From time to time we receive an e-mail asking when we will finally — finally — get around to featuring Frank Sinatra. “Give Frank the recognition he deserves” said one writer. Steve Martin used to say, “well, excuuuuuse me!”
As if the legacy of Frank Sinatra requires our official recognition? As if there’s anything we could add to the mountain of information already written about this legend? As if we could say it any better than what has already been so eloquently written? Not likely.
In defense of PopularSong.org, we have featured Mr. Sinatra and his music in many articles, it’s just that we haven’t done an official “featured artist” article. His music and his influence are unavoidable in discussions of American Popular Song, so we really didn’t feel it was necessary. But the letters keep coming in, so here goes.
If you’re a regular reader of this website, you know that we very rarely do straight biographies of feature artists or songwriters; we try to take a new or fresh look at things. Besides, there are a number of very well-written bios of Frank Sinatra online that can provide the nuts and bolts stuff if you want to read it. So when we were discussing the possible angles we could use to discuss Mr. Sinatra, the familiar whistling of Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” came on the radio. Somebody made an offhand comment, “too bad Sinatra never recorded that song.” “He never would’ve whistled,” came a quick reply. “Yeah but he would’ve hummed…or something…he would’ve made it a Frank Sinatra song.” The more we listened, the more it became clear that Joel’s “Stranger” would be ideal material for FS.
Just imagine Sinatra working these lines:
She refused to even answer
It was then I felt the stranger
Kick me right between the eyes
As the song played out, we began to toss around other titles that we wished Sinatra had recorded. Some were outrageous, but it seemed that the more outrageous, the better it would’ve been. Some songs were rather bland, and we were able to dismiss those straight out. Eventually we came up with an entire album of material, and realized that we had found PopularSong.org’s “angle” for paying tribute to FS.
Sinatra fans, this is for you. You’ll have to use your imagination, because unfortunately you won’t be hearing Frank’s versions anytime soon…
First of all, this record is released on vinyl. We say that, because we want to relive the thrill of using our thumbnail to slice open the wrapper, eagerly anticipating Frank’s newest offering. We know that it will be a blend of pop and jazz, perfectly arranged and orchestrated, but with the styling and phrasing that only Frank can provide. We’re going to play it on a giant console hi-fi, a mid-1960s monstrosity with a sound that takes us back in time.
This album has a cover photo similar to the classic image on 1981’s She Shot Me Down, his last LP on the Reprise label he founded. Our imaginary album was released a couple years later, because we imagine that — this time around — the record-buying public realizes what a masterpiece She Shot Me Down was. We imagine the Grammy for album of the year goes to Sinatra, instead of the corporate rock of Christopher Cross. Nothing against Cross or producer Michael Omartian, that album was a monster, but in retrospect it seems that many of the songs sound remarkably alike. In any case, we imagine Sinatra is so inspired by these successes that he records this new album as a follow up. The only difference is, this time he looks at the camera, and therefore is looking at us as we hold the album in our hands. Frank Sinatra: The Stranger.
The effect is fantastic. Now let’s discuss the tracks…
The album leads off with the title tune. Joel himself guests on piano; his producer Phil Ramone worked with Sinatra on Duets just prior to Frank’s passing. FS slows down “The Stranger,” and the effect of some of the lyrics is completely different from Joel’s frantic pace on the original. Billy’s on board with the new arrangement, and his piano becomes an amazing counterpunch to Frank’s vocal uppercuts.
The last verse is harrowing, as if Joel has penned a biography just for Frank:
You may never understand
How the stranger is inspired
But he isn’t always evil
…You will never quench the fire
You’ll give in to your desire
When the stranger comes along.
Fading on just Sinatra’s humming over Joel’s introspective piano, the listener wonders if it’s even possible to follow that song. Sinatra, having worked an audience for more than half a century, knows immediately how to shift gears and re-focus. The orchestra kicks in with some horns, and a little more electric guitar than we’re used to from this artist. But it’s unmistakably Sinatra, except we aren’t sure what. Finally he punches up the vocals, and we’re reassured. It sounds exactly like a Sinatra song.
Guess who just got back today?
Those wild-eyed boys that had been away
He goes on, working smoothly with the guitar:
…Man, I still think them cats are crazy
Sinatra-esque lyrics, for sure, but what? Eventually he kicks into the chorus, gliding on the guitar while the horns punch it up, and we realize it’s “The Boys Are Back In Town,” originally recorded by a late 1970s rock band called Thin Lizzy. The original is compelling, but Sinatra’s version is entertaining, painting a vivid image of rabble rousers downtown. It skirts perfectly around the rock and roll when it has to — hey, it’s Sinatra. He makes the song his own, but doesn’t change many of the words, including the tag:
The boy’s are back in town again
Been hangin’ down at Dino’s
Looking at the playlist, we see that FS follows that surprising rocker with another. We know this next tune, “Light My Fire,” so the song sequence makes sense. Or does it? Remember, this is Sinatra.
Bracing ourselves for a Doors-like cacophony of organ and guitar, we are caught unaware by the smooth strings seemingly lifted from “It Was a Very Good Year.” Sure enough, we find the orchestration on this number was done by none other than Gordon Jenkins. The song is slow and introspective, nothing at all like Jose Feliciano’s version or the Doors’ original. Sinatra, recalling how Robbie Krieger’s words upset a certain TV show host a few years earlier, decides to tweak the late Ed Sullivan just one more time. He changes the line in question only slightly to Babe, we couldn’t get much higher. Sinatra tries to set the night on fire, and as his vocals rise to match Jenkins’ soaring strings, he succeeds.
Now, in case you’re saying, “nah, Frank would never do a Doors song…” We refer you to The Main Event LP recorded live at Madison Square Garden. At the end of Frank’s irresistable cover of “You Are the Sunshine of my Life,” you’ll hear that FS was quite fond of the phrase “Light My Fire.” Back to our album.
The record spins to the next cut, and immediately cranks up the organ we expected but never heard on the last. It’s reminiscent of “That’s Life,” until a number of jazz horns pile in, and Frank jumps on board.
As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was on my watch
And I said
Does anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care
For all we know this song could be called “That’s Life, Part II,” but of course it’s Robert Lamm’s “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is,” recorded on Chicago’s debut album in 1969. When you think about it, some of Sinatra’s Reprise sounds echo in Chicago’s classic pop/jazz of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Our imaginary copy of this particular song certainly bears this out. Although Lamm’s vocals are classic, FS goes a step further. We hear concern, despair and uncertainty in the layers of that voice, and Frank leaves us wondering if the rhetorical question should actually be, “Does Anybody Really Know Who Frank Sinatra Is.”
Two shorter songs finish out side one, the first is “Shiloh,” a Neil Diamond composition about an child’s imaginary friend. When the child grows and is crushed by lost love, he calls upon Shiloh again. Diamond had a solid hit with the song, however he isn’t capable of approaching it with the same emotion as Sinatra. Here Frank shows us his vulnerable side, drawing on the same feelings that propelled “Somethin’ Stupid” to the top of the charts with daughter Nancy.
Side one finishes out with “America, The Beautiful.” Now at this point Sinatra afficianados are saying, “Hold on a second — Sinatra did record that song!” Yes, but his version dates from the early 1950s. The man went through quite a bit in the years since; establishing his own record label, re-establishing himself as a hitmaker. More importantly he went through the pain of helping JFK launch his presidential bid, only to be ostracized by the Kennedy family afterward. In later years he was a staunch supporter of Ronald Reagan. Sinatra wasn’t as much a politician as he was a patriot. He believed in his country, and believed in certain men regardless of what party they represented. Our imaginary recording session coincides with the early Reagan years — the country had climbed out of the doldrums — it was “morning in America.” Just imagine what an older and wiser Sinatra would do with “America, The Beautiful” circa 1982/1983.
Time to Flip the Disc
“Turn the record over!” Guess you don’t hear that much any more. That’s ok, we’ll imagine somebody prompted us as we were mulling over Frank’s later version of a patriotic song. Side two kicks off completely different from side one. It may not be the best fit, but remember, this is our imaginary list of songs we wished he’d recorded, so it doesn’t have to fit.
Sinatra was all business in the studio, but at the same time, he enjoyed his craft. We imagine he could’ve given everyone a terrific lesson in singing, because after all, who sang better than he did? Thus we have Frank’s version of “Do-Re-Mi,” recorded with an amazing backing vocal group. It’s so good, we had to do quite a bit of digging to make sure Ol’ Blue Eyes never actually recorded this. Who could do a better rising scale on “when you know the notes to sing…you can sing most anything?”
The second song on side two is a cover of an old Perry Como record, “Magic Moments.” Now we’re not saying Mr. C’s version is lacking anything, we just happen to think Sinatra liked a musical challenge. For our imaginary recording, Sinatra strips away a lot of the niceties and makes it slightly suggestive. If it’s possible to have a version of “Magic Moments” that has a bit of edge to it, this is it. The time that the floor fell out of my car… becomes less funny — it mirrors frustration. And the telephone call that tied up the line for hours and hours is no longer happy talk; Sinatra makes it a deep, romantic conversation that changes her world.
Tina Sinatra published a biography of her father after his death, explaining that he was constantly tortured, constantly driven, a man struggling within himself, battling whatever demons he battled, and that is what made his songs work so well. At one point she writes that if he hadn’t been that way, “he would’ve been Perry Como.” That’s not to besmirch Perry, it’s just her way of saying that he would not have been the passionate singer that he was; he would’ve been “safe” — like Perry. So we include this among our fantasy Sinatra songs to make that point clear, and also because we think the Halloween Hop that Mr. C. sings about would become slightly risque in Mr. Sinatra’s version.
Moving along, the third cut on side two is also a song of reminiscence, but with a much more somber tone. It begins with FS singing alone, setting the tone before the music enters:
A long, long time ago…
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile
It sounds familiar, but the vocals are so much more powerful…finally it hits us, this is Don McLean’s self-penned hit, “American Pie.” When this song dominated the airwaves in the early 1970s, with errant 1960s hippie leftovers dancing everywhere to the strains of good ol’ boys drinking whiskey and rye, it would be hard to imagine a less Sinatraesque song. Time heals many things, however, and although Sinatra may have been a troubled soul, he wasn’t troubled when it came to recognizing an outstanding song. And when he sings Jack Flash sat on a candlestick, he does it in a way that shows why Jack Flash simply isn’t in the same league as FS. Where McLean sings the lyrics from his heart, Sinatra works the lyrics and adds soul. The end result? Frank Sinatra’s version of “American Pie” is the masterpiece on a masterful album.
And so we arrive at the penultimate song, and Sinatra decides to give a nod to another skinny kid from New Jersey. It’s a bluesy version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The first verse is difficult for Sinatra fans to decipher, but by the time he hits the second, FS is rolling with the punches…
Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny,
Something that they just can’t face,
Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it,
They carry it with them every step that they take.
We see the needle nearing the end of side two, meaning that the album is coming to a close. But we want more, one more song to tie together that image of Frank, sitting amidst the swirling smoke, on the album sleeve.
Nelson Riddle kicks it off, a smooth, quiet number. Frank jumps in at the upper range of his voice, but softly:
Everybody’s a dreamer
everybody’s a star…
The song is Ray Davies’ “Celluloid Heroes,” a downtempo number recorded by The Kinks. It’s an unusual choice, no question about it, but it quickly becomes introspective, wistful. Perfect Sinatra.
please don’t tread on dearest Marilyn
because she’s not very tough,
She should have been made of iron or steel,
But she was only made of flesh and blood.
As he recalls others he knew and worked with, the listener realizes that this song was tailor made for FS. And as the song winds down, the lyrics are a fitting coda to an up-and-down, but always brilliant, career.
I wish my life was a non-stop Hollywood movie show,
A fantasy world of celluloid villains and heroes,
Because celluloid heroes never feel any pain
And celluloid heroes never really die.
The song segues back into Billy Joel’s piano, and we can hear Frank quietly humming “The Stranger” before the fade. The needle tracks to the label, and our massive Magnavox turntable clicks off audibly and solidly. It leaves us to contemplate the obvious question…Did anybody really know Frank Sinatra? He was the definitive stranger — a perfect stranger.
* * * * *
So there you have it, an entire album of songs we wish Sinatra had recorded. Pure fantasy to be sure, but it’s easy to imagine how strong this record would’ve been. Here’s a summary:
The Boys are Back in Town
Light My Fire
Does Anybody Really Know What Time it is
America, The Beautiful
Darkness on the Edge of Town
Sadly, this record doesn’t exist. As far as we know, he never really recorded (or in one case, re-recorded) these songs. But we can all hold out hope that our imaginary original tapes will be rediscovered, re-mastered and released on what today’s audiophiles call “vinyl.”