Featuring 100 photographs of Frank Sinatra working with orchestras and arrangers, listening to playbacks, and, of course, singing, this book tells the whole story of how he created the Sinatra sound and translated the most intense personal emotions into richly worked-out songs of unrivalled expressiveness. One of the thrills of listening to Sinatra is wondering how he did it—and this book explains it all, bringing the dedicated fan and the casual music lover alike into the recording studio to witness the fascinating working methods he introduced and mastered in his quest for recorded perfection. Revealed is how, in addition to introducing and perfecting a unique vocal style, Sinatra was also his own in-studio producer—personally supervising every aspect of his recordings, from choosing the songs and arrangers to making minute adjustments in microphone placement.
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Sessions with Sinatra
Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording
By Charles L. Granata
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Charles L. Granata
All rights reserved.
The Big Band Years, 1937-1942
As he grew older, Frank Sinatra delighted in reminiscing about the big band era. Frequently, in the company of family and friends (especially those connected with "the business"), he would slip into the comfortable role of storyteller and talk about how much he idolized Bing Crosby and what a tough taskmaster Tommy Dorsey was. His unprompted conversation showed that those formative years created fond memories, and his recollections of the period were vivid and full of sentiment. There is little doubt that much of the insight that guided Frank Sinatra over the course of half a century as a musician was based on the practical knowledge he'd gained during his tenure as the featured band vocalist with both Harry James (1939), and Tommy Dorsey (1940-1942).
It was during these years that he befriended many of the talented songwriters, arrangers, and musicians who would weave their way into the fabric of his musical existence, including arranger Axel Stordahl and lyricist Sammy Cahn. He took quickly to songwriters, and it was clear practically from the beginning that he possessed a discriminating taste for top-quality songs and a knack for selecting only those tunes that he instinctively knew fit his style.
His perceptive use of the microphone was born of this era, as was his understanding that a good measure of his craft was his ability to act. When singing, he could manipulate and control his body language to suit the setting of the lyric, which could evoke a certain response from his listening audience.
Much of the singer's musical wisdom stemmed from the day-in, day-out trials and tribulations of a rising band singer. As far back as the early 1940s, Sinatra was crediting Tommy Dorsey with providing the fundamentals that he would adapt to fit his vocal styling, carefully refining his approach to develop a distinct method of phrasing that would become unmistakably his own.
A sharp observer, Frank Sinatra was among the first to realize that the vocalist was quickly supplanting the orchestra as the main attraction in pop music and that he could easily apply his talents to capitalize on the trend. While his arrival signaled the beginning of the end of the big bands, Sinatra was responsible for rescuing the finest components of the swing style, creating a sensational new sound: one that depended on the vocalist to function as the heart of the performance.
While most biographical accounts cite Sinatra's time with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey as being his first real "band" experience, his big band days had really begun much earlier than his first Brunswick recording session, held in New York City on July 13, 1939. While the Brunswick date would be his inaugural commercial recording session, it was not his initial foray into a recording studio.
After a stint with a Major Bowes' Amateur Hour touring unit in 1935 (as one of the Hoboken Four, a pickup group assembled by Bowes), he fronted a small jazz combo called The Four Sharps. The single extant performance by the group, a Dixieland version of "Exactly Like You," is a Fred Allen Show radio aircheck, from May 12, 1937. While Sinatra didn't vocalize with the trio, he continued to kick around Bergen and Hudson counties in New Jersey, where he eventually befriended a young musician named Frank Mane, an alto saxophonist doing freelance solo work wherever he could find it.
Initially, Mane and Sinatra crossed paths at WAAT, a small radio station that sometimes featured live performances broadcast from its studios in Jersey City. Often, after scrounging around the station for work, Sinatra would bum rides from the saxophonist, usually to girlfriend Nancy Barbato's house on Audubon Avenue. (Frank and Nancy met during the summer of 1934; they were married in Jersey City on February 4 1939.)
Within a short time, Sinatra and Mane were frequenting Bayonne's Sicilian Club, where many musical cronies gathered to compare notes. During one of these nights out, Sinatra learned that Mane was forming a small band for the express purpose of making some recordings.
According to Mane, Sinatra visited the Sicilian Club on the eve of the scheduled recording, where he and his ten-piece band were rehearsing in a back room. Before the group disbanded, Sinatra approached him. "Mind if I come along tomorrow?" he asked. Mane assured him it would be fine, and at the appointed time on March 18, 1939, the band, plus Sinatra, reassembled at Harry Smith's Recording Studio at 2 West 46th Street in Manhattan. Among the musicians in Mane's pickup band was reed player Harry Shuckman, who would later resurface on many of Sinatra's Hollywood recording sessions for Columbia Records, and Don Rigney, a drummer who had served as best man at the Sinatras' wedding.
