recordings of “Night and Day,” all from very different periods of Sinatra’s career. So how do you know which version of “Night and Day” you’re getting? You need to check the record label of the compilation. I can guarantee you’ll never get the disco version, as I don’t think that’s been on any compilations except the 20-disc set of his complete Reprise recordings. 

So let’s start examining Sinatra’s compilations, in chronological order. I’m really not familiar enough with Sinatra’s work with Tommy Dorsey from 1940-42 to comment very much on it. I don’t own the box set “The Song Is You,” which collects all of Sinatra’s work with Dorsey on 5 discs. If you’re interested in this period, pick up a single-disc compilation and if you absolutely love it, just get the box set.

The Columbia Years-1943-1952:

Unless you’re a Sinatraphile like me, you probably don’t need the 12-disc set of all 285 of Sinatra’s Columbia Recordings. But it’s out there if you want it, and it’s the only way to hear the majority of Sinatra’s work for the label.

“Frank Sinatra Sings His Greatest Hits”-1 disc-1997: This is an excellent single-disc overview of Sinatra’s best-known Columbia songs, and would be a good place to start if you’re not familiar with this era of his career.

“Portrait of Sinatra: Columbia Classics”-2 discs-1997: This collection, which was reissued as the 2-disc “The Essential Frank Sinatra: The Columbia Years” in 2010, offers a good, slightly more expansive overview of his Columbia songs. This would also be a good starting point for the Columbia years. Curiously, it’s missing “Oh, What It Seemed to Be,” one of Frank’s biggest hit singles of the period.

“The Essential Frank Sinatra: The Columbia Years”-1 disc-2003: To confuse matters, in 2003 Columbia issued a single-disc “Essential Frank Sinatra,” which is very different from the “Portrait of Sinatra/Essential Sinatra” 2-disc set. This single disc covers much the same ground as 1997’s “Frank Sinatra Sings His Greatest Hits,” but 8 of the songs are presented in previously released alternate takes. While the alternate takes aren’t that different from the originals, it’s odd that they put so many on a bargain budget compilation. Stick with the other Columbia comps.

“The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-1952”-4 discs-1995: While it may seem a bit hefty to those just starting to explore Sinatra’s Columbia years, this box set collects just about all of Sinatra’s absolutely essential Columbia songs. Highly recommended if you don’t want to splurge for the 12-CD Complete Recordings. Contains great songs like “Close to You,” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily” that the other sets don’t have.

The Capitol Years-1953-1962:

“Frank Sinatra Sings the Select Cole Porter”-1 disc-1965: For a single-disc overview of Sinatra’s Capitol years, you could do a lot worse than this excellent disc that collects songs by Cole Porter, which also happen to be some of Sinatra’s greatest songs of the period. Expanded to 16 tracks on CD in 1991, this album features “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Night and Day,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” and “Just One of Those Things.” Highly recommended for the neophyte.

“The Capitol Years”-3 discs-1990: An interesting thing about Sinatra’s Capitol output is that he deliberately kept single and album releases very separate, which means that you could own every single concept album Sinatra made for Capitol, but you would still be missing such key tracks as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “Young at Heart,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “Learnin’ the Blues,” “Love and Marriage,” “(Love Is) The Tender Trap,” “All the Way,” and “Witchcraft.” That’s because those songs were only issued as singles. Capitol collected those singles as hodge-podge albums at the time, like “This is Sinatra.” But if you want the hit singles along with the classic album tracks, you need to get a set like “The Capitol Years,” which collects the best of the Capitol singles and albums. There are a few rarities sprinkled throughout the set, like an amazing version of “One for My Baby” with just Sinatra and Bill Miller’s piano backing him, and the previously unreleased “Here Goes.” I would highly recommend this set; it’s the best introduction to Sinatra’s Capitol work. From here you can figure out which albums you absolutely need to own. (Spoiler alert: It’s all of them!)

