Leave it to Noel Coward to sum it all up. In his introduction to Frank Sinatra’s June 14, 1958 performance at the Sporting Club in Monte Carlo, the famous British playwright-actor-songwriter-raconteur observed of his American friend’s on-screen performances, “I’ve never yet known him to strike a false note.” As Coward undoubtedly knew, the same was true of Sinatra’s musical recordings, sung with the emotional honesty and unvarnished directness of a great actor and communicator. From his earliest days inspiring the bobbysoxer riots to his final appearances as American popular song’s foremost elder statesman, Sinatra maintained an immutable connection with his audiences on stages around the world. World on a String, the superlative new 4-CD/1-DVD box set from UMe and Frank Sinatra Enterprises (B0025463-00), follows The Voice from 1953 to 1982, and features concerts from eight countries: Monaco, Australia, Egypt, Dominican Republic, Japan, Israel, Greece, and Italy. Venues range from small clubs to giant stadiums, showcasing the artist’s ability to connect on an intimate level regardless of the size of his audience.
The opening strains of “Come Fly with Me” at the Monte Carlo show are graced with a surprisingly youthful effervescence (Sinatra was 42 at the time) and his always-effortless sense of swing. There’s a lightness and a control in his voice; even as the orchestra grows and swells on Rodgers and Hart’s timeless “Where or When,” Sinatra keeps his vocal perfectly modulated. From the tenderness of that standard to the ferocity of “On the Road to Mandalay,” the singer is fresh and captivating. This prime Capitol-era performance (which took place just months after the release of the sparkling Come Fly with Me album) is a record of the artist at his most compelling and powerful. There’s deep emotion in every word of “All the Way,” sheer vocal strength in “April in Paris,” and wry romance in “Bewitched,” which Sinatra would take to the next level on his majestic 1963 album The Concert Sinatra. A rare live performance of Elmer Bernstein’s “Monique,” the theme to the film Kings Go Forth, is among the treats here. (The film was screened that evening in Monte Carlo prior to Sinatra’s taking the stage.) With room to spare on the first disc, the Monte Carlo show is followed by a 1953 broadcast from Italy’s RAI Radio Club, complete with Italian dialogue and also featuring a performance by Domenico Modugno, best known in America for his hit song “Volare.”
The second compact disc in the box flashes forward just a few short years to 1961 – the year of Ring-a-Ding Ding!, Sinatra’s first LP on his own Reprise label – and a lengthy concert at Australia’s Sydney Stadium from December 2. In fact, Sinatra entered to the strains of “Ring-a-Ding Ding!” before launching into a confident “World on a String,” the Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler title track of this set. Sinatra is at his loosest here, singing with a jazz singer’s gift on the Cole Porter pair of “I Concentrate on You” and “Night and Day.” It’s nearly impossible to believe that the venue is a stadium given the unforced, close-up nature of his vocals on “Moonlight in Vermont” or even the swinging “In the Still of the Night,” another Porter tune.
The list of songs repeated from the Monte Carlo setlist is a short one: “Moonlight,” “Come Fly with Me,” “April in Paris,” and the closing “The Lady is a Tramp.” (“Lady” is heard on all four CDs here.) Highlights of this set include the dramatic, Latin-tinged “The Moon Was Yellow (And the Night Was Young)” and the buoyant “A Foggy Day,” one of two songs from Ring-a-Ding Ding! (along with “In the Still of the Night”). He previewed his third Reprise album, I Remember Tommy, with “Imagination” and “Without a Song.” 1961 was also early enough for Sinatra to sing “You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You” (included on his sophomore Reprise set, Sinatra Swings) before audiences would begin thinking he was covering his pal Dean Martin, who recorded the most famous version of the 1944 song two decades later, in 1964.
