Sinatra’s Centennial Matters

New Year’s Day. 1994. Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra.

A moment when my life changed for the better.

That was the only time I saw Sinatra perform live.   And because of it, I have learned why Frank Sinatra is considered by so many as the greatest popular singer of all time.

What amazed me about the show was that at age 78, a time when he could have just sat on a stool and read off the teleprompter, he moved gracefully about the stage singing the songs as if it were the first time he sang them.

I went from buying the first “Duets” album that came out in 1993 (which was the number two album in the country on Billboard’s 200 right behind Pearl Jam’s “Vs.”) to now owning 70 CDs, 14 LPs, 7 box sets, 24 books, and 18 DVDs and videotapes.

As a teacher, you want to share your passions with your students, so I have infused lessons on connotation and tone with Frank Sinatra’s work.

When I teach Shakespeare, I use Sinatra’s rendering of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch Over Me” to show the importance of the proper reading of a line.   Just as some actors struggle making sense of the Bard’s iambic pentameter, others can make even the most novice viewer understand what the character is saying, retaining the musicality of the words.

In “Someone to Watch Over Me” the lyric goes “even though I may not be the man some girls think of as handsome.” Sinatra purposely links the words “man” and “some” to create the non-existent word “mansome” so that it rhymes with “handsome” the way George and Ira intended when writing the song. When other singers pause after “man,” the rhyme is lost.

To demonstrate how the same words can have different meanings depending on how they are said, I play two versions of Rodgers and Hart’s “Where or When,” one recorded in 1958, the other performed live in Las Vegas in 1966.

In the earlier Capitol Records session arranged by Nelson Riddle, Sinatra narrates a wistful tale of love emitting a melancholy tone accompanied only by longtime pianist Bill Miller until an orchestra comes in during the final forty seconds.   And when it does, Sinatra, who was practically whispering the words with the solo piano, expands to full voice louder than the instruments. The effect emphasizes how the speaker cannot remember when this chance encounter will happen again.

While only eight years apart, the two versions vary so much in approach that they almost sound like different songs. With the tempo tripled, the 1966 translation arranged by Billy Byers is swinging, upbeat, sung by a narrator without a care in the world.

Horns not strings are prominently heard along with a driving percussion with the signature Count Basie sound beneath Sinatra’s carefree tone.

Playing one of the lovers, Sinatra interprets the lyric that if they were to meet again, okay; if not, that’s okay, too. No hard feelings. Move on.

He halts before uttering each “before” in “it seems that we have met . . . before and laughed . . . before, and loved . . . before” emphasizing the deju vu element of the couple’s feelings. Sinatra’s interest is more in the playing with the words rather than exuding the emotions in them. He then holds the final “where or when” as long as he can, emphasizing more of an end than an open-ended question as in the 1958 take.

This interpretation was the one that Sinatra continued singing in live performances the rest of his life.

And while that life ended in 1998, next week marks the centennial of his birth, an apt moment to reflect on why Sinatra matters in the history of American popular music.


The L-O-V-E of Nat King Cole

Since this column is being posted around Valentine’s Day I thought we would examine L-O-V-E. No, not the word “love” but the classic Nat King Cole record of 1964.

If it weren’t for Cole’s holiday perennial “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire),” people under 50 would have little awareness of him and his legacy in popular music.

Yet anyone who drives by the iconic Capitol Records building on Vine Street in Hollywood should know that its nickname is “The House That Nat Built” due to the amount of money Cole made for the record company since its inception in 1942.

Starting out as a pianist in his jazz combo the King Cole Trio, Cole soon transitioned from jazz musician to popular vocalist. He was the first African American to host a network television show in 1956. “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Unforgettable” represent a sampling of his memorable songs.

“L-O-V-E” was written by Bert Kaempfert and Milt Gabler, becoming a hit in the summer of 1964. The rest of the album (named after the song’s title) was recorded in December 1964. Released in January 1965, Cole died the following month.

Ralph Carmichael was the arranger and conductor in Cole’s final recording years.

Still active at age 87, Carmichael has worked with some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century including Count Basie, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, and Johnny Mathis.

Carmichael has “fond memories” of Cole describing him as having “a natural gift of music.”

He vividly recalls those December sessions. Nat King Cole had an engagement at the now defunct Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos so Capitol brought up musicians from Los Angeles to record in San Francisco on December 1-3.

I asked Carmichael if he detected anything at all not well with Nat.

“He had quit smoking, but during breaks he would smoke a cigarette,” Carmichael recalled. Other than that, “Nat showed no hesitancy, no weakness, he was amazing.”

Carmichael remembers that Cole “came dressed in a suit and that was unusual. Later I realized that that was his way of celebrating whatever life he had left.”

If you listen to the whole “L-O-V-E” album, you would never detect from his singing that he had only 72 days left to live. His vocals are strong, his holding of notes impressive at the end of songs.

Knowing how little time Cole had left, there is a melancholy eeriness to some of the lyrics.

From “Thanks to You” he sings “each day that I’ll be living.”

From “More” he sings “I only live to love you more each day.”

From “Three Little Words” he sings “to hear those three little words that’s all I’d live for the rest of my days.”

From “How I’d Love to Love You” he sings “you’ll always be with me till life is through.”

Freddy Cole, Nat’s youngest brother, still performs live in concert at age 83 singing some of his sibling’s songs. He fondly recalls his older brother as “a hell of a nice guy.”

So, while exchanging Valentine’s Day gifts, listen to some Nat King Cole.

Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of his death at St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica.

If he had lived, he would have been 95 years old.