Monday, May 23, 2011

La Rosa and Sinatra: The Storytellers

“He said for the boys what they wanted to say. He said to the girls what they wanted to hear. The body of excellent songs that had come into existence in the United States at last found a singer worthy of them. He was the best singer we had ever heard. He was one of the best singers in history. And he knew it. He was our poet laureate.”
- Gene Lees

“Look, I know you have a lot of Italian friends. But you don’t know Italians the way Italians know Italians. Italians tend to break down into two kinds of people: Lucky Luciano and Michelangelo. Frank’s an exception. He’s both.”
- anonymous anecdote by an Italian-American musician

“Frank Sinatra was, in his prime, to put the matter quite simply, the best popular singer of them all.”
- Steve Allen

“I know that it sounds like something out of a B movie, but it’s true; before he’d sung four bars, we knew. We knew he was going to become a great star.”
- Vocalist, Jo Stafford, commenting about Frank Sinatra’s first performance with The Pied Pipers and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in 1940

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights

There was a time when “Dean Martin,” “Vic Damone,” “Jerry Vale” and “Perry Como” were literally household names, especially if your family circle happened to be a post-World War II one of Italian-American descent, based in the New England – Atlantic Coast states area.

My favorite was Julius La Rosa whose unassuming personality, ready smile and enthusiastic way with a song appealed to my youthful sensibilities.

And then, of course, there was “Sinatra,” or “Frank” to those among his legions of admirers who could lay claim to having seen “The Voice” in person once in a supper club, floor show.

I’m not certain of the exact date, but a few years after Gene Lees left the editorship of Down Beat magazine in the early 1960s, he wrote a detailed account in High Fidelity magazine of the unique aspects of Sinatra’s phrasing of a song’s lyrics replete with anatomical references as to why Italo-American male singers from New York/New Jersey sounded different than African-American males from the Southern States, et al.

It was one of the most instructive essays about singing that I ever read and darn if I didn’t lose track of this issue of the magazine as a result of constantly loaning it to friends.

Although I never thought of him as a Jazz singer, per se, Sinatra was to me, the epitome of “being hip:” he was sew-wave [suave], chick, [chic] and dee-boner [debonair].

I loved his choice of big band arrangers including Billy May, Nelson Riddle and Neal Hefti and – thanks to the awareness created by having read the Lees’ High Fidelity article -  his use of diction, enunciation and, most of all, phrasing, to lift song styling to a whole new dimension of power, persuasion and passion.

Over the years, it has been great fun re-acquainting myself with Dino, Vic and “Frank” [I saw him perform in person in Las Vegas so I guess this entitles me to call him by his first name] as their music was reissued in various CD compilations.

Along the way, I was also fortunate to be able to discerningly re-visit the subject of Frank Sinatra’s phrasing in the form of the following essay by none other than -  Julius La Rosa.

Not surprisingly, I would also find in editions of Gene LeesJazzletter, which was published from 1981 until Gene’s passing in 2010, a two-part essay on Julius La Rosa and one that expanded on Lees’ original treatment of Frank Sinatra uniqueness as a vocalist, both of which have been published in Gene’s book: Singers and The Song II [New York: Oxford, 1998].

© -Julius La Rosa, copyright protected; all rights

“In the beginning he was called The Voice, and what a voice it was. But he never let it get in the way of the message. It set him apart, and he established a standard for interpreting lyrics, giving life to the words on the lead sheet in a way never before considered. Songs were no longer melodies to be danced to. They were stories to be listened to.

Before Sinatra, the lyrics were given at most a casual attention. Why did we start listening? The newspapers wrote about him as if only the girls loved what he was doing. I was one of those who loved what he was doing, and I wasn't a girl. They wrote about us as if we were crazy. We weren't crazy. Whether or not we could put into words what he was doing, we sensed it.

What made us stop dancing and crowd up close to the band­stand to listen? He was making sense of the words. He was telling a story, honoring the American songbook in a way that had never been done, the poems-to-music of Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Lorenz Hart, Sammy Cahn, Oscar Hammerstein, Yip Harburg, Johnny Burke, and other giants. …

Jolson was dynamic, his personality and showmanship foremost. But I don't think anyone ever got drunk listening to him. Bing Crosby, who was to Sinatra what Sinatra was to me, was relaxed, casual, the everyman of singers. But he never projected the emotional values of the lyric, never gave us a sense of what the words meant to him.

