Back in January 2008, when Dwight Garner was editing the "Living with Music" blog for the New York Times, I got to write a column on my top twenty Sinatra tracks from the 1940s, an enviable assignment and one that I had a swell time with. Here my first five entries -- with a link to the site. -- DL
David Lehman’s January 2008 “Young Blue Eyes” Playlist:
Sometimes overshadowed by the Capitol Years (1953-1961) or the years after when “our hoodlum singer” (as Johnny Carson put it) became the iconic leader of the Rat Pack, the 1940s are the closest thing to a forgotten decade in Frank Sinatra’s career. This is a lovely way to spend an evening:
1) All or Nothing at All (music by Arthur Altman, words by Jack Lawrence). Though initially recorded on the day before the Nazis invaded Poland, this most famous of the songs Sinatra sang with the Harry James Orchestra is eligible here on a technicality. The 1939 recording didn’t become a hit until it was re-released as a single four years later, during a prolonged (and ruinous) musicians’ strike, when Columbia Records was desperate for material. Sinatra in 1944: “It’s a funny thing about that song. The recording we made of it five years ago is now in one of the top spots among the best sellers. But it’s the same old recording. It’s also the song I used to audition for Tommy Dorsey who signed me on the strength of it. And now it’s my first big record.” The final bar of the vocal is miraculous.
2) I’ll Never Smile Again (Ruth Lowe). As recorded on May 23, 1940, by the Dorsey orchestra with Sinatra and the Pied Pipers vocal group. Jo Stafford, then the golden female voice of the Pied Pipers, likes to say that within a few bars of first hearing Sinatra sing, she knew. You’ll hear why the first of his nicknames was “The Voice.”
3) Oh! Look At Me Now (Joe Bushkin music and John De Vries lyrics). January 6, 1941. Another gem from the three years Sinatra spent as Tommy Dorsey’s boy singer. In the allegory of Sinatra’s career, this song – which he recorded as a solo on “A Swingin’ Affair” in 1957 – figures heavily: “I’m so proud I’m bustin’ my vest.” Sung here as a duet with Connie Haines backed by the Pied Pipers.
4) Be Careful, It’s My Heart (Irving Berlin). June 9, 1942. Like Artie Shaw, Sinatra recognized the value of recording not only current hits but a repertory of songs written by the masters, and thus he did as much as anyone to (1) extend the life of the music and (2) launch the concept of the “standard.” In this excellent Dorsey arrangement of an underrated Berlin ballad, Tommy’s trombone beautifully states the melody all the way through and then comes Sinatra’s vocal.
5) (There’ll be a) Hot Time in the Town of Berlin (Joe Bushkin music and John De Vries lyrics). I’ve heard two versions of this tune that Bushkin (Lee Wylie’s pianist) wrote to boost morale among the troops abroad. The CBS radio broadcast of Oct. 17, 1943, which became a V-disc, is interesting for its variant lyrics (“Michigan” rhymes with “gimme some skin”), but I prefer the more relaxed delivery of March 4, 1944 (arranged by Axel Stordahl; available on the “Frank Sinatra in Hollywood” boxed set; disc 1, number 19). This is one of “the songs that fought the war,” in John Bush Jones’s phrase. Our lads were going “to take a hike / through Hitler’s Reich / and change his Heil to whatcha-know-Joe.”
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