Columbia Records and Legacy Recordings’ new box set Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air (88875 09971 2) begins, appropriately enough, with the jarring sound of an old-time radio tuning in. The shrill noise quickly segues to the first of nearly 100 performances on four CDs – 19-year old Frank Sinatra, one-fourth of The Hoboken Four, singing the perky “S-H-I-N-E” on WHN Radio’s The Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Here, then, is the future Chairman of the Board – before he sang for swingin’ lovers, before he did it his way – as a young singer, eager to impress host Edward “Major” Bowes. It’s Sinatra’s oldest surviving performance, and sounds remarkably fine considering its vintage. This lost treasure (previously available on the companion CD to Nancy Sinatra’s book Frank Sinatra: An American Legend and newly edited here) sets the tone for this collection. With its diverse array of meticulously-restored broadcast performances comprising otherwise unrecorded songs, unrecorded arrangements, and “new” takes on Sinatra classics, A Voice on Air beautifully illuminates a period of Frank Sinatra’s career that was incredibly popular yet remains less-chronicled simply due to the magnitude of his future accomplishments.
“You have an odd name. Are you related, by any chance, to Ray Sinatra?” asks comedian Fred Allen on the box’s second track in which Sinatra is leading an instrumental jazz combo, The Four Sharps, on Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh’s “Exactly Like You.” Though Ray, cousin of Frank’s dad, achieved considerable acclaim as a conductor, it wouldn’t be long before people would be asking Ray, “Are you related, by any chance, to Frank Sinatra?” By Track 3 – “Moon Love,” an Andre Kostelanetz/Mack David adaptation of a Tchaikovsky melody – the singer sounds like the young Frank Sinatra: pure of tone, confident of voice, utterly romantic and prone to induce shrieking in bobbysoxers everywhere. During the period covered in A Voice on Air, “boy singer” Sinatra moved from the orchestra of Harry James to that of Tommy Dorsey, and then to solo stardom and a Columbia Records contract. Inspired by the intimacy of Bing Crosby, Sinatra and his gift of interpretation would take popular singing to the next level. This box is the ground floor of that revolution.
A Voice on Air celebrates the young Sinatra’s skill as a ballad singer nonpareil as well as his affinity for an uptempo big band chart. Tracks have been culled from radio programs such as Fame and Fortune, Your Hit Parade, Broadway Band Box, Songs by Sinatra, Light-Up Time, and The Frank Sinatra Show. Naturally, the songs which Sinatra didn’t otherwise record – from familiar standards to fleetingly popular tunes – will prove the highlights for most listeners. Sinatra is effervescent on “Frenesi” (from January 1941, just weeks after Artie Shaw took the Mexican tune to the top of the chart) and bright on “For Me and My Gal.” Though Sinatra sang the operetta favorite “Lover Come Back to Me” on the concert stage well into the late years of his career, he never released a studio version; his strong rendition here from 1943 is prefaced by his appreciation of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II. He’s equally rapturous surveying the famous likes of “My Ideal” and “Long Ago and Far Away.”
Many slices of pop heard on this set never made it to the exalted realm of the standard, such as fall 1943’s No. 9 entry on the Hit Parade – the sweetly reassuring “I Heard You Cried Last Night.” There’s also a sampling of less likely material like “Along the Navajo Trail” (part of a sequence of popular western songs also including “I’m an Old Cowhand” and “Home on the Range”). Another true curiosity is “(Li’l Abner) Don’t Marry That Gal,” co-written by the comic strip’s controversial creator, Al Capp, and tying into the strip’s then-current continuity. Such was the popularity of Capp’s creation that Sinatra, Kate Smith, Jack Smith, Fred Waring and Danny Kaye all performed the song on their radio programs! Sinatra even adopts the singular style of Al Jolson on a tribute program for “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” (Though the performances may vary, one thing doesn’t: the screaming of the appreciative bobbysoxers. They do their best to keep “Moonlight Mood” from being too moody!)
Many songs that Sinatra did record in the studio appear here in alternative arrangements. Brooks Bowman’s “East of the Sun (West of the Moon)” is heard with Sinatra backed by a boisterous chorus; a ballad take on “That Old Black Magic” has Lyn Murray’s orchestra supporting Sinatra on a vaguely Eastern-sounding arrangement. (Frank cut the Arlen/Mercer tune twice on record – once in ballad form with Axel Stordahl at Columbia, and once as a light swinger with Billy May at Capitol.) The performance here of “My Heart Stood Still” can’t possibly match the depth and majesty of his Concert Sinatra recording, yet the singer’s affinity for the Rodgers and Hart song is still palpable in this 1943 take. He’s equally moving on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring” and a longing version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” the Oscar-winning classic by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern. Sinatra’s 1964 rendition with Nelson Riddle would, of course, become one of The Voice’s most beloved recordings and a wedding perennial to this day.