After three instrumentals had been recorded ("Flight of the Bumblebee"; "Eclipse," a Mane original; and "Girl of My Dreams"), Sinatra approached the sax player, who was bearing the full expense of the session, and asked whether he might record a vocal with the group. With some extra time remaining on the clock, Mane agreed and quickly brought out a stock arrangement of "Our Love," a song based on a melody from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet.
Since Mane desired to record for purely personal reasons (he simply wanted to hear what his arrangements sounded like), and not with the intention of creating commercial discs, only one master record was made of each performance. In all likelihood, neither Frank Sinatra nor any of the other participants received a copy of the recordings they made, and Mane, a fairly modest man, never publicized the recording after Sinatra became famous. This led to a false assumption on the part of well-intentioned historians, who for many years believed that this entry in the Sinatra discography (tagged with an incorrect recording date) was a demonstration or "demo" disc that the singer had made for Nancy Barbato on the eve of their wedding. Only recently, with the "rediscovery" of Frank Mane, have the original recording discs from this session surfaced and the facts been clarified.
"Our Love," then, is Frank Sinatra's very first real recording. (The Hoboken Four performances of "Shine" and "Curse of an Aching Heart" were no more than airchecks of broadcast performances, as opposed to formal studio recordings.) This distinction aside, the song and its performance are quite unusual, as they hint at the direction the polished voice would take. Sinatra's vocal is remarkably relaxed, and fragments of the style that would develop fully in the James and Dorsey periods are readily apparent in his fluid handling of the vocal lines.
Although he didn't know it at the time, Frank Mane (who died in December 1998 at age 94) had given the man who would become one of the greatest entertainers in the world his first real break.
In the months before he recorded "Our Love" with Frank Mane, Sinatra had taken a job at a small roadside cafe on Route 9W in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Working as a self-described "singing waiter," he appeared several nights a week as the featured vocalist with Bill Henri and his Headliners. Customarily, radio stations such as WAAT in Jersey City and WNEW in New York would broadcast live from venues such as the Rustic Cabin, which is exactly what happened on the night that Frank Sinatra was discovered there by fledgling bandleader Harry James.
"We would broadcast from the bandstand on WNEW's Dance Parade from 11:30 'til midnight," remembers Headliners saxophonist Bert Hall, then known as Harry Zinquist. "Lots of song pluggers would come in to see the bandleaders at the Cabin, 'cause they knew that we were broadcasting live on WNEW. One night as we were playing, one of the waiters came up to the bandstand and said to Sinatra, 'Someone wants to see you.' It was trumpeter Harry James, and Sinatra was thrilled!"
It was a warm evening in June 1939 when James, who had left the security of Benny Goodman's band in favor of fronting his own, made the trip to the mountain lodge nestled in the foothills alongside Jersey's Palisades. His attention had been drawn to Sinatra by his wife, singer Louise Tobin, who had tuned in to one of the Dance Parade broadcasts. "I heard this boy singer and thought, 'There's a fair singer.' Now, I didn't think he was fantastic — I just thought, 'Well, now that's a good singer.' So I just woke Harry and said, 'Honey, you might want to hear this kid on the radio. The boy singer on this show sounds pretty good.'"
James agreed, and the next evening he visited the Rustic Cabin to hear Sinatra in person. "When he came over to see me, I almost broke his arm so he wouldn't get away, 'cause I was dying to get out of that place," the singer once remembered. Within a day, Sinatra accepted James's offer to join the band.
Jack Palmer, one of James's trumpeters, remembers the first time the musicians met their new vocalist. "Frank was at the theater where we were appearing. After the first show, he went up to Harry's dressing room. Just before the second show, Harry came out and introduced him as the new singer with the band. Frank then joined us at the next date we had, which I believe was in New Haven, Connecticut. I'll never forget how Harry introduced him to the audience. He said, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, this is our new vocalist, and we don't have any arrangements for him as yet. Frank, do you think we can scare something up for you to sing?' Sinatra called out 'Stardust,' which is not the easiest song to sing. Frank gave us the key, and the piano and rhythm section began, and we just tried to get some background to hold it all together."
The band wouldn't have to improvise behind their new vocalist for long, for arranger Andy Gibson immediately went to work on orchestrations that would accommodate Sinatra. As the weeks and months wore on, the repetition of working night after night with a touring band helped him sharpen his skills as both a singer and a showman.
"When he first came to the band, he was almost a novice. ... He had been working locally, and his exposure was pretty limited. So he acted just like a guy that was inexperienced, on a national scale," says Mickey Scrima, the band's drummer. "With Harry, we were playing coast to coast, and it made a big difference. Now Sinatra was being heard on the big radio networks, where we would broadcast from various hotels and ballrooms around the country. It was experience for a guy who had none: you begin working, and making records for a company like Columbia, and you begin to learn about band setups, and microphones, and things like that."
