Singer as storyteller: Frank Sinatra and Julie London

Singer as storyteller: Frank Sinatra and Julie London

The jury is still out on him. 'Was he or wasn’t he?', they debate, acknowledging full well his inimitable way of phrasing a melody and his immaculately-timed reading of whichever lyric lay before him. But, was he, really? They know he recorded with both Duke Ellington and Count Basie – twice – and that he was just as happy with a Buddy Rich or a Woody Herman backing him as he was a team of well-drilled but anonymous Hollywood session men. Yes, he paid Harry ‘Sweets’ Edison’s gambling debts and claimed Lester Young as a key influence, and yes, he did create arguably the finest big band and crooner album of all time – Songs For Swingin’ Lovers but...

There’s always the but. And in his case it’s a reservation often argued out over a few short, closing bars of a recording he later called ‘a piece of shit’ and ‘the worst fucking song that I ever heard’. No, they know Frank Sinatra is as close to jazz as you can get without actually saying so, but all that ‘doo-be-doo-be-doo’ nonsense at the end of 'Strangers In The Night', well, that’s just unforgivable; scat in more ways than one, soiling the legacy of a performer who, they maintain, ought to have known better.

Sinatra was no stranger to controversy. Indeed, it dogged him all his life, whether as an up and coming performer facing a charge for ‘adultery and seduction’ or as a venerable legend tarred with the suspicion of mafia collusion. The ‘is he or isn’t he a jazz singer’ question had hung about him for almost as long, and even now some reading this chapter may wonder why a paunchy Las Vegas night club entertainer in an ill-disguised toupee has suddenly invaded a book otherwise occupied by pin-sharp young men, full of the bloom of youth. That’s because, like Miles Davis and Stan Getz, Sinatra was a performer who didn’t so much change images as shed them like snakeskin, never ever quite fitting whatever identity his listeners ascribed him.

The first had been the rail thin bobbysoxers favourite of the early 1940s, whose fashionably zooty box-cut jackets would jut out from either side of the microphone he was caressing like the fins of a flivver. There had then come the ‘classic’ 1950s Sinatra, the one made for Hollywood stardom, all turned-up raincoat, quarter-to-three regrets and downtrodden elegance, the Sinatra of a dozen or more album covers which have seared their way into our cultural subconscious. After this, he got flabbier – musically and personally – filling out into what his faithful followers saw as a perfectly acceptable way to stave off middle-age. He married a wife young enough to be his daughter, started singing Neil Diamond covers and wore ‘that’ hairpiece.

To those who loved him, by the 1970s he was an institution. To those who didn’t he’d become a walking anachronism; the template for an entire generation of would-be pub crooners only too happy to murder 'My Way' given half a chance, a willing accompanist and a too far-gone to care audience. Sinatra was by no means the first performer to find himself damaged by his imitators, of course, nor will he be the last, but he is undoubtedly among the most misunderstood. By the time of his death in 1998, aged 82, the world had half-reconciled the ‘old’ and elderly Sinatra’s so effectively that, despite his final recordings being the kind that would never have been issued were he a lesser presence, he nevertheless died a hero. The crass (which to some extent he’d always dealt in) was conveniently buried along with him – those Mitch Miller-produced sides from the very early 1950s, 'High Hopes', those cringeworthy late Sixties TV specials where he actually wears beads – beads!? – all these were to be forgotten. Icon though he undoubtedly was, no amount of glad-handing eulogising could erase the more serious peccadilloes, though; the links to organised crime, the relentless hatred of the press, his sometimes ruthless treatment of those who crossed him, no matter how close. Nor has the controversy over his connection to jazz ever truly disappeared.

Sinatra’s music has been in my life almost as long as I remember. As a very young child I’d loved a 1940s cartoon which depicted him as the object of a group of adoring female fans, and which made fun of the singer's skinny build (he’d weighed off against a feather, for example, and disappears when stood behind a microphone stand), mainly because it was so visually hilarious. But I also liked the song it was set too, 'All Or Nothing At All', which unbeknown to me at the time (I was about seven years of age) had been what we’d now refer to as his ‘breakthrough’ hit in 1939.

