Francis Albert Sinatra was a lot of things, some good and some bad, but firstly and foremost he was a singer. Over a 55-year career he went from being a skinny mama's boy to the undispuded champion of popular vocalists. If we define popular music as everything except classical and purely indigenous folk musics, Frank Sinatra was the best singer of popular music, of either gender and any race or nationality, at least in the English language,in human history to date. He set out to sing the best entertainment and musical theatre songs he could, the best way that he could imagine them sung. He trained himself to sing to a standard elsewhere found only in operatic music, but with very different goals: he made being a microphone singer from a pejorative to an accolade, developing his lung capacity to emulate circular-breathing jazz brasswind players in sustained notes and passages rather than for volume. He leveraged his early popular mania with teenage, male-starved "bobbysoxers" into having the pull with record companies and recording resources to execute his ideas-great songs (new or decades-old, but well-crafted and with melodies that held up and intelligent lyrics) with great arrangements played by great musicians and recorded (in good rooms!) with state of the art but essentially simple equipment by professionals- a situation that seems quaint today with Pro Tools and sequencing software available to high-schoolers.
Sinatra's career can be largely divided into four phases: the first being his band singer work with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, his solo debut on Columbia Records, his 50's departure-over the efforts of Mitch Miller to make him record what he (usually correctly) considered dreck-to Capitol Records, and finally his founding of his own label, Reprise, on which his later career was spent. (His last efforts, the commercially successful but musically dubious "Duets" pair, returned him to Capitol, albeit with production by Phil Ramone and heavy doses of "vocal Viagra" in the form of pitch correcting autotune plug-ins for Pro Tools: by that point extensive consolidation of record labels made the point somewhat moot.)
While many Sinatra purists will argue for starting a serious Sinatra collection with the Columbia and Capitol box sets, I would start with this one and work backwards. Frank's Reprise studio career extends from December of 1960 to June of 1988, across seven U.S. presidents and the peaks of the careers of Marilyn Monroe and Madonna. The Reprise era starts at roughly Sinatra's peak period in every sense and continues through what is really the end of his recording career. Along the way, he records a good percentage of his best work, faces the tragedies and adversities of his life, and exits stage right with head unbowed.
Here, across twenty CDs, is the entire released studio work of Frank Sinatra on the Reprise label. Much, arguably most, of it is magnificent. He revisits many if not most of his favorite standards from the Columbia and Capitol eras, adds a few new ones, and records dozens of contemporary songs and "elegant novelties" from both old standby writers (Cahn and Van Heusen, as always, leading the pack) and then-current pop tunesmiths and Top 40 writer-performers. Simon and Garfunkel (admittedly to their chagrin,as I'll expand on later), John Denver, Neil Diamond, Sonny Bono, Joni Mitchell, Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes (the writing component of Frankie Valli's Four Seasons), Beatles George Harrison and the Lennon-McCartney pair,and others find themselves alongside Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.
A lot of derision has been directed toward's Frank's performances of these songs, much of it no more than mean-spirited drivel. To be sure, it doesn't always work: Frank openly treats Tony Hatch's "Downtown" (made famous by Petula Clark, and rightly so) with contempt-he actually sings "bleech!" at the end!-and is a fish out of water with some of the Lennon-McCartney songs, and even what should be an easy safe hit with the then-retro "Winchester Cathedral" winds up being not a disaster but not quite up to the Rudy Vallee-evoking New Vaudeville Band hit.
And yet-some of these songs are home runs by any standard. Harrison's "Something", which Frank records not once but twice, was slammed vitriolically by rock critics, but when Harrison's own performances of the song started reflecting Frank's, the singer/songwriter's ultimate accolade made them look foolish, and rightly so. You stick around, Jack, it might show.
Special mention has to be made, here and now, of one of Sinatra's so called "bons mot", the notorious Mrs.Robinson. Sending critics such as the notorious Christgau (who would be the biggest idiot in the New York music literary scene if Will Friedwald weren't so utterly persistent and ingenious at stealing the title from beneath his nose) into fits of apoplexy, this song deserves its own full-length essay in and of itself. Suffice it to say it's Sinatra's response, and backhanded apologia, even, to a series of events starting with the Wrong Door Raid and is one of the very rare genuinely funny events of Sinatra's entire musical universe. It's a classy swinging ringer-dinger and a great sendup of the "seriousness" around the Paul Simons and Bob Dylans in the sixties, and simultaneously lets Frank have a little sophisticated adult fun at the expense of the mania around "The Graduate". The first time I heard it, I broke out laughing and couldn't stop for half an hour.
Accompanying the 20 CDs in two mini-albums reminiscent of the bound books in which shellac 78 rpm discs were sold, is a small hardbound cloth cover book which I have in front of me, invaluable in writing this. It contains interviews with Bill Miller and Al Caiola, and pieces by Wilfrid Sheed, Stan Cornyn, and XM Radio "Frank's Place" DJ Jonathan Schwartz. It's a good read, although the student of recording science will regret the lack of technical and room details, the armchair arranger and discographer will miss the lack of personnel rosters on the sessions-almost all of which still exist-and the photo buffs will miss many key photos and regret that others are rendered in a pastel shade. (How one could not use William Claxton's classic photo of Ray Charles, Marilyn Monroe and Jimmy Durante at a 1961 session is beyond any earthly accounting.)
Although is the single must-have compilation to all serious Sinatraphiles, above all others, I have to give it only four stars as opposed to five. For one thing, it's not totally complete: while it does include all the released studio sides, there are still many known and unknown things which never have seen legitimate-or any-release. Some of these are not really up to the standard, but others are, beyond dispute. Also, there are some live releases, such as 1965's "Live at the Sands with Count Basie" and 1974's "The Main Event" (with a notorious Howard Cosell introduction) which are part and parcel of the Sinatra oeuvre.
More seriously, many of the extant master tapes of some of these sessions are of such quality that Compact Disk does not do them justice. I have had the privilege-how and when are not for me to disclose at this time- of hearing a small section of these tracks on the very master tapes some of this set was mastered from, on a really first rate high end system hooked to an Ampex deck with Boyk mechanical ministrations and the notorious de Paravicini electronics. Hearing these CDs, vintage U.S. release LPs, and the original tapes successively made it clear that the LP's were somewhat closer in some ways than the CDs to the tapes, and that the tapes were still better to the extent that a future remaster to SACD or DVD-Audio, provided that ADC's of sufficient quality are available, holds the promise of sufficiently better sonics that hardcore audiophiles may well find themselves buying this music yet one more time. Three hundred dollars is not a colossal sum to most of the really serious audiophiles, but if you are buying this as a lifetime investment you may want to factor this in to your purchasing decisions.
On the other hand, life is too short to wait forever for the better deal. In the long run, buying this set upfront can be a big saving of time and money over piecemeal album purchases, and the case and book are pretty and functional (although they will get dirty easily over time and are not easily cleanable.) I have not regretted the purchase of this set-at more than the current listed Amazon price-once during the three years I've had it.