Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sinatra Turning the Corner

If you'd like to hear and see Frank Sinatra shortly before he terminated his career artistically, may I recommend the 4-CD/1 DVD package of live performances newly out this past holiday season?

Two of the CDs in this set and the DVD feature Frank in the 1970s. Back then even he had been steamrolled by rock, and he was troubled by his irrelevance. He retired, and then he came back in a concert at Madison Square Garden memorialized in The Main Event. He released a couple of albums in the early 1970s that Will Friedwald summarized this way in his indispensable guide, Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art.

"From 1974 to 1979, Sinatra would venture into the record studios only occasionally: when he did, the results impressed very few at the time, and even fewer since."

Well, count me among the unimpressed at the time, because I was deep into Don McLean, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, etc., but when my ears turned to Sinatra in the early 1980s I must say I found his music from the previous decade interesting. I mean, he was searching for musical filet mignon in an Outback Steakhouse world, and he used all his power to assemble music that fit into his legacy. Looking back at it now, I am moved by his plight.

In this collection you'll hear him at an April 1974 date swing Jim Croce's "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" and sweetly deliver David Gates's "If". Now I like these songs all right, but I enjoyed reading Friedwald's total trashing of this material. Allow me to share some choice remarks of his about the 1973's Some Nice Things I've Missed.

"To start with the worst, (Don) Costa arranged five uptempo pieces that are so trite one is embarrassed even to mention the title...'Sweet Caroline'...'Tie a Yellow Ribbon', the ultimate hymn to the era of platform shoes...and the unspeakably shameful 'Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.'...The pieces sound very assembly line...All in all, the charts, the songs, and the singer aren't even remotely in the same ballpark..."

Yes, I know what he's saying. This was the beginning of the period where poor Frank was becoming a parody of himself, as captured by Joe Piscopo in his Saturday Night Live skits.

I must admit to a fondness, though, for songs like "Summer Me, Winter Me" and "What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?"(by Alan & Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand) and "Let Me Try Again" (Paul Anka/Sammy Cahn/Michel Jourdon) which you'll hear well-rendered in this collection.

It's great fun to hear Sinatra talk between songs. You're reminded not only of the historic time by his references, but also of a brand of humor that marked performers of his generation. There's an electricity in the air when he's on-stage that's palpable not only the DVD but in the energy that you feel from the crowd on the CDs.

He pulls off some surprises in these sets that make them well worth the purchase: chestnuts like "Autumn in New York", "When Your Lover Has Gone", "Don't Worry 'Bout Me", and "I Can't Get Started". Rest assured that the most famous numbers from his catalog are included.

The DVD that concludes this boxed set is a treasure. Recorded in 1980, it features a newly-confident Sinatra riding the wave of his last gargantuan hit, "The Theme from New York, New York." It was during this time that he entered the studio for his last great album of torch songs, She Shot Me Down. It was to be his penultimate record of fresh material. Four years later, after his L.A. Is My Lady album failed to strike commercial paydirt, he stopped recording.

He was 66 years old, and he devoted himself exclusively to touring. There were to be many fine performances in his future (about a half dozen that I witnessed) before it became clear in the early '90s that he should hang his tuxedo up.

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