“The Complete Capitol Singles Collection”-4 discs-1996: Once you have all of Sinatra’s Capitol albums, you’ll need this box set to get all of his singles in one place. I wouldn’t recommend this for a starting point for Sinatra’s Capitol work, as his singles were much more uneven in quality than his albums. And since this set doesn’t include any of Sinatra’s album songs, it doesn’t really function as a best-of. 

“Concepts”-16 discs-1992: Yes, you read that right. The massive “Concepts” box set collects all of the concept albums that Frank Sinatra recorded for Capitol. Which means you get such classics as “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” “A Swingin’ Affair!” “Come Fly with Me,” “Come Dance with Me,” and “Only the Lonely,” all in one place. You’ll eventually need all of these albums, because they’re all amazing. “Concepts” also includes “Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color,” which features Frank behind the podium, not behind the microphone. 

“Sinatra 80th: All the Best”-2 discs-1995: I don’t own this set, but it has a really weird track selection. It’s 40 songs on 2 discs, and one of the tracks they pick is “Wait for Me (Theme from Johnny Concho)”. Really? That’s one of Sinatra’s 40 best Capitol songs? Nope, you’re wrong. It also features a spliced-together duet of Sinatra and Nat King Cole on “The Christmas Song.” Not recommended.

“Classic Sinatra: His Greatest Performances 1953-1960” and “Classic Sinatra II.” These single-disc comps from 2000 and 2009 have a much better track selection than “Sinatra 80th”. Both “Classic Sinatras” are a mixture of hit singles and great album tracks which are a superb introduction to Sinatra’s Capitol years. It doesn’t include the hit single “Hey! Jealous Lover,” but you’ll survive without it. If you don’t want to spring for “The Capitol Years,” pick up these 2 instead.

The Reprise Years-1960-1988:

“A Man and His Music”-2 discs-1965-66: This was the Grammy winner for Album of the Year in 1966, giving Sinatra back-to-back wins in the category, as “September of My Years” had won in 1965. Issued in conjunction with an NBC TV special of the same name, to commemorate Sinatra’s 50th birthday, “A Man and His Music” is a rather silly listen now, as Sinatra narrates highlights from his career. The songs are first-rate, of course, but they’re not the original hit recordings from Columbia or Capitol, but rather re-recordings Sinatra had made for various Reprise projects in the early 1960’s. To show how many songs he had re-recorded, just 3 songs were specially re-recorded for this project. This isn’t a good introduction to Sinatra’s Reprise years, and his narration often intrudes on the beginning of songs.

“The Reprise Collection”-4 discs-1990: Issued to celebrate Sinatra’s 75th birthday, this is an excellent introduction to Sinatra’s work on Reprise. Features all of his most famous songs from the 60’s and 70’s, as well as many key album tracks and some rarities that were previously unreleased. Highlights include: “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “I Have Dreamed,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “My Kind of Town,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “It Was a Very Good Year,” “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “Once I Loved,” “Drinking Again,” “All I Need is the Girl,” “My Way,” “Theme from New York, New York,” “The Gal that Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind.” Highly recommended.

“Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years”-1 disc-1991: A single-disc of highlights from “The Reprise Collection,” this is an excellent single-disc intro to Sinatra’s biggest hits on Reprise, but it inevitably lacks the depth that “The Reprise Collection” offers. This was one of the first Sinatra CD’s I owned, and one of my first introductions to his music, so I do have a soft spot for it.

“Everything Happens to Me”-1 disc-1996: This is a very interesting compilation, as it’s not meant to be a “Greatest Hits” package, but a collection of deep cuts from his catalogue. Sinatra chose the tracks himself, and while it is a somewhat downbeat listen, there are many standout Sinatra tracks here. Highlights include: “The Gal that Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind,” “Summer Wind,” “Once I Loved,” “The Second Time Around,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Drinking Again,” “How Insensitive,” and “Put Your Dreams Away.” Recommended for the curious, but you won’t find “My Way” here.