Around the age of eleven, I remember Mum buying Dad a ‘complete’ Sinatra on Capitol Records boxed set for his birthday, a huge black slab of a collection, with the singer’s name embossed in silver across the box lid, which contained all the LP releases he’d made for the label between 1953 and 1962. A great many of his best albums are found therein – Swings Easy, Come Fly With Me, Only The Lonely, the iconic Songs For Swingin’ Lovers – and as Dad played the entire box end to end for what seemed like a year or more I came to know them all, memorising a great many of the melodies and lyrics and undergoing what amounted to (although I was unaware of it at the time) a crash course – scrub that, a masterclass – in the art of the Great American Songbook.

Equally as influential and inspirational as his readings of Berlin, Rodgers, Porter, Kern, Van Heusen and Gershwin were the albums covers themselves, each of which captured something of the contents within; Come Dance With Me had a photo of the singer, cheekily winking his invite to the listener; Where Are You a painting of a moody-looking Sinatra, apparently musing over the question in the album’s title. Then, of course, there was the hat-tilted, collar turned-up Sinatra which was to become his visual trademark, seen on albums both cheery and light (Songs for Young Lovers) and on records more dark and dramatic (Point of No Return). On one cover, that of the audio handbook of after-hours music making, Only The Lonely, he even appears in motley, the inference being that beneath the mask of clownish carelessness lay a broken, bleeding soul. At one point in his recent career this had been exactly the case.

Adult albums

The Capitol contract, signed in 1953 and only terminated after Sinatra had set up his own record label, Reprise, in 1961, had been the ideal place with which to juggle these alternating yet conjoined images. At Columbia, his previous affiliation, he had begun promisingly, contracted as indisputably the most influential and popular singer of the day, riding high on a wave of success begun as the ‘boy vocalist’ with the orchestra of trombonist Tommy Dorsey. But when America marched home from World War Two and found itself suddenly beguiled by novelty records and frothy hokum, Sinatra found himself fighting both his material and his producer, the legendarily kitsch-loving Mitch Miller. The low point of all this is generally acknowledged to be the 1951 78rpm 'Mama Will Bark' in which Sinatra has to battle not only the song but two inept yet distracting co-performers, a now fortunately forgotten female named Dagmar and - unbelievably - a mechanical dog. Outnumbered and undercut, even a performer as professional as Sinatra couldn’t win in such compromised circumstances.

He was also losing in his personal life; locked into a tempestuous love affair with the ravishingly gorgeous actress Ava Gardner (a true fire meets fire union), he was fast coming off the rails. A worrying and wholly unexpected on-stage voice loss had spooked him too and, with Columbia increasingly playing the fool, it looked as if his fame might finally be giving way. Then in early 1953, like the cat with nine lives, there came what were originally two separate strokes of fortune; his casting as Maggio in Fred Zimmerman’s film production of From Here To Eternity (Sinatra could see the role – that of a plucky Italian-American underdog who goes down slugging – going to no-one else, even signing his cables lobbying for the part ‘Maggio’) and, signed almost concurrently, the securing of his new Capitol Records contract. From Here To Eternity won him an Academy Award for Best Actor, a gong thoroughly deserved but which took many in the industry by surprise having only previously seen Sinatra in lightly comic roles. And, again if almost in perfect sync, as his first few Capitol singles begun to chart - 'Lean Baby', 'I’ve Got The World On A String', 'South Of The Border' – his musical stock began to rise too. For the following decade or so this pattern endured; high profile movie roles and ‘adult’ albums combining to make Sinatra a ubiquitous presence for film goers and record buyers alike. It had been an incredible and extremely swift reversal of fortune, and it had been a close run thing.

