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20. “Birth of the Blues.” Here’s another song you’ve heard performed by many vocalists. But once again, no one does it quite like Sinatra. Although Sinatra, as swinger, didn’t really emerge until the Capitol years, this up-tempo, jazzy number presaged the “sound” which was soon to take hold of the nation. Much as the Columbia years featured the crooner over whom bobby-soxers swooned, this was a more mature Sinatra, who sounded like he’d been around the block—which, in fact, he had. In his mid-thirties, Sinatra was on the downswing as a popular vocalist, soon to leave Columbia in search of not only a label, but an audience. Sinatra was experiencing both personal and vocal difficulties around this time, but you would never have known it by listening to “Birth of the Blues.” In effect, Sinatra was telling the audience, a la Jolson, “stick around, you ain’t seen nothing yet.” From the blaring trumpets which herald its beginning, to the athletically uncanny vocal control, Sinatra holds this song in the palm of his hands, and gives it to us as a promise of the future on which he would fully deliver.

There is a much overused vocal technique known as melisma, which has legitimate roots in opera, but has increasingly become a staple of popular music. It involves extending the syllables of a word for what is meant to display vocal athleticism, enhance dramatic effect, or both. Think of, say, the Righteous Brothers performing “Unchained Melody,” or virtually every pop/rock/soul/country artist doing “The Star Spangled Banner” before a sporting event. Sinatra rarely resorted to this technique, or related vocal gimmicks, but puts melisma to good use in this number. Listen to the way he slides through the “They heard the breeze…” and later “and then they nursed it…” Sinatra was often quoted as giving credit to Tommy Dorsey’s use of the trombone as the source of his vocal technique. If there were any doubt that the voice can be used as a musical instrument, this song should dispel them. The arrangement by Heini Beau builds to a crescendo that is more Broadway show-stopper than jazz, and more jazz than blues. Dig it!

(19) “Angel Eyes(words by Earl Brent and music by Matt Dennis) is the third number from Only the Lonely, and is a wonderful example of the “saloon songs” Sinatra invariably included in his concerts. While there is a nice version done by Sinatra from his October, 1974 Madison Square Garden concert recorded as The Main Event, the version of (at least my) choice should be that from Only the Lonely. In this lament, Sinatra sings not to the bartender as in “One for My Baby” (see #22), but to his fellow drinkers assembled in the bar where he has come to drown his tears. This is far from the only song to invoke the angel/devil dichotomy (“Devil in Disguise” and “Jezebel” are but two which come to mind), but none as evocatively as here, when the singer speaks to his lost “Angel eyes that old devil sent, they grow uncomfortably near…” From the opening line, “Drink up all you people, order anything you see, have fun you happy people, the drink and the laughs on me,” Sinatra sets a self-deprecatory tone. The phrase, “the laugh’s on me” is an intentional double-entendre, as the singer is not only playing the hail fellow well met buying drinks and supplying laughs, but someone on whom a cruel joke has been played. As with its companion piece in the drowning of sorrows, both “Angel Eyes” and “One for My Baby” share the incomparably understated piano work of Bill Miller. The song is replete with lyrical phrases which speak to the sorrow of a lost love. Just as in “I’m a Fool to Want You,” the singer knows he hasn’t been loving wisely, but too well (“need I say, my time’s misspent, misspent with angel eyes tonight”). When, in 1971, Sinatra announced his retirement from show business (happily revoked in time to provide us with more that twenty years of his music), he chose to close his “final” performance with this song. The last line, “s’cuse me, while I disappear,” intoned as the spotlight faded in a cloud of cigarette smoke, was described by the late Tommy Thompson as “the single most stunning moment I have ever witnessed on a stage.”

