Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle hit it off almost immediately at Capitol Records but one of their few arguments in those early days was about the backgrounds Frank was singing over. He didn't like it too complicated or "too busy" or "dense" when he was setting up a song - the mood, the story. "Don't write a concerto behind me," as he once snapped at Riddle. And the arranger learned quickly to save the fancy instrumental stuff for the fills between the lines - and in particular for the man who was the master of those fills, all the way from the early days at Capitol to Sinatra's "farewell" concert in 1971: Harry "Sweets" Edison. As Edison's fellow trumpeter Miles Davis put it:
Music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings, or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn't go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed... The way you play behind a singer is like the way Harry 'Sweets' Edison did with Frank. When Frank stopped singing, then Harry played. A little before and a little afterwards, but not ever over him; you never play over a singer. You play between.
And no one "played between" like Harry "Sweets" Edison. He was born in Columbus, Ohio exactly a century ago - October 10th 1915. Officially. Unofficially, Edison thought the date might have been off by up to four years. But we're going to take advantage of his alleged hundredth birthday to spend a little time with Sweets and Sinatra this weekend. He and his trusty Harmon mute had one of the most instantly identifiable sounds in jazz and he brought that unmistakeable signature to the reborn Sinatra sound of the Fifties.
Young Harry's mother's name was Schultz, which, as he liked to say, doesn't sound like a black family, but in fact there were so many blacks called Schultz in her corner of Kentucky that they called it Schultztown. His dad was a Hopi Indian, who hightailed it out of there shortly after Harry was born. He had an uncle who was a coal miner but had an old banged-up cornet in the attic on which he'd once played Sousa marches. When Harry found it and dusted it off, uncle taught him to play scales on it. And then his ma brought home a Bessie Smith record with Louis Armstrong playing behind her. By 1938 Harry was a working musician and had found his way to the Count Basie band. An orchestra is a tough place for a guy who can't read music, and Edison wanted to quit. But Basie liked his sound, and told him not to make such a big deal about being unable to understand the piece of sheet music under his nose. "Play something," he advised him, "and, if you find a note you like, play it again tomorrow night." It proved good advice for over a decade.
Along the way he picked up the name Sweets. Some say Lester Young gave him the name because of his tone in the lower register; some say the ladies gave him the name because he was a charmer; others say he liked dessert. It was a good life until round about 1950, when Edison found himself holed up in a New Jersey hotel waiting for news of a new Basie gig and got word that the Count was working with a septet in Chicago, and figured that's it, the big band era's over. When money's short, smart musicians learn to get on with waitresses and barmaids and the like, because you never know when you might need a friendly face who'll cut you a good deal on a three-course meal and a couple of beers. And one such lady friend chanced to wind up in Los Angeles and ran into one of Nelson Riddle's regulars one day. "A friend of mine's a musician," she said.
"Oh, yeah?" he replied, feigning interest and assuming the guy taught the school band or the church chorus or some such.
"Yeah, he's looking for work. Harry Edison."
"Wait a minute. Harry Edison? The Harry Edison?"
Back at Capitol, Riddle and Sinatra were stunned. "Well, let's get him out here," said Frank.
Sweets arrived in Hollywood just as Frank and Nelson were inventing the new Sinatra style. You can hear it at birth on Swing Easy, the first of Frank's albums on which Riddle conducts his own arrangements (with the exception of "All Of Me", which is modified from an earlier George Siravo chart) and to which Edison makes a major contribution. I heard "Get Happy" on the radio the other day and ever since I've been singing that insistent Riddle-Edison riff that starts and finishes the record round the clock. It announces the new style: Take a song everyone's heard a zillion times (in this case mostly from the Judy Garland version in Summer Stock) and reconstruct it with vamps and counter-melodies that make the thing sound brand new. Sweets is great on that track, as he's great in almost any situation - among them "You Make Me Feel So Young", "We'll Be Together Again", "Angel Eyes", "Come Fly With Me", "Blues In The Night"... But I wanted to pick a song where his contribution is perhaps less ostentatious than "Get Happy" but which shows off, if you listen closely, how well he worked with Sinatra, and how attentive he was (as Miles Davis noticed) to Frank's vocal.
In 1956, a couple of years after Swing Easy, Riddle and Sinatra were working on what would be the great masterpiece of the early LP era, Songs For Swingin' Lovers. By now, Edison had a privileged position within the orchestra. He didn't sit with the rest of the trumpet section, but off to one side, at his own microphone. This was at a time, remember, when at KHJ Studios in Hollywood it was the practice to record sessions with just two mikes for the entire string section and two more for the brass (very different from today, when everyone's individually miked). In part, Edison sat off on his own because he still didn't read sheet music, so there was no point writing anything for him. But, at another level, Riddle didn't bother writing anything for him because he and Frank trusted him implicitly and so he had carte blanche to play what he wanted whenever he felt he had something to say. In fact, Sinatra paid for Edison to learn how to read music, but it's not clear, upon his completion of the course, that it made the slightest difference to how he approached his art. "If you hear a hole, Harry," Frank had told him, "fill it."
