On August 31, 1939, Frank Sinatra stepped into a New York recording studio as vocalist of Harry James' orchestra for a two-song session. The second song recorded, Arthur Altman and Jack Lawrence's "All or Nothing at All," captured a philosophy that the 23-year old "boy singer" would hold closely. "All or nothing at all/Half a love never appealed to me," he asserted. "If it's love there is no in-between..." Indeed, Frank Sinatra's life was one of triumphant highs and shattering lows - no in-betweens. The vocalist returned to the song numerous times throughout his career, both on the concert stage and in the studio, where he recorded it with arrangers Don Costa, Nelson Riddle, and Joe Beck - the latter in a disco arrangement he soon thought better of. Director Alex Gibney used "All or Nothing at All" as the title of his 2015 documentary film about Sinatra's life and career; now, it kicks off a 4-CD box set which, like Gibney's film, celebrates the Sinatra centennial for a wide audience. The 101 tracks on Ultimate Sinatra tell his story in the purest way possible - through his music. And the story of Frank Sinatra happens to double for the story of Great American Song.
Ultimate Sinatra is the first box set to address all of Sinatra's label affiliations during his career - Columbia (briefly with Harry James, then solo between 1943 and 1952), RCA (with Tommy Dorsey's orchestra, 1940-1942, and one 1942 solo session), Capitol (1953-1962 and 1993-1994) and his own label Reprise (1960-1988). Each period has its own distinctive character. The chronological approach taken by the set's producer, Charles Pignone, puts the development of Sinatra's artistry into sharp focus - an arc which took him from "Frankie" to The Voice to Ol' Blue Eyes to the Chairman of the Board.
Three songs represent the big band years - "All or Nothing at All," naturally, as well as "I'll Never Smile Again" and "Street of Dreams." Like many of the songs here, they were all melodies to which Sinatra returned later in his career, but these recordings showcase his voice at its dreamiest, most fragile, and swoon-inducing. There's none of the bravado or cocksure swagger that would characterize his mature sound, just the sound of a vocalist in thrall to Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, synthesizing the former's intimacy and the latter's unflinching emotional honesty into a style he could call his own.
The twelve tracks selected to cover the Columbia years touch on a number of landmarks. Though still primarily a ballad singer nonpareil, Sinatra did foray into swing at Columbia, largely with arranger George Siravo. While Siravo later recalled Columbia preferring that Sinatra stick to the more marketable ballads arranged by Axel Stordahl, he was able to provide the singer with charts like 1944's brassy "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)" written by two of Sinatra's favorites, lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne. The Cahn/Styne team would continue to turn out tunes for Sinatra through the Capitol years, by which time Cahn was partnered with Sinatra pal Jimmy Van Heusen as his primary collaborator. So Ultimate Sinatra presents the light swinger "Five Minutes More" and the lush, reflective ballad "Time After Time" by Cahn and Styne. From Van Heusen, we'll hear "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)" by Van Heusen and co-writer Phil Silvers (yes, that Phil Silvers).
Cole Porter's "Night and Day" and Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's "The Song is You" were two more songs first recorded by Sinatra at Columbia which he would continue to reinterpret over the years; in fact, he recorded "The Song is You" more times in the studio than any other composition. At Columbia, Sinatra premiered his own bleakly beautiful "I'm a Fool to Want You" (co-written with Jack Wolf and Joel Herron), recently recorded by Bob Dylan. Ironically, the lament was assigned to the B-side of "Mama Will Bark," perhaps the nadir of Sinatra's recorded oeuvre and the song which best epitomizes the singer's well-publicized struggles with Columbia's Mitch Miller. "Mama Will Bark" isn't here, of course, but Sinatra's final recording for Columbia is. "Why Try to Change Me Now" was penned by the team of composer Cy Coleman (later best-known for musicals including Sweet Charity and Barnum) and lyricist Joseph McCarthy. Singing to a sympathetic chart by Percy Faith, Sinatra languidly yet completely believably conveys the cool and resignation of McCarthy's lyric and Coleman's wistful and pretty melody. Coleman, present at the September 1952 recording session, later described how Sinatra changed the vocal melody of the song's opening. The young composer might have balked, but he sensed that the singer's instincts were spot-on.
