on 9 January 2003
I looked at the song titles and thought: "Hmm . . . I have most of these already. Wonder if there's another reason to buy this compilation?" As it turns out, yes indeed there is! For new Sinatra fans I'd make this CD my second purchase, after "The Very Best" double-CD collection. It's that good, that important.
Start with the fact that each song (and its exact sequence on the CD) was selected by Sinatra himself. More precious still, are his last words to us (literally) on the subject of his greatest accomplishment. He wrote the most interesting liner notes for this 1996 release, (see excerpt below) shedding light on the importance he placed on loyalty to those who love you, singling out one particular friend you may never have heard of (I hadn't).
Tina Sinatra, who contributed more than half the wonderful liner notes, identified her father's paramount virtue Loyalty (as distinct from 'faithfulness') in her bittersweet book, "My Father's Daughter: A Memoir" (Simon & Schuster 2000). I now highly recommend that book. I read it at one sitting, for the first time last night---frequently overcome with emotion, and taking a break long enough to listen again, with deeper understanding, to the songs on this collection.
In the CD liner notes Tina relates how father and daughter, on a summer's day at the Sinatra's Malibu beach residence (mid-July 1995) "walked along the sand dunes, and counted stars on a moonless night." Then they got down to the business of reviewing his entire, 450-song Reprise catalog. The next day her father came up with this list of 19 all-time, personal favorites. "I was relieved" Tina tells us "each time Dad passed over the more obvious choice (in favor of) the more obscure. After all, this was to be more than another greatest hits album . . . and it is."
Examples? Well, who among those of us who consider ourselves musically literate (thanks in large part to Sinatra himself) would ever have picked Lennon & McCartney's "Yesterday" over Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays"? Really, put up your hand if you'd ever have guessed the Beatles' tune would be Frank's own pick for better material? And when you listen to this recording of February 20, 1969 (his last great singing year?) you realize how much the singer appreciated arranger Don Costa, who helped him transform one of the lesser 'standards' of the last century into a 'silk purse' of such beauty. (It's been decades since McCartney's "Yesterday" surpassed Hoagy's "Stardust" as the most recorded song in history, and you find yourself wondering whether the surviving co-author ever heard a better rendition of his best song? (Wish that left-handed bass player would volunteer an opinion.)
Just as revealing is Sinatra's choice of all-time favorite arrangements: He recorded "If I had You" for example, three or four times, but this was his all-time favorite version. Arranged and conducted by Robert Farnon, on the night of June 12, 1962, this was the 'second take' of the first song recorded during the first of three nights of their unique studio session in London, for the "Great Songs from Great Britain" album. When the piano broke down for Bill Miller during the first take, Sinatra asked: "Have we got another piano? No? Okay then we'll do it on the celeste." The result (if you're like me) could be your surprise favorite of this entire CD---although true fans will treasure every selection here, knowing these 19 were his absolute favorites. An interesting sidebar for those who care about such things: Nelson Riddle accounted for four of these arrangements; Claus Ogerman did three and Gordon Jenkins two; Bob Farnon, Billy May and Torrie Zito, one apiece; Don Costa took the podium seven times. (Is the singer telling us something?)
"Everything Happens to Me" was the perfect choice for album title, as this 1981 version of the Tom Adair/Matt Dennis classic-of-the-same-name, (with Gordon Jenkins conducting) could never have been done with such feeling during his younger days. The pure vocal skills may be less at age 66, but then the older interpretive genius really brings 'gravitas' (as the Latins call it) to updated lyrics like these: "but pal you don't find rainbows in the bottom of a glass." And only an older and wiser man could deliver that believable blend of irony and humor dripping from the penultimate words: "(I) telegraphed and phoned, I sent an air mail special too, your answer was goodbye, and there was even (pause) ----postage due."
"My singing career" (to quote from his own notes) "really began with two-dollar vocal lessons from John Quinlan, a crusty, Irish drunk who agreed to work with this skinny dago. His operatic training and knowledge of the human throat have guided me for sixty years. I owe him more than I can ever say. To this day, before EVERY performance, I use his vocal exercises to warm up, like a runner stretches, and I think of his lectures on respecting this delicate instrument: "Abuse it and you'll lose it!" Whenever I have neglected his advice, I've always paid a big price. If I was in pain, I would call Quinlan and John would mutter, "Shut up"----he knew his business.
"Just as simple and direct was his advice about material: 'You can't sing what you don't understand.' All of us start out trying to sing like Crosby or Jolson, older and more experienced in life's struggles. So, 'Stormy Weather' really didn't hit for me until later. You get the picture. But I learned fast and emotionally graduated to the songs of love, loss joy and despair, expertly conveyed by the best lyricists and songwriters in the world. These are the songs of the soul. These are my songs."
(Now, can anyone think of a higher recommendation for buying this CD?)