Frank Sinatra made records for more than half a century, releasing dozens of albums and performing thousands of songs. By rights, more work than any one singer should have been able to do.
But in a sense, there was more than one Frank Sinatra. Over the course of his career, the singer manifested a multitude of musical personalities. He began in the big band era as a sweet-voiced teen idol, then matured into a smooth, swing-schooled pop singer. Midway through the '50s, he reinvented himself as a savvy barroom balladeer, then honed his jazz chops until he could swing with as much power and authority as any instrumentalist.
By the mid-'60s, he had become the epitome of Kennedy-era cool, answering the raucous challenge of rock with sass and brass. Eventually, he became the Chairman of the Board, a pop music elder statesman.
An astonishing amount of Sinatra's recorded work remains in print, making it nearly impossible for any single collection to convey his full achievement. What follows, then, is a guided tour through the various periods in Sinatra's career, pointing out which albums are most worth hearing.
The Big Band Singer. Sinatra's first great recordings were with Tommy Dorsey. Those singles have been compiled in a four-volume series on RCA, entitled "All Time Greatest Dorsey/Sinatra Hits." "Volume One," which features such hits as "I'll Never Smile Again," is the best bet for beginners, but all four are worth hearing.
The Pop Smoothie. In 1942, Sinatra left the Dorsey band for a solo career. Working mostly with arranger/conductor Axel Stordahl, he refined the approach he'd taken with the Dorsey band, emphasizing the supple sonority of his voice while expanding its range of effects.
Completists can acquire all of his Columbia recordings, thanks to "The Columbia Recordings, 1943-1952: The Complete Recordings." But given the expense of this elaborate, 12-disc set, less-devoted fans would be better with individual albums. (A four-CD "Best of the Columbia Years" set makes a handy compromise).
"Swing and Dance with Frank Sinatra" shows how easily his lithe, easy-going cadences played off against the brassy bounce of big-band arrangements. By contrast, the restrained vibrato and flowing, legato phrasing in evidence on "The Voice" showcases what he learned from Dorsey's trombone playing.
The Barroom Balladeer. When Sinatra moved to Capitol Records in 1953, his popularity had ebbed considerably. But the recordings he made for the label -- particularly the moody, concept-oriented albums he cut with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle -- are considered the most artistically advanced of his career.
A quick survey of the Capitol era (which lasted until 1960) may be found in the double-disc "Sinatra 80th" collection. Those seeking a more comprehensive overview would be better off with "The Complete Capitol Singles Collection," a four-CD set that goes from greatness ("I've Got the World on a String," "Chicago," "Well Did You Evah?") to glibness ("High Hopes," "Love and Marriage," "Five Minutes More").
But the best sense of that era can be found in the original albums. Start with the 1955 release "In the Wee Small Hours," a meditation on loss, loneliness and emotional resilience that is perhaps the single best album of Sinatra's career. Deeply felt and beautifully sung, it demonstrates both what Sinatra took from Billie Holiday, and what he brought from the romantic turmoil of his own life.
Sinatra continued in that vein with "Where Are You?" (1957), "Only the Lonely" (1958), and "No One Cares" (1959). His second big success for the label was "Songs for Swingin' Lovers!", a 1956 set with Riddle that was as ebullient as "In the Wee Small Hours" was bittersweet. Sinatra also followed it with a series of swing sessions, such as "Come Fly with Me" (1958).
The Jazzman. Although Sinatra recorded with jazzmen throughout his career, he made relatively few recordings that stand as pure jazz singing. Some of the albums he made with Count Basie certainly come close, the best examples are two live albums. "Sinatra in Paris," a 1962 session recorded with a sextet sounds great and swings hard, but "Live in Australia, 1959," though somewhat lacking in hi-fi sound, boasts the better singing.
One Cool Cat. In 1960, Sinatra founded his own record company, Reprise, and began to exploit the persona he had developed in Las Vegas. "Ring-a-Ding-Ding" (1961) defines that sound and attitude, but its apotheosis may be found on the double album "Sinatra at the Sands" (1966).
There were also some sober sessions during the Reprise era. One of the most memorable is the ambitious (though not entirely successful) song cycle "Watertown" (1970). Sinatra also had a host of pop hits during this era, including "Strangers in the Night" and "Somethin' Stupid." That work is best sampled through a Reprise greatest hits collection. Perhaps the best bet is the double-disc "The Very Best of Frank Sinatra." If money is no object, "The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings" makes an impressive keepsake -- especially considering that this 20-CD set comes packed in an elaborate leather carrying case.
The Elder Statesman. Sinatra tried retiring several times, but kept returning to the musical arena. Perhaps his most magnificent comeback was the 1980 album "Trilogy," which reconfigured the sweep of the Capitol concept albums to suit his now-legendary status. Although his voice had lost some of its lustre, his interpretive skills had not, and that gave the album -- especially the single, "Theme from 'New York New York' " -- unexpected power.
His final recordings, "Duets" (1993) and "Duets II" (1994), may have offered the spectacle of Ol' Blue Eyes sharing the soundstage with a host of rock-era stars. But all the vocals were overdubbed -- he never shared a studio with his collaborators -- and the performances add new meaning to the phrase "phoned it in."
His greatest hits
Here are the singles Frank Sinatra put into the Top Five. Chart positions are courtesy Joel Whitburn's "Pop Memories 1890-1954" and "Top Pop Singles, 1955-1996."
With Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra
"I'll Never Smile Again." No. 1, 1940
"Do I Worry?" No. 4, 1941
"There Ars Such Things." No. 1, 1942
"I'll Be Seeing You." No. 4, 1944
With Harry James and his Orchestra:
5) "All or Nothing at All." No. 1, 1943.
"You'll Never Know." No. 2, 1943
"People Will Say We're in Love." No. 3, 1943
"I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night." No. 4, 1944
"Dream." No. 5, 1945
"White Christmas." No. 5, 1945
"Day By Day." No. 5, 1946
"They Say It's Wonderful." No. 2, 1946
"Five Minutes More." No. 1, 1946
"I Believe." No. 5, 1947
"Mam'selle." No. 1, 1947
"Goodnight, Irene." No. 5, 1950
"Young-at-Heart." No. 2, 1954
"Three Coins in the Foutain." No. 4, 1954
"Learnin' the Blues." No. 1, 1955
"Love and Marriage." No. 5, 1955
"Hey! Jealous Lover." No. 3, 1956
"All the Way." No. 2, 1957
"Strangers in the Night." No. 1, 1966
"That's Life." No. 4, 1966
"Somethin' Stupid." No. 1, 1967
HTC Pub Date: 5/16/98