If the Columbia era is so frequently overlooked because the vocal sound is so far-removed from the iconic, hard-driving Sinatra sound, Ultimate Sinatra makes a long-overdue case for these seminal recordings. For many casual fans, however, the meat of the set will come with the musical explosion by arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle that begins Track 16 of Disc One, Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "I've Got the World on a String." Sinatra thrillingly glides over Riddle's ebullient, exhilarating chart: "What a world! What a life! I'm in love!" The singer was a man renewed and by and large, in charge of his own musical destiny. It's the first of 48 Capitol recordings here - by far, the biggest chunk of the set despite covering a period of less than 10 years.
At Capitol, Sinatra didn't only introduce songs into the body of work that would come to be known as The Great American Songbook, but recorded the versions of vintage standards that are still those that pop into mind when someone thinks of a particular song by Cole Porter or Rodgers and Hart or the Gershwins. He was aided at the Capitol Tower by his greatest collaborator, Riddle, and also by Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and the returning Axel Stordahl in pioneering the art of the concept album. Sinatra's Capitol records took listeners to the heights (Come Fly with Me) or the depths (No One Cares), to the Wee Small Hours of the morning and the Point of No Return. Ultimate Sinatra samples the most familiar tunes - "Young at Heart," "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Love and Marriage," "(Love) Is the Tender Trap," "You Make Me Feel So Young," "Witchcraft," "All the Way," "High Hopes, "Nice 'n' Easy" - that would warrant inclusion on most single-disc Sinatra compilations, but with four discs can also throw a spotlight on lesser-known gems like the dramatic "Last Night When We Were Young" and "A Cottage for Sale," as well as Sinatra's own co-written composition "This Love of Mine." Sinatra mastered the art of popular singing at Capitol, and took it to a new level. As he deftly alternated between extremes of joy and despair, he set a standard of lyric interpretation that remains today.
Sinatra set up shop at Hollywood's United Recorders in December 1960 to begin recording for his own label, Reprise, despite still owing material to Capitol. Though he sold the label to Warner Bros. in 1963, he remained an important figure at the label, and it was his home through 1988. Ultimate Sinatra has 38 songs covering the Reprise years - 10 fewer than at Capitol despite the fact that Sinatra's stay there was almost three times as long! The 1960s, of course, was a time of great change for the sound of music. In the first half of the decade, Sinatra stayed on much the same path he had trod at Capitol, with arranger-conductors Riddle, May, Jenkins, Johnny Mandel, Don Costa, Neal Hefti, Quincy Jones, and for a pair of special projects, Sy Oliver (Dorsey tribute I Remember Tommy) and Robert Farnon (the recently-reissued Great Songs from Great Britain). During this period, he recorded some of his most majestic vocals ever on The Concert Sinatra (represented here by stunning renditions of "Ol' Man River" and "I Have Dreamed"), swung harder than ever before on Sinatra and Swingin' Brass (from which "At Long Last Love" is reprised) and made sweet music with Count Basie's orchestra ("Pennies from Heaven," "The Best is Yet to Come," "Fly Me to the Moon") as he burnished his image as the epitome of urbane cool, with just the right edge of danger.
Beginning with 1964's Softly as I Leave You, a compilation of various odds and ends, Sinatra began to come to terms with rock-and-roll and the new sound of pop. Ultimate Sinatra (unlike the Alex Gibney documentary in one of its few missteps) chronicles his storming "comeback" to the top of the charts with the Grammy-winning "Strangers in the Night" in 1966 and its almost-as-successful follow-ups "Summer Wind" and "That's Life" (the latter with perhaps Sinatra's most aggressive vocal ever). The very next year, Sinatra notched another No. 1 with a duet with daughter Nancy, "Somethin' Stupid," and teamed with Brazilian music pioneer Antonio Carlos Jobim for the sublime Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim, featuring some of the softest and most sensual singing Sinatra ever committed to tape. Two selections here, "I Concentrate on You" and "The Girl from Ipanema" (as well as a third, the achingly romantic "Wave," from their 1969 collaboration that formed Side Two of 1971's Sinatra and Company) showcase the beauty of their pairing and reveal that Sinatra was still musically pushing forward even if "Strangers in the Night" was a long way from, say, "One for My Baby." Whatever the genre or style, he did it his way.
