August 22, 2015

#35: Sinatra swings an über-standard

It's "I'll Be Seeing You" by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (words), written in 1938 but emblematic of WWII and the painful separations of that time. Mark Steyn has a fascinating discussion of the song and its enduring appeal:

As much as "It Had To Be You" or "The Way You Look Tonight", "I'll Be Seeing You" belongs to a select group of über-standards, the ones we'll still be singing when 90 per cent of the rest have fallen away. 
Mark does a little geometry on the various recordings Sinatra made of it:
Which is the real Sinatra "I'll Be Seeing You"? Both. There's no correct way to do the number. The definition of a standard is a song you can do in a zillion different ways - and sometimes with the same singer, and all in the same year. Grab a piece of paper and draw a triangle. Point A is Frank's 1940 record of "I'll Be Seeing You". Point B is Sy Oliver's May 1961 swinger. Point C is Axel Stordahl's September 1961 ballad version. The lines between A and B and between A and C mark Sinatra's artistic growth, and the line between B and C marks his emotional range. 
Here's the 1961 Stordahl ballad version recorded for Point of No Return. Very lovely. But it will come as no surprise to the three or four people interested in this list that I prefer Sy Oliver's exuberantly swinging take from I Remember Tommy:

Bob Belvedere ranks it at #36:
Francis recorded several versions of this Great American Songbook tune [see Mark Steyn’s top-notch take on this wonderful tune here], but whereas the others are more serious, I find this celebratory one much more satisfying. I like sad, but not dispirited. Life goes on, pal.
Frank swings it mightily but somehow -- as usual -- still retains the emotional content of the song.

#36: Sinatra and Mandel, fully caffeinated

It's "The Coffee Song," in which arranger Johnny Mandel outdoes himself. Wake up and brace yourself for two minutes and fifty-one seconds of fully-caffeinated fabulousness:

If you missed Frank's incredibly elegant/breezy -- breezelegant? -- treatment of the word "dill," in the line "Coffee pickles way outsell the dill," you'll just have to play it again. I'm trying, in vain, to think of a better recording of a novelty song.

"The Coffee Song" was written by Dick Miles and Bob Hilliard in 1946 and Sinatra recorded it shortly afterward. But that version is like a cup of watery Sanka compared with the bold and sizzling 1961 chart for Ring-a-Ding Ding! When I first heard it (and the rest of the album), which was only about ten years ago, I had that how-long-has-this-been-going-on feeling -- where had I been all these years, missing out on all this great music? I've been playing catch-up ever since.

Mark Steyn has already written about this one so pour yourself a fresh cup and enjoy. Just a bit here:

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 soupçons, 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.

But "The Coffee Song" is the coffee song:

Way down among Brazilians
Coffee beans grow by the millions
So they've got to find those extra cups to fill
They've got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil...
Read the rest and stay tuned for more great music.

#37: I like a Lane-Freed tune

"How About You?" is a light-hearted, kinda corny song that sounds exactly like what it started out as, a 1941 duet for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sinatra and Riddle got hold of it and made it into something even better:

I like everything about this song: Sinatra's phrasing and timing, Riddle's gently-swinging but intensifying arrangement, matched by Sinatra all the way, and the singer's final descent at the finish. Go ahead, play it again.

The song was written by Burton Lane and Ralph Freed. Why does it work so well? Mark Steyn:

The mistake composers make with list songs is to assume it's all about the lyric and to phone in the tune. But Burton Lane wrote what Alec Wilder called "a marvelous, healthy, rhythmic ballad". Even the title phrase varies in unusual ways - the third "How about you?", in the 15th bar, puts the "how" on a high D sharp, full of romantic yearning. And the irresistible device of the rat-a-tat-tat repeated notes - "I like po-ta-to chips/Moon-light and mo-tor trips" - returns even more dramatically in the conclusion:

Holding hands
In the movie show
All the lights are low
May not be new...

That's the very definition of songwriting: not words, not notes, not a lyric, not a melody, but the two so inextricably linked that they're indivisible. Was the tune written to accommodate the lines or vice-versa? I asked Burton Lane and he couldn't recall. "All I remember is that I thought it was a terrific idea for a song," he said, "and we were so enthusiastic about it we wrote it very quickly, and I knew we'd got it right. Sometimes that happens."
"How About You" had to be the inspiration for this Bert & Ernie number by Jeff Moss, which turns the theme of having things in common on its head but winds up in the same place:

Way to pour it on at the end, guys!

#38: It's just too very very

Why do I love this song? I dunno -- words fail me. And that puts me in good company:

Music by Richard Whiting and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, 1937.

#39: From Bing to Ring-a-Ding Ding!

Irving Berlin wrote "Be Careful, It's My Heart" for the Bing Crosby - Fred Astaire musical Holiday Inn. Bing's performance in the movie isn't available on YouTube but here's a recording he made in 1942. Sinatra's recording about two decades later doesn't seem to have been influenced by Bing's zing-less, ring-a-ding-ding-less version at all:

I love the way Frank sings "remembuh" and tosses off "it's my heart," breezily yet pointedly. But I have to admit, the way he finishes on that high note has not grown on me over the years. This is the one song on Ring-a-Ding Ding! that Johnny Mandel had no part in arranging. He was pressed for time and had Skip Martin ghost-arrange it. From Frank Jr.'s liner notes:

This orchestration, actually written by Skip Martin of MGM fame, finishes with Sinatra hitting a double "F." Martin says, "When I first heard the playback, I asked him 'Why did you reach for that high ending?' He smiled at me and said, 'There was nowhere else I could go.'"
Oh, well. Nobody's perfect. I still like it enough to rank it in my top forty.