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Reprise Records
3FS 2300

Original 1980 triple album liner notes


By David McClintick

To experience artistic greatness in oneself, as Frank Sinatra has for more than four decades, is to experience a monumental mixed blessing.  The unique gratification that great performers feel is accompanied, without exception, by a range of difficult pressures largely unknown to lesser artists.  Greatness makes great demands.  Virtuosity, almost by definition, is innovative, and to keep it from withering, an artist of Sinatra’s stature must constantly explore new artistic territory.  He struggles with aesthetic choices that rarely are posed to others.  He reveals and invests more of himself emotionally.  He takes bigger risks.  And such burdens are not lightened by the knowledge that they are unavoidable – that they must be borne if this genius is to be realized in triumphant performance.

Some people – perhaps Sinatra himself – would scoff at the application of lofty terms like “virtuosity” and “aesthetic choice” to a man who still calls himself a saloon singer.  Yet the lexicon of high art is entirely appropriate – indeed, it is essential – to a proper appraisal of the Sinatra phenomenon and its principal medium, American popular music.  The best of this music – from Kern and before to Sondheim and after – is as dynamic and integral a part of Western culture as are the songs of Schubert and Brahms.  As popular music is loved by multitudes, so also must it be taken seriously by students of the culture.  And, as Sinatra is pawed and cheered by mobs, so also must his significance be acknowledged: He is the most potent entertainer in the history of America, an authentic cultural institution, and an artist who knows the demands and frustrations of greatness – and the pleasures – on a level that transcends distinctions between the popular and classical arts.

In stating these truths, it is not my intention to solemnify unduly the artist or the art form.  Above all else, Sinatra’s music is a source of profound joy for both him and the rest of us.  For me, however, the joy always has been heightened by the knowledge that it is born of innovation, risk and struggle.

Sinatra chose early in his career not to imitate other singers, even though he had the voice and musicality to succeed simply by staying in the mold of the time.  Instead, he took the risk of developing a different style, nurtured by an exacting physical and mental discipline which he imposed upon himself.  By studying Dorsey and Heifetz, he learned that legato playing is crucial to proper phrasing in music of all types.  Since he didn’t even have the lung capacity to sing legato in the way that they played, he ran laps at a Hoboken gym, and swam under water at local pools, holding his breath and thinking song phrases as he swam.  The breath control he developed enabled him to phrase far more flexibly than other singers, and thus sing lyrics more dramatically.  Although the public often rejects innovators, it embraced Sinatra.  He brought about a fundamental change in the sound of popular singing in the Forties.  Rather than conforming to the mold, he had broken it.  Others tried to imitate him.

By the early Fifties, changes in music and public taste were confronting Sinatra with new choices and risks, culminating in a long period of frustration.  Gimmickry governed music.  Good songs, well sung, were out of style.  It was a time of “Mule Train” and “Open The Door, Richard.”  Unlike most singers, who performed pretty much what the record companies dictated, Sinatra rejected song after song that Columbia Records suggested to him and was embarrassed by several tunes he did record.  Columbia finally dropped him.  Appropriately enough, his final side was “Why Try To Change Me Now,” recorded in September, 1952.

A small record company called Capitol signed Sinatra without much enthusiasm in early 1953 at about the time he was hustling a small movie studio called Columbia Pictures into giving him a part in a film about Army life in Hawaii just before Pearl Harbor.  Both ventures were big risks.  If he failed at Capitol, his next stop would be the mystery label.  If he failed in the film, not even home movies would have him.  But somehow he knew.  He knew he hadn’t lost his talent or his taste.  Although his first efforts at Capitol were experimental and tentative, he made clear choices and set his course within the first year.  Sinatra and Nelson Riddle found each other, and Sinatra renewed his determination to stick with songs of quality, leaving the dogs, whether in the window or elsewhere, to others.  His singing voice was better than ever, richer and darker than in the Forties.  In part, the change reflected his age (38 in 1953), but it also showed that the years of frustration, combined with continual tumult in his personal life, hadn’t broken him.  On the contrary, he had deepened and matured.  The sensitivity of his acting in “From Here To Eternity” also was evident in his singing.  It was the sensitivity of an enormously talented man who had known protracted struggle and had emerged stronger than ever.  His ballads were more passionate and poignant.  One could hear it in “My One And Only Love,” recorded in May of 1953, and most spectacularly in Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Last Night When We Were Young,” recorded on March 1, 1954, three weeks and three days before he received the Academy Award for “From Here To Eternity.”

