Superb vocalist backed by sizzling Billy May charts
With Frank Sinatra having decamped to start his Reprise label, his former label, Capitol, signed the next best thing, Vic Damone. The Brooklyn-born Damone had the same working class roots as Sinatra, and after getting his first break on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show in the late ‘40s, he signed with Mercury. Damone had several hits with Mercury, as well as subsequently with Columbia, but in 1961 he began a five-year run on Capitol. This third long-player for Capitol, released in 1962, was also Damone’s second to pair him with arranger Billy May. The latter had worked with Sinatra in the late ‘50s on the seminal Come Fly with Me and Grammy-winning Come Dance with Me, and paired again with Sinatra for two more titles in 1961.
Entering the studio in 1962, Damone was an established star, and May was coming off a string of superb swing albums with one of Damone’s vocal role models. The result has the hallmarks of Sinatra’s great sessions – sizzling horn charts, swing surfaces, jazz underpinnings and thoughtful interpretations of material that leans heavily on standards. Winningly, however, this doesn’t sound like someone imitating Sinatra, as Damone asserted the beautiful tone of his voice on both ballads and up-tempo numbers. There’s none of Sinatra’s ring-a-ding-ding bravado here, and Damone sings with a friend’s smile rather than a pack leader’s wink.
Before there was “The Beach Boys,” there was a garage band called the Pendletones, formed by three brothers, a cousin, a friend and a domineering father whose own show business dreams had never come to fruition. The harmony vocals of the 1950s and the surf sounds of the early ‘60s provided the ambitious Brian Wilson stepping stones to musical immortality, and these two discs of pre-Capitol sides paint the most complete picture yet of Wilson’s first steps towards the beach. From the Fall of 1961 until their signing to Capitol in the Spring of 1962, the Beach Boys recorded nine songs for Hite and Dorinda Morgan, with “Surfin’” b/w “Luau” released as a single on the Candix and X labels. The A-side charted at #75 nationally, but was a huge local hit on Los Angeles’ powerhouses KFWB and KRLA.
The group recorded additional material for the Morgans, including Beach Boys icons, “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl,” but only one other single, “Barbie” b/w “What is a Young Girl Made Of” was released in the U.S., and then with Brian, Carl and Audree Wilson singing under the name Kenny and the Cadets to pre-produced backing tracks. The rest of the recordings were consigned to the vault, coming to light only after the group had established themselves on Capitol. Omnivore’s two-disc set gathers together the pre-Capitol master takes and all of the extant session material, including demos, rehearsals, studio chatter, false starts, overdubs and alternates. At sixty-two tracks covering only nine songs, this set isn’t for the casual listener, but for fans who have imbibed every detail of the masters, it’s a welcome peek into the group’s embryonic creative process.
Among the most surprising elements of this set is the fidelity of the tapes. It may not match what Brian himself achieved at Goldstar and elsewhere, but even the demos are clean and the studio productions are quite crisp. That said, take after take of the same song, often with only minute differences to break up the repetition, is both a revealing and an exhausting experience. The sessions document the arduous job of capturing a perfect live take from a nascent group with no studio experience, the group and their producer gaining confidence on each track as they try it again and again. Though there was limited overdubbing of guitar leads and lead vocals (and for “Surfin’ Safari,” a ragged stereo mix), the core of these takes are a quintet posed around microphones, hoping that no one screws up.
“Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl” were reborn at Capitol (the former with reworked lyrics, the latter shaking off the morose tone of this early version), but the rest of the material failed to make the jump. Dorinda Hite’s “Lavender” is sung in acapella harmony for the demos and augmented by bass and acoustic guitar on studio takes. Hite’s “Barbie” is a novelty tune redeemed largely by Brian’s tender lead vocal and the production’s stereo mix; its flip “What is a Young Girl Made Of” is a frantic 50s-styled R&B song that even Brian’s lead vocal can’t redeem. Brian Wilson’s “Judy” is a bouncy pop tune written for his then-girlfriend Judy Bowles; the master take shows how the group filled out bare demos with Carl’s guitar and Brian’s sincere, enthusiastic lead vocal. Carl’s “Beach Boy Stomp” is a basic instrumental that picks up steam as the group plays it a few times, paving the way to “Stoked,” “Surf Jam” and “Shut Down, Part II.”
