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  •   Frank Sinatra, on the Record

      Frank Sinatra
    By Richard Harrington
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Sunday, May 17, 1998; Page G1

    Francis Albert Sinatra was the Padrone of Popular Song, the Sultan of Swoon, the Chairman of the Board, Ol' Blue Eyes.

    In the end, as in the beginning, Sinatra, who died last week at 82, was simply the Voice – heard, loved, appreciated, much imitated but never surpassed.

    Sinatra's recorded legacy spans almost 60 years and includes hundreds of recordings. Few careers have been so well documented, an appropriate reward since Sinatra was one of the first popular singers to fashion a distinctive and original recording-studio persona. Singers in the post-Bing Crosby era began to manipulate the microphone for detail and nuance; few would ever do it better than Sinatra. Certainly none did it more consistently.

    Sinatra had no formal training, but he had formidable instincts, which led him to adopt elements of the Italian bel canto school – mainly those long flowing lines, the seamless legato that he also heard in Tommy Dorsey's trombone and Jascha Heifetz's violin. Sinatra's natural, conversational manner, his masterful phrasing, his evocation of uncluttered emotions, all of it got under our skin. The voice changed, sliding, as Sammy Cahn once wrote, "from violin to viola to cello," and in later years Sinatra turned his weaknesses into assets: The voice – darker, thicker, tougher – serviced the songs in a new manner. It made no difference, because fans always heard him with the innocence of yesterday's ears.

    Sinatra didn't write songs, it just seemed that he did, so personal and definitive were his interpretations. As biographer John Lahr noted, Sinatra "presented the song like a landscape he'd restored, painting himself into the picture so masterfully that it was impossible to imagine it without him." He was able to attach himself to the heart of lyrics by an astounding array of writers – particularly the giants of American popular song, whose work he continued to champion throughout his career. In the process, he became the standard-bearer for generations of popular singers who sought to keep that particular flame alive.

    There are four basic periods to Sinatra's recording history: his big band stint with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra from 1940 to 1942; the Columbia pop years from 1943 to 1952; the hipster/swinger era with Capitol from 1953 to 1959; and the Reprise era, when Sinatra ran his own label. Almost all of his recordings are available on CD, either as individual albums or in various collections, some thematic, some simply label retrospectives.

    The Victor Years
    After a brief stint with Harry James, Sinatra began his recording career with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, graduating from the anonymity of "vocal chorus" (where he was lumped with Connie Haines and the Pied Pipers) to the "featured vocalist" slot that sowed the seeds of "Swoonatra"-mania, during which Sinatra became one of the first singers to earn the adulation of a largely female audience.

    As the five-CD, 120-track box set "The Song Is You" (BMG) demonstrates, it was during this apprenticeship that Sinatra's style began to blossom, though the material is deeper on historical charm than achievement. These are essentially Dorsey dates, but even the youthful Sinatra seemed to be at the service of the songs, particularly on smooth, earnest ballads. Inspired by Dorsey's long, relaxed trombone solos, Sinatra developed his legato phrasing, elegant articulation and impeccable pitch without compromising the sense of intimacy and vulnerability that made him one of pop music's first teen idols. This collection consists mostly of swing dance tunes and romantic ballads, the standard pop fare of the late '30s and early '40s, and includes 26 rare but hardly memorable winners of amateur songwriting contests that Sinatra sang on Dorsey's "Fame and Fortune" radio show.

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from "I'll Never Smile Again," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8164.)

    The Columbia Years
    In late 1942, Sinatra left Dorsey to embark on a solo career that was initially derailed by the notorious musicians union strike from 1942 to 1944, during which no instrumental backing was allowed on recordings. The irony was that at the very moment of his potential commercial breakthrough, Sinatra was reduced to working with "vocal orchestras."

    "The Columbia Years – 1943-1952: The Complete Recordings," a 12-CD, 285-song box set (also available as "The Best of the Columbia Years," a four-CD distillation of the larger set), includes Sinatra's first hits, "You'll Never Know" and "I Dream of You," cushioned by the Bobby Tucker Singers. Once the strike ended, Sinatra was able to work with conductor Axel Stordahl, the first of his key collaborators. Stordhal's string-drenched arrangements and orchestration were particularly empathetic to Sinatra's voice and the slow-to-medium-tempo repertoire he favored.

    These recordings were made before the advent of the LP format, so they offer no particular thematic unity. The readings are straightforward and respectful; he is as much at the songs' service as they are at his. While the inimitable phrasing is in place, Sinatra hasn't yet figured out how to transcend a lyric and make a song his own.

    With almost 300 tracks, there are numerous classics – "I'll Never Smile Again," "Time After Time," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "September Song," "Laura," "What'll I Do," "Body and Soul," "All of Me," as well as socially progressive tunes like "Lost in the Stars" and "The House I Live In" – but relatively few classic performances and some unfortunate novelties.

