STRANGERS IN THE STUDIOSINATRA FANS MIGHT WONDER-WHY DIDN'T HE DUET IN THE FLESH?

There is a 77-year-old man onstage dressed in a tuxedo. He wears a toupee and sings songs that were hits for him decades ago. He may forget a line or two, might miss a cue, his voice may be slightly ragged.

But he's still the best singer this country ever produced.
What can you say about Frank Sinatra? The man's no saint, but in terms of his art, that's not the point. Or maybe that's exactly the point. The booze, the women, brushes with the law, the rigors of 50-plus up and down years in show biz; he imbues each song he sings with the spirit of these things.

From his years as a whip-thin crooner in the early Forties to the after-hours Fifties swinger to the Rat Packed Vegas of the Sixties to his current status as the aging overlord of popular music, Sinatra has never failed to be Sinatra.

And he's not about to start letting anybody down. That, of course, is the draw when the magical name appears on a marquee. Let's face it, when you go to a Sinatra concert these days, you're there to see The Voice, not hear It.

One place you can hear It--albeit with a heavy sheen of studio polish--is on Duets, Sinatra's first Capitol Records release since 1961. The Capitol years are full of classic Frank imagery: the midnight sessions, his snap-brimmed fedora tilted back, tie loosened and coat draped on a stool, he'd sing with eyes closed in easy concentration. The 14 albums Sinatra recorded with arranger Nelson Riddle--beginning with 1954's Songs for Young Lovers--are perhaps the strongest of his career.

Unfortunately, Duets won't be on that list. Not that it's Frank's fault; the singer's readings (or rereadings, more accurately) of the 13 Sinatra staples are still strong. Though the youth is long gone from his voice, the man is a pro. It's the karaokelike feel of this album that renders cold even the most valiant artists' attempts at synergy.

And for this, whom, or what, do we blame? It's a tough call. For starters, none of the vocalists sang live and in person with Frank. Through the sad miracle of technology, Sinatra sang his parts, left the appropriate gaps, and then had the stars fill in where necessary. Not only were these sessions conducted in studios all over the world, some even came in over the phone, courtesy of fiber optics.

Phil Ramone produced the album, and is consequently a good boy to start whipping. With talent comes ego, and in dealing with names of the magnitude represented here--Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Bono and Aretha Franklin are a few--the producer must have had his hands full.

One can only assume it was easier for Ramone to take his paycheck, shut up and go home than to actually tell Bono how laughable his reading of "I've Got You Under My Skin" was. The MTV icon's attempts at sultry phrasing are right on a par with Alfalfa's emotive song stylings, and when he breaks into an absent-minded-sounding falsetto, it's pure comedy. Who does this guy think he is--Dinah Washington?

Julio Iglesias applies his quavering, Latin-lover approach to "Summer Wind," and not only does he manage to bring the cut to the level of outtake, the tanned Spaniard changes the entire gender relationship of the lyric--two amigos, and the summer wind" is substituted for "two sweethearts." One pictures Frank and Julio strolling hand in hand through the surf, warm breezes caressing their hair. Or something.

But the album has its good points.
The brilliant Aretha Franklin wails through "What Now My Love," and damned if she doesn't leave Frank in the dust. She is one of the few artists of the batch who has the talent to measure up; it would have been a real treat to hear the results of her and Frank driving each other on one microphone. In the same room. At the same time.

While Tony Bennett brings nothing new to "New York, New York," his ebullience is palpable; he sounds darned happy to be there. One of the best duets on Duets is an overlapping version of "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry/ In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" with Carly Simon. Her vocals are clean and lithe, a perfect balance to Frank, who sounds old, very tired, and is flat-out mesmerizing. This is 60 years of style taking the ravages of age and making them bow down and serve.

Streisand, no stranger to singular duet recording (remember "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" with Neil Diamond?), is slick as ever cooing "I've Got a Crush on You," and Anita Baker does a soulful job with the faux Frank on "Witchcraft."

Other than Bennett and Minnelli, none of the artists singing along with Frank is from his old gang of pals. Why not throw a bone to Steve and Edie, or Keely Smith or even daughter Nancy? People who have had experience harmonizing with the man in person. Since everything was prerecorded anyway, perhaps Ramone could have suggested some real envelope pushing: Frank "dueting" with Nat King Cole, or how about--himself? Hearing Franks young and old battling it out for swinging supremacy would have been a truly transcendent experience. Which brings us back to the major problem with this release.

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