Along came Sinatra, the new boy with the Harry James band, and soon after that with Tommy Dorsey. And despite the restric­tions of tempo — the people had to dance, didn't they? — he told the story, and we stopped dancing to listen, and Dorsey noticed this. He was phrasing. Until Sinatra, the song was sung: "I've gaaaaht yoooo unDER my skin." The song is written that way, with the accent on the second syllable of under. (You could look it up!) Sinatra (I refer to his later career) chopped it into its component pieces and sang: "I've got. . . you ..." Brief pause. "UN-der my skin." And that's the way everyone has sung that song ever since.

Cole Porter is said to have wired Sinatra: "If you don't like my songs the way I write them, don't sing them." Sinatra, reportedly, wired back, "If you don't like the royalties, send them back." The story may be apocryphal but it sounds very much in character for both of them.

Porter's mistake lay in not accepting the style of singing Sinatra introduced. An argument could be made, of course, that Porter was concerned for the musical values of the song. But Sinatra went after the lyrical content. As a rule, Sinatra was true to a songwri­ter's intentions in the first chorus, taking his liberties in the second chorus — and he took considerable liberties in the later years.

Toscanini, too, apparently was not enamored by the liberties taken by soloists, vocal or instrumental. Yet he was big enough to recognize a performer's contribution to interpretation of a master's work. During a rehearsal, a trumpet player took a liberty with the phrasing of a solo in some symphonic work or other. The other musicians waited for the maestro to explode, and his temper was famous. To everyone's surprise, he didn't. After the rehearsal, Toscanini encountered the trumpet player at the elevator. He said, ''If you promise to play it that way again, I will conduct it that way." He recognized the contribution.

In the Dorsey days, Sinatra was constrained by dance tempos. But he turned them to his advantage. It must have been about this time that Sinatra became friendly with Alec Wilder. His recording of Wilder's I’ll Be Around is the definitive version. In 1945, by which time Sinatra had left Dorsey and become what we now call a superstar (star was good enough in the old days), he picked up a baton to conduct a suite of Wilder's orchestral pieces. Since Sinatra was known to be unable to read music, Gene Lees once asked Alec Wilder if Sinatra really had conducted those pieces. (You can get them now on CD.) "Yes," Wilder said, "and he did them better than anyone else has ever done them, because he understood something most conductors don't: dance tempos."

And within the restrictions of those tempos, even back in the Dorsey days, Sinatra could shift the accents in a song to get the story out. This Love of Mine was actually in my arms, but we stopped dancing to elbow our way close to the bandstand to gaze up at the skinny guy holding onto the mike stand. He hadn't yet decided what to do with his hands. Oh! how many singers know that problem. We looked up and listened to the story. Hell, it was my story. It was "our" story. Mine and Sue's. Or was it Marianne?

And he told the stories in the same voice he spoke with, a natural quality few singers achieve. It made us all think we could do that too. The technical term for that is placement. Whether in his high or low register, the voice was the same. All the way up. It is far more remarkable than is generally realized. There was no "break" in his voice. Listen some time to the way an opera singer who has come down from Olympus to honor us with a pop song comes to the high note and goes from chest tone to head tone, which is why it's called, justifiably, falsetto. It's an artificial sound. The only time I ever heard Sinatra go into falsetto was on the last note of his Bluebird recording (with Axel Stordahl) of The Song Is You, one of the first four sides he made as a soloist. One night early in my own career, I did a falsetto, eliciting from my accompanist: "Who do you think you are? Deanna Durbin?"

Well Sinatra didn't use artificial sounds, except on that one note of The Song Is You. Why did he do it? Maybe it was to show some people something, that he could do that trick. One is reminded of a story told about Segovia. After a performance, so the story goes, someone asked him why he'd played a certain piece so fast. "Because I can," Segovia replied. Well Sinatra could sing those falsetto tones. He didn't choose to, and in all the recordings from then until his death, I never heard him do it again.