“The Very Best of Frank Sinatra”-2 discs-1997: This has a good track selection, but be sure you know you’re getting the Reprise re-recordings of his Capitol hits, not the originals. The track list is very heavily weighted towards famous Capitol songs.

“My Way: The Best of Frank Sinatra”-2 discs-1997: Whoever put this together has a funny idea of Sinatra’s “best.” Sinatra’s versions of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and “Mrs. Robinson,” both of which are included here, are among his worst recordings ever. Why someone would put those on a compilation, I have no idea. This set gets bonus points for including “The Girl from Ipanema” with Antonio Carlos Jobim. Minus points for including “America the Beautiful” from the “Concert Sinatra” sessions rather than “I Have Dreamed.” Not recommended. 

“Romance”-2 discs-2004: This is an interesting collection, based around a theme rather than just his greatest hits. The track selection is really quite good. It includes several songs with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and the excellent “I Have Dreamed.” This would be an excellent purchase and introduction to Sinatra’s work in the 60’s and 70’s. Just know that it doesn’t include “My Way,” “My Kind of Town,” and “Theme from New York, New York” on it.

“Sinatra: Best of the Best”-1 disc-2011: This is the only album that has both Capitol and Reprise recordings together on the same disc! Yay for cross-licensing! For an artist of Sinatra’s stature, you’d think that his various labels would get together and issue a 4 or 5 disc set of his absolute best recordings for Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise. It’s odd that’s never happened. Of course, his catalogue is deep enough you can do a 4 disc set for each label and just scratch the surface of what he did. For a 23-track compilation, “Best of the Best” is actually a pretty good selection. Although I do have to quibble with the choice of “Love and Marriage,” which is not among my top 23 Sinatra songs. It could have easily been replaced by “I Get a Kick Out of You,” to name just one better song. But there’s no way this disc could be perfect. I actually own the 2-disc version of “Best of the Best,” because that included the long out-of-print 1957 Seattle concert with Nelson Riddle, which is recommend for Sinatraphiles. 

“The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings”-20 discs-1995: Yep, you read that right, 20 discs! 452 songs! Originally issued in a limited edition of 20,000 to celebrate Sinatra’s 80th birthday, the set was shaped like a suitcase, complete with handle on top. In 1997 I bought the suitcase limited edition from Collector’s Choice Music, as they had the last 20 or 30 copies available. I was 16 years old then and spent most of my summer earnings on this massive set, which set me back a little more than $400 bucks. Of course, in the fall of 1998, Reprise issued the set at a much lower-price, in an unlimited edition, which cost about $250. Oh well, my set looks cooler. While this set might sound like overkill, there are many great Sinatra songs during his Reprise years that fell through the cracks but are collected on this set. Unfortunately, Reprise was never as good at issuing CD’s as Capitol was, so it’s also very hard to find all of Sinatra’s Reprise albums on CD. Recommended for the advanced Sinatraphile, but keep in mind you’ll still have to get the live albums “Sinatra at the Sands” and “The Main Event” to completely cover this part of Sinatra’s career.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book Review: "The Russians," by Hedrick Smith (1976)

Paperback cover of "The Russians," by Hedrick Smith, 1976.

Publicity photo of Hedrick Smith for "The Russians." Photo by Jill Krementz.
When Hedrick Smith’s book “The Russians” was published in 1976, it gave American readers a taste of what life was like inside the Soviet Union. In “The Russians” Smith paints a vivid portrait of the culture of the Soviet Union under Leonid Brezhnev’s rule. Smith was the Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1971-74, and in 1974 he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his articles about life in the Soviet Union. I was lucky enough to intern for Hedrick Smith during college in the fall of 2001, as he was finishing up the excellent documentary “Rediscovering Dave Brubeck.” Smith’s most recent book is 2012’s “Who Stole the American Dream?” a very important book that I reviewed here.  