In covering the Reprise years, Ultimate Sinatra winds to its conclusion, leaving a number of worthwhile tracks behind. It would be impossible for any set, short of a complete one, to include each and every favorite track - hence, you won't find "Ring-a-Ding-Ding," "Come Blow Your Horn," "Call Me," "A Man Alone," "Love's Been Good to Me," "Didn't We," "Send in the Clowns" or his spine-tinglingly good take of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Soliloquy." Most distressingly, the set jumps from 1969 to 1979, and concludes in that year with the inevitable "(Theme from) New York, New York," meaning that his final truly great album, 1981's She Shot Me Down, is wholly overlooked. In addition, there are a handful of songs where Sinatra's later Reprise versions are the equal or better of the earlier performances ("They Can't Take That Away from Me," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Bewitched," "Night and Day") which are featured here. But as with any collection such as this, such decisions are truly matters of taste, and Ultimate Sinatra does hit the high points in compelling, musically cohesive style.
To distill Frank Sinatra's career into a 4-CD box set is a herculean enough task, but the compilers have also further cut the track list down for a 1-CD, 25-track highlights version which spans the same period between "All or Nothing at All" and "(Theme from) New York, New York." Each of these sets includes one previously unissued bonus track. For the 4-CD edition, it's a fascinating rehearsal runthrough of "The Surrey with the Fringe on Top," Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! showtune as recorded by Sinatra and Billy May, but ultimately not recorded in finished form, for 1980's Trilogy. Sinatra had performed the song on radio in 1945; returning to it decades later with May's hot, uptempo chart, he was in fine - if not full-out, befitting a rehearsal - voice. The single-disc version has Sinatra and May's September 30, 1958 take of Jule Styne, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "Just in Time," which the pair re-recorded in December for the Come Dance with Me album.
Here's where the situation gets a little sticky. The British edition of the 4-CD box has a download voucher for three more alternate takes - of "What is This Thing Called Love," "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry" and "That's Life" - plus "Just in Time." The Australian edition of the 1-CD version has a December 2, 1961 concert at Sydney Stadium of nearly 80 minutes' length on its bonus disc; the American Target stores exclusive edition of the 1-CD version has highlights from the concert on its second disc. With so many bonus tracks floating around, it's disappointing that Ultimate Sinatra wasn't offered in the "Super Deluxe" format with all of the bonuses available in one package. It's not too late for Capitol to make all of the bonus tracks available, at least in digital form, to all those interested. One can only hope, too, that the Sinatra vaults will be reopened for further rare and unheard material as the centennial celebration continues. As Ultimate Sinatra is successfully aimed at the casual fan, wouldn't a Collectors' Sinatra set of outtakes, alternates, rehearsals, live recordings and more make a perfect complement for aficionados?
The 4-CD iteration of Ultimate Sinatra is housed in a DVD-sized, fold-out digipak and contains a thick, squarebound booklet. The attractively-designed booklet is adorned with numerous photos and quotes from Sinatra, his children, and late collaborators including Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, Neal Hefti, Don Costa and Nelson Riddle. Other than Charles Pignone's brief introduction, however, there are no liner notes to put the recordings in perspective. More puzzling is the omission of discographical information; though recording dates are provided, there's no indication as to each track's first appearance on an album or single. Robert Vosgien is credited with remastering at Capitol Studios though track sources appear to vary for these four discs of ring-a-ding-ding!
Frank Sinatra's first album for Capitol Records was 1954's Songs for Young Lovers. Today, we can recognize that his body of work comprises songs for lovers young, old, and in between - in short, the music of Frank Sinatra is timeless. Ultimate Sinatra is an enjoyable as well as affordable introduction to this influential and enduring artist's body of work (as of this writing, Amazon U.S. is selling the 101-track set for 33 bucks and change). "May you live to be a hundred, and may the last voice you hear be mine," Sinatra famously toasted. On the occasion of what would his been his own 100th, The Voice still resounds.