Seventy years since his first Capitol Records sessions for the single “Lean Baby” and the “Songs for Young Lovers” 10″ album… 62 years since his first Reprise LP, “Ring-a-Ding-Ding!”… and 25 years since his passing, the legend of Frank Sinatra still looms large. Starting with today’s release of his “Platinum” compilation of hits and never-before-heard rarities, the decade-long process of Universal Music Group’s merging of Sinatra’s Capitol and Reprise catalogs begins in earnest in celebration of The Voice and those initial Capitol sessions in Los Angeles.
“It is as if this is one big Frank Sinatra record label with UMe,” said Charles Pignone, who is the longtime head of the Sinatra Society of America fan club, the senior VP of Frank Sinatra Enterprises, and a curator who knows where each hidden tape lives.
“We’re not out to reinvent anything when we do these reissues and special projects. What we have to work with, in the first place, is wonderful.”
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The intuitive intimacy of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ aesthetic is also currently on display in London with “Sinatra: The Musical,” a song-strewn new theatrical work based on his life and career scripted by two-time Tony winner Joe DiPietro, directed and choreographed by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall, and produced by Michele Anthony, Bruce Resnikoff and Scott Landis (Universal Music Group Theatrical), with Tina Sinatra and Pignone serving as producers on behalf of Frank Sinatra Enterprises. “Sinatra: The Musical” is due on Broadway some time in the new year.
From his sensual, conversational manner and saloon-soliloquy machismo to his improvisational, actorly way with each line reading, Sinatra was a provocative interpreter of the Great Songbooks — from his big band past to Broadway’s show-tunes, from jazz and bossa nova invocations to Tin Pan Alley songsmiths, up through the contemporary composers of the 1970s and 80s.
Pulling in the meticulous articulation of a Mabel Mercer and the spirited inspiration of classicists such as Puccini, Sinatra — a man untrained in reading music — dealt in passion and nuance as a vocalist. Though he could blast forth with force, his beguiling charm came from the dynamism and intricacy of lonely quietude. Think “One for My Baby” and “Blues in the Night.” Think about the energy and the ardent romanticism lent to mid-tempo swingers such as “I Wish I Were in Love Again” and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To.” Or the ballsy big-band swagger of “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Too Marvelous for Words.”
Orchestrator and arranger Nelson Riddle once said that Sinatra’s was a “rangy voice…. a very strident, insistent sound in the top register, a smooth lyrical sound in the middle register, and a very tender sound in the low. His voice is built on infinite taste, with an overall inflection of sex.”
With the rhythm of sex at its center, Riddle commented that the best material for Sinatra had “the tempo of the heartbeat.” And as an interpreter of that pulse, Sinatra was, in the words of Chuck Berghofer (his bassist for albums such as “Strangers in the Night” and “The World We Knew”) “always and forever on top of the groove.”
Andrew Daw, the executive VP of international marketing & estate management at UMe, is used to handling the greats of vocal jazz and standard song, such as Peggy Lee and Nat King Cole, while managing the Concord label of jazz and blues legends overseas. “Jazz, blues and vocal standards are an important piece of history that can’t be lost,” he said. When it comes to being the man in charge of all-things-Sinatra, however, Daw is clearly in awe of his subject matter.
“I feel like this with a lot of the artists that I work with, but Sinatra is very special because he is someone that I grew up with, someone that my parents and my grandparents always loved,” said Daw. “That I’ve worked with the Sinatras since UMe did the first physical deal for his Warner (Reprise) catalog overseas, they’ve become friends and family, and I cherish being part of that inner circle and hearing all of their stories.”
The telling of Sinatra stories came down to Daw and UMe uniting the crooner’s Capitol years (1953 to 1962’s “Point of No Return”) and his self-created Reprise label with Warner Brothers (from 1961 through 1981’s “She Shot Me Down”) as a giant umbrella entity. No longer do Reprise or Capitol need to license each other’s tracks from the other. Save for Sinatra’s RCA and Columbia label days before his Capitol reign, every classic is in one ring-a-ding place.
“We don’t intentionally treat either label as separate; we just view it all as one, as Sinatra’s body of work,” said Daw. “This year, we are focusing on the Capitol years. A lot of the time going forward, we’ll look at historical or significant date opportunities that we feel as if fans would like to celebrate, or that we want to create opportunities around his catalogue to celebrate.”
UMe’s union of the Capitol and Reprise catalogs actually dipped its toes into the joining of Sinatra catalogs in 2022 by quietly re-releasing 1970’s “Watertown,” a concept album produced and co-penned by the Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio that had the distinction of being Sinatra’s only major album release not to chart in Billboard’s top 100 charts.
Charles Pignone has been in Sinatra catalog celebration mode ever since he took over the Sinatra Society of America fan club job in 1984 while still in his teens. Since that auspicious meeting, Pignone not only toured the globe with Sinatra many times over until the crooner’s death in 1998, he became a confidante to Sinatra’s remaining children, Tina and Nancy, and their principal archivist.
