November 3, 2009

Great Songs from Great Britain

I've recently been listening again, for the first time in a while, to a favorite Sinatra album, Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain. It is, like many of his Reprise recordings, a mixed bag in terms of quality. But, like much of his Reprise catalog, when it is good, it is so very, very good.

One of the things I love about Great Songs from Great Britain is its relative obscurity. Recorded in London during the summer of 1962, it was initially released the same year only in Great Britain. It was finally released stateside in 1990 on compact disc. I couldn't have gotten my copy (complete with German import sticker on it) back in 1998 if it weren't for the Internet. I seriously doubt the album or compact disc has ever sat in any of the local music stores (many of which have since closed), but obviously I could be mistaken.

Supposedly, Sinatra would not allow its release in America because he was unhappy with the quality of his voice. From the CD liner notes, written by James Isaacs:

Great Songs from Great Britain never reached the colonies -- until now. It is the only collection that Sinatra in his then-dual roles of CEO of Reprise Records and his label's meal ticket, scrubbed for domestic release while clearing it for foreign markets.

A unapologetic perfectionist, the singer felt that his voice, after a recently concluded seven-week, 30-city world tour, was in less than peak form.

Recording with arranger/conductor Robert Farnon

And further illumination from my personal Sinatra bible, Will Friedwald's Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art:

...the unending pastoral richness of Robert Farnon's orchestral backgrounds contrasts sharply with the startling thinness of Sinatra's voice. What's worse, both arranger Farnon and singer Sinatra has no forewarning that they should be planning the album for a vocal artist proceeding at half-steam, and the extremly slow tempos of these romantic ballads leave Sinatra with no place to hide.

So, how bad was the voice of The Voice? On the best songs, a person unaware of the background would probably have no idea the singer and voice were exhausted. I'll let you be the judge.

  • The album's opening track, "The Very Thought of You," is vintage Sinatra. This ranks up there with much of what he recorded during his classic Capitol Records era (no doubt why this beautiful song and performance was selected to be the first on side one):

  • One of my overall favorite Sinatra recordings would have to be "If I Had You," a song he'd recorded twice before, in 1947 on The Voice of Frank Sinatra and 1957's A Swingin' Affair!. One of the standout qualities about this track happened by accident. According to Sinatra's pianist, Bill Miller, about the piano he was supposed to be playing: "someone forgot to tune the goddamn thing, which was unheard of." It occurred to Sinatra to ask if a celesta might be handy. It's hard to imagine this without it:

  • Perhaps my favorite song on this particular album, "The Gypsy," was a #1 hit for The Ink Spots back in 1946. But as good as their version may have been, only Sinatra could make the listener believe it was actually about him (and he was singing it to you and only you!):

  • Two of the other "better" songs from Great Songs from Great Britain, "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square" and "A Garden in the Rain," the only song I've included in this post where one might get a sense of the supposed "thinness" of Sinatra's voice during the three day recording session:

    Sinatra and Farnon
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