Today would have been Frank Sinatra’s 95th birthday so I figured it was a good time to resurrect a post I first published on December 12, 2005.
I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra. It wasn’t because my parents were particularly Sinatra fans, but growing up in New Jersey, you really couldn’t help it. In big ways and small, Sinatra was everywhere. On the radio. Blaring over the speakers at Yankee Stadium at the end of a game. In Atlantic City.
So, I guess it isn’t a surprise that I turned into a fan myself. It started in 1990 when CBS aired a 75th birthday special, which coincided with the release of greatest hits collections from Capitol Records and Reprise. I ended up buying both collections that Christmas and listening to them throughout the winter of 2001. Then it was on to the albums to the point where now, I’ve pretty much got every album Sinatra released from the 1950s onward —- which makes for a lot of CD’s.
Had he lived, Frank Sinatra would be 90 years old today. So I’ll take that occassion to provide my own list of my ten (plus one) favorite Sinatra albums, and the reasons I like them so much.
1. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers
If you’ve never really listened to Frank Sinatra before, this is the album to start with. Just as the combination of Lennon and McCartney was a revolution in the 1960s, the combination of Frank Sinatra and his arranger Nelson Riddle was a revolution in the 1950s. Together, Sinatra and Riddle pioneered the idea of the concept album; a collection of songs paired together to create an image or mood, or to tell a story. Swingin’ Lovers was the first concept album and remains one of the best.
The highlight, of course, is the masterful performance on I’ve Got You Under My Skin, with a trombone solo by Milt Bernhart that blows me away everytime I hear it.
Extended editions of this album released on CD include the bonus track “Memories Of You”, left out of the original album for reasons I can’t contemplate.
2. In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
Admit it guys, its happened to all of us. The gal that got away. The torch that burned bright and then died. It happened to Frank too, her name was Ava Gardner, and this album, along with “Only The Lonely” is what he did about it.
In my opinion, the mark of a great singer, is their ability to reach within themselves and bring out something that touches your soul. By the time you finish listening to this CD, you’ll think that someone has reached into your soul, taken it out, and thrown off a tall building. Catharsis is the only word to describe it.
3. A Swingin’ Affair
What can you say about an album that contains “Stars Fell On Alabama”, a blow-you-away performance of “Night and Day” and “At Long Last Love” ? As with “Swingin’ Lovers”, Sinatra and Riddle once again pull off absolutely perfection.
4. Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely
Sinatra once joked that they were going to sell this album with its own revolver because the songs were so depressing. Whereas “In the Wee Small Hours” was catharsis, this album is nothing but pathos, each song is more emotional than the next. The emotion doesn’t roll you over, it just sinks in, song after song, until you’re left numb and absolutely stunned at the same time. The album includes two songs that Sinatra would later sing in concert for years to come as what he called “saloon songs” — the song sung by the lonely guy in the bar at 2am — “One For My Baby” and “Angel Eyes.”
Many consider this to be the greatest album of Sinatra’s career, and its easy to see why that might be the case.
5. September Of My Years
Though recorded when he was still 49, this is Frank Sinatra’s reflection on what its means to turn 50. Each song flows into the next as Sinatra and arranger Gordon Jenkins tell a story, in song, of a man looking back life. If the tone is meloncholy, that’s only because of regrets of missing times now passed. This is an album that Sinatra could not have pulled off in the 1950s, and definately not in his younger days, but with the mellow voice that came with age and the subdued arrangements from Jenkins, everything fits together perfectly.
6. Sinatra & Strings
This was Sinatra’s first album with arranger Don Costa, who he would work with several more times over the years, but it is unquestionably the best. The first reason for that is the material itself; these are some of the great songs of American popular music. Sinatra had recorded most of them before, but not in this way. Costa’s “Night & Day” is an absolutely masterpiece and possibly the best studio recorded version that Sinatra ever did. The blow-away piece on the album for me, though, is “Come Rain or Come Shine”; Sinatra’s voice had never sounded quite so powerful.
7. Come Fly With Me
Sinatra and Billy May together for the first time, and the results are pure genius. Together, they take us on a tour around the world that mixes ballads with swingers and leaves the listener wanting more, much more, at the end. The best song on the album is the title tune, which became part of Sinatra’s concerte repetoire for years to come.
8. Come Dance With Me
“Hey there cutes, put on your dancin’ boots and come, dance with me.”
You’ve got to know that an album that starts with that line is going to be swinging fun all the way through, and this one does not disappoint. Not surprisingly, this was one of Sinatra’s most commercially successful releases of the 1950s.
9. Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim
Nothing may sound more improbable than the idea of Frank Sinatra singing bossa nova, but that’s exactly what this album pulls off, masterfully. With Brazilian master Antonio Carlos Jobim playing guitar (and providing Porteguese vocals on several tracks), and a string orchestra staying lightly in the background, Sinatra goes places he’d never been in his career before. The result is a true classic, with the duo’s rendition of “The Girl From Ipanema” being the one that steals the show.
10. Sinatra At The Sands
Until the late 90s, there were only two officially released live albums in Sinatra’s entire catalog. One, The Main Event, was released in 1974 to coincide with his out-of-retirement comeback tour and is related to the ABC television special of the same name that aired in October 1974. This is the other one, and its clearly the better of the two.
Frank Sinatra and Count Basie. Both from New Jersey — one from Hoboken, the other from Red Bank — and both together live on stage at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1966 The only thing better than listening to this concert on CD would be having actually been there in person. Unlike other recordings that have been released since Sinatra’s death, this album does not contain much of the Rat Pack banter that Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis had become famous for, though there is one long monolouge track that gives you a flavor of what those days were like.
If you want to know what the big deal about seeing Sinatra peform live was all about, this is the album that tells the story.
11. Frank Sinatra With Red Norvo Quartet, Live In Australia 1959
I’ve added this in as something of a bonus track. The one thing that Sinatra fans had in common with Grateful Dead fans is the underground market they created in bootleg concert performances. Many of those bootleg recordings have been recorded on to CD in the past decade and made available, through European channels where the copyright laws are weaker, for sale in the United States. A select few have been legitimized and officially released in the United States. This is one of those recordings.
In 1959, Sinatra went on a tour with a quartet led by vibraphonist Red Norvo. Because there wasn’t the support provided by a large concert band, it was an environment that challenged Sinatra vocally and led, in this case, to some of his best work. The sound quality on this recording is not as good as it would have been had the concert been recorded officially, but it is acceptable. Since Sinatra never took the small group format into the studio, though, its the one of the few recorded examples we have of him singing the songs he’s best known for in an entirely different format.
And there you have it. I’ve listened to each of these albums so many times over the years that I’ve lost count. Tonight, though, I might just have to pop one or two into the CD player, pour myself a drink, and raise a glass in honor of the legend that was Frank Sinatra.