on 8 October 2005
If we are talking about essential Frank Sinatra albums for a music collection, the first one would have to be 1954's "In the Wee Small Hours," a superb collection of ballads that helped establish the former bobbysoxer heartthrob as the premier saloon singer of his generation. But the second album on that list would be 1955's "Songs for Swingin' Lovers," in which Sinatra and arranger Nelson Riddle go in the opposite direction, providing a stellar collection of pop standards reinterpreted for the crooner who was becoming a damn fine singer. Several of the songs, such as "Pennies From Heaven" and "I've Got You Under My Skin," actually predated the start of Sinatra's career, but in the case of the latter Sinatra provided what is arguably the definitive version of the Cole Potter classic and the song that in retrospect defined Frank Sinatra as the premier vocalist of the 20th century (sorry for the understatement). The zesty tone for the album is established with the opening track, "You Make Me Feel So Young," while other great tracks if you had to be picky would be "You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me" and "Too Marvelous for Words." All of these songs give you the undeniable sense that Sinatra is just having a great time singing each and every one of them. Riddle's arrangements, done with a core rhythm section and a full orchestra, are the key to unlocking the door to musical greatness and are as fine as anything he ever did for Sinatra or anyone else. Part of the problem is that nobody really remembers what most of these songs sounded like before Riddle and Sinatra reworked them into the songs we know today. I may well change my mind tomorrow, but today I would make the case that "I've Got You Under My Skin" is the greatest Frank Sinatra song.
on 4 June 2003
Unlike some of his contemporaries at the time, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and other celebrated jazz vocalists, Sinatra's art was in the concealment of his technique. Upon first listen, this album sounds like Frank is just serenading his lover, or singing to himself. But the music feels strangely satisfying and euphoric and just makes you want to dance and click your fingers. This is due, to the many subtleties in Sinatra's voice. As opposed to Ella, who's inventive scat lines keep you constantly interested in her delightful voice, or Louis, who's warm character and humour just shines through the speakers, Sinatra possesses, I believe, an equal measure of talent, but in a different way.
Sinatra excels in three directions: Rhythm, expression and control. Sometimes, Frank chomps down hard on the beat, fitting into the groove, like on "Anything Goes". Here, the syllables "in-ol-den-days-a-glimpse..." are right on the beat. He then jumps right off the beat, with "stock" in "stocking". This is just one example of Frank's extraordinary understanding of the jazz idiom. Sometimes, his democratic timing spreads the notes equally out. Such as in "I've Got You Under My Skin". Porter writes that the word "skin" ends up at the beginning of the third bar, with a long gap till the next phrase. Sinatra spreads out the phrase, so "skin" ends up halfway through the bar, then, starts the next phrase early. This incredibly romantic style is always appropriately used, and never more so than on this album, which, is all about romanticism.
Expression wise, aside from the elongated phrases which just glide over the music, as better illustrated in other albums at this time (Wee Small Hours), Frank possesses a natural gift for dynamics and diction. Even though, at this time, and for the rest of his life, Sinatra spoke in a heavy New Jersey accent, he sings like a poet. His wonderful, conversational expressiveness that made him the pin-up of every teenage girl in the 40's still remains. He can insinuate such complex feelings, such as in "I Thought About You" where he thinks about his loved one, as his train speeds away, and you can hear him smiling as he says the line "I like New York in June", reverting for a moment to a faint New Jersey accent. In a way, Sinatra's wide range of expressiveness on this album shows his understading of the complexities of love.
Frank's voice in this era has taken on a lovely colour. While retaining the boyish charisma of his Columbia era, his voice has deepened, acquiring a beautifully deep viola timbre. Although Frank was only a light baritone, his deep timbre implies that, should he choose to do so, he could go much lower. Even on the high notes, his voice resonates with warmth, with no nasal tones. When he wanted, he could even use the shortcomings of his voice to his advantage. Not so much on this album, but on other Capitol albums of the time, he could exploit the area of his voice that was above middle C, which was hard to control. He would sing in this area on ballads or torch songs, and his voice would sound weak or maybe might crack. Just one example of Frank's dark art, as it were.
