November 24, 2015

#9: Swoon Easy!

J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie wrote "You Go To My Head" in 1938. Twenty-two years later, Sinatra and Riddle worked their magic on it for their one-of-a-kind album, Nice 'N' Easy:

That's some serious magic, no? What a gorgeous arrangement from Riddle. And what a performance from Sinatra.

The song's not bad either. This line --

Like a summer with a thousand Julys
-- is one of my all-time favorites from any song.

"You Go To My Head" is a potent intoxicant from beginning to end. Some highlights from Sinatra's masterful vocal:

The word "round" --
You go to my head
And you linger like a haunting refrain
And I find you spinning round in my brain
Like the bubbles in a glass of champagne
"the very mention of you" --
You go to my head
Like a sip of sparkling burgundy brew
And I find the very mention of you
Like the kicker in a julep or two
"makes my temperature rise" --
You go to my head
With a smile that makes my temperature rise
And then the climax:
Like a summer with a thousand Julys
You intoxicate my soul with your eyes

Am I right, ladies?

And the very last line, sung on a single low note -- it's a perfect ending.

"You Go To My Head" is not quite what you'd expect from the songwriting team that came up with "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."  I'm hoping to hear from Mark Steyn, who has in fact recorded the latter song, on this one.

(There's an earlier Axel Stordahl version. The melody sounds quite different. Did Riddle alter it when he wrote his arrangement?)

November 20, 2015

#10: Just one of those perfect things

Fanfare, please, as we get into my top ten favorite Sinatra songs.

Here are Frank and Nelson Riddle, swingin' easy with Cole Porter's "Just One Of Those Things," the first song from their first real album together. I can't think of any word but perfect to describe Riddle's arrangement and Sinatra's vocal, perfectly paired to each other and to the song:

Regrets, the guy may have a few, but they don't penetrate much below the skin; the style is too breezy and cool for someone with a broken heart.

But Mr. Porter has written a complex song, and it all depends on how you approach it, as Sinatra points out during a 1961 show at the Sands:

This is a song that you wouldn't consider a sad song . . . normally, I mean, because of the way you hear it done [. . .]. But when you hear it this way it really has a different connotation. 
And there's nothing breezy about what follows -- a softly sung, pensive vocal  accompanied only by Bill Miller's piano. (That's from the new multi-disc Vegas set which includes the 1961 live show. I haven't worked my way through all the discs yet but the '61 performance is primo. Tracks listed below.)

Frank goes in the opposite direction on Sinatra '57, tossing in a "mothery" and switching out a whole "yes, it was one of those things" for one long, low, growly "yeahhhhhhhh."

Here's another great take on the song from the movie Young at Heart. It falls somewhere between the sad, saloony Sands version and Riddle's easy-swingin' chart:

Coming soon is #9, which, unlike the previous four songs, will not be a Cole Porter tune.


Sinatra at the Sands, November 1961:

The One I Love Belongs To Somebody Else
Don't Cry Joe
Moonlight In Vermont
Without A Song
In The Still Of The Night
Here's That Rainy Day
The Moon Was Yellow
You Make Me Feel So Young
The Second Time Around
River, Stay 'Way From My Door (parody)
The Lady Is A Tramp
Just One Of Those Things
You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You
Young At Heart
On The Road To Mandalay

November 17, 2015

#11: Concentrated awesomeness

Fasten your seat-belts for this 1960 Riddle arrangement, souped-up at Sinatra's demand, of Cole Porter's glorious 1939 creation, "I Concentrate On You":

Mark Steyn has made this one easy for me:

This is Nelson Riddle less in his famous "tempo of the heartbeat" and closer to Billy May's hard swing. "Concentrate" is one concentrated blast, starting with Riddle's tip of the hat to André Previn, the main theme of whose goofy beatnik anthem of a couple of years earlier, "Like Young", provides the arrangement with a driving vamp, Sinatra takes his cue and gives a three-exclamation album a four-nay fire:

When fortune cries "Nay, nay, nay, nay" to me
And people declare that you're through...

The nays have it! Bad mood or not, Frank certainly responded to the band. Riddle, unusually, had written in some bongos - unusually for Sinatra, that is: he used bongos a lot when he wrote for Judy Garland. But the singer sure taps into them. It's a wild two-and-a-quarter minutes and Sinatra is seriously juiced by the time he returns for the outro :

And so when wise men say to me
That love's young dream never comes true
To prove... The wise men can be wrong
I Concentrate On You...

