PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
October 16, 2007

Young Blue Eyes

by Jim Newsom

Frank Sinatra
A Voice in Time (1939-1952)

Columbia/RCA Victor/Legacy

The Sinatra debate has always centered around this question: Which were better, his 1950s recordings for Capitol or the 1960s work for his own Reprise label? Missing from the discussion is his lengthy run with Columbia Records, the assumption being that the mature Frank produced more interesting music than teen idol Frankie did with big bands or on his own.

The new Legacy box set, A Voice in Time (1939-1952), aims to set the record straight, and its excellence further muddies up the “what era was better” parlor game. It’s a nostalgic trip to a distant time that reveals young blue eyes had the goods from the get-go, and it effectively traces the singer’s development from Bing Crosby-wannabe to suave and swingin’ jazz singer.

This four-disc compilation comes classily adorned in a thick black box and has a hundred-and-some page booklet filled with photos, recording information and intelligent essays. Each disc is devoted to a particular era or style, with some chronological overlap but thematic coherence.

Disc one, The Big Band Years, covers Sinatra’s work with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey between 1939 and 1942, starting with his first number one, “All or Nothing at All” with the James gang. It was with Dorsey that Sinatra achieved his greatest early success, and their biggest hit, “I’ll Never Smile Again” transports even us youngsters back to pre-war 1940 America with those unmistakable Pied Pipers harmonies. The style of the time in which the band played a song through before the singer stepped up to the microphone is much in evidence on numbers like “Blue Skies,” where the vocal doesn’t appear until a minute and a half in, but boy does that Dorsey band cook! And it’s interesting to hear “Night and Day” taken at a leisurely pace with Axel Stordahl’s orchestra, a very different look at Cole Porter’s classic from the well known one that would be recorded with Nelson Riddle in 1956.

The twenty cuts on the second CD, Teen Idol, explain why Frank Sinatra was just that, the idol of 1940s bobby soxers. “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in the Week)” is vibrant and alive, the very definition of swing; the ballad, “Oh! What It Seemed to Be” sat atop the hit parade for eight weeks in 1946, and hearing it you can understand why; “Five Minutes More” is irresistible upbeat fun. The live version of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” may be pure schmaltz, but the radio transcription of “The Trolley Song” is magnificent. “Put Your Dreams Away” is syrupy but magic.

Disc 3 is called The Great American Songbook, a title that could apply not only to this collection but to Sinatra’s entire discography. “All of Me” presages the Capitol years with its brassy arrangement and the singer’s deepening vocal timbre. Nat King Cole tinkles the ivories with the Metronome All Stars on Frank’s version of Nat’s big hit, “Sweet Lorraine.” “I Get a Kick Out of You,” another Cole Porter composition that would forever be identified with Sinatra after his ‘50s recording, receives a mellower treatment here, while “One for My Baby” is delivered in a bouncier arrangement than the better known Capitol take.

The final disc, The Sound of Things to Come, is fascinating, both musically and historically. Sinatra’s career went into a rapid decline as 1950 dawned, and the songs he was being given to record by Columbia’s new A&R man, Mitch Miller, didn’t fit his style. So it is surprising to hear tracks that were not major hits at the time but nonetheless compare favorably with the stuff that would come later in the decade. His voice is all grown up now, and “American Beauty Rose” is as good as anything the singer would ever record. “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York” are not all that different from what they would become a short time later in their Capitol versions, and “Walking in the Sunshine” is one of those songs you won’t recognize but will love.

It is clear that A Voice in Time was lovingly assembled. Oft-repackaged studio takes are mixed with previously unreleased live radio transcriptions, and the mastering is impeccable. This is the music that first put Frank Sinatra on the pop music map. Here it sounds better than ever.

copyright © 2007 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.


"A Sleighful of Box Sets"
December 19, 2006
A review of the Sinatra box set, Vegas.