As well as changing the singer's luck – permanently as it turned out – this career resurgence also helped provide the record industry with a new toy. Throughout the 1950s Sinatra and Capitol produced what are generally regarded as the first ‘concept’ albums, that is collections of music geared to a specific theme – almost always an aspect of romantic love – with songs, arrangements and even art work designed as a complete package. The idea had first begun in the 78rpm era, when the name ‘album’ denoted just that; something akin to a photographic album in which examples of the same subject were brought together in one binding. And while there is every justification for stating that Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee (issued by Decca in 1953) was actually the first such album release (and that Sinatra’s old label Columbia had at least tried to do something similar with Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra, issued in the very early 1950s) there is little argument that the concept truly came of age during this Capitol contract. Indeed, so influential was this template that not only did other singers follow suit, sometimes slavishly so, but Sinatra himself maintained an almost identical thematic style to his first few releases on his own Reprise label, right down to cover art that could’ve easily been mistaken for that of a Capitol title.

As a teenager, and a melancholy, rather lonely one at that, it was the love-lorn entries into the Capitol ouevre that interested me most. The first, and perhaps most famous, was In The Wee Small Hours, a set of songs of lost love – or at the very least love in trouble – originally issued over two 10” LPs, complete with a moody portrait of the singer on the cover, all cigarette glow, lamp-post and twilight. I liked it but it was by no means my favourite. That honour belonged variously (depending on how sad was my mood) to Where Are You?, a 1957 collaboration with Gordon Jenkins that even manages to turn material with a glimmer of major-keyed hope ('Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home') into something beyond repair; Point of No Return, Sinatra’s last Capitol album taped in 1961 which, although technically a contract filler has a pacing and poise suggestive of far greater sincerity, and No-One Cares, a further collaboration with Jenkins, issued in 1959.

The latter is an album of almost unrelenting darkness, one which Sinatra himself allegedly referred to as containing ‘suicide songs’, a mood that may in part be attributable to Billie Holiday’s death that same year, which had hit him hard. Indeed, there is nothing quite so soul-baringly vulnerable in his discography again until 1966’s September of My Years, although the melancholy of that album is hooked in with the passage of times winged chariot (Sinatra had just turned fifty). On No-One Cares there is no time, only the becalmed stillness of a soul contemplating all its wrong moves to date and, in songs like 'Ghost of A Chance', 'I Can’t Get Started' and 'Why Try To Change Me Now?', almost revelling in his own perverse ability to predict failure. Accordingly, this isn’t the Sinatra of 'One For My Baby', wherein he’s almost comically amused at his own loss, eager to share it with an all-ears bartender, or 'Here’s To The Losers', where he turns romantic failure into an admission to a kind of men’s club, this is Sinatra as his deepest, his lowest ebb even, close to the end of a tether than simply won’t stretch any further. Listening to the album’s title track as a teenager I found it almost too much; this wasn’t a song of love won and lost, this was a wail of despair, unmasked and raw and yet delivered as elegantly as Sinatra sang anything of worth.

The most imperfect ending

Quite why something so disquieting, so morbid and bleak might appeal to a young man with his life ahead of him I can’t quite say. I’d been a happy child, wanting for nothing, certainly not love. My teenage years, while spent shyly longing for various girls at my school, were no more maladjusted than anyone else’s, and I was generally thought of by my various teachers as an intelligent and mature student. And yet I had within all of these strong and positive characteristics, a deep sense of not belonging. Jazz wasn’t just a music of choice; it was a refuge to which I could retreat when teenaged angst rendered me a hormonal mess. The songs Sinatra sang on No-One Cares, although written of adult love, seemed to articulate my own feelings about life growing up in a school where I was respected but regarded as different, not bullied but not particularly befriended either; a genuine in-betweener. 'Ghost of Chance', 'I Can’t Get Started', 'None But The Lonely Heart' – these were songs of the unnoticed, of the love-capable heart untapped and of frustration failing to find any sort of asuaging outlet.

Yet there is another reason why I was so drawn to Sinatra’s ‘down’ albums. Conversely, my Dad preferred his Sinatra swinging, preferably with Billy May’s characteristically light-hearted big band providing the backing. He even went so far as to call Gordon Jenkins albums ‘doomy’, which wasn’t necessarily a put-down, by the way.

While I admired all these happy-go-lucky outings (and I have a great fondness for Look To Your Heart, a compilation of Capitol ‘singles’ which is as merrily optimistic an album as you can get), all the Come Fly or Come Dance With Me’s, where you could see how Sinatra’s name had become inextricably linked with big band swing - and therefore jazz- it was on his ballad material that I heard, or rather I thought I did, the greater connection to the music I loved.

