Frank Sinatra was the most influential popular singer of the 20th century – not just because of a six-decade career of big hit records, but because his taste in music and the longevity of his success helped shape and expand the American Songbook. Not all icons survive death: I think of Leonard Bernstein or Bob Fosse, both at their passing the most celebrated practitioners in their respective fields, or Bing Crosby, the biggest selling recording artist of all time at the time he left us, and these days little more than a guy who gets played on the holiday channels in the month before Christmas. Either because of inept stewardship of the legacy, or a reputation that depended on live presence to maintain the conceit, or a combination of both, even the most dominant pop culture celebrity can dwindle away to the point where a decade later on no-one can quite recall what all the fuss was about. With Frank Sinatra, the opposite seems to have happened. When the gravelly old bruiser of the global stadium tours finally expired in 1998, it made it easier for a younger generation to see the man in his prime: the best singer of the best songs by the best writers in the best arrangements. Just about everything short of his morning mouthwash gargles has been excavated, digitally remastered and released on CD. And, if that's not enough, younger fellows like Michael Bublé and Robbie Williams can build huge careers on what are essentially karaoke performances of Sinatra staples, relying on the sheer power of his charts for "Come Fly With Me", "For Once In My Life", "One For My Baby" to deflect just enough retro-cool their way.
He was born into an Italian immigrant family in Hoboken, New Jersey in December 1915. So, to mark this centenary year, we're celebrating Sinatra's art with one hundred of his songs, from his earliest hits through to the barnstorming showstoppers of his final years on tour in the Nineties - twice a week from now through to the anniversary of his birth on December 12th. From "Night And Day" to "New York, New York", "The Lady Is A Tramp" to "One For My Baby", these hundred songs are simultaneously a portrait of one man's legend, the times he lived, and a century of American popular music. Here's what I wrote in Mark Steyn From Head To Toe:
"Rock'n'roll people love Frank Sinatra," said Bono at the 1994 Grammy Awards, "because Frank Sinatra has got what we want. Swagger and attitude. He's big on attitude. Serious attitude. Bad attitude. Frank's the Chairman of the Bad." If only 20 per cent of the gossip is true, it was an amazing life... But what's even more amazing than the life is that the records live up to it, and then some. The swagger and attitude, the chicks and mobsters are the incidental accompaniment; the real drama is in the songs.
So these are the songs: some are by famous men - Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hart; others are by obscure figures like E A Swan or Joseph Myrow, whose names live on in one outstanding 32-bar contribution that Sinatra noticed and chose to keep alive; some of these songs are numbers written for Frank that he made into standards; others are from forgotten shows and films from a generation earlier that survived because of his championing of them. Indeed, the very notion of a standard - a song that transcends mere Hit Parade ranking and can be re-investigated in different styles over and over across the decades - is one of Sinatra's great contributions to American popular music. Just ask Bob Dylan, whose own album of Sinatra "uncover versions" (as he calls them) is about to be released.
So where to start?
When I was seventeen
It Was A Very Good Year...
Too obvious a number to launch a retrospective with? This song looks back, but without the foursquare bombast of "My Way". It conjures the women, too. And it ties it all together in a very Sinatra metaphor: life as a wine cellar, full of vintage years - a little more rarified than the last guy in the barroom at quarter to three dropping another nickel in the jukebox to hear one last saloon song for long lost losers, but still brewed from the same basic ingredients - and with the perspective of a lifetime, too. They used it for a stylish biographical montage for Frank's 80th birthday TV tribute in 1995: "small-town girls ...on the village green" (well, Frank and his childhood sweetheart in Hoboken) and then "city girls who lived up the stair" (all those bobbysoxers lined up at the Paramount)... It's about the only bit of the show that doesn't prompt a "What the hell were they thinking?" I mean, a rap tribute from Salt'n'Pepa? Hootie and the Blowfish doing "Lady Is A Tramp"? Most of the all-star gala's "stars" were where-are-they-now? queries ten minutes after airtime. But Sinatra endures, and "It Was A Very Good Year" captures his audacity. Half-a-century after its recording, it seems entirely natural, made for Frank. But it wasn't, and it took a happy accident and a transformative arrangement to match the song to the singer.
