Saturday, December 12, 2015

Celebrating a couple of musical centenaries this weekend

December is a busy time for most people, so I wanted to take a break from the busy holiday schedule and offer up some thoughts on a couple of musical milestones we are observing this week, both involving singers who defined their particular genre and generation.

The first is the 100th anniversary of the birth of German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was born December 9th in 1915.  She passed away in 2006.

Her body of recorded work, conceived with her husband, the legendary producer Walter Legge, was extensive.  From operas and operettas such as Lehar's The Merry Widow to the still-classic Christmas album Stille Nacht, recorded with Sir Charles Mackerras in 1957, to the wide variety of recital discs she recorded, Schwarzkopf did it all.  Her voice is still remembered for a richness and texture you just don't hear anymore.

It is perhaps the aforementioned Christmas album that brought her the most fame and for many of us, introduced us to the sound of an opera voice interpreting traditional Christmas music.  Now it is almost routine to hear the popular opera singers today record Christmas albums, but hers was a bit of a groundbreaker.  Growing up in the 50s and 60s, Schwarzkopf and Dame Joan Sutherland were two of the biggest opera stars around and both produced extraordinarily popular Christmas albums.

Happily, both of these Christmas albums are still in print and available through, or just email me directly at if you want to get a copy of either or both for the holidays.

In fact, Warner Classics has just released a lavish 31-disc box set of all of Schwarzkopf's recital recordings dating from 1952 to 1974.  Each of the discs comes in a sleeve with the original artwork, all housed in an elegant box.  It, too, is available now through

The second singer we salute this weekend is none other than Ol' Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, who would have turned 100 today if he had lived that long.  He in fact died in 1998 at the age of 82.

I became a huge fan of Sinatra years ago when I first started in radio and he was just launching his post-retirement comeback with the now-famous album "Old Blue Eyes is Back", arranged and conducted by longtime Sinatra colleague Gordon Jenkins.

I wasn't necessarily a fan of much of Sinatra's post-retirement recordings, as I found his voice had simply deteriorated far too much by then to be enjoyed fully.  Oh sure, Sinatra the consummate professional masked the shortcomings with his voice as he got older for as long as he could, but there came a time I really wish he had in fact quit while he was ahead.

The concert-stage for many entertainers is intoxicating and the thrill of the crowd at your feet is admittedly hard to walk away from.  But Sinatra didn't need to prove anything at that point and couldn't possibly have needed the money, so why risk his great legacy with an inferior voice after he returned from retirement?

We'll probably never know the real answer to that question.

What I do know is I have my most and least favourite Sinatra recordings, many of which are in my extensive record and CD collections and played regularly.

My least favourite Sinatra recording was 1984's Some Nice Things I Missed, which was basically a Sinatra take on many of the hits of the previous decade along with some new material.  The absolute worst track of all was "Satisfy Me One More Time" - yes, it is as bad as the title suggests.  Cringe-worthy Sinatra to be sure.

On the other hand, my favourite Sinatra recordings come from his justifiably celebrated Capitol era in the 50s.  Sinatra exited the 40s as a crooner with lots of "bobby-sox" fans but a damaged voice and no recording contract.  His Columbia years made him a star, but now he was at risk of being labelled a "has been".

Sinatra knew better, and set out to prove his critics wrong.  He wanted to act, and fought for the straight acting role in From Here to Eternity to show what he could do.  About the same time, he signed a recording contract with Capitol Records, founded a decade earlier and featuring a roster of largely faded 40s-era singers.  But Sinatra quickly rose to the top of the roster with a string of exceptional "concept" albums still revered today for their sound and innovation.

Of all the arrangers Sinatra worked with during the 50s, ranging from Axel Stordahl to Billy May to Gordon Jenkins, by far his definitive recordings had him paired with the esteemed arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle.

In fact, my two favourite Sinatra recordings from that era were arranged by Riddle, who just knew how best to showcase Frank's voice.  The first was the magical Songs For Swingin' Lovers, recorded in 1956.  Each and every arrangement is a gem, beautifully supporting Frank every step of the way, with the orchestra cutting loose every now and again as on the now classic recording of I've Got You Under My Skin.  Nelson's ground-breaking arrangement set the standard for orchestral arrangements, and you still hear his arrangement today as other singers emulate Sinatra on this Cole Porter classic.  There simply is no better arrangement of this song.  Period.

The second Sinatra/Riddle pairing I love is 1958's brooding Only The Lonely.  Here is Riddle paring the arrangements down to the bare minimum, but still backing Sinatra every step of the way.  His now-famous recording of One For My Baby (And One More for the Road) is exceptional in its simplicity, clarity and heart-wrenching loneliness.  Riddle used the same formula when he recorded with Linda Ronstadt in the 80s, and in fact both her and Frank's recordings of What's New? share much the same arrangement.

Sinatra's 60s recordings for his own Reprise label produced some gems as well, including his 1965 Grammy winner September of My Years, arranged and conducted by Gordon Jenkins.  But he also released his fair share of much more pop-oriented albums with mixed results.  He was often on the pop charts during the 60s, but many of those albums I personally don't find as satisfying as his earlier Capitol recordings.

By the 90s, Sinatra was back at Capitol and recording his popular Duets albums, sharing the spotlight with a host of popular entertainers of the day, each basking in the glow of recording with The Voice.  Or, what was The Voice at one time.  By this point, Sinatra was a shadow of his former self, voice-wise.

He also recorded the now-classic Theme From New York, New York with a big, brassy arrangement and lots of swagger, but his vocal limitations were becoming quite obvious at this point.  He knew how to interpret the song better than anyone else, of course, and that is what made the recording the definitive version of the song, in spite of the fact he couldn't hold those notes at the end.

I remember years ago in my radio career when I produced a lot of Blue Jays radio broadcasts locally and one night they were playing at Yankee Stadium.  During the entire post-game show, the stadium loudspeakers were blaring Sinatra's ode to the Big Apple as they always do, and after about the 10th consecutive airing of the Theme from New York, New York, I was about ready to scream...but I digress.

Sinatra was without question the pre-eminent singer and interpreter of the Great American Songbook,  with many of his recordings unequalled even today.  Almost all of them are still in print, and many have a special place in my personal CD collection.  If you want to remember any part of his storied career, email me your preferences at and I will see about getting any and all of your favourite Sinatra recordings for you.

Beyond Sinatra the singer, there was Sinatra the larger-than-life Hollywood and Vegas star, always in the news for one reason or another, and causing gossip columnists to fall over each other for the latest juicy tid-bit on his personal life.  One wonders how this social-media driven world today would handle his many celebrated exploits.

I loved Sinatra the singer, and I loved Sinatra the style setter.  I still wear a fedora from time to time as a tribute to the man who practically lived in one as he hid his receding hairline from public view.

Perhaps the most interesting tribute to Sinatra late in his career was the Chrysler Imperial Frank Sinatra Edition.  Remember that?  A baby-blue over-the-top luxury boat with a stash of Sinatra recordings on cassette ready to pop into the cassette player when you were behind the wheel.  Who says previous generations didn't know the power of marketing?!

Sinatra was one of the best and most popular singers of his generation and his recorded output may never be equalled.  This weekend we celebrate the lanky lad from Hoboken, New Jersey who made it to the top and stayed there for such a long time.

Happy 100th, Frank.  You continue to do it Your Way.

Have a great weekend!

December 12th, 2015.

No comments: