march 2012

On The Concert Sinatra, ‘the old master’’s intimate readings turn the orchestra into a chamber group

Sinatra, Riddle & A Moment To Remember

By David McGee

Frank Sinatra
Concord Records

Leave it to the great artist Nelson Riddle called “the old master” to sing an entire album with such a degree of nuance and sensitivity--and intellect--as to make the full Riddle-conducted orchestra supporting him sound as intimate as a chamber group. The depth of introspection Sinatra plumbs throughout the brief journey that is The Concert Sinatra is so engrossing that when he bursts forth in the triumphant closing crescendo of Rodgers and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still” you’re jolted by the intensity of the emotional explosion erupting from what had been a measured, pastoral setting and a singer’s insouciant attitude towards the very idea of love, much less of love actually visiting him. Listen again, though, and you can hear it coming: singing the seldom-performed verse gives Sinatra a wider playing field that he uses first to cast himself as, essentially, a confirmed loner (“a house in Iceland was my heart’s domain”), but in the next breath admitting--with appropriate wonder in his voice--to a cataclysmic alteration in perspective (“I saw your eyes/now castles rise/in Spain….”). Voila! The true romantic has bloomed anew. (Nice touch in the Riddle arrangement, too, to insert the fleeting sound of clacking castanets as Sinatra draws out the word “Spain.”) From there an inexorable march ensues, phrase by phrase, until the final outcry, with the brass, strings and percussion rising in one thunderous burst, as the newly enchanted singer, no longer the cynical, callow youth he described at the outset, trumpets his amazement at the feelings engulfing him, with the strings cutting loose in a dizzying swirl around the exuberant brass bursting out all over the track.

From The Concert Sinatra: ‘Lost in the Stars,’ written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson.

In brief, this is the story of the reissued The Concert Sinatra, a 1963 album that featured only eight exquisitely realized performances on its original vinyl version and has here been expanded with two bonus tracks recorded during these sessions but omitted from the finished product. Apart from grumbles about the paucity of tunes herein, the downside of The Concert Sinatra is exactly this: there is none. Riddle’s arrangements rank with the finest he ever created for Sinatra. You expect the string charts to be works of art, and they are--one of many breathtaking moments occurs midway through “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” when strings skitter softly across the track, well under Sinatra’s reverent vocal, adding a momentary lightness, like a soul taking flight, to the inspirational message--but time and again (see the above description of “My Heart Stood Still”) the brass, woodwinds and percussion sneak into or come dashing out of the soundscape to enhance what Lawrence D. Stewart called “the frisson of discovery” in his sublime liner notes for the 1963 edition. Practically every song has one of these grace note moments, barely discernible but serving a purpose in punctuating or otherwise commenting on the lyrical narrative or, indeed, adding subtext to the vocal, as when the woodwinds flutter by, almost comically, right after he sings the first word in the phrase “bewitched, bothered and bewildered” (from Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched”), highlighting the more ephemeral state in the trifecta, after which Sinatra glides with a relaxed sigh through “bothered and bewildered”--a beautiful moment of total synchronicity in the dialogue between orchestra and singer. (The same effect was used two years later on the hit TV series Bewitched whenever the witch Samantha [played by Elizabeth Montgomery] put a spell on someone). Thus the orchestra as the singing voice Riddle lacked and which made him, in effect, Sinatra’s duet partner, especially on The Concert Sinatra.

From The Concert Sinatra, ‘Soliloquy,’ written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for Carousel. Sinatra’s first run at this song came in 1946, when he was signed to Columbia.

But in the end it’s the singer and the song. As Stewart points out in his liner notes, The Concert Sinatra represents an extension of a tradition inaugurated on November 1, 1923, when Eva Gauthier gave a recital in New York’s Aeolian Hall, marking the moment when American popular music came to the concert hall. In reviewing Ms. Gauthier’s recital, which mixed the music of Bellini, Bartok, Hindemith and others with songs by Irving Berlin and Gershwin-Caesar, critic Deems Taylor noted the audience “surrendering completely to the alluring rhythms of our own folk music.” Further, Stewart noted how music written specifically for the stage had since seeped into the concert repertoire, and thus we arrive at this Sinatra outing. Of the eight recordings comprising the original album, six come from shows with music by Richard Rodgers (four Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers, plus the two abovementioned Rodgers and Hart tunes), along with Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River” (from Show Boat) and Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson’s spiritually resonant “Lost In the Stars.” What’s required on stage and what’s required in the concert hall (or recording studio, as it were) in order to reach an audience with these songs are quite different matters. Sinatra tailors each one for intimate confines and probes them as personally as he did the songs on his greatest statements regarding the human condition, namely In the Wee Small Hours (1954), Where Are You? (1957), Sings for Only the Lonely (1958), No One Cares (1959) and All Alone (1962). You’ll hear the cynic turn romantic on “My Heart Stood Still” (Sinatra’s experience on record with this song dated back to 1957, when Peggy Lee cut it on her album The Man I Love, with Nelson Riddle orchestrations conducted by Sinatra); conversely, you’ll hear in his precise, understated anguish in “This Nearly Was Mine” (Rodgers and Hammerstein, from South Pacific) a romantic haunted by his lost love, “still saying that paradise/once nearly was mine.” You’ll hear him suffering through a crisis of faith in “Lost In the Stars,” his voice subdued and melancholy--except when it rises in anger as he wonders why God has forsaken His world; conversely, you’ll hear in the sturdy, stately reading of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” a man fully invested in his faith proclaiming the certainly of divine guidance in the most trying of circumstances. From Carousel, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s epic “Soliloquy” brings out the finest in Sinatra’s acting in a song he first recorded in 1946, for Columbia. In this mature version he fully inhabits the role of an expectant father musing on his child’s future achievements, with all the attendant fears of meeting his responsibilities to his own flesh-and-blood, and determined to not let his personal failings affect his offspring’s opportunities--indeed, he resolves to find a way to assure her a comfortable life, to wit: “I never knew how to get money/But I’ll try! I’ll try!/I’ll go out and make it or steal it/or take it or die!” In a real way, at the end of “Soliloquy” Sinatra may well be telling his own story, remembering how his mother, Dolly (who ran an illegal abortion business out of her Hoboken, NJ, home and was twice convicted for doing so), always managed to keep her teenage son well fed and spiffily dressed during the Depression years. That’s how personal Sinatra makes this and all the songs here.

From The Concert Sinatra, ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ (Rodgers and Hammerstein, from South Pacific)

The two bonus tracks excluded from the original album include “California,” written by Jimmy Van Heusen--whose songs Sinatra recorded more than any other songwriter’s--and Sammy Cahn, sprang from a request made of Sinatra in 1962 by Governor Pat Brown to create a song honoring the Golden State specifically for the purpose of introducing it at a big political gala the following year. Concentrating on the natural environmental wonders of the state, Cahn and Van Heusen evoked a love of the land in poetic fashion, as if they had been reading John Muir; Riddle gave it a big, soaring arrangement; and Sinatra sold it. The other bonus track is a stirring take on “America, The Beautiful,” with Sinatra backed by a 24-voice choir (which sings the rarely heard second chorus alone) and Riddle understating the orchestra, with a striking deployment of muted trumpets in the second chorus, before winding up with a booming, patriotic flourish.

Thus “the old master” and his voiceless duet partner in peak form. Over the years The Concert Sinatra has rarely been cited as being among the Chairman of the Board’s masterpieces, but reconsideration is in order, given the exalted vocal and arranging artistry informing it. For the moment, enjoy “surrendering completely to the alluring rhythms of our own folk music.”

The Concert Sinatra is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024