Of course, Sinatra’s repertoire (especially on records) would change more dramatically as the 1960s unfolded into the 1970s and the singer – facing, and then growing past, the September of his years – made a tentative rapprochement with rock-and-roll and the young crop of songwriters creating the second volume of the Great American Songbook. By the time of the third disc’s concert, Sinatra’s landmark September 29, 1979 event at Egypt’s Pyramids, he had won over scores of young listeners with the chart-topping “Strangers in the Night,” gained a personal anthem in the form of Paul Anka’s “My Way,” retired, un-retired, and gained another anthem via John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “(Theme From) New York, New York.” The Egypt show features appropriately high-wattage performances of all three of those songs (with “Strangers” in a restrained, cocktail jazz-esque piano setting) as well as George Harrison’s “Something,” in Nelson Riddle’s lush, string-driven arrangement. The Voice had deepened to a burnished tone, but Sinatra knew how to deploy his instrument as beautifully as ever.
It was a significant, and controversial, show. Sinatra’s music had once been banned in Egypt for his support of Israel, but with the peace accord signed by the two nations in 1979, the Chairman accepted the invitation of Madame Jehan Anwar el-Sadat, wife of Egypt’s President Sadat, to perform there as a benefit for her Faith and Hope Rehabilitation Center. The magnitude of the scenery, of course, can’t translate to disc. But Sinatra proved himself that night to be a wonder of the world himself, bridging the cultural and political divide with the universal language of music. To quote a song that grew in maturity and poignancy with each subsequent performance, Sinatra always took it “all the way.”
The fourth and final concert on CD hails from the Dominican Republic on August 20, 1982, and features The Buddy Rich Orchestra joining Sinatra’s five-man band. The “Concert for the Americas” is a fantastically entertaining lovefest between artist and audience. There are a number of unique songs heard in this career-spanning concert, among them Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” gorgeously sung to solo guitar accompaniment by Tony Mottola; the lesser-known Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne ballad “Searching” (Sinatra mentions this as his first public performance of the song live); the sublime Antonio Carlos Jobim composition “Corcovado (Quiet Night of Quiet Stars)”; and the quintessential torch song medley from the She Shot Me Down LP, “The Gal That Got Away/It Never Entered My Mind.” Sinatra also revisits his earliest days with “All or Nothing at All,” in Nelson Riddle’s sizzling orchestration. Here, George Harrison’s “Something” has an extra-swinging, brassier chart by Don Costa, and “Strangers” returns to an arrangement very close to that of the original hit record. Naturally, the pairing of Sinatra and the Rich orchestra on the most swinging material is a brash delight.
World on a String also features a DVD, and this disc is far from a mere afterthought. It presents entirely unreleased material, documenting Sinatra on a 1962 goodwill tour raising money for underprivileged children. The centerpiece is an entire show from Hibya Park, Japan from April 21. While there’s no shortage of footage of Frank Sinatra throughout his career, there’s still a thrill to seeing a complete concert performance of the man at his finest. The DVD also features the documentaries Frank Sinatra with All God’s Children and Sinatra in Israel, plus twelve commercials Sinatra made for the Perugina candy company. These commercials featured newly-recorded (albeit abbreviated) versions of his classics, performed with The Bill Miller Sextet and arranged by Neal Hefti.
Whereas past Sinatra concert box sets such as New York, Vegas, and London have been packaged in large, lavish boxes, World on a String is more compactly housed in a DVD-sized, gatefold-style format. Each panel has one disc nestled into its own pocket. But good things come in small packages, and this set is no exception. A thick, squarebound color booklet has copious memorabilia images as well as commentary on the concerts and Sinatra’s international touring. Leon Smith has restored the audio here, and Larry Walsh has remastered. Sound quality is surprisingly good for the earliest shows, and exceptional for the Dominican Republic performance. The Egypt concert has rather muted sound, with the dialogue particularly difficult to hear at times, and an emphasis on the vocals over the orchestra.
This essential collection, produced by Charles Pignone, is not only a testament to the enduring artistry of Frank Sinatra, but to the talented arrangers and musicians represented on these discs, including Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Quincy Jones, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, Bill Miller, Vincent Falcone, Tony Mottola, and Buddy Rich. Indeed, this celebration of American song at its finest is simply too marvelous for words.