A music blog

Advent calendar: December 12—Frank Sinatra, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” 

Frank Sinatra, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” (1947)
from Christmas Dreaming
Columbia CL 1032

One from Frank on his birthday. One of the more mature and timeless of his 1940s recordings, so many of which sound so remote and foreign to modern ears (which Frank helped create starting in about 1953). The song was relatively new (1944) when he recorded it, meaning he helped make it a standard.

Used to be that I’d find my summer songs on a jukebox (Queen, “Killer Queen,” 1974;  Chicago, “Old Days,” 1975) or AM radio (Andrew Gold, “Lonely Boy,” 1977). But now I find them on whatever media happens to be in the car while I’m on vacation. This year the song that has me hitting the back button—repetition is key to drilling the summer song into your brain—as I drive my son to camp or to Cape League ball games is the Kinks “God’s Children” (1970). It’s a sort of prayer or hymn all too necessary in this grim season: gentle, defiant, joyful.

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Close your eyes and you can imagine Vince Guaraldi banging this out—or, of course, Keith Jarrett. Even without the lyrics of one of their finest funny-sad dramatic monologues, even without the sax of Tom Scott, even if the song crossed the line from homage into infringement,* this remains a tuneful peak in the SD catalogue.

* Jarrett won the case and got/gets a share of the royalties. He had a written credit on the song for a while in the 1990s, but no more; wonder why. I bet Jarrett wishes he had Jeff Porcaro on drums for his session.

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Saul Bass, best known for the film titles (and shower sequences) he designed for the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Otto Preminger, also designed a few—very few, as far as I can tell—LP covers, aside from the soundtracks to films he was involved with. This is the earliest and best I have found. It is so good, in fact, that it inspired an homage in the cover of the recent exhibition catalogue California Design, 1930–1965: Living in a Modern Way. 


The cover is, in fact, the one memorable thing about the album. One of Sinatra’s rare side projects while on Capitol—he also conducted albums for Peggy Lee and Dean Martin, to much more memorable effect—it featured compositions inspired by the awful poetry of one Norman Sickel (bad poetry seems to be a theme here recently) and written by names drawn from the Capitol arrangers stable and the Hollywood soundtrack pen.

The only really serious composer here is Alec Wilder. In addition to writing such classic songs as “I’ll Be Around” and “While We’re Young”—and the landmark book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1910–1950*—Wilder was known for his chamber music that blended jazz and classical sensibilities. (Sinatra had conducted an entire album of Wilder’s works for small orchestra in the 1940s, one of Sinatra’s earliest extracurricular projects and first flirtations with “high” culture.) “Gray, The Gaunt” is the sole work on the album that might work as a soundtrack to the California Design book; it’s easy to imagine it accompanying one of Ray and Charles Eames’s films.†

The California Design cover was not the first tribute to Bass’s LP masterwork. I doubt Sinatra himself was involved in the art for the Capitol album, but the art department at his label, Reprise, must have had it in mind in 1961 when X-15 and Other Sounds of Rockets, Missiles, and Jets was released.

X15The cover is printed on foil or metallic paper, which itself seems like an homage to the metallic gold and silver stripes on the cover of Tone Poems of Color—not common or inexpensive choices at the time: someone cared about these covers (especially at Reprise, which soon became known for its cheapo artwork).

I’ll spare you the sound clips, but you can read (and hear) more about X-15 here if you are so moved.

Alec Wilder, “Gray, The Gaunt”
from Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color
Capitol W735

* First published in 1972, this classic is out of print and will, alas, likely remain so. Given the huge number of musical examples given in the book, it was a miracle all rights were cleared for the initial edition. I doubt any publisher would take on the team of lawyers needed to produce another edition.

† In fact, one of the other Tone Poems of Color composers, soundtrack master Elmer Bernstein, did write—in a rather Wilderian vein—the music for the Eameses film “House.”


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