June 27, 2015

#50: A man and his music and his imaginary dice

Fanfare, please. I've made it all the way to #50. "Luck Be A Lady" was written by Frank Loesser and arranged by Billy May.

If you don't own the Man and His Music videos, you're missing some primo Sinatra performances. After ten years and many viewings, I'm still in love with this one, from the way Frank mugs it up to the dice blowing-and-throwing to the dancing around between choruses. And, oh yeah, the singing. Frank and the band combine for a tour de force:



Ain't that perfection? The song wasn't written for Sinatra but he surely owns it now.

That's from A Man and His Music Part II from 1966.

Purely by coincidence, this song is also Bob Belvedere's #50. I'm thinking Mark Steyn will cover it as well so I'll update with a link and quotes if he does.

***

Mark Steyn at #43 has one of the very best, Cole Porter's "I Concentrate On You." More on that sometime in the fall. Ms. EBL features the beautiful "Time After Time," which means it's time for another plug for She & Him's Classics CD. Here's the duet:



Timeless.

Blame it on the bossa nova

It's wreaking havoc with my list. The week before last I was browsing through Will Friedwald's excellent book, Sinatra! The Song Is You, seeing what he had to say about the recording of Johnny Mercer's "Drinking Again" (#54). The song was arranged by Claus Ogerman, who also arranged Frank's lovely 1967 bossa nova album with Antonio Jobim.

Then I came across this passage:

Rather than tentatively dipping his toes into this particular lagoon, Sinatra elected to dive in headfirst. His rationale seemed to be that although other singers [. . .] had gotten there first, he would get there with the most. No other American pop star would so thoroughly immerse himself in the world of bossa; he not only recorded two whole albums' worth of the stuff but sacrificed his signature stylistics in order to more smoothly fit into the new vernacular. The two albums were Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) and Sinatra-Jobim (1969), although the latter was not issued as Sinatra had originally intended. (p 426)
What? Two albums? I only knew about the first one. Mind you, before embarking on my year-long tribute I tried to cover my bases and make sure I was familiar with most of Sinatra's work. But there's a heck of a lot of it, and, somehow, I missed this album altogether. Normally, though, with Frank's later LPs, a blind spot wouldn't have mattered much as far as my list was concerned; if there was anything really great on it, I'd already know it. And if I had found this CD a few months ago, I could have made room for a new favorite or two, if any of them were that good.

It turns out the songs are that good. The album is great, in fact, maybe better than the first one. So if the bad news is that, at the halfway point, it's too late for me to squeeze new favorites into my countdown, where several of them surely belong, the wonderful news is that I've been given a gift I didn't anticipate: new (to me) top-tier Sinatra songs.

If I had it to do over again, instead of one song from the first Jobim album (coming up in a few weeks), I would have included four or five, two from the first album and the rest from the second.

The 1969 album was arranged by Eumir Deodato. Here's the quirky duet with Jobim, "Desafinado." Sinatra's last part, starting with "Possibly in vain," is as beautiful as anything he's ever sung:



That melody is a lovely, delicate creature and Sinatra handles it with care. If only he had finished the song himself. But it's delightful as it is.

Next up, "Wave," (included on the Ultimate Sinatra CD):



I don't know how this stunning recording escaped my attention but I'm thrilled to know it now. Easily a top 25 or 40 song.

The third one, my current favorite, is "Drinking Water." I don't think I've played a track over and over again like this since I was a brand-new Sinatra fan and had just gotten my hands on "Summer Wind."



Oh my. That first line --
Your love is rain, my heart the flower
-- has Sinatra ever sounded better? And the lines he sings in Portuguese -- wow.

All the songs were written by the prolific, immensely talented Jobim. Sinatra's work with him is right up there with his Basie stuff. There's some serious bossa nova exploration in my future.

The two Jobim CDs -- perfect summer music -- have been combined into one CD. Find it here.

(When I get up to my already-planned song from the first Jobim album, I'll piggy-back a newly emerged favorite from that CD onto the post. Stay tuned.)


#51: One thing leads to another . . .

. . . Too late to run for cover
She's much too close for comfort now

I think of "Too Close For Comfort" as the companion piece to my previous pick, "Something's Gotta Give," with their common theme of irresistible temptation and their exuberant, swinging Billy May sound. It's impossible to choose between them:



Will Friedwald notes that "Sinatra is never more exhilarating than when he returns for his outchoruses [on CDWM] (p 291). Yes, indeed. I live for his outchoruses.

