According to Scott Fitzgerald, there are no second acts in American lives. Which isn't true. But there are few second acts like Frank Sinatra's. It started on April 30th 1953 not with a bang, not really - just a cymbal and a sting, and then, paradoxically, a spectacular orchestral decrescendo that would become perhaps the most famous in pop history. And the man who had lost his fans, lost his voice, lost his agent, lost his movie contract, lost his TV show and lost his record label is back at the microphone. He takes his time, colla voce, and declares himself:
I've Got The World On A String
Sittin' on a rainbow
Got the string around my fi-i-i-inger...
And pow! There's the bang. The band returns, and at a swingin' tempo:
What a world!
What a life!
I'm in love...
I'm not sure what the opposite of having the world on a string is, but whatever you call it that's the situation Frank was in in early 1953. "Sinatra had hit bottom, and I mean bottom," said Alan Livingston, vice-president of A&R at Capitol and co-writer of "I Taut I Taw A Puddy Tat" (a song that Frank, oddly enough, never got around to). "He couldn't get a record contract, and he literally, at that point, could not get a booking in a nightclub. It was that bad - he was broke, and in a terrible state of mind."
But Livingston thought he had a future, even if nobody else did. So he announced he'd signed Sinatra at the national sales convention in Colorado - and the entire room groaned.
What would stop them groaning? Sinatra's longtime arranger Axel Stordahl had been signed to Capitol shortly before Frank was, and, as he had done for the singer's entire solo career, he was at the podium for that first session at Capitol's Melrose Avenue studio in Los Angeles on April 2nd. But the records didn't sell, so for the second session Sinatra was prevailed upon to try something new, and plumped for a brighter, brasher arranger called Billy May. As we heard a few weeks ago, May was unavailable, so producer Voyle Gilmore found someone to "ghost" the arrangements in the Billy May style. As I mentioned, my old BBC colleague, the late Alan Dell, was on secondment to Capitol in Los Angeles at that time and was assigned to that second Sinatra session on April 30th. And, when Frank walked in and saw not the luxuriously upholstered Billy May but a rather trimmer conductor, he figured he was getting screwed over yet again. "Who's that?" he demanded. "Oh, he's just conducting," said Alan. "Don't worry, we've got the Billy May arrangements."
But the replacement conductor had seen his opportunity. He arranged two songs in the Billy May manner - "South Of The Border" and "I Love You" (one of three numbers by that title Sinatra would record over the years, this one by Harlan Thompson and Harry Archer from a 1923 show called Little Jessie James). And then, having done his Billy May ghosting, he wrote the two remaining charts in his own style. Both were by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. The first was a 20-year old song from The Cotton Club Parade up in Harlem, introduced in 1932 by Aida Ward:
Merry month of may, sunny skies of blue
Clouds have rolled away and the sun peeps through
Joy you may define in a thousand ways
But a case like mine needs a special phrase
How I feel:
I've Got The World On A String...
Frank Sinatra was a shrewd judge of verses and, in all the decades he sang the song, he never once felt the urge to sing that introductory set-up. It's a very delicate verse, tippytoeing around under all that "merry month of May" stuff, so the chorus is a real surprise, a big rangey jolt covering an octave and a fourth in its opening phrase. With distinctive Arlen leaps of a fifth and a sixth throughout the number, it can trip up an inexperienced singer, and indeed can sound as if it were written to be an instrumental. (Patrick Williams, Sinatra's conductor on his Nineties Duets project, did a magnificent instrumental version on his album Sinatraland.) You'd almost think it was never intended to have words at all, but, in fact, Ted Koehler was lying on the couch staring at the ceiling while Harold Arlen came up with the tune. Then as was his wont Koehler went away and returned some time later with a complete and very singable lyric. Did he invent that "special phrase" - about having the world on a string? He seems to have done, although Koehler himself suggested these things just fall into your lap: "When they stop dropping out of the skies," he said, "I'm a dead pigeon." It's not just a marvelous song title, but a wonderfully visual shorthand for when everything's going your way: you're sitting on a rainbow and the world isn't merely at your feet but yours on a string:
I've got a song that I sing
I can make the rain go
Anytime I move my finger
Can't you see?
