Frank Sinatra is one of pop music’s most abiding prodigies – and also one of its most troubling icons. At the peak of his craft – during the 1950s and 1960s, when he recorded the definitive ballad and swing sessions documented so ambitiously on Frank Sinatra: The Capitol Years and Frank Sinatra: The Reprise Collection – Sinatra raised the art of romantic singing to a new height. He treated each song as if it were the inevitable expression of a personal experience, as if there were no separating the singer from the emotion or meaning of the songs he sang, and therefore no separating the listener from the experience of a singular and compelling pop voice. But for all the grace of his talent, there is also a considerable darkness about Sinatra: a desperate hunger for the validation that comes from love and power, and a ruinous anger toward anything that challenges that validation. In many ways, that fierce need for love or vindication is the guiding force behind the best moments of Sinatra’s career. Indeed, The Capitol Years and The Reprise Collection are the life testaments of a man who has learned to cling to one truth above all others: that one can never win love so surely that one can stop imagining the pain of its loss.
It is a lesson that Sinatra learned early, and at great cost. In the 1940s, following his emergence from the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey big bands, Sinatra was pop’s biggest star, a romantic balladeer whose sexy, yearning voice made him Columbia Records’ biggest-selling recording artist. But then, toward the decade’s end, Sinatra fell from grace – fast and hard. In part, his decline simply resulted from shifting musical tastes. In the exuberance of the postwar period, a new audience wanted more effervescence and more soul than Sinatra seemed capable of rendering. In addition, Sinatra shocked many of his remaining supporters by abandoning his wife and family to pursue a steamy public affair with actress Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1951. Within a few years, Sinatra’s relationship with both Columbia Records and Gardner turned stormy, and in the seasons that followed, the singer lost everything, including his record and film contracts, his marriage to Gardner and, perhaps most devastating of all, he even lost his voice during a public performance. After that, no record company would take a chance on him, and Sinatra was back on the club circuit, playing to sparse audiences and trying to regain the voice and confidence that had once come so readily.
Finally, in 1953, Capitol Records agreed to risk a one-year contract with Sinatra – if the artist was willing to forfeit his advance and pay all of his own studio costs. It was a humiliating offer, but Sinatra took it and, in the process, turned his life around. With his first few sessions for the label, Sinatra surprised both critics and former fans by flaunting a new voice that seemed to carry more depth, more worldly weight and more rhythmic invention than the half-fragile tone that he had brandished in the 1940s. And then, with his first full-fledged LP – In the Wee Small Hours, a deep-blue, after-hours ballad collection conducted by Nat King Cole’s up-and-coming arranger Nelson Riddle – Sinatra staked out the vocal sensibility that would become the hallmark of his mature style and that would establish him as the most gifted interpretive vocalist to emerge in pop or jazz since Billie Holiday. On the surface, Sinatra’s new delivery seemed almost more colloquial than musical. That is, he took supremely mellifluous material like the title track and sang as if it were a hushed yet vital communication: a rueful confession shared with an understanding friend over a late-night shot of whiskey, or, more likely, a painful rumination that the singer needed to proclaim to himself in order to work his way free of a bitter memory. In other words, Sinatra was now singing songs of romantic despair as if he were living inside the experience and as if each tune’s lyrics were his and his alone to sing. “It was Ava who did that, who taught him how to sing a torch song,” Nelson Riddle later told Sinatra’s biographer Kitty Kelley. “That’s how he learned. She was the greatest love of his life, and he lost her.”
In effect, Sinatra’s tenure at Capitol – along with the credibility he gained as an actor from his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity – proved to be the redemption of his career. Over the next ten years, he would record twenty-plus top-selling LPs for the label – alternating between sexy, uptempo, big-band-style dance affairs and brooding reflections on romantic despair and sexual betrayal – and he would also become one of the most consistently popular Top Forty singles artists of the 1950s. It was one of the richest growth periods that any pop artist has ever managed, and The Capitol Years aims to pay tribute to it, picking seventy-five of the artist’s most sublime musical milestones and cataloging them in rough chronological order. At its best, this box set stands as a definitive summary not only of Sinatra’s most revealing vocal performances but also a smart compendium of some of the best songwriting of the prerock era, by enduring songsmiths and lyricists such as Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and George and Ira Gershwin, among others. But by abridging such a broad range of Sinatra’s work, The Capitol Years also tends to give short shrift to the carefully constructed arcs of mood that made the singer’s 1950s albums so innovative – and in Sinatra’s art, dwelling on a mood until that mood can give up no other revelations is half the trick.
By contrast, the anthology approach fares better on The Reprise Collection, largely because the set makes a surprisingly effective case for a diverse body of work that has often been viewed as fairly negligible. Sinatra started Reprise Records in 1961, and some of his best work for the label – such as his collaborations with the Count Basie orchestra and Quincy Jones, and the September of My Years project with composer-arranger Gordon Jenkins – stuck to the mold of the big band and saloon-song theme album that he had popularized at Capitol. But by the mid-1960s, artists like the Beatles and Bob Dylan were transforming the pop mainstream, in effect killing off the generations-old Tin Pan Alley aesthetic that had provided singers like Sinatra with their repertoire. Sinatra had never much liked rock & roll (though he enjoyed a couple of hits in the style during the 1950s, which unfortunately haven’t been reissued), but he was shrewd and vain enough to want to match the challenge of the new pop sensibility. Some of his efforts in this regard – like the shamelessly self-mythologizing “My Way” and the wooden, sappy “Something Stupid,” a duet with his daughter Nancy – are among his most lamentable recordings. But tracks like the roaring, soulful “That’s Life” (with its savvy nod to Ray Charles) and the lilting bossa nova collaborations with Brazilian guitarist-composer Antonio Carlos Jobim are not only fine testaments to Sinatra’s self-willed resilience but blissful examples of the undervalued side of 1960s pop.
If The Reprise Collection falls short in any way, it is in covering Sinatra’s latter-day singing career following his reemergence from a brief retirement in the early 1970s. Granted, this is the singer’s most problematic period. After his return in 1973, Sinatra’s voice had changed again, settling into a gruffer, brandy-tone inflection and sometimes suffering from a shakiness in pitch and a shortness of breath. Indeed, with the exception of some of his work on Trilogy, in 1980, Sinatra never again found a recording voice as virile and affecting as the one that had carried him through the 1950s and 1960s.
And yet, in his live performances over the last ten years or so (a part of his career that has never been documented on record and that is not included in The Reprise Collection), Sinatra has often been stunning, putting across big-band standards like “Tve Got You Under My Skin,” “Tve Got the World on a String” and “You Make Me Feel So Young” with a surprising force and agility and rendering his much-loved saloon soliloquies with a matchless sense of depth and grace. In fact, there is something especially poignant in seeing the aging Sinatra perched on a stool center stage, contemplating lost love in Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “The Gal That Got Away” or lost youth in Gordon Jenkins’s “This Is All I Ask.” In such moments, Sinatra knows enough to surrender to his age, to sing the songs in the voice of an old man stripped of most hopes and all conceits. Then, likely as not, he’ll turn around and undercut his own best moments by launching into one of his infamous diatribes against those who don’t share his views or passions. All a fan can do at such moments is wince and wait for the singer’s next miraculous vocal epiphany – and sooner or later, such patience pays off.