 “The Russians” is a large book, 680 pages in the original paperback edition, and Smith covers just about every imaginable aspect of Soviet society. I learned something new on every page of this book. I can’t accurately summarize all of the different parts of the book in this review, so I’ll focus on the sections that I enjoyed reading the most. 

While reading “The Russians” I was very struck by how completely the Soviet government controlled society and everyday life. Smith chronicled how the government censored the information that citizens had access to, which ranged from not informing citizens about wildfires raging only 15-20 miles outside of Moscow, to the heartbreaking story of a man whose daughter died in a plane crash, which he only learned of by going to the airport police-who only told him about the crash on the condition that he keep the news confidential. Because people had so little access through the state-run media to any kind of meaningful information, either about their own country or any others, the government was able to better control the population. This total control over information even extended to seemingly mundane things. For example, while Smith was in Moscow in 1973, the government published the first telephone directory in 15 years. Smith writes, “The problem with this phone book, as with so many desirable items in the Soviet Union, is that supply made not even the barest pretense of satisfying demand. For a city of eight million people, the printers published 50,000 phone books.” (p.472) 

I knew that Soviet citizens had very little political freedom, but I didn’t realize how many perks the elite members of the Communist Party enjoyed. Smith deftly exposes one of the many contradictions in Soviet society: that the supposedly classless society was actually just as stratified between the haves and have-nots as the West was, if not more so. Members of the elite were granted access to special stores where they could buy goods not available to other citizens. Elites also had opportunities to travel abroad, which meant that they had access to foreign goods, and work abroad was often paid in special “certificate rubles” which could be used in special stores and had more purchasing power than ordinary rubles. There was also little chance of upward mobility in the Soviet system-if you weren’t a Party member you didn’t have much of a chance of making a decent living. 

Political dissent in the Soviet Union was given very little chance to exist. As Smith shows, the temporary “thaw” in Soviet culture under Khrushchev in the 1950’s and 60’s was quickly replaced by the cold chilliness of the Brezhnev era. Under Brezhnev dissenters were rather quickly neutered by being sent to the labor camps of Siberia or exiled to the West. The methods of dealing with dissenters were not as cruel as they had been under Stalin, but the Soviet government was extremely effective at shutting down any dissenting points of view. 

Smith wrote about how it was not the KGB that most ordinary Soviet citizens feared. “For the quiet erosion of the spirit that takes place daily is caused more by the petty tyrants of Soviet life-the rigid little bureaucrats and the self-appointed busybodies who use infinite regulations and documents to harass, humble and hound the man in the street.” (p.352)

One of the most memorable parts of “The Russians” details Smith’s “interview” with the famed dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It was forbidden for foreign journalists to meet with Solzhenitsyn, as the Soviet government was very angry about his anti-Communist novels that explored the terrors of the Stalin regime. Smith and Bob Kaiser of The Washington Post went to Solzhenitsyn’s apartment to interview him, but when they arrived they found that Solzhenitsyn had already written the interview, both question and answers, for them. Smith writes, “I was stunned. What an irony, I thought. This is the way it is done at Pravda and here is Solzhenitsyn, whose entire being reverberates with his furious battle against censorship, a man who in the great tradition of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky had dared to assert the writer’s independence, producing a prepackaged interview. How could he be so blind or so vain? I thought of walking out.” (p.562) But Kaiser convinced Smith to read the hefty 25-page “interview” that Solzhenitsyn had written, which proved difficult because Solzhenitsyn was such a Slavophile that he wrote in an archaic style of Russian that used only “pure” Russian words, and not words that were derived from other languages. Solzhenitsyn also insisted that both papers, The New York Times and The Washington Post, print all of his 7,500 word “interview,” which had lengthy sections defending his ancestors from slander that Pravda was printing at the time. Smith explained that not even the U.S. President was guaranteed that his every word would be published in newspapers. Eventually a compromise was reached with Solzhenitsyn, and he agreed to answer some questions. Solzhenitsyn was eventually exiled by the Soviet government in 1974, and he settled in Vermont, despite his dislike of the West and material culture. Oddly enough, when Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia in 1994, he briefly hosted a TV talk show. 

