Before “The Voice” was a music reality contest on television, “The Voice” was Frank Sinatra. If there is a more iconic singer in American popular music (or in the world, for that matter) I would like to know who it may be. Frank Sinatra remains popular long after he and most of his original fans have gone off to the great musical beyond. Sinatra’s many hits from the mid 1950’s up through his “Rat Pack” years and into his “My Way” period remain well known. Less well known is the music that made him a household name – not to mention the sex symbol of his era.
Relatively unique to Sinatra is a voice that is barely recognizable when comparing his early records to his late ones. All singers’ voices tend to thicken and darken with age, but Sinatra’s did so more than is usual, with an early range that went much higher than most of us have experienced. And along with that change in the voice itself, Frank’s musical style evolved into one that packed more punch into the up-tempo numbers and more introspection into the ballads. His early records are an entirely different thing, but show the beginnings of a great career. And a peerless voice.
Frank Sinatra was musically formed by the big bands that were the backbone of the music industry in the late 1930s. After some small club gigs and a break on Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour radio program, Sinatra got hired by Harry James. In 1939 Harry James was a fairly big name in jazz, having been in the trumpet section of Benny Goodman’s breakout band, with an instantly recognizable tone that was both powerful and melodic. There was some showmanship to his playing, perhaps an expected side effect of having gotten his start after running away from home and joining a circus band. Anyway, in 1939 Harry James was a major name who was trying to get a start at leading his own band. And Frank Sinatra was a green kid with a pretty good voice.
Between February and November of 1939 Sinatra was at ten recording sessions with the James band, laying down 22 individual songs. None of them is well-remembered today, except for one: All Or Nothing At All, recorded August 31, 1939. It was released in mid 1940 but sold poorly. Today, the record is interesting because it showcased a pretty good singer with a band not really known for singers. This record broke from the typical band-singer-band format of so many records of the time – where the band plays fully through the song before the singer gets a shot, and then takes the third lap with the grand finale. In case you wonder, the record got re-released in 1943 during the musicians’ recording strike and sole over a million copies – due undoubtedly to its singer having become a major star in the interim.
In early 1940 Sinatra got an offer from Tommy Dorsey – one of the top bands of the day – after Dorsey heard Sinatra sing with the James band on a radio broadcast. Harry James knew it was a great break for his kid singer and encouraged him to take it. Everyone knows the pairing turned out to be good for Dorsey, but in many ways it was a good experience for Sinatra too.
Young Frank slotted into the spot left by the prior singer – and whether that was Jack Leonard or someone else, his name is found in the “trivia” bin rather than the “great musical stars” bin. This record, East Of The Sun is a fairly typical ballad of the day. This record is typical of ones that became standards because Sinatra sang them. Nobody of note recorded this before Dorsey but it has been recorded many times since. In a tie back to an earlier piece, Bunny Berigan is the trumpet player who played for Dorsey during a break between bands of his own, and just a couple of years from an early death at age 33 when he handled the trumpet solo in this 1940 recording. This arrangement with the background singers filling space was a stylistic holdover from earlier singers – what it did was get in the way of Sinatra’s great gift – the ability to hold a note long and steady with a perfect pitch and just the right vibrato.
It was not long before Dorsey recognized that his new band singer was anything but typical. In a move that was not typical for that age (especially among big-name bandleaders) Dorsey began to give his vocalists more time, with the band receding into the background. One example is this September1940 record of I’ll Never Smile Again – a song that showed the results of another of Sinatra’s growth efforts. He worked very hard to blend his voice with the other members of Dorsey’s vocal group, the Pied Pipers and shows how his voice and style had really matured and grown in the year since his Harry James records.
This is also a good time to point out the beautiful tone of Tommy Dorsey’s trombone – it is not immediately apparent, but anyone who has ever fiddled around on a trombone as I did in my youth can tell how impossibly high Dorsey’s range went – and that top end of the horn’s range was Dorsey’s sweet spot. Notice also that this arrangement reversed the band-singer-band order so that the band (Tommy, actually) got only a short bit in the middle of the song before the voices come back to finish things up.