I infiltrate...


On you...

And back to that Previn vamp to close. His harmonic sense and his phrasing - the pause on that "wise men" line - are so surefooted it doesn't matter that you're never quite certain what he means by "I infiltrate".
Yes, "infiltrate" is baffling, but who cares. And YES, Frank's timing before and after "to prove"(coming in a shade early, then the perfect pause that follows) is an exceedingly satisfying musical moment.

This is the tenth Cole Porter song (so far!) to make my list. I'm going to have to quote Mark again to explain Porter's greatness. First, this analysis of the rhyme scheme, which warms my English-major heart:
Porter was a flamboyant and exhibitionist rhymester, but here he rhymes in a complex but very subtle way. They're rhymes across the quatrains: "grey to me" rhymes with "'Nay, nay' to me" 16 bars later, and then with "say to me" after the release. Likewise, "brew" rhymes with "through" rhymes with "true". And "strong" with "song" and "wrong". "Sunny Side Of The Street" does something similar - "Just direct your feet... Life can be so sweet... Gold dust at my feet..." - but on a far less ambitious scale and on a conventional tune of eight-bar rather than 16-bar sections. Porter's using rhyme here mainly to support the musical architecture and help with the forward momentum, but unlike, say, "You're The Top" you're not meant to notice them, or be aware of them. But it's awfully skillful writing.
Yes indeed. And then there's the emotional content:
Porter wrote more ardently than most of his contemporaries, and his best love songs are really about obsession: "This torment won't be through/Till you let me spend my life making love to you..." "I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near..." "So taunt me and hurt me/Deceive me, desert me..." Well, if you insist.

"I Concentrate On You" operates on the slightly less psychologically unhealthy fringes of that territory.
And, finally, Mr. Porter knew how to put words and music together for maximum effect:
You can only write at that heightened level of passion when the melody and harmony are good enough to support the sentiment. His always are.
Sinatra recorded "Concentrate" early on as a ballad with an Axel Stordalh arrangement. And in 1967 Frank and Antonio Jobim did an awesome bossa nova version. But for me there's no contest: the Riddle version is unbeatable. (More on Sinatra's truly excellent, not-to-be-missed work with Jobim here, here, and here.)

(This is our fourth pick from SSS!!!, a must-have for every Sinatra fan.)

#12: Delight in domesticity

Intense delight, that is. From 1957's A Swingin' Affair, "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," an underrated jewel from the Sinatra/Riddle/Porter songbook:

This is one gorgeous piece of writing:

You'd be so nice to come home to 
You'd be so nice by the fire 
While the breeze on high sang a lullaby 
You'd be all that I could desire

Under stars chilled by the winter 
Under an August moon burning above 
You'd be so nice, you'd be paradise 
To come home to and love
What woman doesn't want to hear that she's "all that I could desire"? And Frank, as usual, is very convincing.

I get a strong visual image from Porter's lyrics, kind of a Chagall-esque view from "on high" of a swirly, deep-blue, star-filled sky, a little house beneath it, and then, somehow looking right through the roof, a couple inside snuggled in front of the fire.

The arrangement is classic Riddle, building in intensity as the song progresses, with the same wonderful intensification from Sinatra.

But he came close to sabotaging it. Listen closely to the very end of the song. You'll probably have to turn up the volume. If Frank had added his little comment at regular volume he would have broken the spell. I'm so glad he didn't.

Stay tuned for more Cole Porter.

November 15, 2015

#13: Sinatra noir

Tired of Cole Porter yet? I hope not, because there's a lot more CP to come. Here's my eighth Porter-Sinatra favorite:

Mr. Porter wrote "What Is This Thing Called Love?" in 1929. Twenty-six years later Sinatra and Riddle made the above masterpiece, early in their partnership. I have to quote Mark Steyn's piece on the song, which he featured as #10 on his Sinatra 100 list:

By contrast with the music, the words are simple, at least by Porter's standards - no flashy rhymes, no wordplay, no allusions or imagery. On the page they can look rather trite - one wonderful day you threw my heart away:

That's why I ask the Lord in Heaven above
What Is This Thing Called Love?

But Porter knew what he was doing: The words are simple, but the music tells you that the answer to the question is complex and profound and ultimately unknowable. Its the combination of unaffected directness in the lyric and great depth in the music that gives the song its power.
Powerful and beautiful. Read all of Mark's essay.