You might wonder what the difference or advantage of these hidden talents are. Whereas any woman who hears Ella or any man who hears Mel Torme, maybe, thinks, I could never do that. Those singers take you out of yourself and in again. Singers like Billie Holiday and Sinatra take you in yourself and out again. A young man hearing Frank on this album thinks, "I can do that", but in fact, Frank sings better than anyone else thinks they can.
There are other great components of this album, aside from the marvellous singing. Nelson Riddle's arrangements are simply "Too Marvellous For Words". Unlike some of his contemporaries of the time such as Buddy Bregman, or Paul Weston, Riddle doesn't write standard block Jazz arrangements. Aside from the sheer masterpiece that is "I've Got You Under My Skin", arrangments such as "You Make Me Feel So Young" burst with life and zest. Riddle was imaginative in his use of strings. He uses them like a jazz instrument, like in "It Happened in Monterey" where the strings flutter and twirl with life and colour. Riddle also uses marimbas, bass trombone and flutes for different touches of colour.
The production, is maybe the least best element of the album, but it is only contrained by recording limitations: The trombones and trumpets are right at the back, and the sound is often dull and grey. But Voyle Gilmore has stuck Frank right in the middle of the band, right in amongst the musicians, as opposed to someone like Norman Granz, who liked Ella to be on top of the music, seperated from it, aurally. Maybe it's just that Sinatra had a brilliant big band voice, but he sounds like he could be standing in the trombone section.
And finally the material. The two Cole Porter songs "Under My Skin" and "Anything Goes" are two of the many high points of the album. Most lyrics, if not the titles, contain the word "you" in them, which is appropriate to the vision of Sinatra crooning to his swingin' lover.
The album may have one or two minor discrepencies, such as the flatness in sound that occurs (fiddle with the treble and bass on the stereo, and you will eliminate this problem - the recording will sound crystalline, and you will forget about the sound) and the dated sound that the celesta some times brings to the music, but this is an epitomic album of the peak of Sinatra's entire career.
In short, if you are a Frank fan, i can't think of any reason why you haven't bought this album yet, and if you aren't a Frank fan, then this album will blow you away.
Frank Sinatra's musical collaboration with arranger Nelson Riddle is the stuff of legend. The 1956 landmark recording Songs For Swingin' Lovers captures the essence of the two jazzmen's chemistry in what is an inspired collection of songs. Despite what would now be considered a decidedly naff (or maybe even risqué) album title, it is difficult not to get carried away by Sinatra's infectious, witty and suave delivery of this selection of compositions written (predominantly with Hollywood cinema in mind) by some of the 20th century's most renowned songwriters, including the likes of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Van Heusen, Mack Gordon and many more.
Of course, it could be argued (I suppose) that making a Sinatra record was no big deal - he's only recording - rehashing, even - other people's material. But where, for me, Sinatra scores above all the other singers that were his contemporaries (even those with undoubtedly - technically - superior voices, such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald) - is that the man (certainly at the time of this recording) was the ultimate 'vocalist', that is, his 'singing' was about much more than simply the voice; it was as much about pacing, mannerisms and inflection, plus his visual delivery. Indeed, it was these qualities which led to Sinatra being the biggest sex symbol of his day - coincidentally, the month of Songs For Swingin' Lovers' release (March 1956) also saw the release of the debut album of the vocalist who would (arguably) eclipse even Sinatra, Elvis Presley.
So, the message is: just sit back and enjoy the beautiful melodies and lyricism of songs such as You Make Me Feel So Young, You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me, Old Devil Moon, Makin' Whoopee (I'm amazed such a song title was allowed in 1928!), I Thought About You and my personal favourite, I've Got You Under My Skin ('Why not use your mentality - get up, wake up to reality?').
For anyone who wishes to hear a musical combination (singer and arranger) as near to perfect as it is possible to get, then this is as good a place as any to start.