This week marks the 101st birthday of the legendary crooner, Frank Sinatra who remains as popular as he was throughout his career. Andrew Heller has studied Sinatra, his signature style and interpretation. Heller is an expert on why Sinatra and the songs of the American Songbook are as relevant today as the first time Sinatra approached the mike and mesmerized audiences in his memorable performances.
How Sinatra forever changed the Great American Songbook.
Sinatra -What a character. One of the things Sinatra did that changed the American songbook forever was he opened it up to almost a jazz-like interpretation. He took the songs that had been great songs in the 20’s and 30’s and made them his. Very few of the songs Sinatra made famous were original to him. Almost all of them were covers. And he was not the first to record them, but he did them in such a different way working with great arrangers Billy May and Nelson Riddle and their great band productions. More importantly, Sinatra brought this whole feeling of freedom that jazz can bring in the interpretation of the story. That changed the whole way American songbook has been presented. It changed it forever. Sinatra made the American songbook the thing that stays in your head…where the words are what you remember as you hear the story.
Sinatra’s Signature Style.
He sang each song differently every time and his interpretations are based on two things - how he felt and his life experiences. Sinatra would phrase things based on how he was feeling at the time or how he sensed the audience was feeling. Often times he would also change words. Some people say it was because when he got older he forgot the words I don’t think so. I think it was very intentional on his part. A lot of the little changes were intentional. He liked to change things up. He sang a lot of Ervin Drake songs and Ervin would tell stories about how when Sinatra would invite him to come see him perform when he was in New York. Sinatra would immediately go to a Drake song and start messing with the words as much as he could. He did that to every composer just to drive them crazy and he was brilliant at it. Sinatra delivered something that was very important as you study what he brought to the music. I don’t try to impersonate him, but I study him and sing it my way. That is why the CD is named Sinatra My Way. I learned a lot about how you can really tell the story and really bring your life experience to the story in such a way that people believe you. As a singer you can make them feel the story. That is what Sinatra did. The other reason I love to sing the songs Sinatra sang is that most of his songs are uplifting. Sinatra recorded over 1800 songs and very few were downers.
Nelson Riddle and Sinatra.
In the late 40’s he did a lot of films. He was a crook in Robin and the Seven Hoods and did a lot of musicals. In the late 40’s his singing career started to take a downturn but in 1952 Sinatra changed labels and met Nelson Riddle. His career took off again. Nelson Riddle had a big part to play and so did Billy May in his turnaround. Both Billy May and Nelson Riddle had a level of communication that helped them put arrangements down that were natural for Sinatra – almost second nature for him. They were totally Sympatico - almost unbelievable. You don’t see anybody doing that with music today – the intricacy. We were recording some of Riddle’s arrangements with his son, Chris Riddle and Chris would tell the orchestra stories about the particular tune before we recorded it. Sometimes he would remark on little things his father had done to hide extra things to make the song different. Sinatra and Nelson Riddle were always on the same page. The same page musically that is. Sinatra and Nelson Riddle and Billy May had love- hate relationships. Musically they were always on the same page but personally they got way on the outs.
Riddle wouldn’t talk to Sinatra for several years. One morning the phone rings and its early in California, but Riddle answers it. “Nelson this is Frank. I got a call from the people at the Reagan inaugural committee and they asked us to do what we did for JFK back in ’60 and I told them I wouldn’t do it without you so let’s get together and by the way I have three projects I want to talk to you about.” What could Riddle say? Riddle said, “Ok Frank great idea.” Sinatra was excited until her realized the time difference as he was in Washington D.C. at the time. He said, “Oh Nelson, look at the time. Did I wake you?” Nelson had a terribly dry sense of humor and said, “No, Frank I had to get up to answer the phone.”
When they recorded together, Sinatra usually got the song on one or two passes but with Night and Day it took 22 takes before he got what he wanted. They started at one in the morning. The trumpet player was going to walk out. But Riddle hung in there and finally Sinatra got what he wanted. People think Sinatra just walked into the studio and sang off the top of his head. He didn’t. Sinatra was extremely well rehearsed and he would go home and sit in front of a piano and work on a song for months before he recorded it. He always knew what he wanted to do with the song.
After Nelson and Frank got back together they did a bunch of remakes and memory albums in the ‘80s before Nelson died in ’86.
Sinatra’s continuing popularity and legacy.
Why does Sinatra remain so popular and how does he continue to be relevant? For two reasons. When he sings the songs of the American songbook the stories are still universal and the music is great. The stories are memorable and the music is beautiful. Sinatra sang them with a big sound – great arrangements and a sound you can’t find today. He delivers the story and it stays in your head. The music itself makes you walk away humming. They are all just so rhythmic. The lyrics always rhyme, are always upbeat and always tell a memorable story. When you have that combination it makes for lasting and relevant music