By early July, the Harry James Orchestra featuring Frank Sinatra was making live appearances at such popular night spots as New York's Roseland Ballroom and Atlantic City's Steel Pier. As they bused from gig to gig, James prepared to enter the studio to make some new recordings for Brunswick Records, a label that had been recently purchased by CBS Radio magnate William S. Paley. Among them would be Sinatra's very first commercial recordings.
The First Recordings
In 1928 William S. Paley launched his broadcast empire, the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), with the assistance of a number of investors, including the Columbia Phonograph System. Then, in December 1938, CBS entered the record marketplace with its formal acquisition of the American Recording Corporation (ARC). In addition to the Columbia Phonograph System, ARC's holdings included a number of record labels, including Brunswick, Vocalion, Melotone, and Okeh. The resultant conglomeration of recording companies was renamed the Columbia Recording Corporation (CRC). While CRC would primarily function as the radio recording arm of Paley's CBS Radio Network (where programs were recorded and distributed to network affiliates on 16-inch lacquer transcription discs), it soon endeavored to involve itself in commercial recording projects, for which Paley revived the original "Columbia" label name. (This company would later evolve into the one now owned by Sony Music Entertainment, Inc.)
For a short time after the ARC acquisition, CBS continued to issue recordings made by its individual labels, with their original imprints. Since James was under contract to Brunswick, and had been making records for them under his own name since December 1937, his first recording with Sinatra, "From the Bottom of My Heart" and "Melancholy Mood," recorded on July 13, 1939 (Brunswick 8443) was released on that label.
Between the end of 1939 and September 1940, CBS gradually phased out the Brunswick label name and began issuing most of their 10-inch pop 78s (by both the original ARC artists and its own newly contracted Columbia artists) on the now familiar red-and-gold Columbia label. The four James-Sinatra records that followed the Brunswick disc were all issued on the new Columbia label.
Though unrefined, wisps of Sinatra's characteristic vocal style abound in the ten songs he recorded with James. While a more detailed study of Sinatra's vocal powers will be made later, these ten studio recordings, plus the small cache of live radio airchecks, set the stage for a better understanding of what vocal tools Sinatra possessed, and how he set about building upon them to create his unique voice.
Music critic George T. Simon, writing in the September 1939 issue of Metronome magazine, provided the singer with his first major review. "Featured throughout are the very pleasing vocals of Frank Sinatra, whose easy phrasing is especially commendable," Simon opined, to the delight of both James and his vocalist.
In the liner notes for Columbia/Legacy's 1994 CD reissue of the complete Sinatra-James recordings, Simon reflected on an incident that prompted him to take special notice of the singer. "It happened more than half a century ago — in the summer of 1939, to be exact. But to this day, I can still remember Harry James's road manager following me down the steps of New York's Roseland Ballroom, and before I could reach the street calling out, 'Hey, wait a minute, will you? I wanna ask you something — how'd ya like the band?' When I murmured something rather noncommittal (because critics and reviewers don't like being put on the spot in such a clumsy manner), he came right to his point. 'Yeah, but how do you like the new singer?' And then, quite unabashedly, 'The boy wants a good write-up more than anybody I've ever seen. So give him a good write-up, will you, because we want to keep him happy and with the band, and that's the only thing that will make him happy.'" Simon, however, was genuinely impressed by Sinatra's vocal performance. The musicianship that Simon heard that night can be sampled on rare recordings of the band's live dates recently issued on compact disc.
It was "All or Nothing at All," a tune recorded at his third recording session with James (August 31, 1939) that became their greatest hit. While the song wasn't an outstanding seller upon its first release in 1939, it was reissued in 1943 when Sinatra signed with Columbia as a solo artist, and owing to the recording ban that prohibited recordings with instrumental accompaniment, became an overnight sensation.
"It's interesting to listen to that young voice when he first started; the way he attacked that song, and what he did with the breath control and the wonderful phrasing that he used even in those early days," recalls the song's writer, Jack Lawrence. Sinatra admired the song so much he recorded it three more times: as a ballad in 1961 with Don Costa, an up-tempo arrangement with Nelson Riddle in 1966, and a disco version with Joe Beck in 1977. "Later, as he went along he learned a lot more, and added more interpretation. But I still prefer that young voice singing it, as opposed to all the other versions he did," Lawrence adds.
Excerpted from Sessions with Sinatra by Charles L. Granata. Copyright © 2004 Charles L. Granata. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Phil Ramone,
PART I THE BIG BAND YEARS, 1937-1942,
PART II THE COLUMBIA YEARS, 1943-1952,
PART III THE CAPITOL YEARS, 1953-1962,
PART IV THE REPRISE YEARS,
PART V CAPITOL REVISITED,
Afterword by Nancy Sinatra,
Appendix A Companion Recordings,
Appendix B The Basic Collection,
Appendix C Concept Albums,
Appendix D Fifty Songs That Define the Essence of Sinatra,