Important though the Oscar was in symbolic and commercial terms, it wasn’t the key to Sinatra’s artistic renaissance.  The roots extended much deeper than the glitter of that night at the Pantages Theater.  The award simply certified dramatically and publicly what those close to Sinatra had known for many months – that he had not suffered and balked in vain, and that the risks taken and the choices made a year earlier had enabled his greatness to mature and flower anew.  Nowhere was this more evident than in his renditions of “Last Night When We Were Young” and the other songs recorded for an album that was to be entitled “In The Wee Small Hours.”

The late Fifties brought a new challenge to Sinatra, a challenge he still faces at the dawn of the Eighties: How best to deal with the Age of Rock?  Having changed music himself in the Forties, Sinatra discerned more clearly than most the significance of Presley, the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan and others.  Their marks were indelible, as his had been and remained.  Insight notwithstanding, Sinatra found that the new marketplace posed a number of dilemmas.  He couldn’t ignore rock.  Neither could he embrace it.  He had to develop varying musical approaches and stay flexible as the new era unfolded.  Much of what he has done since the Fifties has been carefully planned, but he has also acted occasionally on instinct.  Some of the music he has performed has been tried and true, and some experimental.  In every musical enterprise, however, he has been guided by a continuing determination to innovate, to interpret elder songs in new ways, and to seek out the best of the new music and make it his own.

Make it his own.

That always has been the key, and always will be.  It is sometimes tough for a musician, and doubly difficult for a musical pioneer, to skirt material that, in one way or another, is ill-suited to him.  One cannot innovate and experiment without making mistakes, and Sinatra has made quite a few.  The world could have lived without his recordings of such Sixties hits as “Downtown,” “Winchester Cathedral,” “Moody River,” and “Don’t Sleep In The Subways.”  These songs did nothing for Sinatra; he did nothing for them.  On a much higher level of experimentation is the “Watertown” album, a suite of songs about a broken marriage in a small town.  Composers of song suites are the first to acknowledge that they are risky undertakings.  The songs must be judged not only individually but as part of the larger work.  Yet there is no spoken dialogue or other connective tissue to aid an inferior song or obscure it, as there is in a musical play.  While “Watertown” contained a number of imaginative lyrical and melodic passages, only a few of its songs were of high quality and some of the orchestration was heavy-handed and grounded in clichéd rock patterns.  Still, “Watertown” demonstrated again Sinatra’s willingness to take major risks that lesser artists would never attempt.

By and large, of course, Sinatra’s Sixties records were outstanding.  “September Of My Years,” “Sinatra And Strings,” the Basie records and others require no comment.  The recordings with Antonio Carlos Jobim showed a desire to try for something more enduring in the contemporary Brazilian mode than “Blame It On The Bossa Nova.”  Melding the talents of two giants sometimes doesn’t work well, but the Sinatra-Jobim albums are classics.  Jobim music became Sinatra music as naturally as “I Concentrate On You” became a Jobim song.

Occasionally a singer and a song don’t discover their common wavelength until they are in the recording studio together.  Don Costa’s original chart for Sinatra’s 1968 recording of “Cycles,” by Gayle Caldwell, was a robust rock orchestration involving a studio full of musicians.  But what had seemed right to both men in concept didn’t sound so good in the studio.  Costa and Sinatra, coached by daughter Nancy, experimented with fewer and fewer players until barely more than a guitar and piano remained.  The result was a gentle rendition with a contemporary beat that became a modest hit.

Sinatra’s decision to return from retirement, or his “vacation” as he now calls it, represented still another big risk.  He was nearly 58 years old.  His voice and finely tuned musicianship had deteriorated from lack of use.  Could he regain his skills?  Did the public at large really want him?  There was only one way to find out: Make a record and schedule a concert tour.  The record, “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back,” turned out to be distinguished, despite some inevitable vocal rasp.  Sinatra ignored the current crop of pop tunes and built the album around some lovely and unusual new songs by Joe Raposo.  He also sang “Send In The Clowns” as it had never been sung before.

One hoped that the “Blue Eyes” album would lead promptly to more albums of equal quality.  But it didn’t.  Instead, over the next two or three years, Sinatra’s performing diverged onto two curiously paradoxical paths.  His voice improved dramatically, thrilling concert audiences, and yet his recordings dwindled to a trickle.