The composer of "It Was A Very Good Year" is a fellow called Ervin Drake. I met him many years ago at a little gathering in the Ascap rotunda, home of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. In a room full of bluechip songwriters, almost all of them had had their songs sung by Sinatra. They were saluting Jerry Herman, author of "Hello, Dolly!", which Frank recorded with Count Basie in a Quincy Jones arrangement as a goofy tribute to his chum Louis Armstrong. Burton Lane took to the piano bash out the tune and Sammy Cahn sang the inevitable special lyrics ("Hello, Jerry!") . Lane's "Old Devil Moon" is one of the highlights on Sinatra's Songs For Swingin' Lovers, and Cahn was the guy who wrote "The Tender Trap", "Come Fly With Me", "All The Way", "My Kind Of Town", and the other signature songs that defined Frank's persona in the Fifties and Sixties. Among the others present were Comden & Green, writers of "New York, New York", which Sinatra sang on screen in On The Town, and Sammy Fain, composer of "I'll Be Seeing You", one of the über-standards which Frank got in on the ground floor of, as boy vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey band in the early Forties. There was Marilyn Bergman, lyricist of "Nice'n'Easy", which Frank introduced, and Leiber & Stoller, who wrote "Kansas City", "Jailhouse Rock" and a bunch of other big rock'n'roll hits, none of which Sinatra sang. But he did do their elegaic ballad, "The Girls I Never Kissed", in the 1980s.
At one point in the evening I found myself chatting with a dapper fellow who turned out to be Ervin Drake. I knew the name but had only a hazy grasp of his catalogue, and, unlike Sammy Cahn & Co, he didn't automatically trigger any big Sinatra hits. For a moment I got him confused with his older brother Milton Drake (co-writer of our Song of the Week #72, "Java Jive"). But I recovered and began by mentioning "Quando Quando Quando", for which he wrote the English lyric. I neglected to add that the reason I knew that was his song was because I'd just done a rather vulgar parody as a spoof public service message for a BBC show. Anyway, we chatted on, and more of Mr Drake's oeuvre emerged - his first big hit "Tico Tico", a piece of exuberant Brazilian exotica for Disney's Saludos Amigos; "Good Morning, Heartache", for Billie Holiday; Juan Tizol's "Perdido", which stayed in Duke Ellington's act for decades; "I Believe", a blockbuster for Frankie Laine. For most of his early hits, he wrote lyrics only, but by the time he turned up on Broadway he was writing both words and music. He said he was planning a revival of What Makes Sammy Run?, a minor success for him in the Sixties that gave Steve Lawrence a pop hit with "A Room Without Windows". (Last I heard, Mr Drake, now just shy of 95, is still working on a revival of What Makes Sammy Run?: Everything on Broadway takes decades these days, even the revivals.)
And then he brought up "It Was A Very Good Year", and I nearly kicked myself: Of course! Ervin Drake's all-time greatest song. Don't get me wrong, I like "Tico Tico" and "Quando Quando Quando", and I've nothing against "Room Without Windows" and "I Believe", or even "Castle Rock", a raucous Ervin Drake number Sinatra recorded back in 1951, but if I had to shave the Drake Songbook down to just one number it would be "It Was A Very Good Year".
The year he wrote it wasn't a very good year at all. Not for Drake's music. It was 1961 and he was working in television, producing specials for Nat "King" Cole, Ethel Merman, Gene Autry, Ginger Rogers, Perry Como, Eddie Cantor... He was an important figure in the industry, the chap they entrusted with prestige projects like To Mamie With Music, his 1956 birthday salute to the First Lady, Mrs Eisenhower. But in the music biz - his first love - he hadn't had a hit in eight years, not since "I Believe" (the favorite song of a First Lady-in-waiting, Lady Bird Johnson). About to leave his TV job, he swung by an old music-publisher pal to see what was happening, and his chum said he had a big star coming in to see him the following morning - Bob Shane.
Who? Well, he was the lead singer of the Kingston Trio, and the Trio were the lead stars of the folk fad. They'd had a Number One single with "Tom Dooley", and at one point in the early Sixties four of the Top Ten albums were Kingston Trio LPs. Ervin Drake didn't care for rock'n'roll but he saw no reason why he couldn't crank out a "folk song". So he went into the room next to the publisher's office, sat down at the piano and wrote:
When I was seventeen
It Was A Very Good Year
It Was A Very Good Year for small town girls and soft summer nights
We'd hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen...