Sinatra was also experimenting with enunciation. Even in the Harry James days, he always sang so that you could hear the words. But there is something a little affected about it. By the Dorsey days, he was finding a clear but natural kind of enuncia­tion.

One of my high-school English teachers suggested that we listen to Sinatra for his enunciation. Later, after he had achieved world renown, Sinatra began revealing, if not actually flaunting, his Hoboken, New Jersey, beginnings. I think it was a not too subtle assertion of his genesis.

With Harry James, and soon after that with Dorsey, the simplicity of Sinatra's singing was deceptive. It seemed so effortless. His intonation was almost flawless. Curiously, where most good singers will sometimes sing flat, Sinatra would be sharp. This has been attributed to Dorsey's influence on him. For reasons beyond my knowledge of instruments, trombone players are more likely to be sharp than flat.

During those Dorsey days, and then those four Bluebird sides and finally the brilliant body of work for Columbia with exquisite­ly lush Axel Stordahl arrangements, the emphasis in Sinatra's career was on ballads, for the obvious reason that he did them as no one ever had before. Some of us still remember his first "album", four 78 rpm records in four sleeves bound with a hard cover, and in that collection, the songs began to seem very much like art music. They were Sinatra's definitive interpretations of I Concentrate on You, These Foolish Things, Ghost of a Chance, Try a Little Tenderness, You Go to My Head, She's Funny That Way, and Someone to Watch Over Me.

Back then Sinatra sang a lot like the way Dorsey played trombone, long lines often carried past the end of an eight bar phrase. You can really hear it in his recording with Dorsey of Without a Song. At the end of the release, Sinatra hits the word "soul" quite big, and without a breath sails diminuendo into the start of the next eight, "I'll never know . . . . " Anyone who doubts Dorsey's influence on him should give that record a listen, not that anyone does.

In a time when most performers didn't publicize aspects of their personal lives, Sinatra sang a sweet song about Nancy, his daughter. We all heard those "mission bells ringing" and got "the very same glow".

I remember his performances at the first spectacular and historic Paramount Theater appearance. Yes, I was there, one of those thousands of "crazy" kids waiting in a line along
West 43rd Street
. At last we got in, and there he was. One of the lines in Nancy is: "Sorry for you, she has no sister." But in that performance he sang: "Just give me time, she'll have a sister." And the bobby-soxers really did go a little crazy. The screaming was deafening.

Nor was Sinatra politically passive. In 1943, when it was considered unwise for an entertainer to voice preferences, he came out for Roosevelt's unprecedented run for a third term. And in 1945, he recorded The House I Live In and made a film short about racial tolerance that was built around it. It earned him a special Academy Award. The song expressed his feelings about America.

With Dorsey, however, Sinatra's rhythmic sense had never been fully explored. Yes, he did several medium "up" tunes such as Snooty Little Cutie, Oh Look at Me Now (remember "Jack, I'm ready!"?), I’ll Take Tallulah among them, but Dorsey used him mostly for ballads.

Sinatra's work on Columbia — there are 72 songs in the four-CD boxed set — is a remarkable celebration of the American song. But the experience there went sour when a-and-r head Mitch Miller forced on Sinatra some dreadful songs, including a monstrosity called Mama Will Bark and a duet with of all people the now-forgotten Dagmar. It still seems to some of those who were close to the situation that Mitch Miller was out to destroy Sinatra. And for a time he did seem destroyed. It was known in the business that he was having serious throat problems. We can never know whether they were caused by nervous tension. And finally, Columbia dropped him. The Columbia period had lasted from 1943 to 1952.

He said that he entered a period of despair when the phone no longer rang. He was desperately short of money, and his career seemed ended.

I don't know this with certainty, but I suspect that Johnny Mercer was the force in the restoration of Sinatra's career. In addition to being a great lyricist — some think he was our greatest of all — Mercer was an astute gentleman. He was also president of Capitol records, which he had founded with fellow songwriter Buddy De Sylva. Mercer was one record-company head who really knew what he was hearing.

