“I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,” Walt Whitman famously wrote in 1900. In early 1964, the country was still recovering from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and as in so many times of turmoil, artists stepped up to raise their voices in song and perhaps lend comfort and assurance. One such artist was Frank Sinatra. While his many other loves have been well-documented, love of country surely ranked high among them. A lifelong civil rights champion and proud Italian-American, Sinatra took a cue from Whitman in naming the album he released on his Reprise label in January 1964, America, I Hear You Singing. A collaborative effort with Bing Crosby and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, this LP has been long-lost in the CD era, but just in time for this year’s Fourth of July weekend festivities, it has seen its first CD reissue…ironically, on the other side of the pond! As a result of Universal Music’s long-term agreement with Frank Sinatra Enterprises to release the Sinatra catalog outside the United States, this most American of albums is now available as an import (Universal CD 0602527280783).
America, I Hear You Singing almost plays like the cast recording of a patriotic musical revue, and in a sense, it is a cousin to Sinatra’s Reprise Repertory Theatre albums, which saw Sinatra and the Reprise stable of artists tackle such musicals as Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Kiss Me, Kate and South Pacific in pop arrangements. Nelson Riddle arranged two tracks for America, with the other 10 tracks being divided between Roy Ringwald, Tom Scott, Hawley Ades, Dick Reynolds and Jack Halloran, and Harry Simeone, perhaps best-known for popularizing “The Little Drummer Boy.” Read on after the jump!
After a stirring choral introduction by the Pennsylvanians, they join Crosby for a swinging “This is a Great Country” (“If this is flag waving/Do you know a better flag to wave?”) penned by Irving Berlin for his 1962 musical Mr. President and introducing the rousing salutes that follow. Naturally, a highlight is Sinatra’s “The House I Live In,” first sung by the crooner in 1945’s Academy Award-winning short film of the same name. Riddle’s arrangement, the Pennsylvanians’ vocal support and most especially Sinatra’s impassioned vocal add up to a still-powerful recording.
Waring and the Pennsylvanians appear on every track, contributing booming choral renditions of “The Hills of Home,” “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” and a musical setting of Emma Lazarus’ “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor.” There’s a real kick, then, to their teaming with the perpetually laid-back Crosby for one of the album’s most up-tempo moments, Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” There’s something wonderful, and inherently American, about including a song by Guthrie, who notoriously criticized Irving Berlin for the rose-colored view of Berlin’s “God Bless America.” Sinatra called on longtime chums Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen for two songs each. Individually, Cahn joins with Robert Dolan for the atypical “A Home in the Meadow,” sung by Crosby and based on the melody of “Greensleeves.” Van Heusen and Johnny Burke deliver a stately ballad for Sinatra, “Early American.” As a team, Cahn and Van Heusen supply “You Never Had It So Good.” Cahn lyrically creates a call-and-response list song allowing Sinatra and Crosby to effortlessly display their rapport: “A flag that you can wave about?“/“That’s good!”, “A mind that you can speak right out?”/“That’s good!” The brassy melody and orchestration could have come straight out of Robin and the Seven Hoods. It’s very similar in tone to the gently-admonishing “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith,” in which Sinatra reminds one Mr. Smith of what he might be taking for granted in America. These up-tempo moments, with their timelessly swinging arrangements are certainly the album’s most fun and timeless. Yet over all its tracks, a real sincerity shines through, a kind of straight-ahead, heart-on-its-sleeve quality that is largely absent from much music today.
Like all of Universal’s Frank Sinatra Collection reissues except for those derived from Concord’s American deluxe editions, there are no bonus tracks or new liner notes here. The CD does, however, sound great. The original liner notes are replicated in which producer Sonny Burke singles out engineers Lowell Frank and Bill Putnam for “a most spectacular performance, using the most advanced of modern recording techniques in natural sequence from the actual recording through the mastering to this finished pressing.” The uncredited remastering here stays true to their original sound.
America, I Hear You Singing may be a curio representative of a different time, and may be a minor entry in the staggering catalogues of Sinatra and Crosby. But this overlooked LP shouldn’t be forgotten. Its look at another side of Sinatra is particularly valuable. In “The House I Live In,” Sinatra asks himself: “What is America to me? A name, a map, a flag I see?” Should our American readers have the opportunity to listen to this most welcome CD reissue on the Fourth of July or at any time, don’t hesitate. It will provide the perfect soundtrack to one’s own reflection of just what, indeed, America means to each and every one of us.