I bought the The Capitol Years, a 3-CD Sinatra set, while I was going to college in Seattle. I didn't know a song on it. I am not even sure if I had ever actually heard a Sinatra song. Certainly, none of my friends or family liked him. But the case--it looked like it was printed on lilac-colored linen--looked so swanky I just had to buy it.
I didn't know it then, but the Capitol years were the cool years. None of this New York New York/My Way crap. This was jazz. Sinatra had come to this point after being a teen heartthrob to the bobbysoxers. Soon, his star dimmed, and he was washed up by 1950. However, in 1953, fresh off his Oscar-winning performance in "From Here to Eternity," according to Benjamin Schwarz in The Atlantic, the comeback continued when Sinatra
signed with the trendsetting, L.A.-based Capitol Records, a move that afforded him his greatest role: his own musical and stylistic reinvention. The 16 concept albums that followed, his most remarkable achievement and among America’s enduring cultural treasures, defied public taste and redirected it toward what would be known as the Great American Songbook. With his key collaborator, the arranger Nelson Riddle, Sinatra jettisoned the yearning, sweet-voiced crooning of his Columbia years in favor of a richer voice, greater rhythmic invention, and more knowing and conversational phrasing. He had always said that Billie Holiday was his most profound musical influence, and at Capitol, accompanied by Harry Edison, the former trumpeter for Count Basie, he was even more deeply open to jazz influence, as he invested up-tempo songs (which he had rarely performed at Columbia) with a tough, assured swing. For their part, jazz musicians overwhelmingly selected him “the greatest-ever male vocalist” in a 1956 poll, and Lester Young and Miles Davis—never partial to white musicians—ardently praised him.
The transformation was complete. Imagine if Justin Timberlake became as respected as Bob Dylan. That's basically what happened to Sinatra.
Sinatra is an amazing singer. Shwarz calls him "the greatest vocalist in the history of American music," and he shows us why when he notes:
On his hugely popular and artistically glorious Capitol albums, Sinatra expanded and enlivened the repertory of standard American songs (astonishingly, before his recording of it, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” hadn’t been a significant entry in the Porter catalog) and became its most commanding interpreter. With his clear, relaxed enunciation and sublime phrasing, he also codified the sound and rhythm of casually elegant spoken American English. The seamlessness, ingenuity, and rightness of that phrasing is readily apparent when you try to sing along with him and still can’t foretell his stresses and caesuras in a recording you may have heard a hundred times.
I'm glad to see Sinatra getting his due, not as a kitschy Ratpacker, but as a great singer. At this time of year, as I listen to his Christmas records, I am reminded of how great he really is.
Read the entire article here.