He finished the thing in ten minutes, although the central idea - life as a cellar of fine wine - had been kicking around in the back of his head for some time. It's not a folk song, or even a pseudo-folk song. It's what happens when a real songwriter tries writing a "folk" song. As Bob Shane was wont to complain about "Tom Dooley", "I've sung it 40,000 times. It has three chords and three verses." Sometimes they have three chords and thirty verses but it doesn't make much difference. The distinguishing feature of, say, "Lemon Tree" (another Kingston number) is the lack of narrative shape, of dramatic arc. It gets going, it chugs along, it stops. Drake imposed form on his "folk" song. Musically, it has an interesting flamenco-like structure which, in turn, suggested an unusual rhyme scheme: A/B/C/C/A/A. Drake decided to put the title on the second unrhymed line, and reprise it immediately at the start of the long third line - also most unusual. It's a folk song, so he wrote it in verse form, but not "Tom Dooley"-like, where there are three verses everybody knows and another 50 that go on forever. For Drake, each verse was, in effect, a season in the "very good year" of a man's life. So he figured the first line would set up the precise year the singer is recollecting:
When I was twenty-one
It Was A Very Good Year
It Was A Very Good Year for city girls who lived up the stair
With all that perfumed hair
And it came undone
When I was twenty-one...
That's another trick that lets you know it's a professionally crafted song: the placement of each type of girl in the middle of that long third line - "small town girls", "city girls", "blue-blooded girls"... It's the story of a man on his way up, and Drake has only a few syllables to sketch very precise worlds. He doesn't waste a word: "We'd hide from the lights/On the village green..." That pierces precisely stolen adolescent romance. Then on to the city girls "who lived up the stair/With all that perfumed hair/And it came undone..." There's a whole scenario in there. The date. The dropping off at the apartment. The "Would you like to come up?" And the hair tumbling down to let you know the evening's only just beginning. What a gorgeous, sensual image.
Whether Bob Shane appreciated all this is hard to say, but he came in the next day, heard the song, and said "Sure." And, just in case it didn't sound "folky" enough, Ervin Drake punctuated each verse with a little tweedly-dee faux-simple interlude to which the folkies could sing:
Hey nonny nonny-non...
That was too much even for the Kingston Trio. They recorded the song in a rather stiff fashion, noticeable from Bob Shane's opening "se-ven-teen". He sings it not as two quavers and a crotchet, as Sinatra does and as the stresses would fall in spoken English, but as an evened-out triplet, as if he's declaiming some Elizabethan ballad. On the other hand, when he gets to the hey-nonny-non interlude, he whistles it, so perhaps it's more of a sea shanty. The simplicity of the guitar accompaniment is appealing, but also the problem: They simpled the song out of all its potential.
The Trio stuck it on their album Going Places and it went nowhere. Lots of other folkies did it - Chad and Jeremy, the Gaslight Singers, the Modern Folk Quartet. But they all sang it Kingston Trio-fashion and it went no more places than the original version. In 1961, Ervin Drake was 42, and it was not a very good year. His post-"I Believe" drought continued.
Four years pass, and Drake's all but forgotten the song. It's 1965, and Frank Sinatra is preparing to mark his 50th birthday. Think about that for a moment. Most celebrities don't mark 50th birthdays. By then, their drivers' licenses are shaving three or four years off, and their lifestyles are frozen around the age of 27. But Frank had decided to make an album about a man contemplating "The September Of His Years", to quote the title song he commissioned from Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen. I used to think the idea was nothing more than Sinatra contrarianism: At a time when most celebs cling ever more fiercely to lost youth, he embraced premature old age. But Sinatra scholar Will Friedwald makes the point that "many of Sinatra's closest associates bought the farm while they were in their fifties". In the preceding decade, he'd lost his old boss, Tommy Dorsey; his first great arranger, Axel Stordahl; his record producer at Columbia, Manie Sachs; his longtime first violinist, Felix Slatkin - and many of the jazzers he most admired, such as Billie Holiday, died even younger. So it's entirely possible he and his arranger Gordon Jenkins were completely sincere in their intimations of mortality. It's a beautiful album: a couple of remakes - "September Song" (of course) and "Last Night When We Were Young" - and a lot of new material by fellows on the fringes of the Sinatra circle - "The Man In The Looking Glass", "I See It Now", "When The Wind Was Green", "It Gets Lonely Early"... You get the gist early - the falling leaves, the graying hair, the days dwindle down to a precious few. Yet it never wears.
