Music isn’t music until you can feel it, until it becomes an epiphany to the listener. Real music is at once brilliant and obvious and forges in a heart the conviction that “this is how it ought to be.” Anyone that listens to a Frank Sinatra, Jr. record understands this simple truth. Mr. Sinatra doesn’t just sing, conduct and write songs, he embodies the song he sings. The emotion, subtle changes and smooth tones seem to be the birth of every song he encounters. Like the sudden thrill of a big brass intro, however, Frank Sinatra, Jr. surprises fans with his range of work. Aside from the songs he has written, Sinatra has been involved movies and television. He has recorded albums since the 1965 “Young Love for Sale” to the most recent 1996 “That Face!”, which featured guest vocals from Steve Tyrell and songs written by Frank Sinatra, Jr., Barry Manilow, and the great lyricists and composers of the American Songbook.
You could say music is definitely in Frank Sinatra, Jr.’s blood, just like his legendary father. He’s a wealth of information about the Great American Songbook and few could lay claim to being as passionate about it as he. Despite all of this, Mr. Sinatra is very humble and perhaps a bit self-critical. Join us on this Sound Portrait as we discuss the memories, the music and the man…. Mr. Frank Sinatra, Jr.
~ Introduction by Daniel Buckner ~
What are your most vivid memories of music you heard as a child?
Most vivid memories today, looking back at those memories from the wrong side of 70, the only thing I can say is, that they’re kind of blurry, going way back, it’s been a long time since I was a child, but that was the best music, popular music that was ever made in America.
And was music playing around the house a lot?
Oh yes, the point is, in order to be considered a person who made music, at least professionally in those days, the people who made that music were musicians. Something that, probably, a great majority of people who claim to make music today are not.
And, by that you mean there are lots of musicians who are making music on computers, but they don’t have a proficiency in an instrument?
That’s what they say and they don’t know anything about music and the whole story about that kind of person. Years ago there used to be classes in certain schools in a subject that was known as musicology and they would give people degrees in what was called musicology. They would become musicologists, and there used to be a joke around the working musician community: a musicologist is a person who can read music, but can’t hear it, and today, most of what you hear, when you hear things on the radio that are current, and it has spilled over into television, there are, when I watch sports events on TV for example… There are commercials that are the most annoying, camp-made sounds in the world and they’re made by what we call in the trade today, garage bands, a few of these people, who get together in a garage somewhere with a few amplified instruments and they consider themselves to be musicians. They press a few buttons and a program comes out, which they use, it might have harmonic changes, or something, and this they consider making music and it’s unfortunate because all it is, is formulated nonsense. The louder and the more distortive, the better. The auditory scientists refer to it as “vibratory insult” and this is regretfully the state of the art, if you want to call it art, where we are today.
The industry has been taken over, has been taken away from the professionals and given to the garage bands and as it happens the business of being a real musician and dedicating one’s life to it has gone out of style and when I think back to the question you asked me about “what was it like when I was a child?” It was the greatest music that was ever made in America.
When did you start to realize that you were a very musical person?
I began to receive, personally, training at the age of 3 or 4. This goes back to the 1940s and because of my father’s work in those days, he always had guests in our home, who were great composers, lyricists, songwriters, orchestrators, and as it happens they, by degrees, began to tutor me. I can remember when I was 3 or 4, one of my uncles who was the head of the music department at Colombia Pictures in those days, back when each studio had a music department, and he gave me a book about the instruments in the symphony orchestra and I could look at the pictures that he would point to and identify each one of the symphonic instruments. At the age of 5 I was started on piano lessons, and in that situation I continued on all the way through college. I had once had the desire to be a composer and a pianist.
You just mentioned “composer.” Can you recall when you first learned that you had the ability to write songs?
I had been writing melodies, much to the chagrin of my piano teacher when I was a boy, rather than practicing the lessons that she had given to me. I would be spending my time at the piano composing little melodies and little things of myself and after a time, something else happened, which was really quite remarkable. I could hear a piece of orchestral music on a recording, hopefully not too complicated a piece of orchestral music and by listening to it I could then play it with the correct harmonic changes on the piano and this as they say, by ear, and at that point in time it occurred to me maybe this was what I was meant to be, which is why after high school, when I went into college, I began to study on musical things and composing things and the like.
In music school there are many, many compositions that one must write, some stress melody, some stress harmony. The classes for those things are called “composition.” Then there’s another one called “counterpoint” in which how do you write a counter melody to match a melody and so on, and then of course there is orchestration, there is rhythm and all the different components of writing music that make up the curriculum of someone who really wants to get into this.
What do you believe is more important, the lyrics or the melody?
They’re equally important. They must compliment the other, they must be in great exactitude of purpose. If you consider, with what they call today “The Great American Songbook.”
