“I adore records. I’d rather do that than almost anything else.” Even if Frank Sinatra had never said that, we might have guessed how much he loved recording from the sheer quantity of albums and singles he released over his half-century career.
In addition to the dozens of studio albums, labels have released a rainbow of greatest-hits collections with titles like The Best of the Columbia Years: 1943-1952; The Capitol Years; Classic Sinatra: His Greatest Performances 1953-1960; Frank Sinatra in Hollywood 1940-1964; Seduction: Sinatra Sings of Love, and more.
But the new Ultimate Sinatra, out April 21 from Capitol/UMe in multiple formats, is probably the most representative collection of Sinatra’s studio recordings since the digital age began.
No doubt Sinatra experts and superfans will find that some of their favorite tracks are absent from the new release. Nevertheless the four-CD and digital deluxe editions of Ultimate Sinatra offer a top-quality survey of the best work “The Voice” did during every stage of his recording career.
Early swing-band tracks from when Frank Sinatra sang with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey Orchestras (“All or Nothing at All,” “I’ll Never Smile Again”) and string-section extravaganzas give way to the legendary Nelson Riddle orchestrations and releases from the 1960s and onward on Sinatra’s own Reprise Records imprint. Relative obscurities mingle with classic standards and show tunes like “Night and Day,” “My Funny Valentine,” “All of Me,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “The Lady is a Tramp,” “Stardust,” “Luck Be a Lady,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” and of course, “My Way” and “Theme from New York New York.”
Sinatra’s genius for expressive and original phrasing, melodic variation, and subtle modulation of tone is evident from his early teen-idol years. In the very early and very old-fashioned “I’ll Never Smile Again,” Sinatra sings some lines very straight and locked-in with a chorus of singers, but adds small touches of delay and tonal variation on his solo lines. By the time of the 1944 Columbia single “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week,” he had come into his own as a jazz stylist, slotting his completely natural-sounding phrasing into the easy swing rhythms. Just listen to the way he breaks out of the rhythm to hasten the closing syllable of the word “memories,” evoking natural speech without losing any musicality.
Meanwhile, in ballads like “Nancy (with the Laughing Face)” he displays his mastery of tension and release, singing so far behind the beat that you wait with delirious anxiety to hear how he’s going to catch up. He also displays his uncanny gift for making poetic lyrics like those of the 1954 Capitol single “Young at Heart” sound like everyday language.
There’s a good selection of tracks displaying the brilliance of Sinatra’s frequent collaborator, arranger extraordinaire Nelson Riddle. There’s the big-band sophistication of “Lady is a Tramp” and “From This Moment On” from A Swingin’ Affair! (1957). There’s the torch-song tenderness of “Only the Lonely” and “One for my Baby” from Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely the following year. And there’s the furiously swinging “The Way You Look Tonight” from Sinatra’s 1964 album of Academy Award-winning songs. A vocal duet with Antonio Carlos Jobim on “The Girl from Ipanema” from the two artists’ collaborative album from 1967 and another with his daughter Nancy Sinatra on the number one hit single “Somethin’ Stupid” from the same year represent his smooth way of working with singers of very different stripes.
Frank Sinatra continued to adapt with the times, putting out the folk-oriented album Cycles in 1968. The title track is included here, though “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” or “Both Sides Now” would have been more obvious choices. “My Way” is here, of course, from the 1969 album of that title, though it would have been nice to also have a taste of Sinatra covering Jacques Brel, The Beatles, or Ray Charles rather than the insipid B-side “Forget to Remember.”
There are also a few oddities, like the early recording of “You’ll Never Know,” in which Sinatra is accompanied only by a weirdly warbling chorus, and his languorous and syrupy 1942 version of “Night and Day.” And there are a few novelty-ish songs, like the silly “The Birth of the Blues,” the 1955 Capitol single “Love and Marriage” (which a generation of TV watchers know as the theme song to “Married with Children”), and “High Hopes” recorded with a children’s chorus in 1959.
But there really isn’t any junk to speak of. The inferior material scattered through Sinatra’s vast studio oeuvre is mercifully absent.
Frank Sinatra had more musical lives than any artist could hope for, and they’re pretty much all represented on Ultimate Sinatra. “New York, New York” notwithstanding, the last of the four discs feels like a bit of a letdown after all the golden-era music; Sinatra was no longer in his musical prime after the 1960s. But his revived celebrity and popularity persisted until his death in 1998 and on to the present day. It’s no wonder this release and a new HBO documentary are only two of the Sinatra phenomena marking the impending 100th birth anniversary of Ol’ Blue Eyes.