Another May 14 has rolled around, which, for the Frank Sinatra-centric, means two things. It's time for fans of "The Voice" to say to each other, "Can you believe it's been ELEVEN years since Ol' Blue Eyes went to that great casino in the sky?" And it's time for the Sinatra estate to roll out some new product to entice new fans and keep the veterans in the fold.
Many times in the past I've used the space so generously allotted to me by the good folks at HuffPo to tar and feather Frank Sinatra Enterprises, either for boneheaded moves they've made or for things they should be doing, but aren't. Last spring, for instance, the tenth anniversary of Frankie's passing brought us Nothing But The Best, a generous compilation of his Reprise recordings from 1960-84, with all the big hits and a couple of rarities to bait the die-hards. It went all the way to #2 on the Billboard charts, thanks to a big-time marketing campaign and a tie-in with the Post Office, which issued a Sinatra stamp (first class, natch). But FSE never capitalized on the album's momentum, and the promised reissues of his Reprise catalog only materialized as online downloads, which pissed off many older, non-computer literate fans as well as collectors and audiophiles who wanted the packaging and superior sound that comes with CDs.
But this May, I've got less than usual to bitch about, thanks to three new releases that should please hardcore fans and newbies alike. Live At The Meadowlands, a previously unreleased concert recording from 1986, and a reissue of the long out of print 1969 album My Way, with a couple of bonus goodies added on, were released on May 5 by Concord -- weird, since Sinatra Enterprises negotiated a deal with Warner Bros. less than 18 months ago, but that's a topic for accountants and lawyers. And on June 2, Capitol/EMI releases Classic Sinatra II, the sequel to the double-platinum compilation, which sports 20 winners from the '50s, plus a previously unreleased track.
Live At The Meadowlands has sparked the most interest and the heaviest sales thus far. It's been advertised as the most sought-after Sinatra concert -- by whose reckoning I know not -- and while there are plenty of better shows circulating among Sinatraphiles, it's a damn good performance. Recorded in March 1986 at one of Frank's forays back to his home state of New Jersey and the Meadowlands Arena, it captures the 70-year-old swinger at the cusp of his long final decline; you can already hear a little gravel in the throat and a little less fluidity in his delivery.
But Sinatra at slightly less than full strength is still Sinatra, and that beats just about anyone else at peak power. His set list is an ambitious one, featuring a mix of old warhorses like "Come Rain Or Come Shine" and "I've Got You Under My Skin"; lesser-played nuggets like "Without A Song" and "Nice N' Easy"; and a killer, swinging arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Change Partners" that he never laid down in the studio. And while newcomers to Sinatra might miss 'em, I'm glad that "My Way" and "Strangers In The Night" are blessedly absent.
Sinatra sounds like he's having a great time, although he always seemed a little constricted in arena and stadium shows -- he may slag Atlantic City and its small casinos during his monologue, but his shows in A.C. and Las Vegas were almost always his most relaxed, carefree and intimate (check out the excellent Vegas box set if you don't believe me). Live From The Meadowlands won't make you forget Sinatra At The Sands (still his definitive live album), but it's an excellent document of latter-day Sinatra.
Of all the albums the Chairman Of The Board cut during his quarter-century association with Reprise Records, why was My Way tapped for remastering, rebuffing, re-polishing, and reinsertion in the CD racks and online emporia? Let me guess -- the title track? It definitely couldn't be the rest of the album, which was somewhat hastily slapped together in early 1969 to capitalize on the "My Way" single's success. Which is not to say it's bad. In fact, it contains some of Sinatra's finest work of the late '60s, a period in which he careened from brilliant projects with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Duke Ellington to cringe-worthy covers of Glen Campbell and John Denver.
My Way has its moments of brilliance as well as cringe-worthiness. "Watch What Happens" and "For Once In My Life" are two of the best uptempo arrangements Don Costa ever wrote, and Sinatra leads the charge in damn fine voice. There's also good new-at-the-time song by Jimmy Webb, "Didn't We"; "A Day In The Life Of A Fool," a killer bossa nova excursion; and a gorgeous reading of the ballad "All My Tomorrows," which to my ears tops even the rendition he cut for Capitol ten years earlier.
There's also a strained, awkward "Hallelujah, I Love Her So"; a supremely goofy take on "Mrs. Robinson" with Sinatra-ized lyrics; and the title track, which even Frank himself didn't like. The melody never goes anywhere, it drones on for what seems like forever, and oy, those lyrics! Frank didn't need to boast about himself in song, no matter what Paul Anka thought -- whether it was getting into fistfights or donating millions of dollars to charity, he was a man of actions, not words. But I'm definitely in the minority on that one, since over the decades it's become one of Sinatra's most cherished and popular recordings.
On the whole, My Way is a satisfying listen. Two previously unreleased bonus tracks have been added to the new CD -- a 1969 rehearsal of "For Once In My Life" for a TV broadcast, which includes some fascinating Sinatra chatter with the band and producers, as well as a live version of "My Way" from 1987. The sound is punchier and more vibrant than previous CD issues, and Bono's liner notes, reprinted from a piece he wrote for the New York Times a few months ago, are sweet, if slightly disjointed and rambling.
Capitol's entry in this year's Sinatra sweepstakes is the least exciting for serious fans but may be the most exciting for newcomers to the ring-a-ding fold. It contains 20 tracks recorded during Middle Aged Blue Eyes' 1953-61 tenure with Capitol. Since this was the artistic peak of the man's career, it would be hard to screw up a collection like this, and they didn't. It's a nice blend of swingers and ballads, mostly from his famed "concept albums," with a few more lightweight hit singles thrown in. The occasional oddball choice, such as "Memories Of You," a fantastic outtake from Songs For Swingin' Lovers which inexplicably wasn't released until the '70s, convinces me that whoever was in charge of song selection knew what they were doing.
One of my pet peeves is baiting greatest hits CDs with one exclusive track to sucker in the collectors. Shouldn't this kind of exploitation have disappeared with the emergence of bit torrent sites? Regardless, Sinatra Enterprises has gotten really, really good at it -- this is the third collection in the last year to boast a single previously unreleased gem. Capitol and FSE are keeping mum about the provenance of "This Can't Be Love," the track in question, but this Sinatra geek's guess is that the vocal was recorded in 1958 for a TV broadcast, with newly recorded orchestration by Frank Jr. And it's stunning, damn near worth the price of admission even if you have the other 20 tracks on the CD - especially since Frank Sr. never recorded a proper studio version of the song.
At this rate, in a decade or so we should have an album's worth of previously unreleased Sinatra material strewn throughout a dozen or so greatest hits albums. But my complaint, all things considered, is a minor one. In 2009, with the death of the CD being forecast by every pundit with access to the Internet, and the death of the record store well underway, it's great to see -- and hear -- new, previously unheard material from the greatest voice of the 20th century (you heard me right, Elvis) making it to what's left of the music buying marketplace.
So tonight, to mark the 11th anniversary of Frank Sinatra's death, I'm gonna put "Live At The Meadowlands" on the hi-fi, pour myself a tumbler of Jack Daniel's -- Frank's favorite elixir -- and remember the words with which he toasted many an audience over the years: "May you live to be 150 years old, and the last voice you hear be mine!"