Review: Frank Sinatra, “Ring-a-Ding Ding!: Expanded Edition”
Ring-a-ding ding! It can be used as an adjective or an interjection. But when Frank Sinatra chose the expression to title his very first album for his very own label, it was simply an ecstatic expression of pure joy. Sinatra was no longer tethered to Capitol Records, the label at which he’d made history with a series of “concept” albums. He had the freedom to make some new history, his way, when he launched Reprise. And Ring-a-Ding Ding!, now definitively reissued and sparklingly remastered for its 50th anniversary as part of Concord’s ongoing campaign (Concord CRE-32929), didn’t merely reprise the Capitol sound. Nelson Riddle, arguably Sinatra’s most renowned collaborator, was unavailable due to a contract over at the Tower. For the same reason, Billy May was out of the question. And Sinatra instinctively knew that Gordon Jenkins’ lush, reflective string charts wouldn’t fit the bill to usher in a new decade on a new label. So when it was decided to reach out to young jazz composer Johnny Mandel to arrange and conduct, there was excitement in the air.
The Chairman’s intentions were anything but subtle when Mandel’s thrilling, brassy introduction to the first track began. The delicious cut was the latest in a line of title songs made to order for Sinatra by his pallys Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. “Don’t know if it’s morning, nighttime, winter or spring – what’s the difference? Ring-a-ding ding!” announces Sinatra. When he asserts that “life is swell,” accompanied by swaggering horns, trilling bells and tinkling keys, who could argue?
What follows is a tour of Sinatra’s favorite songwriters in the pantheon. These names are legendary now, and were legendary then, even though many were still active writing for Hollywood, Broadway or even television. A trio was selected from Irving Berlin (“Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and one standard now most played at the holidays, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm”) and a duo from Cole Porter (“In the Still of the Night,” “You’d Be So Easy to Love”), with whose music Sinatra always evinced a sympathetic sensibility. “In the Still of the Night,” in fact, may be the most enduring track on the album, with an arrangement that remained in Sinatra’s book throughout his lifetime. The Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields songbook yielded “A Fine Romance,” a worthy precursor to the singer’s immortal reading of “The Way You Look Tonight” a few years later. The George and Ira Gershwin catalogue was tapped for “A Foggy Day,” with its evocative introduction and playful vocal. Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’ moody, jazz standard “You and the Night and the Music” as well as Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Let’s Fall in Love” seriously upped the romantic ante.
Sinatra never sounded more assured and confident, and he was ready to take risks even beyond the launch of a new label. There’s famously the extended two-bar pause in “Let’s Fall in Love.” (Was Brian Wilson listening when he similarly inserted a dramatic silence into his sophisticated pop song, “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” to the chagrin of Capitol executives?) The pause gives listeners more time to savor what had come before. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s famous orchestrator Skip Martin was one of two arrangers brought in to augment Mandel’s work. (Dick Reynolds was the other, and he handled “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Reynolds was a major arranger for the Four Freshmen and in another Beach Boys connection, arranged Side Two of their Christmas album.) Martin took on Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” The mood on the album is so bold and so bright that the idea of anyone raining on Sinatra’s parade seems an impossibility, but that voice – indeed, The Voice – was incapable of dishonesty. And so a spot-on note of vulnerability creeps into the song. When Sinatra admits that it’s “the heart with which so willingly I part,” he effortlessly makes Berlin’s poetry sound conversational. But he was equally ready for some fun. Bob Hilliard and Dick Miles’ “The Coffee Song,” first recorded by Sinatra in 1946, is a bit goofy, to say the least: “Why, they put coffee in the coffee in Brazil!” But in Mandel’s freewheeling, wild arrangement, it’s one of the singer’s best, most hard-swinging performances and made an instant (pun intended) classic of the delightful tune.
Hit the jump to find out what’s new on this 50th anniversary edition!
Make no mistake, this is a classy, prestige reissue in every sense. The stereo sound, remixed from the original three-track tapes by Larry Walsh, restored by Leon J. Smith III and mastered by the folks at BluWave Audio, is crisp, dry and clean. In other words, it’s stellar, as if a veil of gauze has been removed from every prior Ring-a-Ding Ding! CD. (Only a three-channel SACD, a la the Nat “King” Cole reissues coming from Analogue Productions, could better this achievement!) Liner notes aren’t courtesy of Stan Cornyn this time around but rather by Frank Sinatra Jr,. a 16-year old onlooker during the recording sessions. The younger Sinatra’s notes aren’t only friendly and accessible but they’re filtered through the sensibility of a musician. Hence, he admonishes us to pay attention to Irv Cottler’s drumming on the title track, Conrad Gozzo’s stunning lead trumpet parts, Frank Sr.’s double “F” on “Be Careful, It’s My Heart,” and the construction of the slam-bang finish of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” These observations handily enhance the listening experience. The booklet is beautifully designed with great attention to detail. The Concord logo has elegantly replaced the original Reprise on the album cover, while the rare alternate cover prepared for the reel-to-reel issue is included on the inside back cover. Ralph J. Gleason’s original liner notes have also been included on both the inside tray card and rear of the booklet, where they are easier to read. Even the typography on the spine and tray card will be familiar to Reprise enthusiasts.
And then there are the bonus tracks. Sinatra’s outtake performance of James Hanley’s “Zing! Went The Strings of My Heart” premiered on the 1990 box set The Reprise Collection and was recorded at the same December 21, 1960 session as “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm,” “When I Take My Sugar to Tea” and “You and the Night and the Music.” The song is reprised here, but appears to be a different, equally superb take. The real treasure is the second bonus track, a full 10+ minutes of sessions for Sinatra’s abortive attempt at Rodgers and Hart’s “Have You Met Miss Jones.” Over a luscious introduction, Sinatra is heard ruminating “This sounds like a different album!” which may ultimately explain why the song was abandoned and re-recorded in May 1961 with Billy May. The session chatter and multiple attempts at the song are illuminating. The Sinatra team has long been reluctant to release session material, hopefully its inclusion here signals a change in the weather. Sinatra’s sessions are clearly deserving of a commercial release in a boxed set form; I was instantly transported to United Recorders, circa 1960, for a master class in musicianship and interpretive singing. The rapport Sinatra shared with his musicians is in evidence, and what a group they were: Conrad Gozzo, Don Fagerquist and John Anderson on trumpet, Emil Richards on vibes, Bud Shank on flute, Frank Rosolino on trombone, Irv Cottler on drums, and Sinatra’s longtime pianist Bill Miller. Both bonus tracks are presented in punchy mono.
Three further Cahn/Van Heusen songs were committed to tape on December 21, 1960. “The Last Dance,” “The Second Time Around” and “Tina” were all recorded with surreptitious Nelson Riddle charts credited to conductor Felix Slatkin. The latter two tracks formed Sinatra’s first Reprise single. All three recordings have been released on CD in the past but are currently orphaned in the catalogue, and they might have nicely filled out the disc for a full picture of Sinatra’s first work at Reprise.
Word from The Sinatra Family Forum is that Sinatra-Basie: The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings is coming in September. Well, if that’s the case, the fall can’t come too soon! Ring-a-Ding Ding! is hands-down the best album reissue yet from the Frank Sinatra Enterprises/Concord Music Group partnership, and an altogether remarkable release that belongs on the shelf of every serious music fan. Ring-a-Ding Ding! may have just turned 50, but its fine romance is as fresh as ever.