The Dorsey band was versatile and could swing hard and loud with the best of them, which gave Sinatra the ability to stand in front of a big, powerful band as well as anyone, a skill that would serve him for the rest of his life. An example is this July 15, 1941 treatment of Blue Skies. Unlike the Sinatra of twenty years later, the 1941 skinny Sinatra did not punch out the song, even though the band did. Instead, he floated smoothly through the lyrics in a contrast to the hard-hitting band behind him.
Dorsey hired a singer and bandleader Matt Dennis as a writer/arranger and tasked him with writing some things specifically for Sinatra – which he did with lyricist Tom Adair. One of those is this one from February 7, 1941 – Everything Happens To Me. This was the sort of song mighty few band singers ever got to record – one that was almost completely Sinatra from front to back . There is no doubt in my mind that these Sinatra/Dorsey records paved the way for the prominence of the singer and the eventual death of the big band. The 1940s was absolutely the decade of the singer in popular music and Sinatra led that charge.
It is notable that many of the songs Sinatra recorded with the Dorsey band would appear again on later solo efforts. This one, for example, reappeared on the 1957 Capitol album Close To You and would also serve as the title tune to a 1996 compilation album of things recorded between the 1960’s and 80’s. But instead of just covering older work as a lazier singer might do, Sinatra usually gave these old pieces new arrangements and brought a new sensibility to them. This is also notable as an early song about “the girl who got away”, a genre which would become a staple during his career.
Alright – I went back and forth about which Matt Dennis composition was a better showcase. Everything Happens to Me is a great display of the way Sinatra could drill down into the emotions of a song and bring them out in the most tender way. But a September, 1941 recording of Violets For Your Furs does a better job of highlighting that fabulous voice, with longer notes that draw out the vocal instrument that Sinatra worked hard to hone and a melody full of nuance, and with a little bit of Dorsey’s trombone thrown in. So take your pick, both are really lovely records that hold up very well today.
It was during these years that Sinatra developed no less than a relationship with the microphone, backing away in loud passages but coming in close and personal for the really intimate phrases, learning how to squeeze it for every bit of what it was capable. And perhaps you never noticed this, but you almost never, ever heard Frank Sinatra take a breath in a recording. He later credited Dorsey for developing a “circular breathing” technique that allowed him to go seemingly forever on a breath, and the way he backed away from the mic when he finally re-filled his air supply.
But even with the superstar status he gained in that time, this 1942 recording of Snootie Little Cutie showed his ability to work with Dorsey’s larger cast of singers, including female leads Jo Stafford and Connie Haines. This song, incidentally, was written by a young Bobby Troup, who also wrote the famous Nat King Cole hit Route 66 and would later become known for playing the role of Dr. Joe Early on the 1970’s television show Emergency.
Sinatra was with the Dorsey band from early 1940 into the fall of 1943 and was part of dozens of recording sessions (nearly 100 if you count live radio recordings) and well over 100 recorded sides – an incredible output for such a short time. Trivia time again – you may not have known that his final performance with Dorsey was in Indianapolis in September, 1943. We got Elvis’ final time too, so does this make us the City of Musical Lasts?
By mid 1943 Sinatra felt ready to graduate from “Dorsey University” and made ready to strike out on his own. Many are familiar with the story fictionally told in the 1970’s movie The Godfather – where a Hollywood bigshot would not let a singer out of a contract until he was, well, persuaded by the Corleone family who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Well, it was the breakup of Frank Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey that was the genesis of that oft-told story. Whether it is true or not has long been a matter of speculation, but the story persists.
But beyond the unsavory speculation, it is undeniable that Frank Sinatra made good use of his two-and-a-half years with the Dorsey band. He went in as a raw singer with a good voice and came out of it as The Voice, with a level of skill and polish that would set him on the way to a lifelong career and an American icon. Yes, there was the sex appeal and the many stories from his personal life, but there was an undeniable cache of high-quality music that gushed out of the man in the early years of his career. The style has certainly become dated but it is still worth listening because of that Voice – that pure, clean, strong-but-oh-so-tender Voice from the young Frank Sinatra as he tended to his craft. And that, in the end, is what made Sinatra Sinatra.
All selections from the YouTube page of the78Prof, except for Blue Skies (from the YouTube page for Tommy Dorsey) and both Violets for Your Furs and Snootie Little Cutie (from the YouTube page for Frank Sinatra).