Although parts of “The Russians” are inevitably dated, Smith’s deep insights into Russia and the Russian character make the book still very relevant today. It’s a shame that it’s out of print, it really deserves to be re-issued and enjoy wider circulation. Hedrick Smith is a great writer, and he crafts many memorable sentences throughout “The Russians.” One of my favorite passages is his spot-on comments about Soviet architecture:

“The newer subdivisions are a forest of massive prefab apartment blocks, numbing in their monotony (and duplicated in cities all across the country), pockmarked and graying with the instant aging that afflicts all Soviet architecture. They are left naked without grass or shrubbery or shutters or flower boxes, like fleets of dowdy ocean liners gone aground on some barren shore and dwarfing their passengers with their inhuman scale.” (p.140) 

Smith also uses as an epigraph for one of his chapters a very apt quote, which still does a good job of summing up Russia in the 21st century:

“Russians have gloried in the very thing foreigners criticized them for-blind and boundless devotion to the will of the monarch, even when in his most insane flights he trampled underfoot all the laws of justice and humanity.” Nikolai Karamzin, Russian historian, 1766-1826. (p.320)

If you’re interested in Soviet history, or in Russian culture, Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” is an excellent book that I would highly recommend.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

My Top Ten Favorite Frank Sinatra Albums

Frank Sinatra in the recording studio, 1950's.

Over more than 50 years as a recording artist, Frank Sinatra recorded more than 1,100 songs that were commercially released during his lifetime. It’s a staggering amount of material. So where do you start with Sinatra? Personally, I prefer his Capitol and Reprise recordings over his early work with Tommy Dorsey and his 1940’s ballads on Columbia. I think that pretty much everything Sinatra recorded from 1953 until 1969 is amazing and wonderful. But if you’d rather not buy all 44 of the albums he made during those years, I bring you a condensed list, my desert island Top Ten favorite Frank Sinatra albums, in no order. The only rule I made for myself is that I couldn’t include any greatest hits compilations.

In the Wee Small Hours-1955-A classic of love lost, 16 tracks of pure sadness and heartbreak. Achingly beautiful, Nelson Riddle’s arrangements are the perfect complement to Sinatra’s voice.

Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!-1956-One of his very best swing albums, this features “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” widely considered to be the single greatest Sinatra recording. Again, the arrangements are by Nelson Riddle.

Close To You-1957-When I first became a Sinatra fan in the mid 1990’s, this was the great white whale of Sinatra’s Capitol albums, as it had gone out of print. All of his other Capitol albums were in print and readily available, but this one was nowhere to be found. I scoured record stores constantly, but with the Internet still at a primitive stage, I never found it. When it was finally reissued in 2002, I quickly scooped it up. It’s an unusual album, as it features Sinatra backed only by the Hollywood String Quartet. But it’s an album of astonishing beauty, perfectly arranged by Nelson Riddle. Check the bonus tracks for the humorous song “There’s a Flaw in My Flue,” which Sinatra apparently included on test pressings of the album to see if Capitol executives were paying attention. Trivial note: the album cover is one of the few Capitol albums where Sinatra is not wearing a hat or smoking a cigarette.

A Swingin’ Affair!-1957-Similar in sound to “Swingin’ Lovers,” this is another swing album with Nelson Riddle. It features many of Sinatra’s best recordings, from the album opener “Night and Day,” “I Won’t Dance,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “At Long Last Love.” Features four songs by Cole Porter, one of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters. 

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely-1958-Another heartbreaking album of “saloon songs,” as Sinatra liked to call them. Featuring arrangements by Nelson Riddle, this album includes perennial Sinatra concert favorites “Angel Eyes” and “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)”. 

