Stan Cornyn died this week. I met him in the Eighties, when he was an exec with Warner Bros or as it was then (if memory serves) WEA (Warner-Elektra-Asylum). I gushed like a fangurl: "Oh, my God! I can't believe it!! You're the best!!! You're the greatest!!!!"
I didn't mean the best at whatever it is an executive vice-president of a multinational record company does, but the best at liner notes - sleeve notes. And, back in the pre-CD, pre-download days, when records came in big sleeves and the guy who wrote the notes was on the back with star billing and not tucked away in some small-print leaflet inside the case, Stan Cornyn raised liner notes to the level of art. When I was a teenage disc-jockey, I got out Strangers In The Night, intending to say something about whichever track I was going to play. And then my eye fell on Cornyn's back-of-the-LP riff, and I thought wow, no point competing with this guy. They were the first and last liner notes I ever read on air. The whole thing, soup to nuts:
The brilliant bronze doors are green with neglect. On one side wall, the chalk legend: "The Animals Are Loved Only by Girls Named Josephine."
Animals may come, and they sure do go, but Sinatra stayeth. He stays to sing. Whatever it says at the top of your calendar, that's what Sinatra sings like: 65, 66, 99... He isn't with the times. More than any other singer, he is the times.
If the guitar were dis-invented tonight, a few thousand singers would be out on their amps. But not Sinatra.
He defies fad. He stayeth. He has known more and felt more about the stuff songs are made of, the words of poets. He's been a Stranger in the Night, and you have to be long rid of baby fat to be that Stranger. You can't sing the way he does until you've been belly to belly with Reality a few times.
Always wanted to write like that, but could never quite pull it off. On the other hand, here's Cornyn on Sinatra and Jobim:
The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies. Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they'd scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystal in a cement mixer.
Seemed like the whole idea was to out-hush each other.
Decibels treated like daggers. The arranger tiptoeing about, eliminating some percussion here, ticks there, ridding every song of clicks, bings, bips, all things sharp. Doing it with fervor matched only by Her Majesty's Silkworms.
And Sinatra makes a joke about all this. "I haven't sung so soft since I had the laryngitis." Singing so soft, if he sang any softer he'd have to be lying on his back.
Lovely. Petula Clark might have proved a trickier assignment, but Stan gave it his best:
Used to be, girl singers rode on buses, undressed with the door ajar, drank liquid gin, swore good. Were equal parts pretty paint, aggressive, swinger, porter, promoter, and hooker. Most had bad arches. Plus six teal blue ball gowns....
Yes, yes, we get it - undressed, swearing, swingers. Are we gonna get to Petula anytime soon?
...six teal blue ball gowns with ripped hems. No more.
I'm just riffling through my record collection here, but I could go on all day. One more, from Happiness Is Dean Martin:
Martin now epitomizes EPIC SLOTH. Sloth like Joseph E. Levine would come up with. In big, 3-D letters, like in those Ben Hur movie ads, with all forms of EPIC EXHAUSTION draped over the letters. "Epic Sloth," starring Dean Martin, and then running around the bottom, instead of Mongol hordes and Jack Palance you find other things, for this is "Epic Sloth." Things like deflated innertubes. Like the ears of sleeping Spaniels. Like Kleenex ashes. Like all of Life's Most Unresilient Stuff.
And there, leaned up in Herculean-Scope against those giant letters, our Pop Star slumps. Dean Martin. Kind of half-eyed looking out at you, grinning "Hi ya, pally," like he hopes you haven't got anything heavy on your mind. "Dean Martin has been working at becoming an Epic Pop Art Object. He's been getting in a good deal of pop art hypnotizing. Avis knows, you don't get to be Number One by just sitting round. Some detractors have published this about Martin: that he sits round, trying to make spaghetti look tense.
"Pish tosh," we say...
I still love it when I'm browsing old record stores, flip over the LP and find Cornyn on the other side. Very few people can say they're the best in the world at what they do. But Stan Cornyn was. It would be a fitting tribute if the stonemasons made his gravestone with the epitaph chiseled on the back. Rest in peace.