Last night’s big TV special on CBS was a tribute to Frank Sinatra on his 100th birthday (though his 100th birthday isn’t until December 12! Ironically, Billie Holiday, one of the two singers — along with Bing Crosby — Sinatra always cited as an influence, was also born in 1915, on April 7.) It was being presented by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) — better known to you as the Grammy organization — in collaboration with the Sinatra family, and like the previous Grammy tributes to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder it featured miscellaneous modern artists performing Sinatra’s songs, mostly from the 1950’s (there was a sporadic attempt to cover his entire career but the great Capitol recordings, sometimes with Billy May and Gordon Jenkins but usually with Nelson Riddle as the arranger, were the principal focus) — and for the most part performing them surprisingly well and suggesting that the Great American Songbook will still have a future as a live item once the last Grand Old Man of singing from Sinatra’s generation, Tony Bennett, finally passes. Bennett was there, of course — introduced by a film clip from Sinatra himself proclaiming him the greatest singer of their sort of music — though the presentation dodged Sinatra’s influences. I’ve written before in these pages that Sinatra formed his style from equal parts Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday — when he was growing up he admired Bing’s musicality and easy phrasing (though in his early years as a solo artist, 1931-1934, Bing was a far more wrenchingly emotional and soulful singer than he became later), and then he heard Billie singing in nightclubs and was jolted into an awareness of how she used phrasing and rubato to turn ordinary (and sometimes worse than ordinary) pop songs into intense emotional dramas.
Sinatra’s style was something like an iron fist concealed in a velvet glove; there are any number of Sinatra records, both on ballads and uptempo songs, where you can listen and feel like nothing particularly interesting is happening — just a nice voice singing a nice song — and then suddenly he’ll twist the knife in and throw in a turn of phrase, an accent, a “dying fall” downward glissando (the “dying fall” was a particular Holiday trademark) that will suddenly plunge you into a different emotional landscape. Almost none of last night’s singers even attempted that level of emotional involvement with Sinatra’s material, but there were few performances that didn’t show some sympathy with the musical style of Sinatra’s songs; about the only performer who just bulled his way through the material and didn’t try to phrase it was Juanés, who was assigned to represent Sinatra’s bossa nova recordings (the two albums he made in the late 1960’s with Antonio Carlos Jobim in support) who tried to make it through one chorus of “One Note Samba” and had utterly no feel for the Brazilian rhythm. Obviously he was picked for the song because he’s South American, but Colombia is not Brazil; its native language is Spanish, not Portuguese; and the light feel of Brazil’s music totally eluded him. The program began with Sinatra himself — bits of his performance of “It Was a Very Good Year” from the Man and His Music TV specials from the 1960’s were interspersed in the show, and the opening clip also included his early hit “Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)” from what looked like those odd clips from his 1957 ABC-TV series which had him singing in front of a white screen (so additional music and images could be laid in later — among his other innovations Sinatra was the first person to use vocal overdubbing on an entire album; his whole 1950 LP Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra was recorded with the band playing first and Sinatra, who was going through a vocal crisis at the time, adding his parts later), and which were rediscovered several years ago and used for some sporadic attempts to re-create a “live” Sinatra concert by showing the films and having a live orchestra play Riddle’s (or whoever’s) arrangements behind them.
