This article appeared in Rouge, October, 1962


 
Adding to the disorder and hullabaloo, a growing group of spectators jabbered excitedly and shifted about on folding chairs for a first view of Sinatra. Momentarily, the noise died down as someone whispered "he's here" and heads craned toward the door. Then, as the expectation proved false, the volume of noise mounted again. Promptly at eight on the big, round, white-faced electric clock, Neal Hefti, who wrote the arrangements and conducted, climbed a tall, raised, wooden platform. The drummer eyed his thin, unlined face and close-cropped head carefully as he counted out the tempo of I'm Beginning to See the Light. With the downbeat, silence and order settled over the studio as if a magic wand had been waved. The band was in its second run-through of the oldie when Sinatra entered in a pin-striped gray suit with short side vents, a gray snap-brim on his head and black patent leather pumps with small bows on his feet. Even today, after twenty years of recording, a Sinatra session is 'sui generis,' or as a member of the defunct clan might say, 'big league.' As soon as word gets around that the Thin One is cutting, there's a fat demand for 'tickets.' Of course, there are no tickets. But there is no Sinatra date unattended either by a uniformed security officer--as at the Capitol Tower where he recorded for years--or by a hulking guard who asks as you try to enter the studio: "Who invited you?" To a Sinatra session, the wives of musicians want to be invited, also the kids, friends of the engineers, relatives of studio execs, and people inside music biz, like songpluggers and music pubbers, to whom a recording session is just another recording session. On the second night, the 'gassed' spectators included former band singer Frances Langford, wife of Neal Hefti. Each night there were over fifty spectators, all jockeying for chairs that would give them a clear view of Sinatra in the isolation booth. (In appearance like an over-sized telephone booth, except that the door is missing and two sides open out at an angle, the isolation booth is designed to make a singer's voice stand out from the supporting band.)

The special aura of a Sinatra session envelops even Hollywood musicians, a small in-group of overworked gentlemen who are not too easily moved by anything but many of whom will break another commitment to record with Frank. Sinatra is, in fact, one of the few singers who are held in awe by recording musicians. Among the yea-sayers are a host of jazzmen, including tenor saxist Ben Webster, trumpeter Conte Condoli, and bassist Al McKibbon, all of whom played these dates. Musicians dig Frank's hip personality, his 'charged' approach and his jazz-inflected style--and because they respect his musicianship, they literally 'knock themselves out' to give him the best performance. When he smiles his wide, white-toothed grin and his cerulean blue eyes brighten with appreciation, they glow inwardly. In its own way, it's like having Picasso nod if you paint or Liz Taylor pant if you're a ladies' man.

AT THE FIRST session, after listening to a playback of I Get a Kick Out of You (the #2 song on the date), the sidemen broke into spontaneous applause. The same thing happened when they heard the completed take of They Can't Take That Away from Me (the #5 song)--and nothing is so rare in a recording studio as applause. Head-nodding, yes. Big smiles, yes. Back-slapping, yes. Applause, no.

But despite the relaxed atmosphere and the air of camaraderie he created, Sinatra worked tirelessly and with a perfectionist's drive through six hours and fifty minutes of the two sessions. Frequently, he rejected a take that seemed to satisfy Neal Hefti, recording engineer Bill Putnam and A & R man Chuck Sagle. "Now, let's do one for me," he would say. While the musicians relaxed during their "Take Five's," he stood near Hefti's raised podium listening intently to playbacks. (Once, he collected several used coffee containers strewn about and with an almost absent-minded desire for neatness, stacked them carefully under the stand.) As he listened to a playback of Tangerine, a vivacious strawberry blonde dashed up to him and embraced him. Holding his hand, she began twisting for him and the spectators with a manufactured expression of ecstasy. Intent on the playback, Frank paid her less attention than he gave the used coffee containers.

Early in the first session Hank Sanicola, his long-time manager and general factotum, came to the isolation booth with a sheaf of papers. As the band was 'cleaning up' an arrangement--correcting mistakes made by the copyist in preparing parts for each instrument from the master score--they talked earnestly. A short man with a bulging bellyline, a few straggling hairs on a big, bald head and deep hollow-set eyes rimmed with puffy welts, Sanicola looked worried. (They say he always does.)