Come Dance with Me!-1959-Sinatra’s second album with Billy May, this is a real groovy swinger of an album, featuring such cookin’ tracks as “Too Close for Comfort,” “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)” and “The Song is You.” Closes with the terrific tune “The Last Dance,” written for Sinatra by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. 

Ring-a-Ding-Ding!-1961-Sinatra’s first album for his record label Reprise, this was the only time Sinatra worked with arranger Johnny Mandel. Features the exuberant title track, a Cahn/Van Heusen commission, and great readings of “Let’s Fall In Love,” “A Foggy Day,” and “The Coffee Song.” 

Sinatra/Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings-Frank Sinatra recorded two albums with the Brazilian singer/songwriter/guitarist/godfather of bossa nova Antonio Carlos Jobim that are among my favorite things he ever did. The first album with Jobim was 1967’s “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim.” The second album, recorded in 1969, was never issued in full at the time, with 7 of the 10 songs surfacing on 1971’s “Sinatra & Company” album, and it wasn’t until 1995 that all 10 of the songs were issued. This 2010 album is a bit of a cheat, since it is a compilation, but it’s not a best-of, it simply collects the 1967 and 1969 sessions onto one CD. The 1967 sessions were arranged by Claus Ogerman, the 1969 sessions by Eumir Deodato. I wish Sinatra would have recorded 10 albums with Jobim, but we’ll have to settle for these two.

Sinatra and Sextet: Live in Paris, 1962-Not released until 1994, this gig from Sinatra’s 1962 world tour is simply wonderful, as Sinatra swings with an exuberance seldom heard. He was suffering from a cold at the time, but that really doesn’t matter, it’s still a terrific record.

Frank Sinatra with the Red Norvo Quintet: Live in Australia, 1959-Unreleased until 1997, this concert with vibraphonist Red Norvo is even more swinging than the 1962 Paris concert. It’s really a shame that Sinatra never recorded in the studio with Norvo, or with a similar small group. If I had a time machine, this is one of the Sinatra concerts I’d attend.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

CD Review: Frank Sinatra, "Point of No Return" (1962)

The classic album cover for "Point of No Return," 1962.

After writing last week about Frank Sinatra’s CompleteColumbia Recordings, nearly all of which were arranged by Axel Stordahl, I thought a fitting follow-up would be a review of the only album Stordahl arranged for Sinatra after Sinatra left Columbia, the 1962 Capitol album “Point of No Return.” 

“Point of No Return” was a fitting title, as the album was Sinatra’s last for Capitol Records. Sinatra had signed with Capitol in 1953, and the recordings he made for the label launched his musical comeback and remain some of the best pop vocal recordings ever made. When people today think of Frank Sinatra and his classic songs, chances are they’re thinking of Sinatra during the time he recorded for Capitol. Every album Sinatra recorded for Capitol was excellent, and he had found a perfect musical partner in the arranger Nelson Riddle, who worked on the majority of Sinatra’s Capitol recordings. Sinatra also made great albums with arrangers Gordon Jenkins and Billy May during his Capitol tenure. Albums like “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!” “A Swingin’ Affair,” “Come Fly with Me,” “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” “Come Dance with Me!” and “Nice ‘n’ Easy” were not only well-received artistic triumphs, they were also big selling albums that made a lot of money for both Sinatra and Capitol. Sinatra’s tenure at Capitol marked the beginning of an amazing stretch from 1954 to 1967 when he landed 29 albums in the Top Ten of the Billboard charts. Why then did Sinatra want to leave Capitol to start his own record company? Sinatra wanted more artistic control, with the eventual goal of having his own subsidiary label within the Capitol family. When the president of Capitol told Sinatra he couldn’t have his own label, Sinatra became determined to leave Capitol. During this period, Sinatra considered buying the jazz label Verve Records from Norman Granz, but Granz sold the company to MGM instead. 

