There’s simply no getting around it: Frank Sinatra is the voice of the Great American Songbook. That’s not to discount the dozens of other significant voices that brought life to the House That George, Ira, Irving, Cole, Jerome, Richard and Lorenz Built. (Again, just to name a few.) But Frank Sinatra’s voice, as well as his persona, has become such a deeply ingrained part of the American musical fabric that it’s hard to find new ways to present it. The body of work created by Sinatra at Capitol and Reprise, not to mention RCA and Columbia, has been released album-by-album, as well as in complete sets, numerous times in the past, and anthologized in countless compilations. The latest of these, Best of the Best, has arrived from Capitol Records and Frank Sinatra Enterprises. What is its twist? This new collection (available as both a 1-CD edition and a 2-CD miniature box set with a long out-of-print concert disc appended) brings together The Voice’s recordings for both Capitol and Reprise under one attractive roof. There’s no better recent release for a breezy reminder of the way he wore his hat, the way he sang on key, and indeed, the memory of all that, than Best of the Best.
Best of the Best marks the very first time both eras have been compiled together as a single disc; the soundtrack to the television movie Sinatra did feature recordings from both labels, but functioned more as an accompaniment to the film than an actual “best of” album. Even the title Best of the Best allows that there’s more good stuff than can be heard on one compact disc, but producer Charles Pignone has done admirable job presenting some of the material that made Frank Sinatra into the indisputable Chairman of the Board. There’s plenty of zing and loads of ring-a-ding-ding here! 23 tracks compose the main disc: 13 from Capitol and 10 from Reprise.
Such were Frank Sinatra’s powers of interpretation that even though he didn’t write the songs, he might as well have. When Sinatra opened his mouth in front of a microphone, the truth came forth. Where Best of the Best succeeds most is presenting the artist’s trajectory; after all, these songs became the singer’s musical autobiography. Countless books have delved into the many colors of Sinatra’s private life, but all that matters was on record: his despairing loneliness (“In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “Angel Eyes”), his bravado (“I’ve Got the World on a String,” an atypical song by torch song maestro Harold Arlen), his winking humor (“Love and Marriage,” or the song known to a generation as the theme to Married…with Children), his deeply-felt romance (“All the Way,” “Night and Day”). On one level or another, Sinatra’s music often mirrored his life; when he turned 50 and recorded the Reprise album September of My Years in 1965, it was a reflective acknowledgment of where he had been in a music business becoming more and more youth-conscious. Not every song or album was as explicitly autobiographical, but most were just as deeply felt.
Of course, it’s the image of Sinatra the swinger that has lived on most, his tilted hat, dangling Camel and carefree smile (and a glass of Jack Daniel’s nearby) adorning countless T-shirts, postcards, magnets, posters, and the like. The songs that invented that Sinatra style are here: Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” with the Nelson Riddle arrangement that just might be the most famous orchestration of all time; Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s saucy “The Lady is a Tramp” (of which Nelson Riddle told Frank Sinatra Jr. that his father “took particular delight in its salaciousness,” according to Sinatra Jr.’s fine liner notes); Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “My Kind of Town,” tailor-made for Sinatra, as were so many of the songs the team supplied him.
What else will you find? Just hit the jump!
There’s a fine mix of songs that were standards before Sinatra got hold of them, and songs that he made standards. In the latter category you’ll find Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh’s “Witchcraft,” Ervin Drake’s “It Was a Very Good Year” (reinvented top to bottom from its folk origins by arranger Gordon Jenkins, who swathed Sinatra’s reflective vocal in a bed of strings), and the contemporary songs that returned him to the top of the pop charts during the 1960s Reprise era. “Strangers in the Night” may not have the sophistication of Porter or Gershwin, but Sinatra’s vocal is pure, winking delight. The voice had deepened by 1966, and brought gravity to Bert Kaempfert, Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder’s song. “That’s Life” features the toughest, most in-your-face vocal ever delivered by Sinatra (and ain’t that saying something, pally?) over Ernie Freeman’s organ-driven rhythm-and-blues arrangement. He practically spits the lyrics with such force, you might duck from your speaker! It’s, simply, a tour de force. Nelson Riddle even had a last hurrah with Sinatra, subtly updating his 1950s sound for “Summer Wind,” co-written by one of the great poets of the American South, Johnny Mercer. (Riddle would work with Sinatra on a number of recordings in the future, but 1966’s Strangers in the Night, including “Summer Wind,” would be their final album collaboration. Ironically, the only track not arranged by Nelson Riddle was the title song, added to the album at the last minute!) And where would any Sinatra “best of” be without “My Way,” the French song adapted by Paul Anka specifically for The Voice? Elvis Presley took a credible shot at the song in later years, but it always belonged to Frank Sinatra. Sure, it’s a bit pompous, and Sinatra didn’t need to boast…but every single word was true.
