Frank Sinatra CD re-issues: The Capitol Years

Music Features
Frank Sinatra CD re-issues: The Capitol Years
Jan 8, 2002, 02:47

original illustration by Jim Blanchard ©

Tone Poems of Color Close to You and More Where Are You? No One Cares Nice 'N' Easy Come Swing with Me Point Of No Return

Putting your finger on exactly what it is that makes the music of Frank Sinatra so timelessly appealing is like trying to convey the sensation of a cool breeze on a hot day; to feel it but once is to become a believer. The greatness of other, immortal singers—be it Billie Holiday, Carlos Gardel, Edith Piaf, or Oum Kalsoum—lies in a varied combination of their natural voice (tone), ability to “sell” a song (emotional conveyance), and their method of serving the material (delivery; phrasing). In short, the best singers make it a rule to liveinside the song, relating to it and voicing it in their own, distinctive way – and making for some wonderful results.

But the rules have never applied to Francis Albert Sinatra—either in front of the microphone or away from it. On record, instead of being swept up by the songs he sings, he makes the songs do the bidding for him—just as he did to the people around him when he was alive. That he does this with such an apparent lack of effort—indeed, Sinatra seems to breathe the songs here, rather than sing them—is his crowning glory. Equal parts bravado and vulnerability, intimate warmth and cold distance, six of these final seven reissues from his peak, mid-50s / early-60s Capitol years (eight more titles are also available individually or, along with these, as a fifteen-disc set; bonus cuts on nearly all) are a stunning reminder of this.

The odd one out – number seven, if you will—is 1956's Tone Poems of Color. Long held as a high-ticket item among collectors, it's also known as the only Sinatra album on which he doesn't sing. Inspired by the pigment-themed verses of  Norman Sickel (script writer for various Sinatra radio shows), Ol' Blue Eyes

commissioned eight of the era's biggest composer/arrangers (including his frequent collaborators Gordon Jenkins, Nelson Riddle, and Billy May, along with unheralded geniuses Alec Wilder and Elmer Bernstein, and youthful upstart Andre Previn) to score the project; in the studio, Frank merely conducted the 60-piece orchestra. Not at all bad, but as a heavily arranged, soundtracky album, there are much better examples of the genre. Give him credit for stepping out of his ego to foster such an undertaking, but this is mainly of interest to completists.

The following year, however, saw the release of two of Sinatra's most beautiful, ballad-oriented albums: Close to You and More and Where Are You? One of his most gentle, intimate records, Close to You features a string quartet, conducted by Nelson Riddle. Precious, early-morning stuff, with three extra cuts, including the bemusing, Jimmy Van Heusen-penned  “There's A Flaw in My Flue.”

But, as an illustration of the effortless style of the master, look no further than Where Are You? Here, Sinatra's voice floats in the air, lingering over a massive, but somehow unintrusive orchestra—brilliantly conducted by Gordon Jenkins. The four additional tracks are Riddle arrangements from 1953. For 1959's No One Cares, Jenkins took the non-encroachment concept to new extremes. On this seamless collection of torch-songs, the band is barely there—just enough to give the faintest outlines of  background. And oh how it works. Standards like “Stormy Weather,” “A Cottage For Sale,” or “I  Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance With You”  have rarely sounded so overwhelmingly melancholic. A record of nothing but somber laments of love gone wrong, this is the one to keep in the doghouse. Or the liquor cabinet. Four bonus cuts here, too.

Nice 'N' Easy (1960) has, along with In The Wee Small Hours, and A Swingin' Affair, long been a favorite around here. Marked by the return of Nelson Riddle, it's also a jump back to the swinging fare of Sinatra's earlier work for the label, albeit with a more relaxed, mid-tempo gait. Wonderful readings of  “That Old Feeling,” “I've Got A Crush on You,” and “She's Funny That Way”—not to mention four tunes not on the original LP. Put this one on to start your day and you'll never touch the ground.

The return to his big band roots continued with 1961's aptly-titled Come Swing with Me, though this time trumpeter Billy May held the baton and wrote most of the charts (five of the twelve arrangements are by Heinie Beau). Comparable to the best of his upbeat, early Capitol albums (1954's Sinatra's Swingin' Session!!!, in particular), the title here tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but. Gone are the Hollywood strings, back is the style he knew so well from his formative years

with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, and he sure sounds happy to be back home. Here, friends, are “That Old Black Magic,” “Sentimental Journey,” “On The Sunny Side of The Street,” “American Beauty Rose” –uncut, whole-grain jubilation! This disc boasts five bonus tunes, the standout being a version of the Jack Teagarden hit (written by the great team of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler), “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues.”

Also fittingly titled is Point Of No Return ('61), Frank Sinatra's last album for Capitol Records. Again, we go back, back to the Hoboken Kid's first few years as a solo artist; this record saw the return of his conductor/arranger from the blossoming, 1940s Columbia epoch—the legendary Axel Stordahl. It's also a return to subtlety, with magic interpretations of “As Time Goes By,” “I'll Be Seeing You,”

“These Foolish Things”—c'mon, who else do you wanna hear sing these songs? (though for this sorta feel, I'd go with either Where Are You? or No One Cares.) After this record, it was on to Reprise – and a period occasionally marked by some fine work, but not nearly as consistent as his years with Capitol.

Listening to these impeccably annotated concept albums, you'll be readily drawn to the classic, torch-song image of wistful eddies of smoke, curling up from a bar top ashtray. And when The Voice is workin' one of these tunes, that image is boiled down to its essential core; only those gracefully whirling, blue wisps remain. You just put your lips together… and blow.

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