Break out the Chivas. Dim the lights. Switch on the CD player. The blue-eyed king of heartbreak is back, Jack. Frank's just turned 75, which is as good a reason as any to get all hot and bothered over his legacy. Both Capitol and Warner Bros./Reprise Records have simultaneously cracked open their vaults for salutes to the Lord of Libido. Together, they've scooped up 156 songs for separate multi-album retrospectives. Frank Sinatra: The Capitol Years checks out his work with the label from 1953 to 1962. Frank Sinatra: The Reprise Collection starts in 1960 and doesn't stop until it's captured 24 years of the singer crooning with the record company he helped found. Combine the two box sets and you get nearly eight hours of the sensual king of saloon singers, enough to tempt the most disciplined recovering alcoholic or celibate into a binge.
Still, are either of the retrospectives worth the hefty price tag? Or are the L.A. record moguls haphazardly slapping together a Dagwood sandwich merely to keep up those BMW payments? Put it this way: Even the most recklessly jumbled reissue couldn't help but include a fistful of Sinatra's best stuff--his classic ballads.
The best place to start rediscovering Sinatra's powers of seduction is the fifth song on The Capitol Years. It's a moment of astonishment: The young heartthrob transcends dated musical reminders of the Eisenhower era to deliver a terminally romantic rendition of the movie theme "From Here to Eternity." Sinatra's overpowering sensitivity here makes the first four cuts on the set sound completely clownish. "Eternity" reveals a full-grown Don Juan lurking beneath those stylish baggy suits.
But when waves of fawning female fans responded, Sinatra didn't let it go to his head--at least on record. Many of the Capitol offerings--"Someone to Watch Over Me" and "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" to name two--present a lover doomed to live alone. These early duets between a plaintive voice and dark arrangements bring on a despondency that pricks listeners into recalling their most painful rejection. "Here's That Rainy Day" and "One for My Baby" further confirm the young Sinatra's ability to bare his lonesome soul, balancing his fragile interpretations on the sparsest of arrangements.
Even though the majority of the heart-tugging tunes are supplied by giant composers like Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, and George Gershwin, the singer remained unthreatened by the heavyweight challenge. Several dozen of the Capitol ballads from the Fifties point out an important paradox in the singer's success: With unshakable confidence, the skinny young man behind the microphone was able to convey the most anguished vulnerability over broken relationships or unattainable women. In "When No One Cares" and "I'll Never Smile Again," the singer sounds like he's about to die of emotional malnutrition. But Sinatra uncannily avoids self-pity in his tales of rotten luck with the ladies. He makes us want to give him a hug and say, "Hell, Frank, you can do better than her." And while the singer was recording for Capitol, he had hundreds of women outside his dressing rooms begging to convince him of the same.
By the time Sinatra got to Reprise, though, he'd reworked his outlook. While the maturing balladeer of this period remains devoted to his worship of women, he sounds resigned to involuntary bachelorhood. Sinatra sings "What'll I Do" in his usual tender, pleading manner, but the voice is beginning to grow world-weary--and not unpleasantly so. "September Song," "It Was a Very Good Year," and "This Is All I Ask"--all culled from the 1965 album September of My Years, are painfully accurate portrayals of midlife loneliness.
But the Reprise collection also indicates that Sinatra the artist was entering middle age with decidedly bold intentions. The well-conceived arranging talents of Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins are a carry-over from his days at Capitol, but the singer also begins to show a greater interest in variety. Count Basie and band back Sinatra on seven cuts from three separate albums featuring the jazz pianist. Their sultry rendition of "Fly Me to the Moon" gets its arrangements courtesy of another new face in Sinatra's studio Rat Pack, Quincy Jones. "Indian Summer" soars almost as high by coupling America's greatest male balladeer with the country's quintessential jazz group, Duke Ellington's orchestra.