Wikipedia tells me that the song was written by Jerry Bock, George David Weiss, and Larry Holofcener in 1956 for Mr. Wonderful. Which man wrote the lyrics is not clear but I think it must have been the multi-talented Mr. Holofcener.

I love the opening lines (and the way Frank sings them):

Be wise, be smart, 
Behave, my heart
Don't upset your cart
When she's so close
And so on. Just wonderful.

***

Filling Mark Steyn's 42nd slot is a big, big favorite of mine, "The Coffee Song." I'll comment (and quote) more on that later, but for now, here's a little of what Mark has to say about coffee songs in general:
Still, as time goes by, it seems to me that many coffee songs belong increasingly to a lost age when you'd swing by the diner, growl, "Hey, Cindy, shoot me a cuppa joe," and she'd pour it for you right there and then, and for 30 cents you could sit till sundown enjoying all the free refills your bladder could handle. Hard to credit in a world in which coffee has evolved into a knickerbocker glory with a shot of espresso, requiring sprinkles, squirts, slices and soup├žons, all for six bucks and a 20-minute wait. Don't worry, I'm not warming to my theme - I've a whole chapter on that in The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, if you're that interested. I'm just saying the great American coffee song seems to belong to the pre-barista era.
Uh huh.

#52: Frank and Billy tear it up

Oh, yeah:

\

If that doesn't make you feel good, you might be dead. Play it again just to make sure.

Words and music by Johnny Mercer, arrangement by Billy May from his fabulous, exhilarating, hard-swinging Come Dance With Me!

Pretty much the opposite of my previous selection, no? Spinning daydreams or swinging from the rafters, Sinatra was the master of all moods. This is my fifth Johnny Mercer song, my fourth track from CDWM, and my 11th Billy May arrangement. What an immense talent he was. His centenary is coming up next year. Tribute, anyone?

(Heinie Beau, an arranger to whom Billy May sometimes farmed out charts, wrote some of the CDWM arrangements, perhaps three. I'd be interested to know which songs were Beau's. Anyone?)

#53: Sinatra in reverie

I only discovered this recording a few months ago and had to make room for it on my list. It's Rodgers and Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring" from State Fair. Sinatra recorded the song early on with Columbia and then did it twice more for Reprise.

It's not often I'll prefer a Don Costa arrangement over a Nelson Riddle one, but there's no contest here. It's not that there's anything really wrong with the Riddle version, done for Days Of Wine And Roses, etc. etc., in 1964. It swings gently and Frank sounds fine, but his style is just so on the nose. For once, it seems like the singer just wasn't into it.

But the Costa version, done a couple of years earlier for Sinatra and Strings, is pure magic:



The lovely descent of the line, "like a nightingale without a song to sing," the very low "Oh" at the beginning of the next line, and his musing repetition of "spinning,spinning daydreams" are highlights for me. And I always love it when he lets his voice get just a little raspy, as he does here when he sings "in a melancholy way."

Did the arrangement inspire that performance? It's very lovely, especially the way the violins come in after "as a baby on a swing." I can't think of another Sinatra vocal quite like it, with its particular kind of gentleness, and a reflective, daydream-like quality that he manages to maintain all the way through.

Over at The Camp of the Saints, Bob Belvedere has picked some doozies to fill his #37 - 35 slots. (In fact, he's crammed five songs into three slots -- I don't think it's going to add up to 100, Bob, but you get extra points for enthusiasm.) Of the five, three will be coming up on my list. Stay tuned.

Mark Steyn chooses "Soliloquy" for his #41 slot (he's counting up). It's not on my list, not really my kind of thing, but as I was listening to it in the car recently, I found myself unexpectedly in tears. So yes, it's very much worth a listen.

Ms EBL features "Call Me," not a Sinatra favorite of mine but I still love the Chris Montez version from 1966.

***

Mark Steyn provides insight on the Costa arrangement:

The Costa of the Sinatra and Strings album is a little different from what came later. Two months before the S&S sessions Sinatra had recorded what would be his final album with a cancer-stricken Axel Stordahl, Point of No Return. Sammy Cahn told me years ago that on Sinatra & Strings Frank wanted Costa to be "a new Axel", whose string arrangements were just ravishing. Costa did a magnificent job - as on "It Might As Well Be Spring" - and then spent the next two decades as the arranger charged with finding some kind of accommodation between Sinatra's style and whatever passing pop novelty they thought might work for him - hence, "My Way", "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown, "Just The Way You Are", etc. A long way from Sinatra and Strings.
Makes sense. Thanks, Mark.