Tag Archives: Frank Sinatra

My Funny Valentine – Johnny Mathis

Mathis’s reading of My Funny Valentine is a troubling record.

My Funny Valentine (like The Lady is a Tramp and You Took Advantage of Me) comes from a Rogers & Hart show called Babes in Arms. The song is sung by Billie to her lover Valentine (Val), who is all the things she says he is: funny, dopey, but sweet. She sees him as he is, loves him anyway, and tells him so, dismissing any fears he may have about their relationship or his need to change.

The long, pseudo-medieval first verse is omitted in many recordings. The classic Sinatra take left it out. Chet Baker left it out. Ella Fitzgerald, in her 1956 reading, included it, yet the tempo she took it at suggests a desire to be rid of it as quickly as possible, so she could get to the good stuff, the real meat of the song.

It’s clear why Sinatra and Baker would drop it – any male performer taking the song on would have to reckon with the gender ambiguity that resulted from a lyric written to be sung by a female character:

Behold the way our fine feathered friend,
His virtue doth parade
Thou knowest not, my dim-witted friend,
The picture thou hast made.
Thy vacant brow, and thy tousled hair
Conceal thy good intent,
Thou noble, upright, truthful, sincere,
And slightly dopey gent

But Mathis wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He includes the long introduction and lingers over it, glorying in the parodic courtliness of Lorenz Hart’s lyric, while the two guitarists play interweaving lines like the left and right hands of a harpsichord player, throwing in every counterpoint idea they can think of.

But sensitive as he is to sound, he seems insensible to meaning. Mathis, in his anxiety to avoid any gender confusion that might come from a man singing a woman’s song, changes the word ‘Thou’ which begins the penultimate line to ‘I’m your’ and spoils the joke; a second ago he had a dim-witted friend. Now he’s the dimwit.

It’s an awful moment. A clanger.

What’s going on here? Could any singer be that deaf to the implications of a pronoun change in a song that is specifically a woman’s song? Surely he would recognise that he had two good options available (drop the verse, or sing it as written and trust the audience would understand that Mathis was only reciting the original text), and that changing the lyric was the worst option possible?

Perhaps. Or maybe something else is going on here. Vocal androgyny was Mathis’s whole shtick as a young singer. His supple, opera-trained voice, with its bell-like purity, high tessitura and heavy vibrato, sounded feminine. It was capable of performing whatever whims he fancied, as the mood took: great leaps landing each time in the middle of the note, or sweeping legato slides up or down the octave.

He revelled in these qualities; his early vocal performances speak of a singer near-drunk on the possibilities of his instrument. Every phrase of Mathis’s take on My Funny Valentine displays his self-confidence. Indeed, the setting of the whole album (Open Fire, Two Guitars – it’s an apt title since double bass apart, all that is present in the arrangements are two jazz guitars and Mathis’s vocal) speaks to his, or producer Mitch Miller’s, absolute faith in his tone and technique, stripping his accompaniment back to the barest bones, letting the spotlight fall solely on that voice.

Still just 23 when he recorded Valentine in 1959 and (as he would remain until 1982) a closeted homosexual, Mathis may not have known precisely whereof he sang at this point in his life. Perhaps he did, but was hypersensitive to charges of effeminacy and so changed the lyrics so he wouldn’t be singing a ‘girl’s song’.

Whatever the reason, Mathis’s version, as beautiful as it is, achieves its beauty by misreading the lyric, tonally as well as texturally. He flattens the song out by approaching the music from one emotional angle only. What makes My Funny Valentine a classic, most particularly in its Sinatra/Riddle incarnation, is the way that singer and arranger acknowledge and mirror each other’s shifts in tone, from playful teasing to romantic devotion and back again. This is why Sinatra’s reading remains definitive, lack of intro verse notwithstanding.

Mathis’s reading remains an enigma. He picks endlessly surprising routes through the text in the company of his two guitarists, with note and phrasing choices that are inspired and frequently thrilling. So while his reading of the song ultimately comes over as gauche (whatever the reason), Mathis’s remains one of the very finest, and most predictive*, versions of one of the greatest songs in the canon.

johnny mathis

*With the clean electric guitars, the androgynous falsetto, the voice of almost limitless potential held back only by its limited emotional palette, Open Fire, Two Guitars reminds me almost constantly of Jeff Buckley. It’s often uncanny.