The singer unfurling the long-lined story of 'When The World Was Young', a song requiring both dignity and vulnerability, wasn’t so very far from the sort of stoic grace I heard in Stan Getz and Paul Desmond. And when a genuine cross-over of material occurred (hardly an accident when generational peers mine the same pop-song sources) as it did often with Sinatra and mid-1950s to early Sixties Miles Davis and John Coltrane, then the shared aesthetic was plain to see; all three recorded 'I See Your Face Before Me', to pick just one notable example, and there were similar alignments in things like 'Nancy With The Laughing Face', 'I Thought About You', 'There’s No You', 'Spring Is Here' and other themes. Still later generations of jazzmen acknowledged these connections even more directly with two of the finest contemporary albums of the 1990s, Joe Lovano’s Celebrating Sinatra and Bob Berg’s Another Standard using the singers songbook as a launching pad.

Both Berg and Lovano (two of my heroes when I was learning to play) noted that, of all Sinatra’s many musical facets, it was his gift for phrasing that drew their attention. Miles Davis said much the same thing in his 1991 autobiography. And it was this that drew me too; that sense of pacing and squeezing (but not ostentatiously) the last ounce of meaning from a note or phrase. Had I been a singer I would doubtless have noticed even greater nuances within his diction and articulation, but even without words, Sinatra could certainly influence how you told a story.

He also had something else, something that only seeing him could alert you to, the kind of cool that I’d previously encountered in players like Miles, Mulligan and Chet Baker, a certain downbeat and yet indefinable hipness. The first time I noticed it – and I mean really noticed it – was watching 1955’s Young at Heart, a musical remake of the earlier John Garfield vehicle Four Daughters so frothy it’s practically drowning in foam. Co-starring Doris Day – who to my mind set down the same exacting standards for female vocalists in the 1940s as Sinatra had for male voices – it could’ve easily been mistaken for just another apple pie and bubblegum piece of Hollywood fluff were it not for Sinatra’s involvement. Cast as the embittered and lonely songwriter Barney Sloan he arrives a third of the way through the film and the hangs moodily about throughout the remainder like a ghost at the feast. In fact, he does more than this, he wrecks it, upstaging (in every sense) the pretty-boy lead Gig Young, a bachelor so eligible he’s practically Mr Perfect, stealing his wife to be (Day) and then, just when he’s got what he wants, attempts to commit suicide in what is one of the most memorable scenes in all of Sinatra’s movies. The producers wanted Sloan’s character to die, which had it happened would’ve turned the entire film into a dark paean to thwarted ambition (Sloan has a hit song within him which he cannot seemingly complete), but Sinatra thought otherwise, demanding a rewrite, which he got, but which ultimately sabotages the plot. Sloan, we find, isn’t a soul beyond redemption, a character who consistently shines the light of cynicism on the chintzy world about him and cannot reconcile himself to its mindless uniformity; he’s merely another subscriber to the white picket-fenced American dream. Following his accident, Day sees him wheeled off to undergo undisclosed surgery. When he emerges for the film’s final scene, it’s instantly apparent what was removed – his non-conformity (along with his writers block) – and he sits at the piano and smilingly joins his wife (and new born child) in a brief rendition of 'You My Love', the song he once couldn’t bring himself to complete. They got him in the end; those American Ideals. It might as well be Invasion of The Body Snatchers. Perfect in every way, it’s the most imperfect ending for a film that otherwise remains one of Sinatra’s best.