It wasn't quite that simple. A great studio musician is a great sight reader: You stick it in front of him and he plays the part. With Edison, that wasn't possible. "Nelson Riddle was the most patient man I've ever been with," he said. "I would get to a date a half-hour before, and he took time to show me how things would go." But it was worth the effort. Riddle understood the value of a star player who was sensitive to the vocals. "I think the muted trumpet," he explained, "can make a comment and yet not get in the way of the singer." And what's impressive is Sweets' ability to swing with just three or two or sometimes just the one note. "There's a lot of life to it," said Basie, "and he can swing his butt off, with a mute or not."
One of the songs on Swingin' Lovers is a ballad by Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Mercer, two writers who are very important to the Sinatra oeuvre, although not usually together. In 1939, Mercer had formed his own publishing house with a Warner Bros exec called Buddy Morris, and one of the talents they had their eye on was Van Heusen, a young composer who had not yet formed what would become his more or less permanent partnership with Johnny Burke. So one day Van Heusen comes to Mercer with a new tune. "He played me the melody," the lyricist recalled. "I didn't have any idea, but I had to go to Chicago that night. I think I was on the Benny Goodman program."
Mercer loved trains and he loved to write train songs. He would later write "On The Atchison, Topeka And Santa Fe" and, of course, "Blues In The Night", in which the eponymous blues are basically "the lonesome whistle blowing cross the trestle". But the first of his great train songs was the only one actually to be written on a train. Mercer got on board the Chicago-bound Streamliner, and couldn't sleep. "The tune was running through my mind, and that's when I wrote the song. On the train, really going to Chicago." So he began:
I took a trip on a train
And I Thought About...
...the Jimmy Van Heusen tune I'm supposed to be writing a lyric for?
I took a trip on a train
And I Thought About You
I passed a shadowy lane
And I Thought About You...
"The essence of lyric writing," said Mercer, is "to paint pictures". And he did:
Two or three cars
Parked under the stars
A winding stream
Moon shining down
On some little town...
The view from one insomniac lyricist's seat, as the Streamliner hurtles down the Burlington Route to Chicago. When the Mercer-Morris company published the sheet music, right there on the front, flying through the night, was the self-same Denver Zephyr on which the author had written his song.
Mercer professed himself to be very pleased with the lyric, except for what he considered a weak ending - with the lovesick singer looking out the window at the other track:
...the one going back to you
And what did I do?
I Thought About You.
Mercer thought the two "you"s were a bit undernourished: Technically, that's not a rhyme but an "identity". But nobody else seemed to mind. And that trip to Chicago for the Benny Goodman show paid off. It was Goodman's band, with a vocal by Mildred Bailey, who had the first hit with the song.
For Swingin' Lovers, Sinatra and Riddle had a go at the number and Frank was unhappy. So Nelson re-tooled the chart and they re-assembled a couple of weeks later. The result is almost a textbook example of what Sinatra and Riddle did for pop vocal arrangements in the mid-Fifties. It begins somewhat sparely and restrained, with Harry Klee, another musician Frank admired and kept close in those middle years (he was the flautist in those Royal Festival Hall sextet gigs that tuckered Sinatra out before the Great Songs From Great Britain sessions). Then Sweets Edison comes in to join Frank as the first chorus builds to a conclusion:
At ev'ry stop that we made
Oh, I Thought About You
And when I pulled down the shade
Then I really felt blue...
It's a great example of how beautifully Edison's commentative mute tracks Sinatra. He didn't have a huge amount of space, not compared to a jazz soloist in a small combo, but he accomplishes an awful lot with superb economy. Emotionally, he and Frank are telling the same story. To do it as well as Harry does, you have to know as well as the vocalist how he breathes and phrases. And then as the instrumental comes in, the singer drops out. But Sweets doesn't. The full band's blasting the melody, yet Edison's still doing the fills between the lines, just as he did with Sinatra. And it's a rather unusual second chorus. Van Heusen's tune is basically ABAB - and Riddle gives the A sections to the band, and the B sections to Frank. Or, if you prefer, instead of one 16-bar instrumental, there's two eight-bar instrumentals punctuated by eight bars of Sinatra in between. And Sweets is in there all the way, beep-beeping along, Nelson Riddle's "tempo of the heartbeat", distilled to its essence.
