Now Hear This

Frank Sinatra: Capitol Records Concept Albums
Front row (l to r): Songs for Young Lovers/Swing Easy!, In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers!, Close to You, A Swingin’ Affair!, Where are You? Back row (l to r): Come Fly With Me, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, Come Dance With Me!, No One Cares, Nice & Easy, Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!, Come Swing With Me, Point of No Return

After switching web hosts and a long break from blog posting, it’s time to inaugurate this new blog and there is no better way to do that than with a celebration of Francis Albert Sinatra. Specifically, the recent purchase of a CD boxed set of the concept albums he recorded with Capitol Records from 1953 to 1961.

Simply put, you need this boxed set in your collection. Not only is it a bargain at $60 for 13 CDs, the collection documents one of the greatest periods of artistic achievement in any field. After bursting on the scene during the era of the big bands, Sinatra set out on his own as a solo artist and almost single-handedly brought about the end of that era. He was the biggest star in the music world, but by the late 1940s tastes were changing and the young girls–the bobby soxers–who propelled The Voice, as he was known, to superstardom were growing up. After a well-publicized affair with movie star Ava Gardner and a divorce from his high school sweetheart, it was clear Sinatra wasn’t the innocent crooner he seemed. His career disintegrated. He lost his fans, his agent, his recording and movie contracts, and he lost his voice due to a vocal chord hemorrhage.

Those early years have been well documented especially now that the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth has passed. What’s important to know is that after being let go by Columbia Records, he was desperate to revive his career and Alan Livingston of Capitol Records was willing to take a chance on the singer many considered a has-been. He happily signed a seven-album deal and the rest is musical history.

The 13 CDs included in this box set are not a definitive collection of Sinatra recordings, but it is not meant to be. All of these recordings have been released previously on compact disc (several times, in fact), but those CDs typically feature “bonus” tracks to increase the length from the standard 16 tracks of 33 1/3 long-playing albums of the era. Those bonus tracks are mostly wonderful recordings in their own right and were often recorded at the same sessions, but they do not fit the mood of the albums. You can easily find other box sets that include all of Sinatra’s 45-rpm singles, rarities, movie recordings, radio and television appearance, and concert performances should you wish to include them in your collection. This box set encompasses only the “concept” albums–recordings intended to be listened to in a single setting in the order in which they are presented. In fact, one of these albums, In the Wee Small Hours, was the first of the recordings to be pressed in the 16-inch 33 1/3 rpm format and is arguably the first concept album recorded period.

In the Wee Small Hours (1955)
In the Wee Small Hours (1955)

This box set is intended to be the distillation of Frank Sinatra’s artistic vision as presented in the original albums. In that effort, he is masterfully assisted by arrangers Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, and the architect of the 1940 Sinatra sound, Axel Stordahl. Sitting in with Sinatra are a Who’s Who of the best studio musicians of the 1950s.

Remastering analog recordings for a digital medium, especially those recorded on mono two-track tapes, is a tricky business and there are distinct differences in the various releases of these albums. There is general agreement among Sinatra fans, however that the earliest (1980s) CDs of these albums are the best and the remastered “Entertainer of the Century” CDs released after the singer’s death in 1998 are inferior. The recordings used to make this Concepts box set are the same as the superior 1980s CDs. As seen in the photos, each CD slip case is a miniature reproduction of the original album cover art and the CDs are color coordinated to match the slip covers. They are also reproduced in a style that gives a nod to the more collectable “gray label” high-fidelity vinyl records of the era.

Having said this box set is a faithful reproduction of the original albums, there are a couple of exceptions and oddities. One anomaly regarding the various versions of the remastered album occurs on “In the Wee Small Hours,” but it is definitely to the benefit of the consumer. This set’s disc contains Sinatra’s magnificent recording of “Last Night When We Were Young,” which was inexplicably left off the superior 1980s remastering, but restored to its rightful place on the 1990s “Entertainer of the Century” CD re-issue. While this boxed set CD seems to be the 1980s version with regard to the sonic quality of the remastering, the missing track is nonetheless present. Additionally, a few bonus tracks did make their way onto “Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!” (1960), too. I guess Capitol can be forgiven for adding the eight bonus tracks—the album is unusually short with only 12 original song. It clocks in at just over 26 minutes in length.

At this point in his career with Capitol, Sinatra had grown restless and wanted out of his contract. In fact he had already started his own record company (Reprise) and recorded his first album, Ring-A-Ding-Ding!, on his own label. Unable to get a release from his contract, he was obligated to record three remaining albums, including “Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!!” Unhappy with the situation, but still a perfectionist in the recording studio, Sinatra quickly ran through the numbers for the album and had Nelson Riddle arrange charts that sometimes didn’t even reach two minutes in length when recorded. Even though they are short, the recordings are still brilliant. The bonus tracks add length and do alter the mood of the original album somewhat, but thankfully includes “I’ve Got the World On a String,” which was recording during Sinatra’s first session with Capitol in 1953 and the first recording in the Riddle style.

If these CDs are not on your shelf or playlist, there’s a sizable hole in your collection.