No doubt you are aware of a great, great song, written in the early 1940s by the great Johnny Mercer and there’s a song called – let’s just use this as an example – “The Blues In The Night.” The melody of that song cause ordinarily the melody always comes first, the lyric comes later. The melody of ‘Blues In The Night’ could only be a blues song. The melody is lonely, it has the blues harmonic changes, it is just by it’s very nature sad, and Johnny Mercer’s lyric is absolutely reflective of that state of mine and it matches, it marries to that melody perfectly.
And that melody was by Harold Arlen.
Harold Arlen, another one of our more important songwriters through the years. Mr. Arlen who just was absolutely incredible. I wish I could have met him. He was just magnificent. At the time when he would write some of these great, great songs, a lady by the name of Lena Horne, very popular in those days and she said that Harold Arlen was the blackest white songwriter she had ever listened to, because he understood the blues idiom so perfectly.
Understand, when I was a boy, radio stations, which routinely played people like Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole. People who played Louis Jordan and His Tympani Five. People who played these records, such as Jimmy Witherspoon and Ella Fitzgerald and Chick Webb and Sarah Vaughan and Duke Ellington, were often times accused of playing “racial records” as they were called.
Who was the first person to record or perform a song that you wrote?
The first person and the only person has been me. My songs, I regret to tell you, are not in demand and never have been. I’m the only one that ever did anything with them.
Aside from the songwriting, you’ve recorded albums. You’ve performed. You’ve conducted. What part of music would you say you’re the most passionate about?
Well, it has to be all of them. You cannot take favorites. They all demand great concentration, great attention, it is like any other practice like that. An attorney who walks into a law case, a surgeon who goes into the operating theatre, anything like that, you must clear your mind of everything other than the job at hand and it is so vital to do this. This is how things of this nature have to be handled and I have never really picked a favorite.
You also hosted a radio program. What did you find that experience to be like?
I had had an idea for many years that people at night, bearing in mind that the average American family works of course, five days a week usually and that now is changing and the average American family has a certain routine. All of us, I think are married to such a thing, we get up in the morning and we have our breakfast, we kiss our spouses and our children goodbye and go off and work and we come home in the late afternoon and then there’s dinner and spending time with the kids, perhaps doing homework or whatever it is and then, as the hour goes late, when the children are in bed it is time then for the parents to have just a little bit of relaxation time. Usually that comes in the form of television, obviously, but I had an idea that perhaps, since…. You remember, no doubt, the great three words that would come up at nine o clock, nine thirty, ten o’clock and ten thirty, “film at eleven.”’ The news would be the last thing they would see at eleven PM, before they would switch off the TV set and go to sleep. And I watched this year after year and having travelled the United States, all the states over and over and over again, it occurred to me that the story about the newscast today is quite correct. They say the newscaster, on late night television, opens up the hour by saying to you „good evening” and then spends the next 60 minutes informing you why it isn’t. This is, of course, you know, a flippant statement.
It occurred to me some time ago that maybe somebody would like to have a little bit of relaxation that would prepare them to go to sleep, so I created a radio program that was not to be run before 10:00 at night, 10:30 at night, it would run for an hour, less commercials and then it would gradually get down and down into the music, more gentle more loving, so that when the time came to turn off the radio and go to sleep, it would be the last thing people would hear at night and it was to be a kind of a electro-acoustical tranquilizer and this was the theme of my radio program. It was called “Radiance.”
“Radiance.” In keeping with nighttime. It seems like so many of the songs from the American Songbook had the word “moon” and so many of them included the idea of nighttime. I mean just if you want to take the example of songs Frank Sinatra recorded: “Moon River,” my goodness, “Fly Me To The Moon,” he did that entire album of songs with moon in the title.
There was an album, his Producer Sonny Burke created a record called “Moonlight Sinatra,” but they did not include “Moon River” or “Fly Me To The Moon.” “Moon River” was a very famous motion picture song, which won the Academy Award that year in 1961 and “Fly Me To The Moon” is actually a misnomer. The name of that song is “In Other Words.” Everybody just calls it “Fly Me To The Moon.” And that song had also an interesting situation, when the astronauts aboard Apollo 11 went out in 1969 to land on the moon for the first time, the NASA beamed “Fly Me To The Moon” to the boys in the capsule–to Collins and Armstrong and Aldrin.
Of the albums that you recorded, do you have a favorite of yours?
Gee, I wouldn’t know what to say. My albums never did get any attention. My first album, when I was singing with the Sam Donahue Band that was not a favorite, that was in 1965 and I’d just become 21 years old. I didn’t make another record album again after that until 1971 and that was my first album with Nelson Riddle, with the great Nelson Riddle who was my music teacher and that album was called “Spice” and that was a pretty good record. Afterwards there was another album in ’72 and from that I didn’t have a third album, a fourth album rather until 1977 and at that point in time, the big thing in the music world was Country music. Country music had been around for decades, but now, everybody was making Country albums and they sent me, the people I was working for at the time, they sent me to Nashville in 1977 and we made an album called “It’s Alright,” that was a pretty good record. After that I had no album until 1996. As you can see, my records were not exactly best sellers, they were not really in demand.