Sinatra was able to work out a deal with Capitol in early 1960 where he would record four more albums for the label, and thus fulfill his contract. The four albums would turn out to be “Nice ‘n’ Easy,” “Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!” “Come Swing with Me,” and “Point of No Return.” What makes Sinatra’s discography confusing during this period is that he began recording for his new label, Reprise, in December of 1960, while he still had two albums left to record for Capitol. By the time “Point of No Return” was issued in March of 1962, four Sinatra albums had already been released on Reprise. In fact, during the period from January, 1961 to March, 1962, 7 full albums of new material by Frank Sinatra were released! This meant that Sinatra began to compete with his own albums, as new Reprise and Capitol albums came out just weeks apart. In fact, in July of 1961, both Capitol and Reprise released Sinatra albums featuring the arrangements of Billy May. The albums were very similarly titled, as the Capitol release was “Come Swing with Me!” and the Reprise release was “Swing Along with Me.” Capitol sued Reprise, claiming that the title of their album was too similar. Capitol won, forcing the Reprise album to be re-christened “Sinatra Swings.” I’m not sure why Capitol allowed Sinatra to issue records on Reprise before he completed his Capitol contract, since it could have been detrimental to the sales of both albums. I also don’t understand why Sinatra didn’t wait until his contract with Capitol was completely fulfilled before he started recording for his own label, but my guess is that Sinatra wasn’t patient enough to wait that long. Commercially, the deluge of new Sinatra product didn’t seem to matter, as 5 of the 7 albums landed in the Top Ten. 

“Point of No Return” is not a classic Sinatra album. It’s still very good, but it doesn’t reach the heights of his best work for Capitol. One reason for that could simply be Sinatra’s annoyance at having to record the album at all. While Sinatra’s other Capitol albums were usually recorded over three or four nights, “Point of No Return” was recorded over just two nights, September 11th and 12th, 1961. And while Sinatra was known to be a meticulous perfectionist in the studio, he was not so discriminating on “Point of No Return.” Sinatra rushed through six songs each night, sometimes refusing to do a second take, even when producer Dave Cavanaugh asked for it. The first time through would have to be good enough for Capitol. But despite Sinatra’s cavalier attitude towards the sessions, the results are still quite good, as it was pretty impossible to make a lackluster Frank Sinatra album in 1961. Musically, the album harkens back to Sinatra’s Columbia years, as it’s filled with romantic ballads. However, the songs and arrangements aren’t as downbeat at they are on other albums of “saloon songs” like “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Only the Lonely,” and “No One Cares.” 

The album cover of “Point of No Return” is a classic. In keeping with many of his Capitol albums, the cover is a drawing of Sinatra. As usual he’s wearing a hat and smoking a cigarette, stopping by a statue in a park at twilight. He’s looking to his left, gazing somewhere off in the distance. 

“Point of No Return” was the last time that Sinatra worked with Axel Stordahl, who sadly passed away from cancer at the age of 50 in August 1963, less than two years after these sessions. Because of this, “Point of No Return” serves as a valedictory not only for the Capitol years, but also Sinatra’s Columbia years, as he leaves his musical past behind to chart a new course. 

Here are some thoughts about the songs on “Point of No Return”:

“When the World Was Young”-Has an interesting song structure, an almost-spoken verse, chorus, then another almost-spoken verse, then another chorus. Sinatra’s singing is exquisite, as is Stordahl’s lush, romantic arrangement. 

“I’ll Remember April”-This is the only time that Sinatra recorded this popular standard. The arrangement is by Heinie Beau, who “ghosted” two of the arrangements for Stordahl, who ran out of time to finish all of the songs. (Beau did the same favor for Billy May on the “Come Swing with Me!” album.) The arrangement is lovely, breathing new life into this song. The strings on this song remind me of Gordon Jenkins’s work.

“September Song”-Sinatra would later re-record this song for 1965’s “September of My Years,” with Gordon Jenkins arranging. It would be easy to make this song too sentimental, but Stordahl and Sinatra avoid that pitfall. 