    There's not much here that swings, but there's just enough material to spin off a period "Duets" compilation with Jane Russell, Rosemary Clooney, Doris Day and Dinah Shore. Over the course of the Columbia collection, you can hear the changes in Sinatra's voice, from the sweet, almost fragile baritone of the early '40s to the deeper, darker hues of the '50s. The larger set includes a 144-page hardbound book with excellent essays on the style and substance of Sinatra's work.

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from "All the Things You Are," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8165.)

    The Capitol Years
    At the start of his Columbia tenure, Sinatra was the most popular singer in America, but by 1947 his career was in decline, even as the star himself was exhausted, overexposed and stretched thin by his film, record and concert commitments and dedication to the high life. In December 1952, Columbia dropped Sinatra, and for two years no one was interested in signing him to a recording contract.

    Two years later, Capitol took a chance on a faded star, and Sinatra reinvented himself as a hip swinger, a winner. The 22 records Sinatra recorded for Capitol before ending his stormy relationship with the label in 1959 are considered among the best of his long and distinguished career.

    The Capitol years are rightly acclaimed for unveiling a mature stylist blessed with choice material and nimble arranger-producers like Nelson Riddle (Sinatra's best collaborator), Billy May and Gordon Jenkins. It was here that Sinatra honed his supple, uncannily personal phrasing and became the sovereign interpreter of more than one love song. He breathed his ballads and learned how to swing an orchestra. The Capitol albums were usually divided between languid ballads and finger-snapping up-tempo numbers, reflecting Sinatra's dominant but dueling personalities: the rakish, tipped-hat, loosened-tie swinger and the vulnerable loser sinking into solitude on a bar stool.

    The Capitol era also coincided with the flowering of the LP format, and Riddle and Sinatra began to conceive albums as unified works with a specific motif. The hazy, melancholy ballad collection "In the Wee Small Hours" from 1955 is often defined as the first concept album, though two 10-inch albums from the previous years, "Songs for Young Lovers" and "Swing Easy," are virtual blueprints for the mood symphonies of the future.

    There is a three-CD package, "The Capitol Years," and a four-CD set, "The Complete Capitol Singles Collection," that offer solid overviews of this era, but most fans likely prefer the individual albums, all of which are available on CD. On the lively side, the best include "Songs for Swingin' Lovers," "Swing Easy" and "A Swingin' Affair," the exuberant "Come Fly With Me" and the melancholy "No One Cares," "Where Are You" and "Close to You."

    Sinatra often described himself as a saloon singer, and "Only the Lonely," with its classic cover of him in clown makeup, is probably the most essential of his recordings. It's loaded with exquisite torch songs like "Willow Weep for Me," "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" and "Angel Eyes," as well as the quintessential Sinatra performance of that Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer chestnut, "One for My Baby." It's languid, quarter-to-three, over-the-bar confession as tragic as any festival of Greek plays.

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from "One for My Baby," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8166.)

    The Reprise Years
    By 1961, Sinatra realized that the only label worth dealing with was one he owned, so he co-founded Reprise Records. For the first time in his career, Sinatra was in charge of himself in the studio, and the resulting music is confident and assured. One of his first releases was "I Remember Tommy," a Sy Oliver-arranged tribute to his mentor, with Sinatra's Dorsey-like rendering of "Getting Sentimental Over You" a particularly masterful homage.

    Some of Sinatra's greatest triumphs came at a time when rock was supplanting pop. While his compatriots fell to the side, Sinatra maintained both his audience and his convictions: From early 1958 to 1966, he didn't have any Top 10 singles but managed to produce 27 Top 10 albums. Still, the Reprise era is marked by unevenness, particularly in the '70s and '80s, when Sinatra was burdened with voice problems and sometimes poor material.

    "The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings," a 20-CD box set, was released several years ago. A more manageable overview is available in the four-CD "Reprise Collection" released in honor of Sinatra's 75th birthday. There's also a single best-of from this period, "Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years." Among the outstanding offerings from the label: the Count Basie-fueled "It Might as Well Be Swing" (with spectacular Quincy Jones arrangements) and the two prime encounters with jazz legends Basie and Duke Ellington, "Sinatra/Basie" and "Francis A. Sinatra and Edward K. Ellington"; another fabled cross-cultural encounter, "Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim"; and "The Concert Sinatra" (with its emphasis on Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes).

    Sinatra started looking back pretty early, and sentimental songs of time and place are the highlights of the lush "September of My Years" (reminiscing at 50); 1973's coming-out-of-retirement statement, "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back"; and the two-album retrospective "A Man and His Music."

    And in the end, that's what it was all about: a man and his music.

    (To hear a free Sound Bite from "Night and Day," call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8167.)

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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