“Ava taught him how to sing a torch song. She taught him the hard way.” —Nelson Riddle
The idea is that Frank Sinatra’s impossible, unresolvable romantic relationship with Ava Gardner—for whom he left his wife at a time (1950) when it simply wasn’t done; to whom he was married for a brief, tumultuous period (1951–53*); with whom he tried to reconcile again and again—brought new depths of feeling to his singing, gave him deeper insights into heartache and love. And I would not dispute that reading, if only because the myth of the wound and the bow is too strong to dislodge; if only because Sinatra himself seemed to believe it. And as James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman makes clear, Frank never really did get over Ava (and vice versa). That torch smoldered as long as she was alive.
But maybe it was more than that. Ava was a sharp woman who knew music: she loved jazz, had been married to bandleader Artie Shaw, and was a fair singer herself (she never forgave MGM for dubbing her voice in Show Boat). What’s more, she had a notoriously acute BS detector and was one of the few people who had the guts to speak truth to Sinatra. No matter how much she loved his talent, she surely would have noticed the increasingly yawning gap between the image of the boyish, puppy-dog-eyed crooner and the reality of the hard-drinking, womanizing, if also oversensitive guy from Jersey who liked to hang out with wise guys. She must have brought this disconnect to his attention, whether as a loving wife trying to help her spouse through a rough patch in his career or as an angry lover lashing out hurtfully. (The latter is somehow more credible; this was the woman who said upon learning of his marriage to Mia Farrow, “I always knew that Frank would end up in bed with a boy.”)
I think it credits both Frank and Ava to see more than heartbreak at work here, but however it came about there’s no denying that Frank Before Ava and After are different animals. After 1953 the callow crooner is gone; the musical intelligence that had once mainly served the beauty of his voice—which he sometimes seemed to treat as a purely physical, almost athletic, gift rather than a means of communication—now served the songs. And he began to approach those songs not as mere material but as autobiography, bringing to them psychological depth, drama, and the ego to persuade us that he had lived them. If Nelson Riddle was right, then every torch song, every love song the mature Frank sang was really about Ava and for Ava—from the joyous celebration of helpless obsession “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” to the bleak but beautiful “Everything Happens to Me.”
The latter is a good test case for Riddle’s theory. Sinatra recorded the Tom Adair–Matt Dennis song three times: He cut it in 1941 with the Tommy Dorsey band when it was brand new, singing it beautifully but really as just another song. His 1956 version was warm, light, philosophical, even hopeful. Sometime in the 1970s Sinatra had Adair write special, personalized lyrics to the song.† It is this version that Sinatra recorded in 1981 as if staring into the void. It was his last great recording, and if it had been included in that year’s She Shot Me Down instead of lesser material (I’m looking at you, Sonny Bono), then that album would have been the classic everyone wanted it to be. It was finally released in 1995 and gave the title to Sinatra’s self-selected 1996 anthology of his “songs of the soul.” It’s a fascinating, revealing choice for the final chapter of the man’s musical autobiography. If this is his final word on things, what did all the success, money, power, and love he accrued mean?
And if Nelson Riddle was right, then this song and all of the songs Frank sang for and about Ava must stand as one of the great romantic monuments.
*The papers weren’t signed until 1957, but the marriage—if not the relationship—was for all intents and purposes over by 1953.
†Sinatra sometimes updated the lyrics to “his” songs, often for comedic effect, often by house scribe Sammy Cahn. This is one of only two cases I am aware of where he went back to the original author of the song to personalize it; the other was, notably, another torch song, Ira Gershwin’s “I Can’t Get Started.”
A couple of Spotify samplers for Sinatra anniversary week.
The first recreates (almost) the singer’s last recording project, now out of print: Everything Happens to Me, a self-selected anthology of the songs that meant the most to him. No ring-a-ding-dings here; just the deepest ballads and most penetrating readings from his later years. In the liner notes Sinatra recalls an early voice teacher telling him, “You can’t sing what you don’t understand.” Frank continued, “I learned fast”— many normal lifetimes of experience are compressed into those three words—“and emotionally graduated to the songs of love, loss, joy, and despair, expertly conveyed by the best lyricists and songwriters in the world. These are the songs of the soul. These are my songs.”
