THE WORLD HAS PRETTY MUCH FELT WRONG since Frank Sinatra's death. In life, his unparalleled artistry was nearly overshadowed by a pervasive omnipotence; he always seemed just around the corner, somewhere over the horizon, sort of like the Zodiac killer, or Alan Greenspan. Whether felt in his alleged role in helping produce last-minute advantageous votes for JFK in Illinois, or in his blistering letter to the editor dressing down the pope for criticizing Sinéad O'Connor, or in the agony his records caused students in New Jersey public school detention — Sinatra was always there, an inescapable force. He was the unofficial yet unquestioned top shot-caller in American culture for much of the last century, and his death left us with a nagging sense of the incomplete.
With the release of Rhino's Sinatra in Hollywood, a potent deck of 160 tracks, 99 percent of them never before available in any form, the feisty little man is back with a vengeance, and the prospect of a six-CD Sinatra safari has a weirdly comforting appeal. Spanning 1940 to 1964, plenty of this material has minimal significance (all those damnable 1940s MGM musical numbers), but it's important to bear in mind that even when Sinatra released titles featured in his movies, they were invariably rearranged and re-recorded studio versions entirely different from the performances used in the films. The collection also serves as a step-by-step chart not only of his growth as a singer but of the process of maturation through which he led American popular singing style; indeed, on the opening track, “Dolores,” from 1940's Las Vegas Nights, Frankie even reaches for a plummy, never-to-be-repeated Bing-toned croon, a clear illustration of how far and fast he subsequently elevated his approach.
Assembling this package must have been a near archaeological task, and there are some fascinating moments. Loaded up with interview snippets, promo chatter (everything from Crosby shill work and faux radio-announcer spots to bobby-soxer screams and Frank's career-saving 1953 Oscar-win acceptance speech), and, unpleasantly, several songs including character dialogue over the music, there're also surprising dollops of hep, including some great 1940 stuff with the Dorsey band — a jivey, soulful “Blue Skies” and a light yet fascinatingly expressive “Night and Day.” From a proposed but never completed animated version of Finian's Rainbow we get a great seven-minute jam on “Old Devil Moon” featuring outstanding work from Oscar Peterson, Red Norvo and Herb Ellis.
Imposing Sinatra's personal time line of turmoil and exaltation over the chronological sequence yields more than a few ironic correlations, particularly with all the game ballads from the 1952 bomb Meet Danny Wilson. That period seemed like Sinatra's last career gasp, not only in Hollywood but in all of show business: His television and radio shows had been canceled, and he'd been dropped by his agent and his label, to which he owed over $100,000 in advances. Hearing him work tunes like “All of Me,” “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “I've Got a Crush on You” with such bruised divorcing-Nancy, on-and-off-with-Ava-Gardner-fueled pathos is quite moving.
BUT IT'S AFTER HIS FROM HERE TO ETERNITY reinstatement to stature that Frankie really starts to give. Alongside his bandstand piano manmusical director Bill Miller, he turns in a stunning “Someone To Watch Over Me” from Young at Heart with an exquisite halting meter alteration (“Although . . . I may not/be . . . the man some/girls think/of as handsome”), one of those pure, self-possessed Frank moments that fans live to dig. There's an equally sublime “Just One of Those Things” (also from Young at Heart), not so coincidentally concurrent with his move to Capitol and away from Sinatra's loathed Mitch Miller and Columbia. As an artist, Sinatra always impresses (that astounding, eternally sustained note on “Old Man River”), even amid a barrage of dreck from his numerous forgettable screen forays. (Remember Double Dynamite? The Kissing Bandit? Didn't think so . . .)
Things get completely out of hand with Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's altogether bizarre “Man With the Golden Arm.” Proposed for release as a single, it has nothing to do with either the heroin-flavored drama or Elmer Bernstein's manic jazz score of the film, and the decidedly grim lament never went beyond a test pressing; obviously Capitol decided the world was not ready for a song for swingin' junkies. The fact that he would undertake such a weird selection (“He buys every thrill . . . that strange desire . . . the walls start closing in . . . paradise is just a false alarm . . . the ending is clear . . . a nameless grave beside some prison farm”) is a potent reminder that Sinatra really was engaged in a continuous artistic stretch, and the performance is a marvel of ambiguity, a nuanced blend of moralistic tch-tch and under-the-skin hipster empathy. This is the Sinatra who packed more emotion and indefinable relevance than any other public figure in the history of recorded music.
SINATRA IN HOLLYWOOD | (Rhino)