As sickly sweet as Young At Heart is, it was a movie I adored as a teenager, something which even now I’m more than a little wary of admitting. Half the problem was I was hopelessly in love with Doris Day, admittedly a little too late for either of us to do anything about it, the other half being that I was almost as beguiled by 1950s America, duped as had been many of my Dad’s generation into believing it to be some kind of post-war Utopia. As a regular cinema goer in his teens, Dad’s attitude to America (which he never ever got to visit, sadly) was forged by a diet of technicolour blockbusters, B-Westerns and war movies. Set beside the black and white mustn’t grumble tone (charming though it is) of most pre-Kitchen Sink British cinema, these gaudy spectacles did for local filmmakers what West Coast Jazz was doing for British modern jazzmen. In Los Angeles, as their playful album covers made crystal clear, there was sun and sea and sand, and handsome young men called Bud and Red and Shorty in Hawaian shirts and immaculate buzz-cuts. In London you had lumpy blokes called Don and Bert clad in ill-fitting suits, who played leaden-sounding pastiches of the latest jazz fashions in basements as grey and dully austere as the streets above. Who would you have followed?

A fabrication, a dream, a fantasy

Dad was fifteen in 1955, the year Young at Heart was released. I fell in love with the film in 1989, nearly thirty-five years later, when I had reached the same age. By rights, I shouldn’t have given the movie any truck at all, dismissing it as a worthless piece of old-fashioned cinematic goo. The trouble was, just as I loved those West Coast album covers, with their flowery shirts, shades and baggy trousers, I also loved Doris Day’s A-line frocks and Tom Boyishly sexy haircut. I was falling not so much for her but for the whole notion of old-school Hollywood glamour, a love affair from which I’ve still to extricate myself some three decades after entering into it.

Day, of course, had famously been dismissed as too virginal to be sexually attractive (phooey!), a genuine Girl Next Door type. The other prominent female vocalist of the 1950s for whom I fell unrequitedly in my teens, however, was so incandescently hot that had she become your neighbour you’d have had to call in the Fire Brigade the moment she moved in.

Julie London had it all; the flame-haired looks of a movie star, which is what she had begun her career as and would fitfully return to being as vocal fame gave her box office saleability, the body of a Greek goddess, and the voice of the bedroom. Some said it wasn’t a voice at all, more of a purr, recorded so intimately that every wet lip-part was loaded with implication. Doris Day’s singing had been intimate enough, sounding as if she were performing just to you, as if sat across a romantic candlelit table. Julie London, on the other hand, sounded as if she were beside you on the sofa, kissing the words onto you, breathy syllable by breathy syllable. Her first hit – 1955’s 'Cry Me River, – set the pattern for much of her material, a torch song that had it been delivered by a performer equally as torchy would have blown itself out in an instant. Fortunately London didn’t do histrionics and the song, as menthol a goodbye as you could hear, sat neatly alongside the cool jazz of the era. So did London, who regularly used the finest West Coast players on her albums – Barney Kessel, Bud Shank, Jimmy Rowles, Jack Sheldon, Shelly Manne and so on.

As musically gifted as she was visually gorgeous, this singer was no pushover, however. Although a home bird by nature (she detested touring and had to be duped into her first live residency by her husband, the pianist/vocalist Bobby Troup, so unsure of herself was she initially), and hardly the type to make a pushy nuisance of herself, London quickly learned to play the music business at its own game.

Her album covers were the best example. Just as Sinatra’s Capitol’s had sold their contents via a series of images of the singer in various iconic poses, London’s Liberty albums promised an unrivalled erotic experience within. Sometimes she looked merely glamorous, clad in dresses of opulent contours (About The Blues, Sophisticated Lady), at other times she looked so seductive it was almost painful to behold (London By Night, Round Midnight). There were off the shoulder gowns, a lot of leg, cleavage-bearing come hither looks to camera, all delivered while she variously pouted into a telephone, curled herself around a chair, or reclined in front of a fire on a rug. By the middle-Sixties, she'd begun to look like one of your friend's mother, the one who you secretly hoped would one day seduce you.

The 1956 album Calender Girl topped all this by delivering an entire year’s worth of cheesecake in one mouthwatering 12” slab; among them shots of the singer in skimpy shorts, a bikini, a witches outfit and dressed as Father Christmas. Released in a gatefold sleeve, the money shot, as it were, was only revealed upon opening the album; London wrapped only in furs, her classically suggestive sideways to camera pout screaming not some much come hither as come and get me. This photo was captioned 'The Thirteenth Month', appropriately enough; it wasn’t real, it didn’t exist, it was a fabrication, a dream, a fantasy, a little like London herself.

