It was ambitious, even for Sinatra.
His sixth studio album on his own Reprise label – and one of five full-length LPs released in 1962 alone – would be recorded in Great Britain with a British musical director, producer and personnel, and would feature only songs from British composers. For the quintessentially American singer, it must have been a formidable challenge. But Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain proved that The Voice was up to the task. Over time, it became a highly-regarded album in a considerable canon, and also a “lost” album as American release eluded it until the compact disc era. Now, a remastered and expanded Great Songs is at the heart of a new 3-CD/1-DVD box set from UMe and Frank Sinatra Enterprises under the new Signature Sinatra imprint. Sinatra: London follows 2006’s New York and 2009’s Vegas in celebrating a city near and dear to the late artist via his various performances there over the decades, in this case 1953-1984. The set premieres over 50 previously unreleased tracks on CD and DVD – both live and in the studio – and is a timely reminder on the eve of his 100th anniversary year of Sinatra’s enduring, universal power.
Arranger/conductor Robert Farnon, an accomplished composer of “light music” and a four-time Ivor Novello Award winner, wisely kept Sinatra’s voice front and center on this collection of rich ballads. His gentle a cappella tone opens the album with the title lyric of “The Very Thought of You,” kicking off an understated, dreamy collection. Recording at CTS Studios in Bayswater in June 1962, Farnon provided a lush setting for Sinatra on such classic British songs as Novello’s “We’ll Gather Lilacs,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” “We’ll Meet Again” (the wartime anthem so closely associated with Dame Vera Lynn) and Noel Coward’s “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart.” Two songs on the album, “London by Night” and “If I Had You,” marked the third time Sinatra had recorded them, in each case previously at both Columbia and Capitol Records, but Farnon’s orchestrations (as played by a 40-strong orchestra including Sinatra’s regular accompanist, Bill Miller) stand the test of time as the definitive ones.
There’s not a lot of ring-a-ding-ding on Great Songs, just a lot of impeccable singing despite Sinatra’s own belief that his voice was strained. Despite experiencing vocal stress, he used any roughness in his voice in service of the songs. Though Farnon’s evocative string arrangements are most prevalent throughout, the arranger evoked a smoky milieu with brass for “If I Had You,” the sweetly devotional lyrics of which Sinatra embodied with seeming effortlessness and a light swing. On “Now Is the Hour,” Sinatra tempered the sadness of the lyric with just the right note of hope; indeed, some of the vocalist’s most pure singing can be heard as he caresses “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” or conjures up the vivid, romantic imagery of “London by Night.” The London box adds the previously-released outtake “Roses of Picardy” – a haunting performance that would have fit comfortably on the original album – as well as brief but illuminating spoken introductions to each of the original ten songs by Sinatra from an October 21, 1962 BBC radio broadcast of the album.
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Ken Barnes’ liner notes shed fascinating light on the experience of being in the studio with Sinatra for the three nights of recording Great Songs from Great Britain. Barnes also addresses Sinatra’s own concerns about his vocal shape during the recording sessions. The perfect accompaniment to his recollections is Disc Two, Sessions, which features studio highlights for six of the album’s original ten songs. “The Very Thought of You,” for instance, was assembled from two complete takes and a total of “about ten minutes” of recording including false starts, per Barnes; you’ll hear the whole process in, actually, almost fourteen minutes. Seventeen minutes here are featured as Sinatra masters “London by Night.” One alternate of “A Garden in the Rain” is included; if Sinatra sounds more noticeably strained than on the final recording, he also interprets it with a jazz singer’s style. On “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” Sinatra keenly praises the trombone solo and is acutely aware of exactly which portions of the take should be intercut; his control of the session as well as his respect for his colleagues is evident. So, too, is his sense of humor.
Whenever one has the rare opportunity to hear Sinatra session material, one can’t help but be struck by just how sharp his instincts as a musician, not just as a singer, were. These tracks are no exception. If these alternate takes aren’t radically different from the final versions, Sinatra never performed a song exactly the same way twice; those who know the original album well will hear numerous variations in phrasing and feel throughout as well as in his interactions with the orchestra. The session chatter with album producer Alan Freeman, too, allows for a true “fly-on-the-wall” experience that hopefully will be repeated on future expansions of Sinatra’s classic albums. The Sessions disc is rounded out by a flashback to 1953, with a brief three-song concert performed by Sinatra for the BBC which includes a sublimely intimate “London by Night.” He’s in high spirits on this brief set, playfully bantering through some (seemingly scripted) interactions with the presenter and sounding brash and supremely confident in his vocals. The sound quality of these tracks isn’t top-notch, but it hardly matters considering their rarity and performance strength.