The one in ’96, was that “As I Remember It”?
That was “As I Remember It.”
I happen to like that album a great deal. What inspired you to record it?
There is a great theatrical producer in New York City, a man who I worked for many times, his name is John Schreiber and he’s a marvellous show producer. John Schreiber, in 1995, became aware of the fact that Frank Sinatra, who was very much alive then, was becoming 80 years of age and he decided to have a 3-night music festival in New York City – three concerts. Each night would begin with 80 minutes, followed by a 20 minute intermission and then 80 more minutes, and this three nights in a row and it was a salute to the music of Frank Sinatra and he invited Linda Ronstadt who was the youngest. He invited Rosemary Clooney. He invited Jack Jones, Big Joe Williams was there, all the people who make this kind of music were invited to perform and when it got to the final 80 minutes on the final night, he gave me the entire 80 minutes and I was singing and conducting the same orchestra that I had conducted for Sinatra prior to his retirement. So here I was sitting on a music stool at a music stand with the music in front of me, a symphony behind me with Frank Sinatra’s rhythm section and we’re in Carnegie Hall and I told people stories in the audience about where some of these great songs had come from and they were absolutely taken by this and then we would do these numbers and the reaction was quite severe and when the evening was over, I returned to my dressing room and I was introduced to a man who gave me his business card. He was the President of the Capitol Records EMI Record Group and he said “you know, what you did down there would make just a dandy little record album” and I said “whenever you’re ready.”
Now this was in the summer of 1995. In September I got called by that same gentleman and he said “we want to put you on our Angel label, which is primarily our classic label,” with this album. So we went back to New York, I hired the same orchestra who had been with me at the concert. They were the same musicians who had played Sinatra for year after year after year and we went and we made that album and that probably comes closer to being something of a success than any record I’ve ever made. The record qualifies to be put in the category with movies like “Citizen Kane” and many years later “The Manchurian Candidate,” movies that at the time of their initial release mean absolutely nothing. Nobody even pays attention to them. Only years later did they become famous, they call such an entity “a sleeper.” Well, as I remember it, is a sleeper, today, somebody told me recently that record is for sale on eBay for $185 dollars a copy, if it can be found.
I have seen it for even more.
Well, the only thing I can tell you is, it was a great effort. We put it together, we had the finest people in the New York music community. Half of our strings, our French Horns and people like that were right out of the New York Philharmonic. We had the best people, all of whom who had played Sinatra music with Sinatra through the years and we put it together with the interspersel of underscore as you’ve heard, since you seem familiar with the album. And when we were finished in New York recording it, everybody in the orchestra was talking about the underscore we were doing. There were, for example a woodwind ensemble of ‘I’m a Fool….. um… “Wee Small Hours” rather, then we had a brass choir of “I’m A Fool To Want You,” then we had a cello quartet of “My Way” and the musicians just ate it up alive. They were just so magnificent and they wondered what all of this was about and on the last day, in the last session I said “listen everyone, you’ve worked so hard on this and I really believe when it’s all put together and you finally get to hear it in it’s entirety, you’re going to be really happy you were a part of this.” They didn’t know what was coming in the sense of the linkage.
After the music was recorded in New York, then the master tapes went out to Los Angeles to Capitol Records and I went into a little booth with the underscore coming through ear phones and at that point all the songs on that album were selected with the most total commitment. Everything was scrupulously prepared in terms of pacing, but then I began to listen to the underscore and I started to speak my personal memories, nothing was written down, nothing was prepared. If you are to listen to that record and you hear the narration in between the songs, that is exactly as you hear it, that is exactly as it sounds. There was nothing prepared for that. Nothing was written down, because as I told everybody when they said „you mean you’re going to do this off the cuff like that?”, I said “absolutely, it has to be conversational, not institutional, if we get some fool reading the Gettysburg Address, that’s exactly what it’s going to sound like, it has to be one person speaking intimately to another” and when you listen to the narration on that record there are mistakes in it, things like that. And I said “no, no, leave it that way.” You cannot point your finger at somebody’s head and say “prepare to be spontaneous”, it is absolutely impossible, the idea was to be spontaneous and just let it flow, so that people would know they’re being talked to, not talked at, that was the theme of that album and what made it very powerful. My sister Nancy, on her downlink radio show on XM Sinatra Channel, periodically she gets that album out and plays the entire 71 minutes and change, without interruption and they get a sensational reaction from that.Semnat de Paul Leslie