I'm in love...
"Rain go" is paired with "rainbow" in the preceding phrase. It isn't a rhyme Ira Gershwin would have contemplated, but Ted Koehler didn't over-think these things, not in 1932 when rainbows and rain-goes were dropping from the skies in abundance for him and Arlen. Even so, this is the pair's greatest rhythm song. The middle is one of those great swingin' releases in which Arlen's tune is basically centered on just one note and nobody cares. And in any case the accompanimental fills are as much a part of the number as the vocal line:
Life is a wonderful thing [BIG FILL]
As long as I hold the string [LIKEWISE]
I'd be a silly so-and-so [AND AGAIN]
If I should ever let it go [AND A REAL BLAST TO GET US BACK TO THE MAIN THEME]
I've Got The World On A String...
The "silly so-and-so"/"ever let it go" couplet isn't flashy or exhibitionist like Hart or Porter but it's distinctive and awfully fun to sing. Cab Calloway was in The Cotton Club Parade but didn't get to sing the song on stage. Instead, Arlen and Koehler wrote him a sequel to his signature theme called "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day". On the radio, however, Calloway's record of "String" was the first hit version, followed a few months later by Bing Crosby. It was a breezy optimistic diversion from the depths of the Depression, when many of those who enjoyed the number were simply trying to survive the world, on a shoestring. But like the song says:
What a world!
What a life!
I'm in love!
And sometimes that's enough.
Frank Sinatra liked "World On A String" and had been singing it on stage for a year or so, including using it as an opener for his run at the Chez Paree in Chicago. But it had never sounded like it did in the Melrose Avenue studio on April 30th 1953. At the end of the first run-through, Sinatra seemed puzzled. Alan Dell came in from the booth to adjust a microphone or replace a cable or whatever and, as Alan told it to me many years ago, Frank buttonholed him and said, "Hey, who wrote that thing?"
Alan replied, "He did," and indicated the conductor: "Nelson Riddle."
"Beautiful!" said Frank. "Let's do another." And so was born perhaps the greatest singer/arranger partnership in popular music.
Nelson Smock Riddle Jr was half-a-decade younger than Sinatra. He'd taken lessons from the brilliant Bill Finegan, then signed on as trombonist and staff arranger for Charlie Spivak and Tommy Dorsey, and put in some highbrow study with classical guitarist, composer and a Hollywood refugee from Fascist Europe, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Les Baxter hired him to ghost some charts for him at Capitol, including Nat Cole's "Mona Lisa", and Cole liked it so much Riddle suddenly had a career as a vocal arranger.
It was Alan Livingston and Voyle Gilmore who thought Riddle's jazz side would be perfect for Sinatra. Some of the musicians, until that April 30th session, weren't so sure. "Sinatra hadn't done much of that at Columbia," Milt Bernhart, his trombonist, said. "It was mostly lush string arrangements... There wasn't any reason to believe he could really handle the jazz phrasing correctly, because most of what he'd been doing was so square."
You heard that right: Milt Bernhart, who would go on to do the all-time great trombone solo on "I've Got You Under My Skin", thought Sinatra was a square. Frankie was a pretty little ballad boy, and he could sound aggressive and faintly menacing on rowdy novelties like "Bim Bam Baby", but who's to say this square could swing? "I wasn't convinced that he was going to be able to sing jazz style," said Bernhart. "I didn't know him that way at all..."
"I've Got The World On A String" is two minutes and change. When did Bernhart figure Mister Squaresville could groove with the cats after all? Maybe 30 seconds in:
I got a song that I sing
I can make the rain go...
The little spin he puts on "make" lets you know this is the sound he's been waiting for, the sound he was born to sing.