Nonetheless, it wouldn't be half the album it is had not Frank chanced to be driving home through the California desert to his home in Rancho Mirage. He had the radio on, and, of all unlikely things, the disk-jockey played a four-year old Kingston Trio album track: "It Was A Very Good Year".
It's an interesting lesson in how Frank thought about music. The Kingston Trio version sounds nothing like a Sinatra song, but he heard the possibilities in it - all the possibilities, indeed, that Bob Shane missed: the loves of one's life as a series of vintage wines, recollected as if by an old oenophile wandering through his cellar. In his drearily unmusical biography of Sinatra, Anthony Summers cites the theory of the journalist St Clair Pugh that the third verse of "Very Good Year" was a conscious reference to Frank's affair a decade earlier with Gloria Vanderbilt:
When I was thirty-five
It Was A Very Good Year
It Was A Very Good Year for blue-blooded girls of independent means
We'd ride in limousines
Their chauffeurs would drive
When I was thirty-five...
Oh, for heaven's sake. When Ervin Drake wrote that lyric, he wasn't writing with Sinatra in mind and he didn't know about Frank and Gloria Vanderbilt. It's the broader trajectory that parallels Sinatra's life so effortlessly: If you like, the first verse of "small-town girls and soft summer nights" is young Frankie and Nancy, his girl next door back in Hoboken; and the second verse's "city girls" are the starlets at Metro in his Hollywood days; and the third verse is Ava Gardner, Lauren Bacall and the other A-listers he graduated to in the Fifties. But it's not meant to be that specific. It's about the memory of loves as different as great wines, as intoxicating and as impermanent, save for the lingering savor of a sweet taste just beyond your tongue. By 1965, Sinatra was the acknowledged master vintner of alcohol-infused imagery, from "You Go To My Head" to "One For My Baby", and, unlike Bob Shane, he heard the poetry in Ervin Drake's words. Of Ol' Blue Eyes' record, Shane said simply, "It fit him better than me." Well, yes. But not just because Frank's nailed more chicks. In the Shane version, it is, like many folkie songs of the era, a song about singing a song. Sinatra understood it's meant to be autobiography - not necessarily his but somebody's:
But now the days grow short
I'm in the autumn of the year
And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It Was A Very Good Year.
Sinatra's singing is beautifully framed by Gordon Jenkins' masterpiece of an arrangement. Jenkins had a kind of kitschy pretentiousness that eventually found its most fantastically disastrous expression in the Future concept album of Frank's Trilogy set. Yet Jenkins was also one of the first to spot the cash-cow potential of the faux-folkie stuff. The Kingston Trio modeled themselves on the Weavers (Pete Seeger and co), and the Weavers were brought to national prominence by Gordon Jenkins. He told Decca to hire them and, when the Decca execs nixed the deal, Jenkins signed them to a personal contract he put up his own dough for. Their smash hit "Goodnight, Irene" was credited to "Gordon Jenkins with the Weavers". He'd helped invent the folk boom Ervin Drake was trying to get a piece of.
Still and all, he knew folkiness was not what "A Very Good Year" was meant to be about. He took Drake's little hey-nonny-nonny interlude - the bit the Kingston boys had whistled - and turned it into a great throbbing wail of strings and oboes. The sound was a Jenkins trademark. "He had that little thing where we used to kid," Bill Miller, Sinatra's pianist, told Will Friedwald. "He'd go from minor to major or major to minor. And right after the record date we'd all walk out singing, 'Gor-don Jen-kins'." No doubt. But "Very Good Year"'s plaintive oboe seesaw is the apotheosis of the Gor-don Jen-kins wail. And, for all the criticism of his harmonic language and his reliance on a handful of tricks, Jenkins was the greatest storyteller of Sinatra's arrangers. "Gordon's whole thing was the story," Frank's trombonist Dick Nash said. And that's what he did with "It Was A Very Good Year": he told the story.
