Friday, September 8, 2023

This Day in Pop Music History (Sinatra Concept LP, ‘Only the Lonely,’ Offers Torch-Song Toppers)

Sept. 8, 1958—Once again collaborating with master arranger Nelson Riddle, Frank Sinatra reached something like a career commercial and critical peak with his latest in a series of song cycles he had helped popularize, the “concept album.”

Though baby boomers associate the concept album (a song collection united by theme and musical motifs) with such collections as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Who’s Tommy, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Sinatra got there first, sensing, with the extra minutes afforded by the arrival of the LP in 1948, that he could make such records far more ambitious—and requiring closer attention by the listener—than a mere collection of hits and filler material.

In a little more than a decade, he would create several such compilations: Songs For Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Moonlight Sinatra, and, as he turned fifty, September of My Years.

While several of these would be uptempo, it was his more melancholy LPs that called out his soulful, sensitive side. There are those who prefer In the Wee Small Hours as an example of this tendency.

But the one that came out 65 years ago today, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely (often shortened to Only the Lonely, as I will do here), struck a special chord with the public, reaching #1 on the charts and being nominated for five Grammys in the first time those recording industry awards were presented. It also measured up to the singer’s demanding standard, as it would be one of the ones he would cite toward the end of his five-decade career as his favorite.

The Best Album Cover Grammy—the only one that, ironically, the album did win—should have been a dead giveaway that the finger-snappin’, swaggerin’ swinger who had been riding the pop charts had taken a back seat to the self-described “saloon singer” who craved the intimacy of a nightclub to communicate with audiences.

Artist Nick Volpe painted Sinatra, amid a gloomy dark background, as a Pagliacci-like sad clown, and the singer had much to be sorrowful about during the recording sessions: his last attempt at a regular TV series, The Frank Sinatra Show, was about to be canceled, and though his divorce from Ava Gardner was finalized the year before, she still represented for him The One Who Got Away.

Sinatra joked that the bleak tunes on Only the Lonely were “suicide songs,” but those familiar with the singer-actor knew and fretted over his mood swings (and he had, in fact, attempted suicide several times at low points in his relationship with Gardner, and once in the early 1950s when he thought he was washed up).

In Nelson Riddle, Sinatra found a musical partner whose temperament and musical orientation meshed perfectly with his own. Another New Jersey native who was an only child growing up, Riddle was also dealing with heartache during the Only the Lonely sessions, having recently endured the deaths of his mother and daughter.

Paired with Sinatra by Capitol Records to help forge a more mature sound from the one that one that made him a teen idol in the early 1950s, Riddle had triumphed beyond expectations with a series of bestselling LPs that took advantage of Sinatra’s changing voice textures, which were evolving, in the words of Pete Hamill’s Why Sinatra Matters, “from a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones."

In an interview cited in Terry Teachout’s July/August 2021 Commentary article, “The Man Who (Re)Made Sinatra,” Riddle described what he had tried to do in the studio with his most famous musical project:

“First, find the peak of the song and build the whole arrangement to that peak, pacing itself as [Sinatra] paces himself vocally. Second, when he’s moving, get the hell out of the way. When he’s doing nothing, move in fast and establish something…build about two-thirds of the way through, and then fade to a surprise ending.”

On movie sets, he was infamous for an unwillingness to rehearse or maintain interest beyond a few takes. But with lyrics, it was different. He positively burrowed into each note, each line, and when he was done he had created a kind of musical short story in each tune.

Part of Sinatra’s magic stemmed from his exquisite sense of which songs worked for him. As with his other LPs in this period, he turned to some of the greatest lyricists and composers who comprised the Great American Songbook, including Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer (“Blues in the Night”), Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen (the title track). Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (“Spring Is Here” and “Where or When”), and Jule Styne (co-writer, with Cahn, of “Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry").

Three songs in particular fascinated me about this album. Carl Sigman and Robert Maxwell’s “Ebb Tide” would later be covered by the Righteous Brothers, but Sinatra and Riddle chose a different way to close out the tune than the rock duo and their producer Phil Spector, climaxing on the lyrics “I can tell, I, I can feel/You are love, you are real/Really mine in the rain/In the dark, in the sun” before receding with “Like the tide at its ebb/I'm at peace in the web/of your arms."

Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" had been written for the 1943 Fred Astaire movie musical The Sky’s the Limit, but Sinatra made it into an unsurpassed demonstration of his own powers of interpretation.

On movie sets, he was infamous for an unwillingness to rehearse or maintain interest beyond a few takes. But with lyrics for his albums, it was different. He positively burrowed into each note, each line, and when he was done he had created a kind of musical short story in each tune. You can see how he wove his magic in this YouTube clip.

Matt Dennis and Earl Brent’s “Angel Eyes” provided the ending to what Sinatra had billed as his “retirement concert” in 1971. It was surely a mistake, for someone who thrived so much on audience attention, to leave the stage while still only 55.  

But, had he followed through on his resolution, nobody would have ever been able to forget how he chose to go out. As seen in this YouTube video in the closing minutes of the June 13, 1971 show in Los Angeles, with smoke from his cigarette billowing and the spotlight on him dimming, he sang,

Pardon me, but I gotta run
Gotta find who's now number one
And why my angel eyes ain't here
Excuse me while I disappear.

If only he could have disappeared at this point! But he un-retired in short order. The success of his two late-career CDs, Duets and Duets II, was due more to the younger performers who blended their voices with his (unlike old days, not in the same studio) than to his own powers, which were on the wane at this point.

On February 23, 1995, in Japan, the 79-year-old Sinatra—confused and glassy-eyed, as remembered by drummer Gregg Field in this 2015 Vanity Fair article—performed in public for the final time, at a concert in Japan where he kept missing lyrics from nearby teleprompters.

The epitaph on “The Voice’s” tombstone came from one of his most ebullient songs: “The Best Is Yet to Come.” But the vulnerable spirit of his reported final words at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. in 1998 could have come as no surprise to close listeners of Only the Lonely: “I’m losing.”

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