Calling the merging of labels something akin to a “Sinatra brand,” Pignone is quick to state that the original master tapes of each of the two catalogs are still in their original homes — Reprise in the Warner vaults and Capitol’s tapes at Capitol.
“When I got involved with the Sinatra clan in 1984, I was lucky enough to travel on tour and become close to his musicians,” said Pignone, with the enthusiasm of a kid in the candy store. “The exciting thing, then, was to be able to connect the dots between the hundreds of hours of interviews that I did with those longtime Frank musicians for the Sinatra Society such as (guitarist) Al Viola and (pianist) Bill Miller, and how they interacted with Frank. These players would talk about sessions that had never been released such as a great, lost take on ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.’ They had great stories about Frank being dissatisfied, thinking he didn’t sound so great, going to Palm Strings for a week, coming back and nailing the track. When I go through the original masters, that brings back wonderful memories because I heard the stories first before finding the tapes, from the people who were actually there. Now, finding a lost song is exhilarating. Putting out the rarities of ‘Platinum’ and sharing them with fans old and new is an even greater thrill.”
And there are new Frank fans buying hard copies and downloading streams, from those who’ve heard Sinatra classics “That’s Life” and “Send in the Clowns” in the Joaqhin Phoenix film “Joker” to those who line up to witness “Sinatra: The Musical” in London.
Speaking to 2023’s “Platinum,” dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Sinatra’s first steps into a studio at Capitol in April 1953, Pignone pointed to unreleased material, alternate takes, test tracks and “special surprises” such as Sammy Kahn’s “Here Goes” from a 1958 session with arranger Billy May, a radio spot for “A Hole in the Head” from 1959 with Nelson Riddle, and a dozen more.
After the “Platinum” release, Pignone promises individual album re-releases with LP-appropriate rarities along with era-driven box sets, such as the jaunty “Sinatra: Vegas” and the sublime “Sinatra: London.”
“Forging ahead with Frank, we’re judicious about what we put out – never just crumbs, always substantial,” said Pignone. “That level of excellence is based on Sinatra’s wanting to work with the best, at the highest level. The arrangers, the songwriters, the bands and the orchestrators – there was no one as collaborative as he.”
Among the most treasured of Sinatra’s collaborators (and Pignone friends) is Chuck Berghofer – a double bassist famous for his time with the Wrecking Crew, and for doing the opening bassline of television’s “Barney Miller” theme song – and his wife, harpist Julie Berghofer. The two not only met and played with Sinatra during his world tour of 1991, the pair were married soon after its run.
Julie recalled touring with Sinatra, and how the crooner knew the value of rhythm and swagger.
“No matter what or when, he made a song swing,” said Julie Berghofer, pouring through the memorabilia of tour itineraries, rehearsal dates and set lists. “All of that traveling and he still had that spark about him whenever he walked on stage.… Frank was always in total control of the narrative.”
Chuck Berghofer got to record with Sinatra when young Jimmy Bowen became a house producer for Reprise Records generating hits for Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the team of Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood.
“The sessions were fast, everybody would be ultra-rehearsed, and as soon as ‘the Old Man’ came into the studio in the middle of all of us in one room, everyone sounded twice as good as they had 20 minutes prior to his arrival,” he said. “Everyone was at the edge of their chairs. Frank didn’t do 14 takes on a song like others singers did, so you had to be ready for anything. And having him in your headset and in your eyeline – you’re there with him. He’s swinging. You’re swinging. And he had such a groove about him. Sinatra knew what he wanted to do always and what he expected from you. Bill Miler, for instance, his pianist for many years, never played over the top. It was all simple and easy. That’s what ‘the Old Man’ wanted.”
What “the Old Man” also wanted, to accompany his mid-1960s studio sessions and album releases, was to have bassist Berghofer on tour with him.
“Frank asked me then to tour with him, then, but Teddy Tedesco, the guitar player with whom I was working in the Wrecking Crew, told me that if I did, I could kiss the studio work goodbye,” said the bassist. “As impressed as I was by the offer, I didn’t take it then.”
Chuck did however make up for lost time by going on tour with Sinatra in 1991 and playing on the Capitol label studio sessions for “Duets” and “Duets II,” of 1993 and 1994, respectively. The bassist remembered the poignancy and individualism – to say nothing of his power within the industry – of the vocalist even during the September of his years.
“Capitol had built him a world-class sound booth for ‘Duets’ – must have cost them a fortune, what with all of its bells and whistles,” said Berghofer. “After the first tune, we took a short break, which turned into a very long break. Finally, when we got back into the studio, the booth was gone. Frank didn’t want it, didn’t want to be away from it all. He wanted to be in on the action, in the middle of the room, singing with the band. That killed me. But that’s who he was and how he always did it – not behind glass or isolating himself. He wanted to sing live with the band like he was used to. There was no loss of feeling or connection with Sinatra. That was his way.”
From the sounds of Sinatra’s best-loved label periods under one roof, and the promise of rarities and special projects to come, Frank’s way will stay swinging for decades to come.
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