(18) “Lonely Town,” is not part of Only the Lonely, although there is a song called “It’s a Lonely old Town,” which is. The lyrics to “Lonely Town” were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with music by Leonard Bernstein for the 1944 Broadway musical “On the Town.” The 1949 movie version (which, incidentally, co-starred Sinatra with Gene Kelly), unfortunately omitted this beautiful ballad. Sinatra corrected this error by including it on his wonderful 1957 concept album, Where Are You. The arrangement by Gordon Jenkins, is subdued, dark and, well, lonely. It begins with the slow violin strains of “Wonderful Town,” which is, of course, the up-tempo tune which opened the show, as three sailors, eyes-agog, contemplate the wonders of New York City. In “Lonely Town,” one of them realizes that, when love’s not around (those very words appear again in “Angel Eyes”), it doesn’t matter whether you’re on a small-town main street or Broadway. With lyrics by so accomplished a song-writing team, they are perfectly attuned to Sinatra’s slow, articulate delivery. It’s in a hauntingly slow tempo, and one of Sinatra’s lesser-known, but best, ballads. The song builds to a crescendo with the words, “unless there’s love.”

(17) “Send in the Clowns”-While I have always considered Stephen Sondheim to be among our greatest lyricists, I do not often find his musical compositions to be of equal quality. There are very few songwriters of the “standards” era who combined words and music on an equally high level. Obviously, Berlin, Porter and Loesser stand out. That said, “Send in the Clowns” is a superb marriage of words and music, and one of Sondheim’s most stunning achievements. While written for “A Little Night Music” (and for a woman), it seems to have been composed for Sinatra just as if were a tailor-made Kahn/Van Heusen collaboration. When you hear lines such as “making my entrance again with my usual flair, sure of my lines, no one is there,” it certainly seems so. That, of course, is part of Sinatra’s way with a lyric. He makes the songs his own.
17 Although Judy Collins was the singer whose rendition “charted,” and a beautiful version—with additional lyrics by Sondheim—was especially written for Barbra Streisand, I find Sinatra’s performance one of the standout songs of his “post-retirement” period and something that stands on its own.

Originally recorded in a Gordon Jenkins arrangement on the “Ol’ Blue-eyes is Back,” “comeback” album in 1973, Sinatra re-recorded the song in early 1976, this time, a Don Costa arrangement featuring Bill Miller on piano. While the first version is good, I believe the latter recording to be far superior. Talking of lines that seem custom-made, how about the phrase, “losing my timing this late in my career…”

(16) “Where or When”-Although this song is a perennial of the Sinatra live repertoire, he usually does it in a jazzy, up-tempo beat which I have always thought missed the point behind this beautiful Rogers & Hart song. No, this song was not originally recorded as part of Only the Lonely, but it would have fit. Indeed, was included on the CD version of Lonely as a bonus track, which would be yet another reason to purchase that special album. Recorded less than three months after work on that LP had been completed, it features a spare Nelson Riddle arrangement, and is done as a ballad. For most of the song, all you hear is Bill Miller’s understated piano. And then, rising like the swell of a wave, are the lush sound of violins accompanying the “and so it seems that we have met before…” closing sequence. Sinatra obviously loved this song, and, as mentioned before, performed it in a finger-snapping up-tempo manner, unnecessarily adding the word “once” before almost every use of the word “before.” This “addition” both detracts from the smoothness with which the lyrics meld with the music and distracts at least this listener. “Where or When” has been recorded by many people, but I think you will agree that this version not only stands above any of the others Sinatra has done, but is in a league of its own. By 1958, Sinatra’s voice had darkened just enough to take the sound of boyish innocence out of his sound, but without sacrificing any of his range, breath control, or power. This is Sinatra at his peak.

(15) “Moonlight in Vermont,” arranged by Billy May, with words and music by John Blackburn and Karl Suessdorf, was written almost exactly fifty years ago. Sometimes lyricists fall over themselves to have catchy rhymes of both consonants and vowels, so much so that you lose track of the words. What is special—and possibly—unique about this marvelous lyric, is that it contains not a single rhyme. Interesting that a song completely without rhyme would be among the most poetic songs Sinatra recorded. This version is from the 1957 standout album, Come Fly With Me (a kind of thematic travelogue), on which most of the songs are delightfully swinging.
“Moonlight,” of course, is a ballad, and sung in a minor key to a beautiful melody. It is a very romantic song, the words evocative of the kind of exhilaration reminiscent of a winter vacation taken (or one you wish you had taken) with someone you love. No popular vocalist is as good at eliding from one word to another as Sinatra was. Listen to the way he links the words “lovely” and “evening,” segueing effortlessly into the rest of the line without even (gasp!) taking a breath.