Although Sinatra was in excellent voice and newly sun-tanned with a slightly bronzed glow, he looked and acted tired. At the first session particularly, he kept rubbing his eyes and the right side of his face. The cheekbone area was puffy, suggesting a lack of sleep. At times he massaged the right side of his neck and his right shoulder. After the first number, he somehow caught the eye of Eddie Shaw who was in the engineering booth diagonally across the crowded room. Shaw, a short, squinty-eyed man who has built a publishing business on Sinatra recordings of his songs, came dashing toward the isolation booth with a container of hot coffee. But despite his weariness, Sinatra reacted quickly and inventively to Neal Hefti's swinging, well-textured arrangements, finding a way of developing Hefti's ideas and adding his own. In I Love You Hefti had the band shout "wow" for a humorous effect; on the second take, Sinatra suddenly varied several of the preceding lines to give them a slightly Italian sound- "you gotta those arms"-which enhanced the humorous intent. In Pick Yourself Up, where Hefti used a contrapuntal question and answer approach between brass and reeds, Sinatra elided words in the final take to emphasize the piston-like rhythmic pattern. His phrasing, frequently imitated but never surpassed, had a clarity as if each word were printed on a flashcard and an expressiveness which made it seem that you had never heard the words before. Working with a nineteen piece band--four rhythm, five saxes, and ten brass, no strings--he was able to soar over the five trumpets and five trombones playing loud and full, and at the end of numbers, effortlessly to sustain notes.

He never removed his hat once during the two sessions, though occasionally he tilted it back on a head of hair that began thinning some years back and now shows gray around the ears. (Only one other hat remained unremoved and that was worn by veteran jazzman Ben Webster, who is so busy these days that he came to the first session carrying dinner-sandwiches in two brown paper bags into which he dipped at odd moments. At the second session saxist Joe Maini became a topic of talk among the spectators because, wearing open leather beach sandals on bare feet, he kept time by moving one middle toe up and down rhythmically while all the other toes remained stationary.) Sinatra squints when he concentrates and when he wanted the band to stop playing, he held up his right

hand with the index finger extended. Frank has larger hands and longer, heavier fingers than one would expect, considering his skinny frame. He sang with his hands in his pants pockets, but occasionally with his arms folded as if he had a tummy-ache. In the up-tempo numbers, he sometimes snapped his fingers. During a slow ballad like Serenade in Blue he leaned his head on his left shoulder or, as he built to a climax in Just Around the Corner, arched his back so that he looked like a terminal parenthesis.

Most of the arrangements were swingers. Since the advent of rock 'n' roll (for which he has no use), he has developed a style of singing in which elements of jazz and swing--improvised handling of lyrics, subtle inflections of melodic line, manipulation of note values and a driving beat--are appealingly injected even into ballad literature. It is a style that was typical of the Tommy Dorsey band in the early 40's when Frank sang with it and later when Nelson Riddle, who worked with him to develop the style, played with it. But it is a style which also now embodies an awareness both of the heavy afterbeat rhythms to which youngsters respond today and of 'third stream' developments in contemporary jazz. Riddle frequently used a full string complement to achieve a sustained ballad feeling against the blast and jump of a typical swinging brass section while Hefti's arrangements exploit polymodal and polyrhythmic resources to spice typical elements of swing--the riff, massed brass and chugging four-to-the-bar rhythm. Some young singers have adopted Sinatra's swinging ballad approach, notably Bobby Darin, who imitates his mannerisms as young Frank himself once imitated Crosby. (In the swoon-and-scream era, Sinatra frequently wore yachting caps, smoked a pipe and donned bright sports shirts a la Crosby, just as Darin today tries to ape Sinatra's brash and provocative approach to the press and his hip style on a club floor.)

Ten years ago when Frank's career was in a downspin--the launching pad of his new, rocketing career was the screen (From Here to Eternity) rather than the record player--he was trying to sustain himself through a style that had lost its audience. In all the psychologizing that in-depth writers practiced concerning his anguished days with Ava Gardner and ill-tempered battles with the press, no one seemed to notice that if his disturbed personal life hurt his pipes, his singing career was also caught in the downdraft created by the rising school of belters. When he was playing to empty seats in the N. Y. Paramount in '52, the scene of his original swooning triumphs of '43 and '44, a new generation of record-buyers was sighing over the muscular Mr. Frankie Laine, frantic Johnnie Ray and the young thrust of Eddie Fisher. Even the girl singers were in the genre of hard-voiced Kay Starr and hard-swinging Georgia Gibbs.