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Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – the widening of musical tastes in the MP3 era

Way early on in the life of this blog I wrote about the idea of a canon of pop music and the unintended effects that the propagation of this canon by music media might have. The only real beef I have with a Mojo-style pop music canon is that it tends to construct its narrative around a smallish group – Sinatra, Presley, Beatles, Stones, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths, etc. – and forget the rest a little bit. But the rest constitute 99% of all the artists who have ever made records, and to convince yourself that none of them ever managed to release any really amazing music because they didn’t do it at album length, repeatedly, well, that’s looking at pop all wrong. One of pop music’s chief pleasures is the song you really love by an artist you otherwise have no real use for. Pop is a democratic form, probably the most democratic art form. Even workaday talents might pull three minutes of spectacular out of the bag in a way that just couldn’t happen amongst novelists (for example). Coming across something unexpectedly excellent – something that makes you change your mind about an artist you’d previously dismissed entirely – used to be a rare pleasure. If you’re anything like me, nowadays that can happen all the time.

This is old news for many fans, I know, but in case some of you haven’t quite put this all together in your head, it happened because of changes in technology, principally the MP3 and later technologies like Bittorrent, Limewire and Soulseek, which allowed people to download almost anything, by anyone, within a minute or two. You could now see whether you liked something without having to hear it first on the radio or part with money for it. So a generation of serious, deep-listening fans grew up, then, without inheriting the traditional (rockist) assumptions about what old music was worthwhile and what wasn’t, which were useful to my generation (I’m 32) principally as a filter. These kids grew up trying a bit of everything. The rockism-versus-poptimism argument that dominated critical circles in the early noughties has long been settled in pop’s favour. It’s resulted in a generation of music-makers who think about and consume music the same way the vast majority of music fans always have, without their tastes and aesthetics being circumscribed by ideology.

When I was a teenager, I relied heavily on received notions of what music was worthwhile and was much more ideological about what I listened to. How else would I know what to part with money for? Over time I’ve come to a position far closer to the poptimist one. My own listening on a daily basis is full of one-shot great songs by artists I have only one song by. My iPod playlists – which I play on my journey to work, more or less daily – are built around the likes of What You Won’t Do For Love by Bobby Caldwell, Guilty by Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, Know by Now by Robert Palmer (such unexpected key changes!), More Than This by Roxy Music, Just Be Good to Me by SOS Band, Forget Me Nots by Patrice Rushen (that bass line!), Merrimack River by Mandy Moore (who would have seen that coming?) and Night Walker by Yumi Matsutoya. Some of which I’ve written about here before, others I no doubt will in future. Highlighting some of this stuff for people who don’t normally listen to pop/soul/disco/folk (delete as appropriate) is a major part of the point of this blog. I hope I’m doing it tolerably well.

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The SOS Band – makers of the apocalyptic Just Be Good To Me, written and produced by Jam & Lewis

From Russia with Love – Matt Monro

Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again?

There are many fine Bond themes – Goldfinger, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds are Forever, Live and Let Die, We Have all the Time in the World, Nobody Does it Better – and a few shockers (All Time High, Die Another Day, Another Way to Die, Licence to Kill, For Your Eyes Only, The World is Not Enough). My favourite is seldom heard unless the film to which it was attached is rebroadcast: Matt Monro’s From Russia with Love.

Monro made his name with the BBC show band, before which he’d driven a bus, meaning he’d for ever be saddled with the nickname ‘The Singing Bus Driver’, but he was a quick study and a natural talent, soaking up all he could from his time at the BBC and his stint as vocalist for Winifred Atwell, who gave him his stage name. But his initial burst of fame didn’t last and, by the late fifties, he was working as a song plugger in relative obscurity.

