December 3, 2015

#6: A beautiful rhapsody of love and youth and spring

"The Song Is You" was written in the golden age of the American standard, the 1930s, by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. Sinatra rescued it from obscurity, recording it as a ballad in the '40s and again for the ebulliently-swinging 1958 album Come Dance With Me, arranged by the great Billy May:

That arrangement doesn't just swing; it swings with the ecstasy of love -- "of love and youth and spring." I don't think I had ever even heard of "The Song Is You" until 2005, when, in a fevered Sinatra-induced ecstasy of my own, I got my hands on Songs for Swingin' Lovers, Ring-a-Ding Ding!, and Come Dance With Me. The music was like the elixir of life, like main-lining happiness, like a new planet swimming into my ken, et cetera. That voice, that sound, created by those great arrangers and those incredibly skilled musicians, and those songs! In short, the music was sweet and the words were true.

Mark Steyn, in this must-read piece, explains the song's history and why it was such an important one for Sinatra. His early recordings of it ended with a high, falsetto F:

And then somewhere along the way he junked the falsetto exhibitionism, and in the definitive ballad treatments he recorded in 1946 and 1947 he brings the song gently down to earth on that final "you", soft and warm and intimate: The words are true. He seems to have intuited that the falsetto was about singing, whereas the revised ending was about the song - and the story. It would become his preferred style - If you're going to do big notes and vocal pyrotechnics, do 'em three-quarters of the way in, and then come in for a soft landing, as he does even on the swingiest swingers, like "I've Got You Under My Skin". Through his many treatments of "The Song Is You" in that first half-decade as a solo singer, you can hear Sinatra learning his art.
Oh, yes. Sinatra does that three-quarters thing over and over again in his best songs, with dazzling effect.

And Mark on the real Sinatra -- balladeer or swinger?
Which is the real Sinatra "Song Is You"? The tender, vulnerable, delicate Axel Stordahl arrangement? Or the ring-a-ding-dingin' Billy May? Answer: Both. Two sides of the same man - and the same song. And, in fact, those two arrangements define what a standard is: You can do it soft and legato, or brassy and jumpin'. There's no correct way, other than what the performer hears in it: in that sense, the song is you. But it's worth listening to those two takes side by side. Sometimes there's a definitive ballad treatment of a standard, and sometimes there's a definitive up-tempo treatment of a standard, and sometimes they're by the same guy: Frank Sinatra, a man who did more than anyone to establish the very concept of the standard song.
It would be fun to make a list of songs Frank sang, terrifically, both ways. A few that appear on my list: Night And Day, I'll Be Seeing You, Where Or When, I Concentrate On You, and the recently added Day In, Day Out. I usually prefer the up-tempo take and sometimes I can almost hear in my mind's ear a swinging version of a particular ballad, for example, the gorgeous "Prisoner Of Love." Seriously! Frank could have swung it!

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