Sinatra's moody tryst with the big boys of jazz was only one of the ways the aging singer added new colors to his romantic palette. From his start with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, he'd been associated with a big-band sound. His mid-Sixties pairings with Basie and Ellington were different, but still associated him with an audience roughly his age. Even so, other Reprise selections clearly show a man in midlife beginning to rejuvenate himself with younger partners, all with established followings of their own.
Reprise reissues five collaborations between Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, the superb young Brazilian composer and a father of the bossa nova movement that had recently engulfed the states. "Once I Loved" and "How Insensitive" show off Sinatra's ability to make his lost-love believability adapt to an imported musical environment and a younger style. Every hack warbler his age eventually paid trendy respects to Brazil's most important musical figure since Villa-Lobos. But only Sinatra courted authenticity by working with Jobim himself, even using the composer as a musician on the sessions.
Riskier still was Frank's pairing off with pop poet Rod McKuen. The red-headed stepchild of the literary world was also king composer of the I'm-all-by-myself-and-it's-snowing song. But on "A Man Alone," Sinatra again displays his knack for straining the mush out of material that sounds whiny coming from lesser artists--including McKuen himself.
But Sinatra got even more far out by recording the Beatles' "Something." In The Reprise Collection's version, rerecorded after a decade, his improved reading is sensitive, yet hardly stellar. But the singer's decision to cover this don't-want-to-leave-her-now ballad became a major step in validating a previously suspect generation. Older Sinatra fans, having pulled a Shriner's fez down over their eyes to hide from the Sixties, had no choice but to tip their hats to such a pretty song, even if it did come from a bunch of drug-crazed hippies.
It'll probably be the younger listeners of the two compilations, however, who find flaws in the sets' song selection most painful.
Such Capitol cuts as 1953's "Lean Baby" and 1958's "Hey! Jealous Lover" are two of many lame finger-snappers whose adolescent lyrics and oh-so-hip arrangements are more suited for Dobie Gillis than the king of singers. Unavoidably, many of the Capitol recollections sound dated--usually because Sinatra's singing is buried beneath bombastic uptempo horn sections. But memories like the novelty "South of the Border" aren't worth recalling. Such nonsense brings gratitude for the invention of the fast-forward button.
The Reprise Collection isn't without its share of earmuff material either. The macho streak in Sinatra, evident from the first cuts in the Capitol box, bares its sneer again in the quirky ode to sex, "I Love My Wife". Even the 1966 hit "That's Life" now sounds like a drunken Elks club soliloquy. The boring, previously unreleased "America the Beautiful" and "California" color Sinatra as Ol' Red, White and Blue Eyes, just in case we wondered. 1979's "My Shining Hour," meanwhile, reaffirms his penchant for the musically archaic, with its horrendous Sixties go-go-girl chorus providing vocal support. No less irritating is his use of slang that has come to personify the doltish Vegas entertainer. A live version of "The Lady Is a Tramp" turns into a veritable encyclopedia of cuckoo, groovy, knocked-out Sinatra bastardizations.
In the end, Sinatra's Capitol trip-ups stem from corny arrangements and a strained cockiness. The crooner from Reprise Records retains more dignity in his stumbling, mostly baring the inevitable failures that accompany experimentation.
Why such unpalatable material is chosen from so prolific a career remains a mystery. Were they chart successes? Personal favorites of Sinatra? Liner notes in the Capitol box set offer no clue. At least the booklet in the Reprise collection chalks up the choices to their commercial and artistic value, the latter arguable in some cases.
Still, the reissuing of Sinatra's growing pains can't take away either collection's value. Each set is a lengthy testimony to his incomparable balladry. Capitol's box, with its emphasis on Nelson Riddle arrangements, is a conservative success. The Reprise set dishes out a more colorful spectrum of love-song selections. Investing in these old and new testaments is the best way in years to worship Frank Sinatra.
With unshakable confidence, the skinny young man behind the microphone was able to convey the most anguished vulnerability.
A live version of "The Lady Is a Tramp" turns into a veritable encyclopedia of cuckoo, groovy, knocked-out Sinatra bastardizations.