By 1977 and 1978, he was singing better than he had sung since the Sixties and huge concert crowds around the world were greeting him with explosive enthusiasm.  His opening concert at Radio City Music Hall in October, 1978, was an evening of theatrical and musical magic.  But excitement over the extraordinary renewal of his performing powers only served to heighten disappointment at his lack of recording.  No one, of course, was more perplexed than Sinatra.  Twenty years into the rock era, he felt more intimidated than ever by the increasingly complex musical marketplace.  He was gripped by doubt about what to record and about the nature of the contemporary audience for his records.  He began and abandoned three albums, and recorded a few mediocre singles.  Mostly, though, he agonized and brooded.  It was another struggle that only superior artists endure.  A lesser man under similar circumstances would have had no dilemma; he would have recorded nothing.  But Sinatra was determined to move forward, to seek and find songs and musical concepts through which he could fulfill the still sizeable potential of his art.

Then, in the spring of 1979, Sonny Burke got an idea.  It was an excellent idea, and while the Sinatra inner circle was elated, no one was surprised that Sonny Burke had thought of something good.  After all, it was Burke’s steady hand and sensitivity that had guided the recording of more than a dozen Sinatra albums since the early Sixties – “September Of My Years,” “A Man And His Music,” the Jobim, Basie and Ellington records and others.  In addition to being an outstanding producer, Burke has exceptional conceptual versatility – a firm grasp of what is good and bad in the music of all periods, past and present.  Burke, like Sinatra himself, had been frustrated by Sinatra’s recording difficulties, and it seemed to Burke that Sinatra was selling himself short.  By focusing so intently on the current musical scene, Sinatra was ignoring the universality and timelessness of his appeal.  Comparing himself with the young artists of today, no matter how popular, was irrelevant.  Anyone who had been mesmerizing audiences for forty years should be measuring himself by only one standard – his own – and asking himself only one question: What haven’t I sung, old and new, that will enable me to continue to innovate and leave my unique mark?

It occurred to Burke that while Sinatra had recorded more than 1,200 songs, there remained many excellent ones, especially old tunes, that he hadn’t touched.  Burke understood Sinatra’s reluctance to record only old songs.  That would be as limiting as doing only new ones.  So why not do both?  Why not select songs of all periods whose appeal is as timeless as Sinatra’s, and assemble a collection with as much historical sweep as his career?  And since his career isn’t over, how about devising a way to focus musically on the future, as well as the past and present?  The music logically divided into three records, which Burke called “Trilogy.”  Sinatra felt the idea was the best he’d heard in many years, and the two men got down to the work of picking a team, choosing songs, and making recordings.

The “Trilogy” arrangers, of course, are preeminent, not only in the Sinatra world but in their own right as well.

Billy May first collaborated with Sinatra on the “Come Fly With Me” album in 1957 (Sinatra had tried to recruit him earlier) and has provided the instrumental context for many classic Sinatra performances such as “April In Paris” and several “Guys And Dolls” tunes.

The extraordinary amount that Don Costa knows about music, including how to play the guitar, he taught himself.  Costa learned to arrange for singers by listening to Axel Stordahl’s arrangements for Sinatra and copying them onto blank staff paper.  Sinatra began using Costa, however, not because he sounded like Stordahl but because he had developed an original touch and a special insight into the pairing of Sinatra with contemporary songs.  Beginning with “Sinatra And Strings” in 1961, the collaboration has included the “Cycles,” “My Way” and “A Man Alone” albums.

Gordon Jenkins’ accomplishments defy summary.  As an arranger, conductor and composer (for both pop singers and symphony orchestras), Jenkins has been a major figure in American music for decades.  Of his many charts for Sinatra, perhaps the most memorable are those for the “September Of My Years” album (e.g. “It Was A Very Good Year,” “September Song,” and two of Jenkins’ own compositions, “This Is All I Ask” and “How Old Am I.”

The most difficult phase of selecting the “Trilogy” songs was bowing to space limitations and deciding what to omit.  But fortunately the selection process prompted Sinatra to focus systematically on what he hasn’t recorded, and he has identified enough songs for several more albums.

Part One of “Trilogy,” arranged by Billy May, includes songs written generally before the rock era, which began in 1954 but wasn’t in full swing until the late Fifties.  Part Two, arranged by Don Costa, encompasses music composed from the beginning of the rock period to the present.  Part Three is an original musical suite about the future written for Sinatra by Gordon Jenkins in mid-1979.  Of the 20 songs in Part One and Two, 16 are being recorded by Sinatra for the first time and four are new versions of songs he has recorded in the past.

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