Tuesday, June 4, 2013


As long as there are musicians worth listening to, good music will survive. I used to worry about the verity of this statement, but time and performance have allayed my fears. Every year more singers tackle the "Great American  Songbook," that rather amorphous group of songs written during the first fifty years of the twentieth century by such luminaries as the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, and many other greats. Whether it be Linda Ronstadt, Streisand, Willie Nelson, or even Rod Stewart, the great stuff is fair game and sometimes foul.

Singers have forged lively careers on the "Songbook," often in the styles of the masters, particularly Frank Sinatra. The talented Michael Buble has charm, good pipes, and style, while Harry Connick, Jr. has done even more for the genre with his big band swing versions of favorites like "It Had to Be You" and "I Could Write a Book," revived in the hit film WHEN HARRY MET SALLY. Movie soundtracks like SLEEPLESS IN  SEATTLE depend on the golden years for thematic links.
And then, of course, there is still the survivor and one of the best Tony Bennett, who like Sinatra, was the first to immortalize some of the "Songbook" classics.

Frank Sinatra's career began in the late 1930's when the big band era was going full swing. Every band had a vocalist, but no band could hold on to Sinatra for long. He left Harry James for Tommy Dorsey, and in 1942 broke away from Dorsey to forge a solo career. There were great songs for Colombia Records, a swing at movie musicals mostly with MGM, and finally a falling off of his record hits. By the early 1950's, Sinatra's film and singing careers were sinking fast. He made an amazing comeback and won a Best Supporting Oscar for 1953's FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, and he never looked back. Though his film career is spotty, his recording career is one of the most consistently creative and satisfying in music history.

Sinatra's years with Capitol Records began in 1953 and ran for 9 years. He worked with great arrangers like Billy May for upbeat albums ("Come Fly With Me") and Gordon Jenkins for more serious and romantic fare, but it was his collaboration with Nelson Riddle that produced his finest work. Most music critics have agreed with Sinatra that Riddle was popular music's most talented arranger. His 5 album masterpiece "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Ira and George Gershwin Songbook", a veritable feast for fans of the Gershwins, Ella, and Riddle.

I treasure five Sinatra albums above all others, and Riddle arranged three of them.* "In the Wee Small Hours" (1955) is an intimate exploration of heartbreak, especially male heartbreak. Songs like "When Your Lover Has Gone" and "Last Night When We Were Young" demonstrate a depth of feeling and interpretation as well as a deeper baritone voice than Sinatra had ever voiced before. It's also one of the first concept albums, a idea that focused on a prominent theme unifying standards and a few new songs.

The two musicians followed "Wee Hours" with the triumphant "Songs for Swingin' Lovers,"(1956) a sprightly run of upbeat songs with driving tempos and lots of brass and sax. The standout here was the remarkable Cole Porter classic "I've Got You Under My Skin," with sneaky drug references, sexual innuendo, and love for fun all sounding semi-innocent in the inimitable Sinatra/Riddle style. "Old Devil Moon" and "Makin' Whoopee" come close. If you want to get happy, this is the place to go.

But, if you occasionally need to long for lost loves and youth, then the ultimate Riddle/Sinatra collaboration is "Only the Lonely" (1958), an album that shocked many of his fans with its intensity and sadness, not to mention some of the most beautiful melancholy arrangements ever recorded. All the songs are resplendent with Riddle's mournful trombone choir and restrained strings. My particular favorite is "Willow Weep for Me," sung with depth yet restraint.

   Whisper to the wind and say that love has sinned
   Left my heart a-breaking, and making a moan
   Murmur to the night to hide its starry light
   So none will see me sighing and crying alone

   Weeping willow tree, weep in sympathy
   Bend your branches down along the ground and cover me
   When the shadows fall, hear me willow and weep for me

The listener can almost see and feel the long graceful willow branches embracing the singer. This is not just pop music. It's art.

*The other two classic Sinatra albums are 'Where Are You" (1957, Gordon Jenkins, arr.) and "The September of My Years (1965, Jenkins, arr. Grammys for album, song, singer).

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