Review: The Concert Sinatra

Sinatra sings songs like "America the Beautiful" backed by a big orchestra.

By , Contributor

If Sinatra’s genius was broad enough to include both the lonely introvert of “Angel Eyes” as well as the boisterous party-goer of “Chicago,” who is “the concert Sinatra”?

If we can agree that different venues call for different singing styles, then the concert Sinatra is Sinatra halfway between the intimacy of a nightclub (he liked to say that he was a “saloon singer”), and the openness of a Broadway stage. I mention Broadway, where he never appeared, because his only real rival as a ballad singer, Barbra Streisand, became a star there. If we’re talking about American singers of pop ballads, there's Sinatra and Streisand, and there's everybody else...

So the concert Sinatra is something like the Streisand of her “Timeless” show at the MGM Grand on the last evening of 1999—a singer backed by a full orchestra with lavish arrangements. In the case of The Concert Sinatra, the arrangements are by the great Nelson Riddle, who does both himself and Sinatra proud.

For Streisand, as for Sinatra here, Broadway served as a major source of songs. In their maturity, these two sublime singers transcended the limitations of characters in a script; they took songs from their dramatic context and acted/sang them as personal mini-dramas. That’s why The Concert Sinatra begins with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “I Have Dreamed,” from The King and I, and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still” from A Connecticut Yankee. And since the concert stage is a halfway house between the Broadway stage and the nightclub, Sinatra sings these lovely ballads in something like a declamatory style, without the depth of melancholy that he alone could reach.

Neither in these songs nor in any of the others does he engage in the bravura improvisations that he learned from the great horn players when he was singing with Tommy Dorsey. He doesn’t deliberately overload lines with a hipster’s changes to the lyrics, or make comments to the musicians. (You can hear him doing all these things and more on his classic concert recording, Sinatra at the Sands.)

Although this is unmistakably The Voice, on The Concert Sinatra we hear The Voice revisiting the smooth style of his first idol, Bing Crosby. There is something of Crosby’s “God Bless America” in Sinatra’s version of the much-recorded “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. So it’s fitting that this anthem-like song, nowadays often sung at solemn public occasions, leads into the inspirational finale of “California,” which James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote at the request of then-governor Pat Brown, and “America, the Beautiful.” The inclusion of America’s “second national anthem” here reminds us that Sinatra, born in 1917, belonged to The Greatest Generation, and like his contemporaries, was proud to display his patriotism for all to hear.

It remains to say a word about the most unexpected song on the album. Of the hundreds of great songs in the Great American Songbook, which always made up the bulk of Sinatra’s repertoire, you would think that the one most inappropriate for him, for multiple reasons, would be “Ol’ Man River,” from Kern and Hammerstein’s Showboat. And yet here it is. There’s a story here, and the liner notes tell it well. It seems that in 1946 the all-powerful Louis B. Mayer insisted that Sinatra sing it as the finale to ‘Till the Clouds Roll By, a biopic about Kern. Sinatra felt bad about singing it, but took it on manfully. Given his style and taste, he did about the only thing he could do; he assimilated it into the ballad style of “I Have Dreamed.” And yes, it sounds strange, but sometimes even the greatest stars have to do what they have to do—when they’re still young, anyhow.

The Concert Sinatra gives the true, devoted—not to say obsessed—Sinatra fan a chance to hear The Voice backed by a big orchestra singing big songs. It’s a reminder that in addition to the Sinatra of “Angel Eyes” and the Sinatra of “Chicago” there was also the Sinatra of “God Bless America.”

The Concert Sinatra was released in a remastered and expanded edition by Concord Records on January 17, 2012 as part of The Frank Sinatra Collection.

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