His second big break came from an unlikely source: Peter Sellers. He was making a comedy record with George Martin, and Martin wanted a singer to record a Sinatra pastiche that Sellers could study and copy, with a view to making his own version. Monro, with his Sinatra-like voice, was hired. But Sellers liked Monro’s version so much that he decided to use it to open his record, billing him as Fred Flange. Dispirited by this lack of recognition at the time, Monro wasn’t aware yet of how lucky he was: he’d impressed the man who would soon be the most powerful record producer in the country. They’d hit it off personally too, so soon the two of them were working together on a new run of Matt Monro singles. Portrait of my Love was a big hit and he came second in the 1964 Eurovision, but the key moment in their partnership had come the previous year, when they’d recorded the title song for the second Bond film, From Russia with Love.

From Russia with Love (the song) was written by Lionel Bart, arranged and played by John Barry and his Orchestra and produced by George Martin (one hears echoes of the work he was doing with the Beatles at the same time: wide stereo separation, rejecting the idea of the stereo field as a representation of musicians on a stage, for example: the drums are wholly in the right channel), so the record had some heavy duty talent on it, and it was these guys who were doing the job of defining what we think of when we think of Bond songs. Dr No hadn’t had a theme song, and as the second movie in the series, From Russia with Love laid a lot of groundwork unwittingly.

Most of it’s here: a sense of arrangement and harmony more classic-cool than contemporary, inventive arrangements, big orchestrations, a charismatic lead vocal, and most importantly, a sense of foreboding. The sped-up piano* in the left channel (another quintessential Martin touch), recurring throughout the song, hangs over the record like a question mark, and for a song about returning to a lover, when Monro sings ‘I fly to you from Russia with love’ at the song’s climax, it sounds ominously like a threat. All that’s missing is the thunderous brass, which would become inextricably associated with the Bond franchise after Goldfinger, but which was, presumably, not composed with that in mind.

Monro’s performance is a classic. This man had the publicly acknowledged respect of Frank Sinatra (‘his pitch was right on the nose: his word enunciations letter perfect: his understanding of a song thorough,’ said the master on Monro’s death), and it’s easy to hear why. Obviously indebted to Frank but not a slavish imitator, Monro was blessed with a voice that was both an authoritative light baritone and a classy tenor, but Sinatra had it right when he remarked that Monro understood the songs he was singing. His performances are thoughtful. You sense that he (and Bart, and Barry and Martin) knew this song had slightly sinister undertones (they’re there in the score as well as the words), and, alive to both text and subtext, he hints at all possible meanings without coming down too firmly one way or the other. A lesser singer and the song might have devolved into winking camp or sung through it, oblivious; Monro was too rigorous and disciplined to allow that.

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Matt Monro – so much more than a singing bus driver

* Recording geeks may be interested to listen to the left channel, containing the sped-up piano, at 1.04. Hear a chipmunk voice? That’s someone (possibly Barry) saying, ‘Not yet… I’m not sure about this – can we go again.’ Back in the analogue days, a lot of things made it to the master that would be simple to clean up nowadays. This is a prime example.

Phil Ramone

If my appreciation for lo-fi rock music was partly an ideological one – founded on an adolescent need to carve out an identity for myself as a musician and listener – my love for the music of Paul Simon was the reverse: instinctive, soul-deep and already in place when I was too young to even grasp that some music was new and some music old, some music cool and some square. At that age – eight, nine maybe – I hadn’t heard a whole Paul Simon record. My parents had Greatest Hits Etc. on cassette and we used to listen to it on car journeys to visit relatives. It took me places, made me feel stuff I didn’t understand yet. The post-divorce ennui of Simon’s Still Crazy-era songs shouldn’t have resonated with such a young kid, yet I absorbed every note, learned every word. I loved the way these records sounded, the way they felt.

After Simon himself, the man most responsible for the sound and feel of those records was Phil Ramone, who engineered and co-produced Simon’s mid-seventies records There Goes Rhymin’ Simon and Still Crazy After All These Years. Ramone died yesterday, aged 79. He was a true giant of record-making. Big Band Bossa Nova, Genius + Soul = Jazz, Getz/Gilberto, Blood on the Tracks, Still Crazy and Blood on the Tracks – Ramone recorded them all. He recorded Do You Know the Way to San Jose, The Look of Love (Dionne Warwick’s version and Dusty Springfield’s) and We Have All the Time in the World. Most engineers and producers would kill to have even his more minor artistic successes on their CVs: Rock of Ages, Ram, 52nd Street. Ramone’s list of accomplishments speaks for itself.