If you're a fellow musician, like Miles Davis, maybe you notice Edison. But, if you're the average 1956 record buyer, maybe you don't even notice it as a separate instrument, maybe you don't even know what a muted trumpet is. It's just part of that great sexy Sinatra sound that's better than any pop vocal arrangement you've heard before. Yet Edison's mute is unique, and indispensable - as Sinatra and Riddle well understood.
And so on at least one occasion did the LAPD. Edison was pulled over for running a stop light and told the police he was on his way to a Sinatra session.
"Yeah, sure," said the coppers. So he brought them along to Capitol, where Frank and Nelson were waiting with the band. And Edison arrives with the arresting officers:
He took a trip with a cop
And he thought about Frank...
"I had so much fun playing with Sinatra," recalled Sweets late in life. "It was a compliment to me for him to request me all the time." But, unlike many of his fellow singers, Frank understood very quickly in those early Riddle years that he was a better musician and a bigger star because of the talent surrounding him - Bill Miller's piano, George Roberts' bass trombone, Felix Slatkin's violin ...and Sweets Edison's trumpet mute.
In any other singer's career "I Thought About You" would have been a stand-out track. But in Sinatra's stellar catalogue it somehow fell by the wayside and never became one of those songs that he took on the road with him night after night. The last time I saw Frank in concert he had Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé as his opening act, and, just before the wrap-up, all three of them would do an epic Sinatra medley of a couple of dozen songs in which this number briefly surfaced as a gag for Steve:
I turned a trick on a train
And I Thought About You...
And Frank would correct him: "Trip! Trip!" And I regret that that one word is as close as I ever came to hearing Sinatra sing "I Thought About You" live.
Actually, there is a very neat train trick in the song - Mercer's use of "k" sounds:
I peeped through the crack
And looked at the track
The one going back
That "crack"/"track"/"back" is very onomatopoeic: it's the sound a train makes crossing the tracks. Did Mercer write it that way consciously? Or because he was on a train when he was scribbling it down? Or was he just such a good lyricist that by that point such sensitivity to subject matter was instinctive to him? Who knows? I do notice, though, that a lot of singers and arrangers seem to be unaware of those cracking consonants and glide across them very legato. But not Riddle and Sinatra. With his new arranger, Frank learned to bounce those consonants off the band:
I peeped through the crackkk
And looked at that trackkk
The one going back to you
And what did I do?.
It's a rhetorical question, but Frank pauses and lets the band ponder it for a moment. A few months back, the Pundette picked this song as her Number 75 Sinatra hit, and I was tickled by this comment:
When I started listening to Sinatra about ten years ago most of the music was new to me, and all of it was new to my children. It was playing more or less non-stop in the kitchen and they responded by making wisecracks about the lyrics. After Frank asks, 'And what did I do?' they said things like, 'I'm sure he's going to tell us,' or 'Probably the same thing he did the first fifty times we heard this.' Ah, well. Youth is wasted on the the young and all that.
The cynical Pundettettes are only able to do that because of that big dramatic gap Sinatra and Riddle leave after the question, which accomplishes the neat trick of putting enough distance between "the one going back to you" and "I thought about you" that you no longer notice Mercer's "flawed" lack of rhyme. And after the final title line the band wraps things up with a tag that surely reminded Edison of his days with the Basie band.
At which point you realize that Frank et al have done something rather remarkable: A song that starts out as a dreamy laconic ballad has wound up a swingin' blast. This was something Sinatra and Riddle seemed to grasp in a way that few others at the time did - that, like a Streamliner headed to Chicago, a recording of a song has to go somewhere. And, with Harry "Sweets" Edison on board, this track is a most satisfying journey.
In our next Sinatra song, we'll explore what Sweets brought to Frank's ballads.
~There's more about Jimmy Van Heusen and Sinatra as told by Van Heusen's lyricist in our Sammy Cahn centenary podcast. You can read the stories behind more Sinatra songs in Mark Steyn's American Songbook, and Steyn's original 1998 obituary of Frank, "The Voice", can be found in the anthology Mark Steyn From Head To Toe. Personally autographed copies of both books are exclusively available from the SteynOnline bookstore.
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette is also counting down her Frank hit parade, and is up to Number 22, "Night And Day". But which version - ballad, swinger, sextet or disco? The Evil Blogger Lady celebrates one of the loveliest moments from young Frank's years with the Tommy Dorsey orchestra - "Trade Winds". Meanwhile, Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints has more Sinatra and Riddle as he works his way through Frank's Top Ten Albums.
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
52) YOUNG AT HEART
57) THE TENDER TRAP
60) EBB TIDE
61) COME FLY WITH ME
62) ANGEL EYES
63) JUST IN TIME
65) NICE 'N' EASY
66) OL' MACDONALD
68) AUTUMN LEAVES