By time of Sinatra’s September 21, 1984 concert at South Kensington’s Royal Albert Hall (the same venue at which he would bid farewell to the London stage in 1992), presented on Disc 3 of the box set, the artist was in a very different place than he had been in 1962. A couple months shy of 69 years old and the undisputed Chairman of the Board, Sinatra had thrived in the September of his years, retired, un-retired, and ascended to a position of virtual American royalty. One month prior to the series of Royal Albert Hall concerts, Sinatra released L.A. Is My Lady, the LP that turned out to be his solo studio swansong. A couple of tracks from the Quincy Jones-produced effort appear on the setlist: the title track and “Mack the Knife.” Though Sinatra’s voice had weathered over the decades, his interpretive skills had hardly diminished. With Joe Parnello leading the orchestra, he’s heard in fine form on supple and swinging renditions of standards like Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Frank Loesser’s “Luck Be a Lady” (preceded by an amusing impression/remembrance of Marlon Brando singing it in the Guys and Dolls film) not to mention attractively spare renditions of “These Foolish Things” and “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” with Tony Mottola’s guitar, plus the inevitable trio of “My Way,” “Strangers in the Night” and “New York, New York.”
The final disc of the box set, a DVD, has two concerts, from 1962 and 1970, from another Royal venue: The Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank of the Thames. The June 1, 1962 show, presented in occasionally jumpy black-and-white footage, is an epic performance, with 33 tracks on DVD – 29 songs plus four tracks of introductions, monologues and bows over 90 minutes. Sinatra radiates effortless cool on this tour through the Great American Songbook by perhaps its greatest-ever interpreter, from a sensitive “Moonlight in Vermont” to a rapturous “At Long Last Love.” Like the performance on the CD Sinatra and Sextet – Live in Paris from just a few days later on June 5, the RFH show was part of Sinatra’s benefit World Tour for Children, and the setlist is naturally similar to that of the Paris concert. But there’s a thrill seeing as well as hearing Sinatra in his prime, whether relaxing with a hot tea and cigarette (and joking about the latter’s effect on his throat cancelling out the benefits of the tea!) or swinging in front of leader Bill Miller on piano, Harry Klee on saxophone, Emil Richards on vibes, Al Viola on guitar, Irv Cottler on drums, and Ralph Pena on bass. The highlights of this concert are numerous, but Sinatra’s skills as an actor-singer are powerfully vivid on a late-in-the-show “Ol’ Man River.” His empathetic ability to connect with the drama and the longing of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II song only grew with time, and at RFH, he delivered a beautifully modulated, “textbook” performance – it’s the art of singing at its finest.
The hourlong concert of November 22, 1970 – recorded for the BBC’s Night of Nights program and preserved in color – featured a substantially shorter set of just 13 songs. Bill Miller again was leader, though this time with a full orchestra. It’s notable for its then-contemporary repertoire including George Harrison’s “Something” (another great song from Great Britain!), Paul Ryan’s “I Will Drink the Wine” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We.” Only five songs are shared with the 1962 set, making them ideal companions. This concert, featuring Sinatra’s High Society co-star Princess Grace’s introduction, has been released before on DVD, but this presentation adds the outtake “A Foggy Day” for the very first time.
Sinatra is far looser on the 1970 broadcast, taking liberties with lyrics in inimitable fashion (“You hang around, Jack, it may show!” in “Something”), jokingly dedicating “I Will Drink the Wine” to Dean Martin, and clearly enjoying himself throughout. It’s classic Sinatra all the way as he makes sure to introduce the composers and lyricists of most of the songs, or as he sets up an expectedly stunning “One for My Baby” with a long monologue. When he ends the concert with the still-recent “My Way,” he’d more than earned it.
Though designed in a similarly classy style to New York and Vegas, if packaged in a slightly less tall box, this is the only set in the series to feature a studio album among its contents. It includes a 60-page booklet with liner notes from author Ken Barnes; in addition to the Great Songs from Great Britain recollections, he supplies another fine essay exploring The Anglo Connection. The collection also boasts two exclusive art print reproductions of original London concert posters, and a studio panorama from the 1962 recording sessions. Each disc is housed in a digipak with uniform design elements across all four discs and sleeves. Ian Jones has splendidly remastered at Abbey Road Studios, with the sound on the remastered Great Songs far superior to the previous CD issue; Larry Walsh is credited with engineering and mixing.
With Sinatra’s centennial year of 2015 just around the corner, one hopes that London is just the start of something big to celebrate the man once deemed “The Entertainer of the Century.” With his Capitol and Reprise catalogues now under one roof, deluxe box sets and expanded album reissues with additional material would just be too marvelous for words.