Then it began with Adam Levine singing “I Get a Kick Out of You,” and while Levine or whoever was in charge of the production dodged the “I get no kick from cocaine” lyric (Cole Porter authorized a version that substituted “perfumes from Spain” and I believe that was the one Sinatra recorded) by simply omitting the second “A” strain from the song (that happened again on at least one other song — the classic AABA structure of a 32-bar pop song converted into a 24-bar ABA), Levine sang it surprisingly well. Then a woman came out — she was identified but too quickly for me to make out her name (it must have been someone important because the audience applauded so loudly it was difficult to figure out who she was because the applause drowned out the announcement) and did a quite good version of “You Make Me Feel So Young.” She later joined John Legend on something called “We Wanted It All” (at least I think that was the title), one of those pieces of pop-rock Sinatra recorded in the 1960’s and 1970’s to try to get back on the music charts as a singles artist — despite Sinatra’s fabulous success he didn’t have a Number One Billboard chart hit between “I’ll Never Smile Again” in 1941 (and he was just Tommy Dorsey’s band singer then) and “Strangers in the Night” in 1965; his albums continued to sell, but he also wanted the higher profile of single hits. The film The Wrecking Crew features an interview with one of the musicians from that legendary L.A. studio group who recalled that after the “A”-team of session players from the previous generation left the studio after a Sinatra-Jobim session, they came in to supply the light rock sound that would hopefully get Sinatra on the charts again (and did for songs like “Strangers in the Night,” “That’s Life” — performed here by Usher in a version that was good but far too polite, lacking the edge Sinatra put on the song — and the horribly bombastic “My Way,” which I’d consider Sinatra’s worst major record; ah, if he’d only recorded Phil Ochs’ “My Life” instead!).
Harry Connick, Jr. came out and did “My Kind of Town” — he did it nicely enough (my late roommate/client John P. once told me he thought Connick would be the right modern actor to play Sinatra in a biopic) but I couldn’t help but savor the irony of a guy from New Orleans paying tribute to a guy from New Jersey by singing a song about Chicago. John Legend also did a weird version of “Young at Heart”; he phrased the song acceptably but his high, almost countertenor voice simply sounded wrong for the material. (The show included an interview clip in which Sinatra was talked into recording “Young at Heart” by Nelson Riddle, who said he had a song — he didn’t say what it was — that every other artist he’d offered it to had turned down, but which he was convinced was good and had the makings of a hit; Sinatra trusted Riddle’s judgment enough to agree to record it, sight unseen, and it was a hit, solidifying his comeback after his Academy Award-winning performance in a non-singing role in the film From Here to Eternity.) Connick also did “Luck Be a Lady,” and once again did justice to the Sinatra singing style but not to the Sinatra bravura, the Sinatra “swagger and attitude” — the phrase coined by Bono for that infamous Grammy Awards telecast in which Sinatra got a lifetime achievement award and then was cut off in the middle of his rambling acceptance speech — and Bono and U2’s guitarist, The Edge, performed a song they’d written for Sinatra but he hadn’t recorded: “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad.” (For all Sinatra’s attempts to reach the top of the singles charts with more contemporary material than usual — though, ironically, his last single hit was “Theme from New York, New York,” a thoroughly traditional piece of songwriting from a musical set in the 1940’s and a song which, though written for Liza Minnelli, was right down his alley — he gave the cold shoulder to major rock musicians who tried to write for him; John Lennon wrote “Nobody Loves You When You’re Down and Out” for Sinatra but couldn’t get him to record it, either.)
At least two major songs long associated with Sinatra, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” weren’t performed on the program — afterwards, when the show ended with a clip of Sinatra performing a bit of “My Way,” Charles asked me if Sinatra had had a signature song before he did it, and I couldn’t think of one, which was a tribute to Sinatra’s eclecticism and omnivorousness in picking material) — and among the ones that were, some of the weakest performances were of singers who tried to put in soul moves; Alicia Keys tried to liven up her usual mopey style on “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (a great song, and one Sinatra did record, but hardly one at the core of his repertoire) with some soul-style “worrying,” and Nick Jonas (who deserves better than being “typed” as a singer with a now long-since-faded boy band) did likewise with “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” a song recorded by Sinatra in a world-weary matter-of-fact manner that made it far more powerful. Zach Brown swung his way through “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Stars Fell on Alabama” surprisingly effectively, though since I learned “Stars Fell on Alabama” from Sinatra’s version and later came to Jack Teagarden’s even subtler 1930’s original, it’s hard for me to put up with the way Sinatra distorted that song while trying to swing it (“Stars fractured ’Bama last night!” — really?). Still, overall last night’s Sinatra tribute was a worthy effort — it helped that for the most part they were using the original arrangements, and the program’s locale, one of Steve Wynn’s big casino projects in Las Vegas, seemed fitting enough.