I originally posted this a year ago, to mark the 99th anniversary of Sinatra’s birthday on December 12th. After reading this USA Today article on Sinatra’s influence on “the world”, I thought it made sense to re-post it to mark the centenary of his birth.
“Well, yes, of course,” you said, upon reading the headline. “Everyone knows that Old Blue Eyes was not just a crooner, but a prog crooner, and thus the grandfather of prog rock! Does it really need to be said again?” Yes, it probably should, despite the abundance of articles on the topic (ahem). Especially since today marks what would have been The Chairman of the Board’s 99th birthday if he was still among us. Sinatra was born on this day in 1915, in Hoboken, New Jersey, and would go on to be one of the best-known, best-selling musical artists of the 20th century, rivaled in sales and popularity by only a handful of artists and groups.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that Sinatra was a “prog rocker”. I might be a Sinatra fanboy—I have over 1,200 Sinatra songs in my iTunes library and listen to some of his music nearly every day—but I’m not insane. At least not that insane. What I am saying is that Sinatra did a number of things on the musical front that were either quite unique or very notable (and probably little known to most people), that pointed toward key elements and attitudes making up what we now call “prog”.
Here, then, are five things that make The Voice the Grandfather of Prog:
1). Sinatra was the first pop artist to record and release a “concept” album. Take it away, Will Friedwald:
A landmark in American music, The Voice, recorded and released in 1945, is generally regarded as the original pop “concept” album: this was the first time a singer and arranger (the brilliant Axel Stordahl) assembled a program of songs in a distinct mood and tempo, so that one song would flow into another in a consistent program (even though it was initially released as a collection of single-track 78RPM discs).
Prior to Sinatra, singers were usually just one part, out of many, of big bands, and they released singles, of course, due to the limitations of the time. While other artists (Bing Crosby) established themselves as solo artists before Sinatra, it was Sinatra who took his individual talents to heights previously unimagined—and did so, in part, by honing in on carefully making albums with specific thematic concepts. Friedwald, who is a fabulous writer, has penned the definitive book on Sinatra as a musician (leaving aside the matters of Sinatra the movie star, scoundrel, lover, friend of the mob, etc.), titled, Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art (1997; 550+ pages), which covers all of this in great and fascinating detail.
2). Sinatra made an art form out of the concept/thematic album, especially (but not only) during his Capitol years, crafting albums that are, frankly (yep), perfect in every way. Although Sinatra wrote almost no songs, he handpicked the songs and put together the sequences; it was common knowledge that while Sinatra had great respect for the musicians and arrangers who worked on his albums, he called all of the shots. And that, for the time, was progressive. Friedwald notes that Sinatra was, in many ways, more interested in the lyrics than the melodies (in fact, he often irritated songwriters with liberties taken with their melodies). And so while Sinatra never recorded lengthy songs (I think that “Soliloquy”, from “Frank Sinatra Sings Rodgers & Hammerstein” was the longest, at just over 8 minutes long), his thematic albums had a certain “prog” quality in that they were a suite of songs based around particular emotions and ideas.
His 1954 classic, “In The Wee Small Hours,” for instance, is an aching, gorgeous examination of late night solitude, fragility, and heartache, while 1955’s “Songs For Swinging Lovers” is an energetic, cocky, and effusive collection. Both focus on love (of course!), but do so with an emotional and musical palette that is remarkable, supported by the astounding arrangements of Nelson Riddle. It is probably not a coincidence that Sinatra was something of a manic-depressive (by many accounts, he hardly ever slept), and that Nelson had some of the same up-and-down in his emotional DNA.
My two favorites are both from 1957, and demonstrate Sinatra’s remarkable range. “Close To You” is one of Sinatra’s least known albums, featuring the singer with just a string quartet, singing songs of lament and loss that retain a certain lightness and warmth that is harder to find in the harrowing, gut-wrenching releases, “Frank Sinatra Sings Only For the Lonely” (1958) and “No One Cares” (1959). “Close To You” reveals Sinatra’s love for a classical sound; he loved classical music, especially Puccini and Ralph Vaughan Williams, and had a massive collection of classical music (he expressed disdain for rock music, but mellowed in that regard a bit in the late 1960s). The other favorite is “Come Fly With Me,” which is packed to the brim with big brass, lush orchestra, and exotica, taking listeners on a veritable tour of the world, from the Isle of Capri to New York to Vermont to London to Paris to Hawaii to Brazil to…well, you get the point. So, in short, many years before the Beatles and the Who, Sinatra had already mastered the concept album, something that is part and parcel of prog music.
3). Sinatra was an actor—and I’m not talking about his roles in movies, which ranged from classic (“From Here to Eternity,” “Manchurian Candidate”) to sometimes horrible. He was an actor whenever he sang, bringing an authenticity, believability, and direct engagement to songs that is remarkable considering the range of material he sang. When he sang, “I’m a Fool To Love You,” you were certain he was going to jump off a cliff at any moment; when he sang “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” you witnessed a man in the midst of profound romantic angst; and when he sang “Nice ‘n’ Easy” you knew, well, that he was not going to be alone for the evening. And while most of his songs were about love and romance, songs like “Old Man River” and “Soliloquy” revealed an ability to connect in other ways as well. And his renditions of religious songs such as “Ave Maria” and “The Lord’s Prayer” demonstrate a tasteful balance between emotion and reservation. The theatrical abilities of Sinatra are worthy of admiration by prog enthusiasts, because great prog employs a sense of theater, oftentimes in full-blown, dramatic fashion.
4). Sinatra used the studio as an instrument, quite a while before any rock artists did so. This is covered in fascinating fashion in Sessions With Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording (2004), by Charles L. Granata. “Frank Sinatra was a master of the art of recording,” writes Granata, “His work in the studio set him apart from other gifted vocalists; and performers old and new, vocal and instrumental, emulate his accomplishments to this day.” We often talk of this or that musician as an artist, but Sinatra—whatever his failings and flaws—was An Artist. And he was also keen to use technology to the hilt; in this, he benefited from being with Capitol when numerous innovations and advancements were being made, including the advent of stereo sound, which Capitol took up in 1957. His detailed preparation for recording was legendary, and his ability, in studio, to adjust, make changes, and address challenges (wrong notes, etc.) was exceptional.
5). Sinatra drew upon a wide range of musical styles and made them his own: classical, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, folk, blues, and even, later on, some rock (with mixed results, admittedly). He sang and recorded in small groups and with entire symphonies, with big bands headed by Count Basie and with chamber quartets, with blues and jazz players, and with bossa nova master Antonio Carlos Jobim. Even up to the end, he experimented with different styles and took risks, the sort of attitude and approach one would expect to find in a proto-prog musician. Sinatra insisted that he just was a pop singer, but he was widely regarded as a top-notch jazz singer, as Michael Nelson explains:
Sinatra was not a jazz singer in the classic improvisational mode and never had claimed to be. Yet clearly he individualized every song he sang, a hallmark of jazz, and he cited jazz singers as his most powerful musical influences—Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, and especially Billie Holiday and the early Bing Crosby. Jazz musicians, for their part, had always been Sinatra’s strongest admirers. In a poll of 120 musicians by New York Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, Sinatra received 56 votes as the “greatest ever” male vocalist, 43 more than anyone else. Among those who chose Sinatra were Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor, and Carmen McRae.
In sum, Sinatra was a populist who was a true artist, an experimenter who drew deeply on traditional forms while constantly pushing at the edges, a dramatist who channeled deep emotions into focused works of high popular art, and a visionary who used concept albums and technological advances to expand and develop his musical vision and vocabulary. Happy birthday, Old Blue Eyes!