Everyone knows Frank Sinatra (1915-98). A household name by 1942 and forever after, Sinatra succeeded Bing Crosby as being among the most famous and influential of all singers, in addition to having a career as a notable actor. While one can debate whether he was a jazz singer since he did not improvise, his swinging phrasing and ability to sound as if he lived the words that he sang (influenced by Billie Holiday) keeps his music timeless and beloved by a countless number of fans more than two decades after his passing.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. As a youth, he listened to the singers of the period, loved Bing Crosby, and enjoyed big band jazz. He dropped out of high school, worked at odd jobs in New Jersey, and gained experience singing for free on the radio. He sang with the Hoboken Four in 1935, worked as a singing waiter the following year, and struggled as a freelancer for some time. In 1939 he had his first real break, joining the Harry James Orchestra with whom he made his recording debut. None of his records with James (mostly ballads) sold well although “All Or Nothing At All” would become a best-seller when reissued in 1943. Since the band was struggling and he was offered a more lucrative position with Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra departed with James’ blessing. During 1940-42 he became a major star with Dorsey, whether performing as a solo singer or as the lead vocalist with the Pied Pipers (having a giant hit with “I’ll Never Smile Again”). Sinatra became such a big attraction that he went solo in the summer of 1942.
A teen idol (even though he turned 27 in 1942) whose romantic vocals gained him a very large audience among young females, Sinatra was considered a sensation. He signed with the Columbia label and, particularly after a Musicians Union strike was settled in 1944, recorded steadily. His popularity at the time was so great that it was one of the many factors that resulted in pop music switching from big bands to vocalists. A measure of Frank Sinatra’s popularity was that in 1946 he was performing as many as 45 times a week on radio and on stage, often singing 100 songs daily, and earned over $90,000 a week (in 1946 dollars)
# 1 – The Collection (Columbia/Legacy)
Sinatra’s Columbia years (1944-52) were an up and down period. His popularity gradually declined during this era as he aged and lost his appeal to teens. His record sales slumped and, by the early 1950s, he was pressured by his label to record novelties and inferior material. His film career was faltering too, and his private life (including a breakup of his early marriage and a highly emotional affair with Ava Gardner that did not last) was a mess. However he did record some worthwhile songs during this time, hinting at what was to come. The three-CD set The Collection (one of several sets that cover highlights from his days on Columbia) has reproductions of three former Lps (Sings His Greatest Hits, Swing And Dance With Frank Sinatra and Sings Rodgers and Hammerstein) and is filled with often-swinging material that the singer would keep in his repertoire and be re-recording during the next decade.
# 2 – Songs For Young Lovers + Swing Easy (Capitol)
Everything changed for Sinatra in 1953. His performance in the movie From Here To Eternity got rave reviews and he signed with the Capitol label. During the next eight years, he had freedom to record the superior standards that he loved, often utilizing the arrangements of Nelson Riddle which fit him perfectly. His first two ten-inch Lps for the label, which were reissued together on a 12-inch Lp and later on this CD, find Sinatra, who was in his late thirties, very much in his prime. On two of the first concept albums, Sinatra is heard singing classic versions of such songs as “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” “Just One Of Those Things,” and “A Foggy Day.” His great years had begun.
# 3 – In The Wee Small Hours (Capitol)
During his Capitol years, Sinatra often alternated swinging albums with ones focused on ballads. One of the best of the latter, In The Wee Small Hours has Sinatra often mourning lost love and sounding a bit desolate but ultimately hopeful. He performs quietly emotional interpretations of 16 standards including “Glad To Be Unhappy,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Last Night When We Were Young,” “I’ll Never Be The Same” and the famous title cut.
# 4 – Songs From Swingin’ Lovers (Capital)
One of Sinatra’s finest swing albums, this one includes “You Make Me Feel So Young,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” “Anything Goes” and the definitive version (with a superb Nelson Riddle arrangement) of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
# 5 – Come Fly With Me/Come Dance With Me (Blue Moon)
Originally released as two Capitol albums but reissued on one CD by the Blue Moon label, this pair of complementary sessions has Sinatra joined by a big band arranged by Billy May. There are many memorable performances among the 24 swingers including “Come Fly With Me,” “Let’s Get Away From It All,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” and “Saturday Night Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week.”
# 6 – Only The Lonely (Capitol)
From 1958, the ballads album with Nelson Riddle is most notable for Sinatra’s famous versions of “One For My Baby” and “Angel Eyes” although the other eight performances are also quite successful.
# 7 – Ring-A-Ding-Ding (Reprise)
By 1960 Frank Sinatra was so successful, performing and joking nightly in Las Vegas with his Rat Pack (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and sometimes Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford), that he broke away from Capitol and formed his own Reprise label. While he sought to find new directions during his Reprise years, some of his best recordings of the 1960s were not that different than his earlier work for Capitol. Ring-A-Ding-Ding, with Johnny Mandel providing most of the arrangements, includes ”The Coffee Song,” “When I Take My Sugar To Tea,” “Let’s Fall In Love” and the title cut among the highlights.
# 8 – Sinatra At The Sands (Reprise)
Frank Sinatra always liked to surround himself with the top musicians and he was quick to show appreciation of their playing. His favorite band was Count Basie’s and he had three opportunities to record with the orchestra in the 1960s. Sinatra At The Sands from 1966 was their lone live album. The singer performs some of his best standards (mostly worthy remakes) while clearly being inspired by the band.
# 9 – Frances Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (Reprise)
This unlikely matchup works very well. Sinatra performs 17 of Jobim’s finest compositions plus three standards turned into bossa-novas with arrangements by Claus Ogerman and Eumir Deodato. Jobim himself makes an appearance, contributing to a memorable duet vocal version of “The Girl From Ipanema.” This album oozes with charm.
# 10 – The Very Good Years (Reprise)
While Sinatra was at his best in the 1950s and ‘60s, he continued performing until the end of 1994 when he was 79 and a little over three years before his death, retaining his voice, charisma and popularity. To wrap up this article, The Very Good Years is an excellent sampler of Sinatra’s Reprise period including “Luck Be A Lady,” “My Kind Of Town,” “The Best Is Yet To Come,” “Fly Me To The Moon,” “It Was A Very Good Year,” “The Lady Is A Tramp” and “Theme From New York, New York,” serving as a perfect introduction to the singing and musical magic of Frank Sinatra.
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Top 10 Essential Frank Sinatra Albums article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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