All these soft-core images would have amounted to nothing had London not been able to deliver the goods at the recording microphone. The music business has never been short of artists who’ve based their careers on an off-kilter looks-to-talent ratio but in London’s case this was no mere burlesque-styled tease. Whether in small bands, a setting in which she excelled (her first album Julie Is Her Name, from which 'Cry Me A River' was lifted for single release, has her accompanied by just guitar and bass), or framed by an orchestra, she would easily find the sweet spot in the music. Her best work, to my mind, was with ensembles somewhere between the two, such as on 1959’s Your Number Please, one of three London albums I pinched (and that’s precisely the word) from my Dad’s collection around 1990. The A&R pitch this time was borrowing repertoire from a series of prominent male singers – Sinatra, Nat Cole, Dean Martin, even the Four Freshman – and giving it the intimate London look. With a young Andre Previn drafted in as arranger and conductor, leading a light, woodwind-centred line-up, it’s an album with a certain playful restraint. Yes, the songs are full of romance and yes, Previn occasionally overplays the crooning French horn interjections, but nothing ever really gets overcooked. It’s also among the best places to hear London’s voice up close - really up close. On 'It Could Happen To You', returned to its ballad tempo after a few years as a jazzman’s happy romper, you can hear every breath, every gentle smack of London’s lips, even her saliva, and as she coos ‘all I did was wonder how your arms would be’ you need all your wits about you in order not to fling yourself at the record deck shouting ‘take me, I’m yours’. If anything her cover of Nat King Cole’s signature 'When I Fall In Love' is even more erotically charged, but while slow material like this might seem the only territory suited for such undone intimacy, 'Makin’ Whoopee' proves otherwise, London using the rare second chorus lyrics about marital breakdown to sardonic if cheeky effect.

Post-script: the connective joys of love

Again, there may be readers wondering why a singer who, although she surrounded herself with jazzmen and phrased as daringly as Miles Davis, never scatted a chorus merits a place in a book principally about jazz. The answer is partly nostalgia. I grew up listening to her albums admiring their singular take on the riches of the Great American Songbook, and learning tunes from them, London’s records helping, as did Sinatra’s, to prime me for a career in which knowing ‘the standards’ was a prerequisite. Those album covers were a big plus too when you’re a love-lorn teenager. But the real reason if that, just as I saw the craftsmanship in albums like Paul Desmond’s Late Lament (Desmond Blue) or Stan Getz’s Didn’t We, in which presentation of melody is the uppermost concern, I recognised in London’s recordings the same qualities; respect for a song, well-paced phrasing, the idea that a voice atop intimate accompaniment, whether it were a human or instrumental one, could truly tell a story. London may never have undergone the same rigorously harsh enquiries about whether she was singing jazz as Sinatra did but they were certainly coming from the same place, that magical juncture when quality popular song, the lessons of the Swing Era, and modern recording technology combined, creating a golden age for ‘the concept album’ and for singers as storytellers.

Nearly seven decades have passed since Sinatra and London hit their stride, and since the mass-marketed ideals of 1950s America seduced the world. We now live in very different times, and very few Englishman would think of looking westward over the horizon in order to discover any sort of promised land, musical or otherwise. However, there was a time when it was so. In this regard albums like No-One Cares and Your Number Please are relics as much as souvenirs, their elegant distillation of heartbreak as false as a film set, a facade of sophistication made at a time when the United States was about to explode into violent reaction to its own contrariness (plus ça change). In that they’re not so far from pure Hollywood, right down to the stagey album covers. Yet they remain convincing for all this. When Sinatra intones ‘here’s that rainy day they told me about’, there’s not a soul alive who’s experienced the pain of loss who doesn’t recognise what he’s articulating. And when London breathes ‘and the moment that I feel that you feel that way too’ all the connective joys of love are made explicit. Sentiments like this don’t date, even when they’re wrapped in yesteryear's colours, which is why the gentle lure of such Easy Listening is always with us, discovered anew by successive generations, just as I discovered it in my teens, some thirty-odd years ago.

Photo: A Barney on your doorstep: Frank Sinatra as Barney Sloan in Young at Heart.

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