His records do, too. A sense of space, an ability to tailor instrument sounds to a particular recording while still retaining their identifiable sonic signatures, attention to detail, to the little things that lift a record – these are the Ramone hallmarks. It’s something of a shame that over the last twenty years or so this magnificent recordist and producer didn’t move a little more with the times and work with some younger, hungrier artists. I’d have loved to hear the work he might have done in the 1990s with a good songwriting guitar band, like Albhy Galuten did with Jellyfish and Glyn Johns with Belly. Instead he worked on a series of Duets records (two each with Sinatra and Bennett) and Rod Stewart’s execrable American Songbook series, seemingly happy to work on music that recalled that of his early career, despite the degradation of his collaborators’ vocal abilities.

But no amount of late-career clunkers can detract from the brilliance of his early work and his name will be remembered for as long as folks collect vibrations in air, mess around with them and make them come out of little speaker cones. Year by year we lose more of the greats from Phil Ramone’s generation, and things have changed so much in the industry that it’s unlikely we’ll see their kind again. But as long as millions continue to listen to Dionne Warwick, Quincy Jones, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, they’ll still be listening to Phil Ramone too.

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Phil Ramone, ©Ken Weingart/Getty Images

It’s a Lonesome Old Town – Frank Sinatra

When Frank Sinatra signed to Capitol Records in 1953, he launched an artistic hot streak to which the only serious comparison in popular music since has been the Beatles’ career between 1963 and their dissolution in 1970. For the rest of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Sinatra alternately released collections of uptempo swing numbers and increasingly punishing albums of ballads, never mixing the two on the same LP. In so doing Sinatra, along with his producer Voyle Gilmore, arguably invented the concept album.

Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely may be the pick of these records, but it is also the bleakest. Sinatra had gone through a divorce from Ava Gardner, and arranger Nelson Riddle (a late substitute for the singer’s preferred choice of Gordon Jenkins) had just lost his mother and his daughter. The album Sinatra and Riddle made together in these unhappy times goes far beyond melancholy, achieving instead an eerie, exhilarating desolation.

The album was, as was Capitol custom at the time, recorded using two separate set-ups running simultaneously: eight orchestra mics for the mono recording and a three-mic ‘Decca Tree’ configuration for the stereo. There are audiophiles who claim the mono sounds better. To my ears, the stereo mix is musically superior because the lack of competition for aural real estate in the centre of the stereo picture gives Sinatra and his voice a bigger area to wander around disconsolately in, so to speak. As gorgeous as the orchestration is, nothing pulls you away from Sinatra’s performances. And what magnificent performances they are. Sinatra inhabits every line of the song, he explores every nuance of the lyrics, pulling the beat this way and that as he goes.

Riddle’s arrangements, meanwhile, with the dimensionality and wider soundstage afforded by stereo, range from enveloping warmth to disconcerting coldness (witness the uneasy-sounding ‘suicide’ strings that open the track, and their insinuating, spiralling recurrence at 2.08: they could have come straight from a Scott Walker record, or from a horror-movie score).

Sinatra’s phrasing was always at its most inimitable and deeply felt on ballads, particularly in the fifties, and he’s at the very top of his game on It’s a Lonesome Old Town. Notice how frequently he’s slightly in front of the beat, as if these painful admissions are coming out in little spurts he can’t quite control. This is not the ‘Fly me to… the moon’ Sinatra of a thousand tin-eared parodies. This is an artist of supreme technical facility letting go of all his little tricks and just singing the songs as he feels them.

Too unrelentingly dark to win the mass acceptance afforded to his swing albums, these records remain comparatively under-appreciated. Cuts such It’s a Lonesome Old Town are seldom played on the radio and often go unrepresented on compilations and retrospectives; the comparatively cutesy One for My Baby (cutesy being of course a relative term in this context) is the only song from Only the Lonely I’ve ever heard on daytime radio. But perhaps this is appropriate – no other records are as suited to late-night solo listening as Sinatra’s ballads albums. Small doses, though. They’re strong stuff

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He’s Frank Sinatra and you’re not.