On Sinatra: His Second Act

Benjamin Schwarz – Atlantic Monthly

Copyright Atlantic Monthly
More important, in that year (1953) he also signed with the trendsetting, L.A.-based Capitol Records, a move that afforded him his greatest role: his own musical and stylistic reinvention. The 16 concept albums that followed, his most remarkable achievement and among America’s enduring cultural treasures, defied public taste and redirected it toward what would be known as the Great American Songbook. With his key collaborator, the arranger Nelson Riddle, Sinatra jettisoned the yearning, sweet-voiced crooning of his Columbia years in favor of a richer voice, greater rhythmic invention, and more knowing and conversational phrasing. He had always said that Billie Holiday was his most profound musical influence, and at Capitol, accompanied by Harry Edison, the former trumpeter for Count Basie, he was even more deeply open to jazz influence, as he invested up-tempo songs (which he had rarely performed at Columbia) with a tough, assured swing. For their part, jazz musicians overwhelmingly selected him “the greatest-ever male vocalist” in a 1956 poll, and Lester Young and Miles Davis—never partial to white musicians—ardently praised him.
And now, apparently because of his tortured relationship with Gardner, Sinatra burned off all remaining affectations and sentimentality and sang his ballads with bitterness, directness, and masculine vulnerability (“Ava taught him how to sing a torch song,” Riddle said). A midcentury artist with an admitted “overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation,” Sinatra invested those largely decades-old ballads with a modern anxiety and ambivalence. In his album sequences and in such swinging songs as “Night and Day,” “Day In, Day Out,” “Old Devil Moon,” and especially his greatest recording, the 1956 “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” he juxtaposed bravado and panic, ecstasy and uncertainty.
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