A number of duets are featured, too. The most unusual is with Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis on “You Are My Sunshine,” but Sinatra more comfortably shares melodies with artists including Nat “King” Cole (a cool “Exactly Like You”), Slim Gaillard (the zany “Cement Mixer”), Peggy Lee (a playful “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”), Doris Day (“Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business”), June Hutton (“Button Up Your Overcoat”) and Dorothy Kirsten (latter-day Bob Dylan favorite “Full Moon and Empty Arms” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune to which Sinatra would return three times at Columbia and Reprise). This isn’t even mentioning the duets with comedians Jimmy Durante and Garry Moore (“Anything You Can Do”) and legendary songwriters Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer! Future “pally” Dean Martin shows up, too, introducing Frank on an attractive 1948 interpretation of the Gershwins’ evergreen “I’ve Got a Crush on You” accompanied by Dick Stabile’s orchestra.
There are flashes of the future Sinatra’s various personas throughout these four discs. He’s sensitive and gentle on Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loesser’s dreamy “Say It,” and evinces mature understanding at a youthful age on Richard Whiting and Neil Moret’s “She’s Funny That Way” which he would record at both Columbia and Capitol. (Composer-lyricist Loesser recurs with fine versions of “Slow Boat to China” and “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So,” both otherwise unrecorded by Sinatra.) Career staples of the Chairman, such as “All or Nothing at All” and “Ol’ Man River,” both appear. The latter track dates to December 1945 – one year before he sang the Kern/Hammerstein song onscreen in MGM’s Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By.
Sinatra’s beautiful rendition of Cy Coleman and Joseph McCarthy’s “Why Try to Change Me Now” with Harry Sosnik’s orchestra is from May 1953, just one month after he first recorded for Capitol Records and ushered in a new chapter of his career. Disc Four’s September 1953 performance of “I’ve Got the World on a String” signals the mature, Capitol-era Sinatra, though the jazz nonet accompaniment is naturally lighter than Nelson Riddle’s thunderous, famous chart recorded by Sinatra months earlier on April 30. A lightly-swinging jazz quintet setting allows for wonderful romps through Rodgers and Hart’s “This Can’t Be Love,” Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and more, all from NBC’s ’53 To Be Perfectly Frank show. Pianist Graham Forbes, featured in these groups, also accompanies Sinatra on a number of stunning, intimate voice-and-piano performances of songs including “Tenderly,” “Hello, Young Lovers” and “It’s All Right with Me.”
The treasures here aren’t purely musical. The producers offer various show openings, introductions, dialogue, news bulletins, very quirky commercials and comedy sketches as they were heard on the vintage radio programs represented; these add flavor and moreover, context to the already-fascinating recordings. It’s a rare pleasure to be able to hear Ruth Lowe, composer of Sinatra’s early signature song “I’ll Never Smile Again,” interviewed prior to Sinatra’s performance with the Pied Pipers. (Though hardly a household name, Lowe also composed another significant Sinatra theme: “Put Your Dreams Away,” which is also included in this set.) The specter of World War II is present on the second disc of this set, with excerpts of news bulletins, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s D-Day address, Sinatra’s own D-Day commentary and much more, including his performance of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s hard-swinging war bond song, “Buy a Piece of the Peace” and an impassioned “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Bonus tracks are included on each disc, too, like a goofy rehearsal run through “As Time Goes By” (heard on the same disc in its broadcast version) and “It’s De-Lovely” from one of Sinatra’s favorite composers, Cole Porter, with Sinatra trading lines with Uncle Miltie himself, Milton Berle.
Though Sinatra’s radio performances have been addressed on countless unauthorized packages of various sizes and shapes, never have they sounded as fresh and indeed, as vital, as they do in this box. Some tracks are marred by sonic imperfections (the surface noise on “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons” comes to mind) but by and large, these decades-old tracks sound nothing short of extraordinary.
Producers Charles L. Granata, Didier C. Deutsch, Michael Feinstein and Andreas Meyer have curated an elegant and classy package befitting the stature of its subject. The box itself (actually, a sturdy slipcase) is diminutive, particularly compared to its predecessor A Voice in Time, but no matter – the content is expansive. The 58-page squarebound booklet offers ample reading from Feinstein, Granata, and Frank’s daughter Nancy Sinatra, and also has full credits, discography and annotation along with numerous rare photographs and memorabilia images. (Note that a companion volume of 26 more rare radio performances from Legacy and the Smithsonian Institution entitled Lost and Found – The Radio Years is available for online ordering from the museum now.)
The crown jewel of the Sinatra 100 centennial campaign, Legacy’s A Voice on Air offers an opportunity for immersion into a treasure trove of largely unheard music from the future Chairman of the Board. To be perfectly frank, what could be better?
You can order Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air at Amazon U.S.!