Thursday, March 6, 2014

CD Review: "Frank Sinatra: The Complete Columbia Recordings, 1943-1952"

Frank Sinatra, photo by William Gottlieb, 1947.
I recently finished listening to Frank Sinatra’s Complete Columbia Recordings, which span the years 1943 to 1952. Sinatra had first found fame as the vocalist for Tommy Dorsey’s big band from 1940-42, and once he left Dorsey’s band he signed with Columbia Records as a solo artist. Sinatra recorded 285 songs for Columbia, yet his work for the label is relatively obscure when compared to his much more famous recordings made for Capitol (1953-1962) and his own Reprise label (1960-1988). Why is this? One reason is that even though Sinatra made many excellent recordings for Columbia, they pale next to the exciting perfection of what came later in his career. The image of Sinatra that has persisted in our popular culture is that of the Las Vegas swinger of the 1950’s and 1960’s, not the crooning balladeer who made bobby soxers swoon in the 1940’s. 

A second reason for the Columbia recordings being overlooked is the technology of the time in which the recordings were issued. During the 1940’s, all of Frank Sinatra’s records were released as 78 RPM discs, the standard format for the time. They were essentially singles, as the technology of the time limited the large discs to just one song per side. Some of Sinatra’s recordings were issued as “albums,” such as 1946’s “The Voice of Frank Sinatra,” but the 8 songs were still issued one to each side of a disc, they were just collected together in one package. The songs on “The Voice of Frank Sinatra” were meant to all fit together stylistically, and thus it’s a forerunner to Sinatra’s later “concept albums” on Capitol Records. In 1948 Columbia introduced the first long-playing record, which spun at 33 1/3 RPMs, rather than 78 RPM. These LP’s allowed much more music to be fit onto a disc. Now you could have slightly more than 20 minutes of music for each side of the LP. The LP revolutionized music, and Sinatra quickly understood that you could create a suite of songs that shared the same mood and feeling and create a unified album, which is exactly what he did when he recorded for Capitol Records in the 1950’s. Albums like “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!,” “Come Fly With Me,” “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” and “Come Dance With Me!” cemented Sinatra’s reputation as a great singer, and they are still integral parts of his musical legacy today. If you go to a record store today, you’ll find many of Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise albums, reissued on CD with the songs in the same order as they were originally issued on LP’s 50 and 60 years ago, but you’ll only find compilations of his Columbia recordings, because they weren’t originally issued as long-playing albums. That makes Sinatra’s Columbia recordings much more scattershot and less unified. And while generations of listeners have heard the acclaim for classic albums like “In the Wee Small Hours” for decades, they’re probably not nostalgic about Columbia compilation albums from the 1990’s and 2000’s. Columbia itself is also partly to blame for the obscurity of Sinatra’s recordings for the label, as they were extremely slow to re-release his recordings, thus when the complete Columbia recordings were issued on CD in 1993, it was the first time in decades that many of the songs were re-issued in any format. And it wasn’t until 2003 that Columbia finally issued 1946’s album “The Voice of Frank Sinatra” on CD.

Despite their being overshadowed by Sinatra’s later recordings, his Columbia recordings are quite excellent. For many years, I rather snobbishly overlooked the Columbia recordings because I thought his later work was so much better. The vast majority of Sinatra’s songs for Columbia were slow, romantic ballads, which didn’t always interest me. I would guess that probably about 70-80% of the songs Sinatra recorded for Columbia were ballads. There were very few swinging songs, the one big exception being his 1950 album “Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra,” re-titled “Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra” on CD. “Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra” featured arrangements by George Siravo, one of the few times on Columbia where the arrangements were not handled by Axel Stordahl. Over time I’ve come to have a better appreciation for the Columbia recordings. I had just a couple of Columbia CD’s of Sinatra’s, but I started listening to those more seriously, and when Amazon offered the complete recordings on MP3 for $50, it was too good to pass up. There’s a pureness to Sinatra’s voice in the 1940’s that I find very appealing. In fact, his nickname during the 1940’s was “The Voice,” which is by far my favorite Sinatra nickname, and I’m a little annoyed that it hasn’t remained as popular as “the Chairman of the Board” or “Old Blue Eyes.” 

To understand the effect that Sinatra had on his female listeners, all you have to do is listen to his very first Columbia song, “Close To You,” from 1943. Backed by only the Bobby Tucker Singers because of a musician union’s strike, Sinatra’s voice is front and center on this tender song. Sinatra’s voice is warm, intimate, and very sensual. He connects with the audience, and he achieves the trick of making you feel like he’s singing just to you. His voice is sexy and assured, and it’s easy to see why he was such a heartthrob. 

As I listened to the whole box set, I was amazed at the consistently great quality of the songs, Axel Stordahl’s beautiful arrangements, and Sinatra’s gorgeous singing. Sinatra was already a master at phrasing, and every song sounds totally natural coming from him. Of course, there are some clunkers amongst the 285 tunes, and we’ll get to those. 