Not that Best of the Best is a portrait of the artist across all eras, essentially spanning a fertile 27-year period (1953-1980) in a career that lasted for more than 50 years. There’s nothing from Sinatra’s formative period at Columbia Records; his less characteristic (though still remarkable) singing during that period might have made a less comfortable fit here. Nor is the Reprise era represented as fully or as accurately as the Capitol years, with no material at all between 1969 (“My Way”) and 1979 (John Kander and Fred Ebb’s immortal “(Theme From) New York, New York”) and nothing thereafter. No room could be made for selections from such acclaimed Reprise albums as Ring-a-Ding Ding!, The Concert Sinatra, with Sinatra’s stunningly majestic reading of Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched , Francis Albert Sinatra/Antonio Carlos Jobim or Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back, with his sensitive take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.” Of the Capitol era, “One For My Baby” is missed, as Sinatra offered the definitive version of the definitive saloon song. But the 23 songs on Best of the Best are, no doubt, prime cuts all.
The 2-CD edition of Best of the Best is a deluxe box set in miniature, in the same size and lift-top style as Capitol’s recent distillation of The Beach Boys’ SMiLE Sessions box. It contains an assortment of miniature photo prints of the artist, plus a booklet expanded from the single disc edition. Frank Sinatra Jr. offers track-by-track liner notes. Sinatra Jr., an accomplished musician and conductor in his own right, provided a wonderful set of notes for Concord’s expanded reissue of Ring-a-Ding Ding!, reviewed here, and does just as well here. (One small gaffe should be noted, however: the 1954 film Young at Heart was not an adaptation of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s The Man Who Came to Dinner, but in fact was a remake of the 1938 film Four Daughters.) Ron McMaster is credited with mastering at the Capitol Tower, and Larry Walsh (who has remixed Sinatra’s Reprise catalogue for the ongoing series of Concord reissues) also is credited for engineering and mixing. The sound throughout is superb.
The main attraction of the deluxe edition is a bonus disc of a Sinatra concert recorded on June 9, 1957 in Seattle, Washington. Sinatra ’57: In Concert was previously released on the DCC/Artanis label in 1999; Nelson Riddle provided the arrangements and even conducted. Sinatra’s longtime accompanist Bill Miller was, of course, at the piano. Sinatra is in top form on the 19-track set, as he triumphantly runs through an amazing number of standards. The deluxe edition is an essential purchase for the songs not included on the main disc, including a Cole Porter trio of “At Long Last Love,” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and “Just One of Those Things,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” Cahn and Van Heusen’s “The Tender Trap” and perhaps most significantly, “One For My Baby.” Both discs in the deluxe edition are housed in attractive individual cardboard sleeves with uniform cover elements.
There’s admittedly little here to entice collectors who already own Sinatra ‘57. But Best of the Best makes a perfect gift for the casual Sinatra fan (and who isn’t?). For those who already own major chunks of the man’s catalogue, there’s still something undeniably swell about having these two disparate eras represented on one disc for the first time, and the upgraded sound (particularly on the Capitol tracks) and all-around classy design might be enough to compel a purchase.
Frank Sinatra frequently offered the toast, “May you live to be 100 and may the last voice you hear be mine.” I’ll drink to that.