Sinatra climbs past the Beatles to the top of the heap
By 1966 Frank Sinatra had ridden the roller coaster of artistic and commercial success to several high points, maintaining an unmatched profile of fame through radio, live performance, recording, television and film. He’d broken through as a swing-era big band singer, wowed bobby-soxers with his solo crooning, and reinvented himself (with the help of legendary arrangers such as Nelson Riddle) as a sophisticated interpreter of standards, a deep-feeling balladeer, and a ring-a-ding-ding hipster. In the last half of the 1950s he unleashed a string of iconic albums that showed his thorough mastery of down-tempo ballads, lush orchestration and snappy up-tempo romps, and in 1961 he literally became the chairman of the board, as he founded the Reprise record label.
Sinatra’s Reprise albums of the early 1960s continued to sell well, but his action on the single’s chart had been curtailed by pop music’s skew to a younger audience, the arrival of the Beatles and the musical revolution that followed in their wake. Sinatra had scored recent Top-40 singles (and a chart-topper on the adult contemporary chart with “It Was a Very Good Year” earlier in ‘66), but his last major success on the pop hit parade remained 1958’s “Witchcraft.” As had been the case when the big band era closed, and again as Sinatra’s solo career wound down in the early 1950s, many thought that Sinatra had finally estranged himself from broad popular acclaim. But someone as talented and as artistically resilient as Sinatra couldn’t be counted out so easily.
The genesis of his mid-60s resurgence was the album’s title track, combining a memorable Bert Kaempfert melody (from the film A Man Could Get Killed) with lyrics by Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder. The other key ingredient was producer Jimmy Bowen. Bowen had started out as a contemporary of ‘50s rock singer Buddy Knox, but edged his way into production as his singing career faltered. By the mid-60s he was working with all three members of the Rat Pack, and brought “Strangers in the Night” to Sinatra. Ken Barnes’ liner notes recall the urgent circumstances under which the single was recorded and distributed to radio, and how it scooped two contemporary versions to become Sinatra’s first pop chart topper. All of this was accomplished by a fifty-year-old Sinatra, who iced the cake by knocking the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” from the top slot.
With the single winding its way to #1 – it took three months to reach the top – Sinatra returned to the studio with his regular producer, Sonny Burke, to record a supporting album. The sessions reunited Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, who’d helped Sinatra re-launch his career once before with 1954’s Songs for Young Lovers and the brassy swing of 1956’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! Here he and Sinatra split their attention between reanimating songs of the 1920s and 1930s, and finding something for Sinatra to say with a few contemporary numbers. In addition to the title track, Sinatra turned Johnny Mercer’s “Summer Wind” into an easy listening favorite, picked up Lerner and Lane’s “On a Clear Day” from the then contemporary Broadway show, and wrestled unsuccessfully with a pair of Tony Hatch tunes, “Call Me” and “Downtown.”
The pop tunes are given the full Riddle treatment, including a modern and soulful organ, but Sinatra isn’t impressed by either, and tosses off “Downtown” as a sop to the then-modern pop tastes. Riddle’s arrangements are typically energetic throughout, but his sublime take on “Summer Wind” inspires Sinatra’s most effortless and artful vocal in this set. Sinatra sings the older songs with a nod to their period origins, but also a free-swinging verve that brings them up-to-date. As an album this ends up schizophrenic as Sinatra moves through Bowen’s pop edgings, Riddle’s punchy charts and Hatch’s ill-fitting pop songs. The original album ends with a frenetic arrangement of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” which brought down the curtain. Concord’s reissue adds three bonus tracks: live takes of “Strangers in the Night” and “All or Nothing at All” that demonstrate Sinatra’s 1980s stage presence, and a previously unreleased first take of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” that doesn’t vary greatly from the master recording.
Though this LP was one of Sinatra’s most popular, his voice was in fine form and Nelson Riddle’s arrangements add some pizzazz, it wasn’t one of his truly great artistic achievements. The hit singles are memorable and essential elements of the Sinatra catalog, but the album cuts don’t match up with his earlier pioneering work. Unlike his Capitol albums of the 1950s, Sinatra wasn’t pushing forward anymore; he was looking back to earlier successes and looking sideways at popular music forms that didn’t excite him. This is certainly worth hearing, but if you’re just starting to build a collection of Sinatra albums, you’re better off starting with his key works of 1954-1961. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]