A decade earlier Sinatra had swept onto the pop scene, singing in a manner imitative of der Bingle but influenced largely by the smooth, mellifluous glissando style of the Dorsey trombone. Before T. D., he had sung briefly with Harry James, fresh out of the Goodman band. The sides cut with James' high-flying trumpet included a beguine ballad, All or Nothing at All, which sold less than 10,000 copies in its original release. Re-issued in '44, after Frank had left Tommy to go single-o, the ballad became a top hit of the year. But by then, the situation in pop music had changed so that it was no longer HARRY JAMES with vocal chorus by F. Sinatra but FRANK SINATRA with Harry James and his orchestra. The era of the crooners had begun and Sinatra led the shift from the big bands to the big ballads with smooth, slow, dream-like, woodwind-and-string arrangements by Axel Stordahl.

Looking backward in April '62 Sinatra has managed to sustain his career through the era of the soft crooners, the blasting belters and the after-beat rock 'n' rollers. In '62 he is still the singer's singer, the favorite interpreter of show writers like Lerner and Loewe, Cole Porter, Jule Styne, and Richard Rodgers--also the late George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, and Jerome Kern. And he sings with a sense of involvement and an improvisational freshness that makes him the favorite vocalist of most jazzmen--also with the craftsman's relaxed ease which made it possible to record The Thin One and Hefti in two sessions plus some overtime, instead of the normal three. Originally the studio had been booked for three successive nights, but Frank got six of the twelve songs 'in' the first night so that Hefti had to grind all through the following day at his copyists office to complete three swinging arrangements. As he finished writing a page of score, the parts were immediately extracted from it for the separate instruments. Since there was not enough time for a drive back to his home in the Valley, Hefti had to rent a hotel room for ninety minutes so that he could shower and rest briefly.

Sinatra had just returned from Mexico City where he gave his second annual children's charity concert and contributed over $25,000 to the Mexican Institute for Rehabilitation. He was departing the following Sunday for Tokyo, the first stop in a ten-week concert tour of the capitals of the world. Dedicated, as on the Mexican pilgrimage, to raising money for underprivileged children, he was taking with him an entourage of eighteen, including a seven-piece combo led by his pianist Bill Miller. "Sun Tan," as he called him even at the sessions--presumably because of his waxen pallor--is a graying, esthetic-looking man with sunken cheeks, a small, nervous mouth, and soft black hair. Part of Sinatra's entourage for more than a dozen years--like manager Sanicola, publisher Eddie Shaw and songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen--"Sun Tan" may be heard behind Sinatra in delicate, tasteful, jazz-inflected fills on many disks. At the end of the first session, he remained quietly working at the piano for a spell and then informed Hefti that Goody Goody was to be arranged in the key of G if it was to be played soft and low--keys determine the highest and lowest notes a singer must hit--and in a slightly higher key if the arrangement was fast and driving.

To most record dates Frank has brought a girl, the girl of the moment--also his daughter Nancy. Raven-haired Ava had attended many, lynx-eyed Lauren Bacall had come to some and in '61 and '62, there had been blonde Dorothy Provine and red-headed Juliet Prowse. To the two sessions under surveillance, as befitted a recently 'bereaved' bridegroom--the engagement to La Prowse was broken late in February--he brought no one. And he departed alone, driving off in a sleek black sedan to his luxurious home atop Coldwater Canyon. This was the man whom Marlene Dietrich named in her alphabet "the gentlest man I have ever known," who recently described himself as "an over-privileged adult trying to help underprivileged children," and who was characterized by a middle-aged recording secretary as "that sad, lonely little man." He is one of the world's most highly publicized personalities, a millionaire many times over, among the screen's top ten box-office stars, the winner of more record polls than anybody you could name--and the girls are still, after two boff decades, feeling motherly toward the mother of American entertainers.

  


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Updated July 31, 2000