I say “almost” because Spotify lacks the title song—about which more here.
The second playlist is what I imagine a second volume of the project would have contained. There will be quibbles: The finger snaps and “Jack”s Sinatra throws into “Something” are distracting, but if you can get past them you’ll hear the complete reinvention of a song you didn’t think could be reinvented and perhaps the most physically gorgeous arrangement of his career. David Gates is no Cole Porter, and “If” is one ripe piece of cheese, but damned if Frank doesn’t make it sound like Shakespeare.
I don’t know where Snoose Boulevard is or was—presumably somewhere in the vicinity of Dinkytown*—but this album caught my eye for a couple of reasons. I was curious about the woman the Minneapolis Tribune called “a one-woman cultural revival.” (A pretty good description to judge by Ms. Harvey’s cv.) And anyone raised on Yogi Yorgesson would likely be tempted by titles like “Chikago,” “Pelle’s Yankee Doodle,” and “Holy Yumpin’ Yiminy.” And then there was the six-point caption on the back cover: “The photograph of Anne-Charlotte on the front of the jacket shows, in the background, the paddlewheel of the University of Minnesota Centennial Showboat. This boat was used in the film THE EMIGRANTS, directed by Jan Troll.”† The extreme self-justification, along with the modest-to-the-point-of-plainness cover, are such typical Scandinavian responses to so revealing and public an act as recording and releasing a record.
But today, especially today, what has my ear is this sweet and simple rendition of “Tyggarre”—a song my sister remembers singing as a child to the residents of the Swedish old people’s home (as we used to call it) and making them cry.
* Future dissertation topic: the influence of Swedish-American balladry on Bob Dylan. Surely even in his brief stay in St. Paul, Dylan would have encountered some of these songs, and I want some enterprising PhD candidate to limn the influence of “Pelle’s Yankee Doodle” on “Bob Dylan’s Dream” or “Flickan på Bellmansro” on “The Girl from the North Country.”
† Ah, yes, The Emigrants. I remember being dragged as a ten-year-old boy to see the film one afternoon—an afternoon that seemed to last as long as a trip across the Atlantic on a small steamer. A right of cultural passage almost as taxing as folk dancing.
If you were lucky, you could raid your older brother or sister’s record collection while they were off to camp, college, or adulthood. No-risk exploration. The good stuff might be quietly merged into your own meager library. I skipped over Three Dog Night and Jackson Brown to find the Beatles’ red and blue albums in the milk crate in my brother’s room—an essential education. I made out much better than my cousin did when we raided the box of his brother’s albums in their basement: Aftermath and Between the Buttons.
Sometimes you ended up with stuff that only made sense later. My sister abandoned her copy of All Summer Long (the title cut was recorded 50 years ago today) in the wire racks containing my parent’s sparse, eccentric collection of LPs: Allan Sherman, ten-inch classical records, Christmas in Sweden, an unplayed album of African music gifted or inspired by a visiting missionary. Before I even liked the Beach Boys, I understood this was a true artifact that should not be lost. The annotations of a high school sophomore from the summer of 1964 capture the excitement of a listening to a new album for the first time, learning it, making it your own. They also offered me a glimpse into the mysterious world of my Big Sister—even if that glimpse came when I was myself 14 and she was by then mysterious in different ways (adulthood is the ultimate mystery to a 14-year-old). Her notes have also kept the music fresh for me: I never hear “Hushabye” without thinking of it as a “cha-cha.”
The whole album is, of course, a classic—the first if not the ultimate “summer album.” The further away we travel from the world that inspired it, the more precious its catalog of details about clothes, motorbikes, and manners is; what once seemed mundane, crass, consumerist is now positively Proustian.
Once I “got” the Beach Boys, the song that left the deepest impression was the last: “Don’t Back Down.” Here was an acknowledgment of fear and doubt that was typical of Brian Wilson, yet (less typically) he also asserts the need to summon the grit to stare them down: “When a twenty-footer sneaks up like a ton of lead / And the crest comes along and slaps ’em upside the head / They’re not afraid.” Here are lines that are about something more than surfing.
(Happy birthday, Mary.)
The Beach Boys, “Don’t Back Down” from All Summer Long (1964) Capitol T 2110