This New Jersey-bred quartet started with the novel concept of remaking hits in their own vocal harmony style. Cover bands may typically be relegated to bars, but the Happenings talent for picking and reshaping well-known material led to four Top 10 hits, two of which – the Tempos’ “See You in September” in 1966 and the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm” in 1967 – each rose to #3. The group’s sound drew on both 1950s pop and doo-wop, and the falsetto topped harmonies fit with contemporaries like the Four Seasons, Vogues and Tokens. The group had many bonds with the latter group, having them as producers, recording for their B.T. Puppy Label, covering their material (“Tonight I Fell in Love”) and even releasing a split album.
Doris Day’s success as an actress in the 1960s has often eclipsed her earlier renown as a vocalist, but it was with the big bands of the 1940s that she first became a star. Though her films fell out of step with the social changes of the late 60s, she found renewed success on television, and it was amid this transition that she returned to the studio to record a set of standards, newly orchestrated by Sid Feller. Having just parted ways with her longtime label, Columbia, the independently produced album was shopped around without success, and shelved until the UK Vision label dug it out of the vault in 1994. A 2006 reissued added three bonus tracks recorded in 1970 for a 1971 television special, and it’s that fourteen-track lineup that’s reproduced here.
Disconcerting 2012 remaster of Sinatra’s 1963 stage songbook
As has been noted widely, Concord’s 2012 reissue of this Sinatra title has provoked strong reactions among the vocalist’s knowledgeable fans. Originally recorded and released in 1963, this remastered edition remixes and rebalances the multitrack masters, and sharpens the individual tracks to the point of distraction. It’s interesting to hear the elements rendered so crisply, especially Sinatra’s vocals, but the separation, particularly between the voice and instruments, is unsettling. A great recording has an instrumental pocket into which the vocal fits, hand-in-glove, and earlier editions of this title show the pocket exists; this mix pushes Sinatra’s vocal forward, to the point at which the overall result is not cohesive. At times Sinatra sounds as if he’s overdubbed on top of the music, rather than the key player within it.
The twenty tracks collected here pull together the original line-ups of 1962’s Sinatra-Basie: An Historical Musical First and 1964’s It Might as Well Be Swing. Both albums found Sinatra in superb voice, complete command of his material and leading Basie’s band from the singer’s seat. Unlike his early days as a big band boy singer, Sinatra doesn’t have to dodge and weave around the instrumentalists; Neil Hefti and Quincy Jones penned the arrangements in consultation with the vocalist, and the band hangs on his every word. Basie may have been the band leader, but once Sinatra opened his mouth, the instrumentalists took their cues from the Chairman.
By the early ‘60s, Sinatra was in the third phrase of his career – having transformed from big band singer to crooner to ring-a-ding-ding label owner. In his late ‘40s, the feeling of freedom in his singing was never stronger. He dances through the lyrics as if he was singing extemporaneously, expressing himself rather than the thoughts of a songwriter, and the arrangements push him to great heights. Basie’s band (and for the second album, orchestra) swung hard, ranging from jazzy piano, bass and percussion interludes to full-out horn charts. The sections play with a coherence that’s sublime, and the soloists are given space to weave their own magic, including especially fine moments from flautist Frank Wess.
Sinatra’s records at Capitol may have represented his greatest sustained period of artistic achievement, but his years on Reprise often consolidated and exploited what he’d learned. His sessions with Basie, particularly the first, were a master class in tone and phrasing. Basie’s greatest artistic growth had similarly occurred in earlier decades, but he retained nealy unparalleled talent for accompanying a singer – supporting the vocals as the primary mission, but finding room for the band to be heard. Hefti and Riddle’s contributions can’t be overstated, picking songs and writing charts that allowed Sinatra and Basie to infuse new life into these iconic selections. Sinatra deftly punches, pauses and slides through the lyrics of “(Love is) The Tender Trap,” and with a transformation from Bossa Nova to 4/4, “Fly Me to the Moon” was established as a Sinatra standard.
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