It blew Ervin Drake away. He had no idea that Frank had ever heard of his song, never mind reinvented it. So he was on vacation in Britain when the publisher called him to say he'd received an advance pressing of a new recording of "It Was A Very Good Year" . By Sinatra. "It wasn't a great phone line," he said, "but I knew I'd heard a masterpiece, and I fell in love with it, and I've never stopped loving it."
On a TV special later that year, Sinatra, with Jenkins conducting, used "It Was A Very Good Year" as the framing material for a suite of retrospective reflections, each verse of "Good Year" punctuated by a different song - "Young At Heart", "The Girl Next Door", "Last Night When We Were Young", "Hello, Young Lovers". It's fine and effective as a one-off, but I don't think you'd want it that way on the album: "It Was A Very Good Year" is a kind of suite all to itself. As Frank introduced it, sometimes a song can be "the sum and substance of a man's life" ...but it took Sinatra and Jenkins to draw that out. "I couldn't imagine that kind of reading," said Drake. "Nobody had a mind like Sinatra ...and the ability as an actor."
The problem is the Sinatra/Jenkins transformation of the song is so awesome few other interpreters can get out of its shadow. Even William Shatner's spoken declamation isn't as fun as it might be. I would cite two recordings that manage to rise above: The first is Keely Smith's, from her Sinatra tribute album. She performs it as a salute to Frank from one of his staunchest gal pals, and turns Drake's hey-nonny-nonny and Jenkins' strings-and-oboe wail into a big brassy swinging vamp. It kicks off "A Very Good Year" as up-tempo swinger braggadocio: A lotta years, a lotta broads. Which makes a kind of sense. After all, chick-wise, if you had half Frank's memories, would you be as mournful and elegaic as Gordon Jenkins' oboe? I think not.
My second favorite post-Frank interpretation is by Homer Simpson. After being pulled over for driving under the influence, Homer decides it's time to give up his beloved Duff beer. He goes into the kitchen, pulls the six-pack from the fridge, and starts pouring it down the sink. "Well, beer," he sighs, "we've had some great times." And the music underneath goes into that Gordon Jenkins oboe obligato, setting up another bittersweet elegiac autumn-of-my-years recollections of a life lived to the full. Ervin Drake used the image of wine to evoke a man's life as a cellar of fine vintages. Homer's version uses the image of beer to evoke, well, beer:
When I was seventeen
I Drank A Very Good Beer
I Drank A Very Good Beer
I purchased with a fake ID
My name was 'Brian McGee'
I stayed up listening to Queen
When I was seventeen...
To be honest, Homer's fake ID and staying up listening to Queen may approximate more closely to most youthful experience than Frank's poignant reflections on perfumed hair coming undone. But what makes the cover version one of the all-time great musical parodies is that Homer's glum recitation – life as an accumulation of banalities - is set to more or less exactly the same intense Gordon Jenkins arrangement as Sinatra's original.
As for Ervin Drake, did he have some very good years? When he was 17, or thereabouts, he fell in love with a Broadway chorus girl called Edith. But she threw him over and so he wrote "Good Morning, Heartache" as a kind of therapy. Thirty years later, in the mid-Seventies, just after his wife Ada died, Drake got a call. It was Edith. They married and lived happily ever after. Unlike "It Was A Very Good Year", the romance didn't stop at 35.
Still, when he was 46, it was a very good year. Before Sinatra's record, he was a lyricist who put words to any old tunes regardless of whether - as with "Perdido" or "Tico Tico" - anybody needed them. After Sinatra's record, nobody questioned whether Ervin Drake could write music. As for the hey-nonny-nonnies, they seem gone for good. A year or so later, Drake ran into Sinatra and asked him why he'd dumped the hey-nonny-no in favor of Jenkins' big orchestral wail. "Hey," said Frank. "Just be grateful I didn't go 'doo-be-doo-be-doo-be-doo'."
From the brim to the dregs
It poured sweet and clear
It Was A Very Good Year.
Sinatra had a line he liked to use: "You gotta live every day like it's your last, because one day you'll be right." I doubt even he managed to live every single day like that, but he had more very good years than most of us.
~The above essay includes material from Mark's book A Song For The Season. "The Voice", his essay on Sinatra, appears in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the Steyn store.