It was hard on Axel Stordahl, who had been by Sinatra's side since the Tommy Dorsey days and had, more than anyone, provided the musical bedrock on which the young singer built his style. But by 1953 Sinatra the man and Sinatra the singer were no longer in sync. Those gorgeous Stordahl string arrangements were for the earnest, tender bow-tie boy who made the bobbysoxers swoon, the shy skinny charmer in the MGM movies who got chased around by the man-eating Betty Garrett while Gene Kelly pursued the glamor dolls. In the Forties, guys didn't really relate to "Swoonatra": He was someone they endured while their dates squealed. The bobbysoxers stopped squealing, but Stordahl went on writing charts for that pure, translucent voice, even as it hardened and graveled. Nelson Riddle found a sound for who Sinatra was in 1953: finger-snappy, swingin', swaggerin', a little cocksure ...but to be redeemed by the ballads, which were more vulnerable and harrowing than any male singer before or since.
"World On A String" hadn't exactly gone away between Crosby in 1933 and Sinatra 20 years later. There were admired records by Lee Wiley and Duke Ellington and so on. But yet again Frank secured its place in the repertoire: In the five years after his version, Jo Stafford, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and, of course, Louis Prima recorded it. Half-a-century later, Diana Krall, Michael BublĂ© and CĂ©line Dion were all singing it, just to name the Canadian branch of those who've taken up the Sinatra songbook.
Sometimes, even when an arrangement wasn't broke, Frank would fix it, ordering up a new chart for "Lady Is A Tramp" or perking up the intro to "My Kind Of Town" - not so much to keep the song fresh, but to make sure he was. Yet "World On A String" he never touched and, when Sinatra came to remake it in the Nineties as a duet with a largely superfluous Liza Minnelli, Pat Williams conducted the very same arrangement with which Nelson Riddle had inaugurated the new Sinatra on April 30th 1953. For the next four decades, Frank used it to open any number of concerts - just something to get his feet wet, to settle into the room, get the lie of the stage. I lost count of how many times I heard him sing it over the years, but it never let him down, nor he it. Sometimes, you'd come back after the opening comic or Sammy and Liza and settle into your seats and there'd be the hubble-bubble of crowd chatter and suddenly it would die as the audience realized Frank had walked out on stage and was standing there. And then he'd turn to Bill Miller or Frank Jr and go: "Shoot!" And Riddle's glorious musical deflation would fill the hall:
I Got The World On A String
Sittin' on a rainbow
Got the string around my finger...
It was the opening number that closed his career, on his very last live set - February 25th 1995 - in Palm Springs, at the annual gala for the Dinah Shore golf tournament. His string was pretty frayed by that point - Sinatra had gone on till he wore it out - but he swung it all the way to the big finish:
Am in looooooovvvvvvveeee!
It was a different story on April 30th 1953: He didn't really have the world on a string, but that's the genius of Nelson Riddle's arrangement. He made the song a self-fulfilling prophesy. The following year Time magazine began their report on Sinatra with the three lyric lines quoted above and then added:
Not long ago, Francis Albert Sinatra seemed at the other end of his string. The crooner and his career dangled hopelessly as one competitor after another zipped up the popularity and bestselling list, and Frankie's public and private relations (ie, with his second wife, Cinemactress Ava Gardner) grew progressively worse. Over their coffee and cheesecake at Lindy's, the Broadway arbiters of show business pronounced their verdict: Frankie was about washed up.
But that was then. Within a year, he would have hit records, movie offers, an Oscar, and a whole set of new fans for a new Sinatra. "By last week, the verdict had been reversed," Time concluded. "The world was his yo-yo." He had a song that he sang - and he made the rain go.
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette has also launched a Frank countdown. World-on-a-string-wise, she prefers "Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart", at Number 57. Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints is counting down his own Sinatrapalooza, and his own string theory is that the slower-versed version of "Zing! Went The Strings" has more zing, which is why it's Bob's hit sound 42. The Evil Blogger Lady offers "The Strings - er, Things We Did Last Summer", with bonus Shelley Fabares in a bikini, although not a string bikini.
~Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe, while you can read the stories behind many other Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
12) THE CONTINENTAL
13) ALL OF ME
15) NIGHT AND DAY
16) I WON'T DANCE
24) OUR LOVE
27) FOOLS RUSH IN
32) I'LL BE AROUND
38) SOMETHIN' STUPID
42) THE COFFEE SONG
44) HOW ABOUT YOU?
46) LUCK BE A LADY
49) I HAVE DREAMED