(14) “My Funny Valentine” - While on the topic of elision, this song contains what, in my view, in the most successful use of this technique. “Valentine,” written by Rogers & Hart, is an example of a gentle, playful love song which the artist transforms into a masterpiece. An early example of the legendary partnership between FS and arranger Nelson Riddle (1953), the song was part of the Songs for Young Lovers album, which was originally a 10-inch LP, and was later combined with “Swing Easy,” as a 12-incher. The song gently changes tempo from fox-trot to waltz, and Sinatra dances his way through it. In the first go-round, he sings “stay, little valentine, stay,” pauses, and sings “each day is Valentine’s Day.” When the tempo changes after a short instrumental, and it becomes time to repeat the cautionary, “Don’t change a hair for me, not if you care for me,” the final “stay” in the line “stay little valentine stay,” the “y” in “stay” is held as the singer elides (with neither pause nor breath) into the “e” sound and closes with “each day is Valentine’s Day.” Stunning. (No wonder I got married on Valentine’s Day, and no, you needn’t guess which song was played for our first dance.)

(13) “I’ve Got you Under my Skin,” delivered on the promise presaged by “Birth of the Blues” (see #20). With words and music from a 1936 song by Cole Porter, and a stunning new arrangement by Nelson Riddle, the song was re-born twenty years later, becoming one of the few permanent additions to Sinatra’s concert songbook. It is easy to forget—especially after having heard the song performed so many times—how incredibly original it was when recorded. It was taped at a four song session on January 12, 1956, three of which later appeared on the classic album, A Swinging Affair.
21  Regarded by at least two commentators as Sinatra’s “best” up-tempo song, “Skin” was a last-minute addition to the session, written to Sinatra’s exacting specifications, which required a long crescendo and, according to the arranger, forced Riddle to stay up late the night before in order to complete the chart.22 There is little doubt that it was worth it. Apparently, it resulted in a standing ovation by the sidemen.23 Speaking of sidemen, both Friedwald and O’Brien/Wilson extol the special contributions of former Stan Kenton trombonist, Milt Bernhart on the song. Given Sinatra’s assignment for an extended crescendo, the chart required extraordinary endurance (and multiple takes) by Bernhart. According to Friedwald, Riddle was inspired by the approach Ravel took in his “Bolero” and used it to compose a similarly mounting crescendo in “Skin.”24

When you listen to the song, pay special attention to instrumental break and the interplay between the trumpets and Bernhart’s trombone. When Sinatra’s voice kicks in on the release, he’s just another instrument doing its solo — but yes, quite an instrument. One thing of which the average listener may not aware is that the kind of sophisticated arrangements employed in charting standards seldom track the melody, certainly not note for note. Clearly, they have to work with the melody’s pitch, rhythm and beats per measure, but if you were able to tune out the vocals, you might not be able to detect the melody, let alone know what song it was written for. Good arrangers are doing something almost akin to writing a separate piece of music. As for “I’ve Got you Under my Skin,” the rest, as they say, is history.

(12) “The House I Live In” written by Lewis Allan (sometimes misspelled as “Allen”), and Earl Robinson in 1944, won Sinatra a special Academy Award for his role in a 1946 short film on tolerance, filmed by Albert Maltz. I remember seeing it while in elementary school, where it pictured the young FS taking a cigarette break from a recording session, only to find a group of young kids starting up with another youngster who happens to be of an unidentified “different religion.” (Episcopalian, perhaps?) Frankie breaks up the fight, gives them a short lecture on what would now be called “diversity,” and sings this magnificent song. While Sinatra frequently sang “House” in concert, and re-recorded it for his 1963 album, “A Man and His Music,” I am selecting his Columbia recording from August 22, 1945 (just weeks after V-J Day).
25 It features a beautiful arrangement by Axel Stordahl. Sinatra, while known throughout his career for speaking out for racial and religious tolerance was, in his young, pre-Nixon and Reagan years, a left-liberal. Interestingly, each of the three people associated with “The House I Live in,” were subsequently blacklisted for their political views and associations.26