By Jonathan Schwartz
I've always savored the release of a new Frank Sinatra album. Sinatra, for me, got deeper into the heart of the Great American Songbook than any other singer because he truly felt the words he sang. From the advent of the long-playing record in the early '50s until he stopped performing in 1995, Sinatra made some 35 albums, but only two, including Sinatra At The Sands, a 1966 release, were recorded live in Las Vegas. At his death, in 1998, Sinatra left many great performances in the vaults.
Now we'll finally get to hear four and see one of them in Sinatra: Vegas, a box set of four CDs and a DVD to be issued Nov. 7 by Reprise Records and Rhino Records. Two shows are from the 1960s, one from the 1970s, and two from the 1980s.
It's no accident that the vaults were loaded with Vegas material. Sinatra performed there more than any other A-list entertainer of his day, and his style, that sense of tension and danger he brought with him, rubbed off on the town.
Even if you have an ample library of Sinatra, the box set is well worth your time because the man never sang a song exactly the same way twice. The first disc, from the Sands Hotel in 1961, includes Witchcraft, Young At Heart, and You Make Me Feel So Young. The highlight, however, is a rendition of Cole Porter's Just One Of Those Things, which Sinatra had previously recorded up-tempo but here turns into a heartbreaking torch song.
On the second disc, also from the Sands, Sinatra is backed up by Count Basie and his incredible orchestra, conducted at the time by the young Quincy Jones. Part of a tour that Sinatra and Basie did in 1966, this is one swinging show. Basie was an economical pianist, hitting the notes without elaboration in a way that allows Sinatra to find his most rhythmic spirit in such favorites as Fly Me To the Moon, Luck Be A Lady, and Get Me To The Church On Time.
Move forward a couple of decades, and we hear the master's voice diminished by age but still thrilling. At Caesar's Palace in 1982, Sinatra was moving away from his signature Big Band orchestrations and singing with more intimate instrumental backing. There's just a piano, guitar, bass, and drums on Night and Day and piano only on These Foolish Things. On stage, he called upon his acting skills to compensate for his loss of singing ability, and so he became the song itself. That's what really comes through, particularly in ballads such as Hey Look, No Crying by Jule Styne and Susan Birkenhead and I Can't Get Started, a collaboration between Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke. It's as if he were making up the songs as he sang them.
The latest show in the box set, at the Golden Nugget in 1987, features an astonishing diversity of music, from Rodgers and Hart's Spring Is Here--with a rarely heard Nelson Riddle string arrangement--to Kurt Weill's Mack the Knife, backed by an enthusiastic big band with an arrangement by Frank Foster. By this point it's evident that Sinatra had lost the ability to sustain the long lines of melody that defined his style of singing. Instead, he was belting out the notes individually, in a choppier, more rhythmic tempo.
The DVD is of a 1978 Caesar's Palace show. Although the disc was not included in the pre-release package I reviewed, I did, many years ago, see an unauthorized version of the footage from that performance. In addition to great singing, it features a frisky Sinatra putting on his tuxedo in his dressing room and phantom-boxing backstage.
Thanks to the Sinatra family for issuing this wonderful box set at long last. It's something I will cherish.
Jonathan Schwartz hosts Frank's Place, a channel on XM Satellite Radio, as well as weekend shows on WNYC-FM, a New York public radio station