“A Million Dreams Ago”-A nice change of pace, a more up-tempo song, with some good sax work. A fitting song for the end of his relationship with Stordahl and Capitol, as Sinatra sings, “Goodbye, good luck old friend/I’ll smile and just pretend/there was no end/a million dreams ago.” 

“I’ll See You Again”-Listen to the way Frank draws out the word “sweet” over several measures in the phrase “This sweet memory.” His voice was so amazing. 

“There Will Never be Another You”-I think this is the best song on the album. Great singing and playing, amazing to think it was done in just one take. Sinatra’s phrasing is terrific. 

“Somewhere Along the Way”-Lovely and lush. If Sinatra is annoyed with having to record these songs, you sure can’t tell on this song. 

“It’s a Blue World”-This is the second song on the album that Heinie Beau arranged for Stordahl. It’s a more spritely song than others on the record, and a nice change of pace.

“These Foolish Things”-Sinatra seems to be on autopilot here, as his vocal seems kind of listless. It’s kind of an odd song, as it really is just a list of things-check out Bryan Ferry’s 1973 version for the full lyrics. This isn’t a great arrangement either-the 1945 Columbia version that Sinatra and Stordahl did is much better. This is one of the songs that definitely would have been improved with multiple takes. Also, as Sinatra historians Will Friedwald and Charles Granata point out, the last word of the song, “you,” is edited in, as Sinatra’s voice changes between “remind me of” and “you.” Honestly, it was difficult for me to catch it, but a close listen with headphones confirmed it.

“As Time Goes By”-This just doesn’t do anything for me. Sinatra seems listless here too. Another song that would have improved with a few more takes. 

“I’ll be Seeing You”-Sinatra had recorded this with Sy Oliver in a swinging arrangement for the “I Remember Tommy” album just a few months earlier. This version with Stordahl is done as a ballad. I like Sinatra’s phrasing on the Oliver arrangement more.

“Memories of You”-A fitting closing track. Lovely vocal from Frank and a nice arrangement to close out the album and the Sinatra/Stordahl partnership.

That’s the end of the album, but for the CD release Capitol added the four tracks that Stordahl arranged for Sinatra’s first Capitol session in April 1953. Capitol executives wanted Sinatra to record with other arrangers, but Sinatra insisted that Stordahl be given the opportunity to arrange his first session. After this one Capitol session with Stordahl, Sinatra then worked with Nelson Riddle, and didn’t work with Stordahl again until the 1961 sessions for “Point of No Return.” Thus the CD contains all of Sinatra’s work at Capitol with Stordahl.

“Day In-Day Out”-Sinatra’s first attempt at cutting this song for Capitol. He recorded the song with three different arrangers, as he re-cut it in 1954 with Nelson Riddle, and in 1958 with Billy May. Nice tick-tock strings at the start. This is very similar to Sinatra’s Columbia work-same yearning, sexy tempo and delivery. Excellent version.

“Don’t Make a Beggar of Me”-Decent, but not an outstanding song.

“Lean Baby”-A very silly song, but evidence of the new direction Sinatra was heading on Capitol. Billy May co-wrote the song, and the arrangement pays homage to his trademark saxophone sound. The lyrics are silly as Sinatra sings of his girl: “My lean baby/she’s so slim/a broomstick’s wider/but not as trim.” In 1953 you could still make jokes about how skinny Frank Sinatra was, as his weight was the punchline for every joke told about him in the 1940’s. This is another Heinie Beau arrangement, as Stordahl doesn’t seem to have been able to do swing arrangements. Sinatra sounds more energetic and more swinging than he ever did on Columbia. Matching his vocal with the saxes was a great idea for the beginning of the song. 

“I’m Walking Behind You”-Pure snoozeville, a slow song about some poor dope who’s still stuck on this broad who’s getting hitched to some other fella. This was a number 1 hit for Eddie Fisher, and a number 7 hit for Sinatra. “Lean Baby” was the B-side, and reached #25.