And I think Mercer recognized Sinatra's as-yet untapped . . . genius. I don't think the word is an exaggeration. What John Gielgud was to Shakespeare, Sinatra was to the American song. We discovered him with Dorsey, he proved we were right about him at Columbia, and from his very first recordings for Capitol we realized, if we hadn't done so already, that we had a giant on our hands. Nelson Riddle recognized it. Songs for Young Lovers is still my favorite album. Riddle is credited rightly for recognizing the depth of Sinatra's musical instincts. He appreciated Sinatra's intelligence and, I guess, understood his temperament. His arrangements for those early Capitol albums are masterpieces, one after another. And the mature Sinatra was revealed. The ballads are touching, heartbreaking even, and the sense of identification is incomparable. In the reprise of My Funny Valentine when he sings "But donnnnn't change a hair for me ..." oh, the pain. And rhythm songs now were fun. "I get a kick . . . mmmm, you give me a boot!" Cole Porter may not (I would assume) have liked the interpolation, but everyone else did.

By now we knew what he was: a performing poet. And by now he had influenced a whole generation of singers, Vic Damone and me (both of us from Brooklyn) among them. But he created a dilemma for us, too. If you phrased the way he did, you were bound to sound at least a little like him. But on the other hand, as Gene Lees wrote, "Once you had heard him do it, what was a singer to do? Not phrase for the meaning of the lyrics?"

Anthony Quinn said, "Until I speak them, they are just words on a piece of paper." Sinatra could have said, "Until I sing them, nobody knows what they mean." Mr. Quinn once came to see me in Las Vegas. After my performance he came back to say hello. And he said, "Boy! You sound like Frank Sinatra." I had an urge to say, "And you remind of me of Paul Muni." I suppressed it.

But it was true though that until Sinatra sang, "You may not know it, but buddy, I'm a kind of poet," you didn't realize to just what an extent Johnny Mercer really was a poet. Sinatra put blood into the words of that and countless other songs.

When others sang what used to be called torch songs, one could shrug and say, "Who cares? I've got problems of my own." But when Sinatra sang (in another Mercer song) "A woman's a two-face, a worrisome thing who'll leave you to sing the Blues in the Night," you were likely to stare into your drink and think, "I know how the poor son of a bitch feels."

A long-time friend of mine, the great arranger Marion Evans, has a wonderful expression. When someone records a definitive version of a song, Marion says, "It's been fixed." Sinatra fixed scores of songs. Remember his performance of (another Mercer lyric) Come Rain or Come Shine with that marvelous Don Costa chart and those insisting French horns? And tell me about the low E in What Is This Thing Called Love. I've always suspected that he'd been out late and recorded it early in the morning. He was awake, but his voice was still asleep. A low E indeed! How dare he! And that high G on All of Me. His range, for all its seeming naturalness, was over two octaves. No one should ever underesti­mate Sinatra's chops.

Though the catalogue of his best work is just this side of unending and it is hard to pick a favorite, I have a great liking for an underplayed album called Watertown on Reprise. I would refer you to particular cuts, Elizabeth and What a Funny Girl (You Used to Be). Enchanting. Sinatra at his most conscientious. He wanted these to be good, and they are.

William Gibson, author of Two for the Seasaw, commenting on Anne Bancroft's portrayal of Gittle Mosca, the character he created, said she "transcended the lines with a humor and poignan­cy I had not suspected in them." Sinatra endowed lyrics with the same sense of truth.

He once said, "Don't get mad, get even." All the sycophants who loved him when he was up took a hike when he was down, and did he get even! From that time on, there is a visible tough­ness in him, an incredible assurance. Most of the adjectives applied to him were accurate to some degree. If you liked him, he was being true to himself. If you didn't, he was a bastard. Why not? He had "all the elements so mixed in him that nature could stand up and say to all the world, 'This was a man.'"

I fell in love with songs because of him. I fell in love with the way he sang them. Very timidly, I thought, 4Hey, I think I could do that." So I joined a choir. And I tried.

I wonder what would have happened to me if Francis Albert Sinatra had not been born. Maybe I'd have stayed in the Navy. Or maybe I'd have left the Navy to go into my father's radio-repair business in Brooklyn. I would be retired by now. But it didn't work out that way. Because of Frank Sinatra I've had a hell of a life.
And to me he'll always be
. . . shining, shining, shining . . .
— Julius La Rosa