I discovered the Chairman of the Board in the early 90’s. Of course I was aware of him and knew his music to some degree because, like Elvis or The Beatles, Sinatra was an icon who’s presence was unavoidable. But in the early 90’s swing music was coming back into fashion and would become by decade’s end a small phenomenon. As I was devouring Sinatra music any way I could get it, I would run into friends who had also recently discovered Sinatra. It was the first time I was aware of how things mysteriously enter the public consciousness.
The thing with Sinatra is that there is so much material (The Columbia years, the Capitol years, the Reprise years, the bootlegs, etc.) that it can be daunting as to where to start. I started with the Reprise recordings (Sinatra’s own label that he started upon exiting Capitol) which, on most days, I’d still rank as my favorite. Most fans and critics would argue that he was in better voice when he was at Capitol and that by the time he recorded on Reprise he had already peaked artistically. Critically speaking, it’s hard to argue that he did anything finer than In the Wee Small Hours or Songs For Swingin’ Lovers, both absolute classics that were part of the birth of the “concept” album and both recorded on Capitol. But for me, the Reprise years (1960-1984) represent some of the hippest arrangements ever put to the American songbook (Thank you Mr. Quincy Jones). And while his voice had become less beautiful it took on a New York-Skyline-with-traces-of-bourbon-and-Camels presentation; delivered with a harder edged snap and crackle. These recordings dominated me. The Capitol and Columbia recordings, which I also enjoy thoroughly, always took a back seat.
However, over time I began listening in earnest to the Capitol recordings and one album in particular continues to show up on my turntable and ipod: Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Only (1958). It’s similar to In The Wee Small Hours in that it is a collection of lonely ballads but is a decidedly darker experience. Nelson Riddle’s arrangements, at times, border on the sinister and are what gives the album distinction. In terms of tone, it’s unlike anything else in the Sinatra cannon. Nelson has acknowledged that he wrote these arrangements while still reeling from the recent deaths of his daughter and mother. Sinatra himself was in the throws of his divorce from Ava Gardner while recording this album. More than any other woman associated with Sinatra, Gardner was an all out obsession which brings me to the 2nd track on Only the Lonely: “Angel Eyes” (composed by Matt Dennis) .
Of the 12 tracks, Angel Eyes is the one you remember. It’s the one I go back to often. It also could be the song that most closely represents Sinatra’s volatile relationship with Gardner. It has a clear, somber narrative that slowly builds to a finish that hints at madness. Here are the terrific lyrics written by Earl Brent:
Hey drink up all you people
And Order anything you see
Have fun you happy people
The drink and the laughs on me
Try to think that love’s not around
Still it’s uncomfortably near
My old heart ain’t gaining any ground
Because my angel eyes ain’t here
Angel eyes, that old Devil sent
They glow unbearably bright
Need I say that my love’s misspent
Misspent with angel eyes tonight
So drink up all of you people
Order anything you see
And have fun you happy people
The drink and the laughs on me
Pardon me but I got to run
The fact’s uncommonly clear
I got to find who’s now the number one
And why my angel eyes ain’t here
Excuse me while I disappear
Sinatra sings the opening verse with a wide, bright delivery; he’s the guy who has suddenly declared to buy the final round. And then he pulls it down to a quieter, confessional tone. What gives the song it’s bite is the way it juxtaposes this faux sense of celebration and the brooding that follows (similar, I think, to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”). Effective too is the way that the lyrics and the delivery point to the woman in question as something destructive (Angel eyes, that old Devil sent /They glow unbearably bright). As the song closes, Sinatra, Dennis, Brent and Riddle paint an open-ended scene of someone getting swallowed in their obsession and heading out into the darkness both literally and figuratively. Nelson’s use of the woodwinds (which is a key sound throughout the entire record) is especially haunting here.
If you have never heard it or even if you have; put on some headphones, lower the lights, close your eyes and take a listen here