Sinatra’s last couple of years at Columbia have a bad reputation, in part because of some notoriously bad songs that he recorded under Mitch Miller’s production. But I was surprised at how few bad songs there were. Sure, there are a lot of songs that are saccharine ballads, but they’re still decent songs. However, there are some songs that are just plain bad. Like “One Finger Melody” and “Tennessee Newsboy.” And then there’s a song that is just beyond bad, “Mama Will Bark.” Long considered the absolute nadir of Sinatra’s recording career, “Mama Will Bark” was recorded in May of 1951 as a novelty duet with Dagmar, a busty blonde who was one of television’s first new stars. (Dagmar even made the cover of Life magazine in July, 1951, and her name lives on in the automobile world, as the artillery shell-shaped projections on the front bumpers of Cadillacs and Mercurys of the period are called “Dagmars,” or “Dagmar bumpers,” because, um, well, I think you can figure it out.) Mitch Miller thought that it was worth taking a chance at recording a novelty song with Sinatra, and Sinatra must have agreed, because under his contract if he was dissatisfied with a song he could stop the record from being issued. That being said, “Mama Will Bark” is a steaming pile of poo. The song finds Sinatra imagining hearing a conversation between two dogs, complete with dog sound effects, and Dagmar intentionally singing “mama will bark” off-key. At least I hope she was intentionally off-key. It’s a dopey song, far below Sinatra’s musical standards, and thankfully it didn’t become a hit, peaking at number 21. Ironically, the flip side of the single was the sublime and emotionally devastating “I’m a Fool to Want You,” one of the best Sinatra songs from any era of his career. Thankfully, “I’m a Fool to Want You” became the bigger hit, peaking at number 14. 

Why was Sinatra’s career in such peril in 1951 that he was recording a dopey novelty song like “Mama Will Bark” anyway? Well, Sinatra’s popularity had been waning as the 1950’s began. First off, he left his wife Nancy and his three small children to have a well-publicized rocky affair with Ava Gardner. Frank eventually divorced Nancy in order to marry Ava. This was not a popular choice with the record-buying public. Also, a new generation of male singers were eclipsing him as fan favorites. By 1951, signers like Vic Damone, Guy Mitchell, Perry Como, Johnnie Ray, Eddie Fisher, and Tony Bennett were all selling more records than Sinatra. Johnnie Ray and Eddie Fisher in particular were replacing Sinatra as teen heartthrobs who inspired the same kind of fanatical female frenzy that Sinatra himself had been the object of just a few years before. Sinatra was also having vocal problems in 1950, most likely caused by overwork. Sinatra said, “I was doing three shows a night, five radio shows a week, benefit performances, and recording at the same time.” (Quote from Sinatra! The Song Is You, by Will Friedwald, p. 184) While Sinatra did have to cancel some live performances because of his vocal problems; a period of rest was all he needed to get his voice back to normal. Sinatra’s vocal problems have generally been overstated, as it’s impossible to discern any problems when listening to the Columbia box set. His voice gets deeper as the 1950’s start, and by the final Columbia recordings from 1952 you can hear the familiar “classic” Sinatra vocal sound start to take shape. But by the end of 1952, Sinatra’s career was in total free-fall. He had been dumped from his movie contract with MGM, and Columbia also dropped his recording contract. 

Just as Sinatra’s entire life and career had fallen apart in 1951-52, so it all came back together in 1953-4. In March of 1953, Sinatra signed a recording contract with Capitol Records. Alan Livingston, head of A&R for Capitol at the time, was the executive responsible for signing Sinatra to the label. When Livingston announced Sinatra’s signing at the national sales convention, there was a loud collective groan. But Livingston knew what he was doing, and he wanted to pair Sinatra with a different arranger, Nelson Riddle. Sinatra, however, remained loyal to his friend Axel Stordahl, and, feeling that he owed much of his past success to Stordahl, insisted that Stordahl be allowed to arrange his first sides for the label. When those sides failed to produce a hit, Sinatra agreed to have Riddle arrange for him. One of the songs cut at the very first session with Sinatra and Riddle was “I’ve Got the World On a String,” which was far more exciting and electrifying than anything Sinatra had ever recorded at Columbia. Riddle would go on to arrange 9 of Sinatra’s Capitol albums, and their musical partnership produced many memorable moments. In 1953 Sinatra got his movie career back on track in a big way as he landed the part of Maggio in “From Here to Eternity.” Sinatra did the role for practically no money, and his terrific performance earned him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Sinatra’s comeback was now complete. 

The Columbia years were a transitional time for Sinatra, as he moved from the big band of Tommy Dorsey to the golden years at Capitol, but there are many highlights from the Columbia years. Some of my favorite Sinatra performances from his Columbia years are:

Nancy (With the Laughing Face)
Close To You
These Foolish Things
I Fall In Love Too Easily
Put Your Dreams Away-which was his radio theme song
Soliloquy (from “Carousel”)
All of Me
It’s Only a Paper Moon
Should I?
I Could Write a Book
Time After Time
People Will Say We’re in Love
Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in the Week)
I’m a Fool to Want You
The House I Live In
The Coffee Song


Uncle E said...

I love Sinatra, although I have to say I am a novice, only owning 3 proper studio releases and 2 compilations. His version of One For My Baby (and One More For The Road) is not only my fave Sinatra track, but in my top 10 pop songs of all time. Have you seen the HBO movie called The Rat Pack? It takes a while, but Ray Liotta makes a pretty great Sinatra (as does Cheadle as Sammy, Joe Mantegna as Deano, and Angus Macfadyen as Peter Lawford). Sinatra is one of those artists that's on my "get all you can by this guy!" list.

Mark said...

I agree with you on "One For My Baby," it's definitely one of his best songs. There's a great version of it on the "Capitol Years" 3-CD boxed set that's recorded with just Sinatra and pianist Bill Miller. It's beautiful. And there's lot of good live recordings of it too. I have seen The Rat Pack movie with Ray Liotta, I really enjoyed it, though it's been a while since I've seen it. I love the scene where he takes a sledgehammer to the heliport when Lawford tells him JFK isn't coming-which apparently really happened.
Anything Sinatra recorded between 1953 and 1969 is absolutely amazing. Some of my favorites are the bossa nova albums he did with Antonio Carlos Jobim, and a 1959 live date in Australia with the Red Norvo Quintet-it's some of his jazziest singing. There's also a lovely 1962 live date from Paris that's outstanding.