According to Quincy Jones, in an interview with Rolling Stone, it happened this way:
I was living in France and one day they said, 'Grace Kelly's office called, and Mr Sinatra wants you to bring a 55-piece orchestra down to Monte Carlo for a benefit.'
So he did, and at the end of the show Frank said, "Great job, kid. Koo-koo!" And that was it for four years until one day the phone rang again:
Hey, Q, this is Francis, I'm in Hawaii directing a film called None But The Brave. I heard the record you did last year with Basie. That's the way I like to do it too. Would you consider doing an album with Basie and me?
Q rather thought he would be prepared to consider the possibility:
I said hell to the yeah, went over to Hawaii, and I didn't leave Frank until he left earth.
And when Frank "left earth" he bade farewell with one of Quincy Jones' two most famous Sinatra arrangements for that Basie album:
The Best Is Yet To Come and babe, won't it be fine?
You think you've seen the sun but you ain't seen it shine...
The song is by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, written in 1959. Many years later, as a callow youth trying to pass himself off as a man about Broadway, I asked Cy about how "The Best Is Yet To Come" came to be:
I wondered how you worked together - because 'The Best Is Yet To Come', for example, is not an immediately vocal line, I don't think. I may be wrong. And yet she managed to write a lyric that sort of sat on it perfectly. Did you write those sort of things very spontaneously at the time or were they things that took a lot of labor?
And Coleman replied:
Well, first let me say one thing - that you are wrong, obviously.
And then he gave his marvelously infectious sneezy-wheezy a-hur-hur-hur Cy Coleman laugh that I miss to this day. He continued:
And I only say that because so was I. I used to complain bitterly about Carolyn and the fact that she'd want to put everything that I wrote to a lyric. I used to say if I played an arpeggio at the piano, you know, I'd have to hide it because she'd put a lyric to it. And 'The Best Is Yet To Come' was a little instrumental I had written for myself and a little jazz group and it's constructed so that the melody keeps repeating, and I had worked out an entire thing where you have echoes back and forth at a very furious tempo.
In other words, it's not a song, it's an instrumental. And that's how Coleman wanted it. He was never just a songwriter: he was a composer and pianist and he had a little jazz trio that played in clubs and wanted something to kick around that wasn't just a Tony Bennett love ballad with the words shaved off. The problem was that Carolyn Leigh liked to slip into the club and listen to what they were playing, just in case it was something she hadn't heard before. "She'd be sitting in a booth, right next to the trio," Coleman's trio Ray Mosca remembered. "And she'd always be taking notes, I guess of tunes we were playing." And on one such night she heard the Coleman trio's fun little instrumental ...and started scribbling.
The next day she buttonholed Cy and said, "I can put a lyric to that."
"Here we go again," sighed Coleman. "There goes my instrumental." And she took it away with her, slowed it down, and eventually returned with a marvelously distinctive opening line:
Out of the tree of life I just picked me a plum
You came along and everything's startin' to hum
Still, it's a real good bet The Best Is Yet To Come...
"She came up with this wonderful lyric," Coleman said, "and of course I was worried about these intervals that people had to sing."
They decided to take it to Sinatra, because they both had form with him. Two years earlier, Coleman & Leigh had given him "Witchcraft" and previously, with other collaborators, had provided him with "Why Try To Change Me Now?", "Young At Heart" and "How Little We Know". So he listened to the song:
Wait till the warm-up's underway
Wait till our lips have met
Wait till you see that sunshine day
You ain't seen nothin' yet
The Best Is Yet To Come and babe, won't it be fine?
The Best Is Yet To Come, come the day you're mine...
The problem for Frank was that the warm-up never quite warmed up enough. He told them there wasn't enough of the song, that they needed to go away and write some more of it. So they did. Coleman and Leigh came up with an extension that seemed to flow well:
Come the day you're mine
I'm gonna teach you to fly
We've only tasted the wine
We're gonna drain the cup dry...
And they finished the song and celebrated by draining the cup dry. And at that point Cy noticed he'd modulated from A flat into A and stayed there. And he told me that he was consumed with panic about how they would even print the song on the sheet music - I mean, what key would they use? And then he thought, "Aw, to hell with it. That's not my problem."
And besides, Sinatra liked the modulation.
So they gave him the song.
And nothing happened.
And a couple of years go by and Tony Bennett asks them for a hit - a big hit, something like "Witchcraft" was for Frank. And they look at each other and instantly know the song they want to give him, but they need to check with Sinatra first. So they do and he gives them their blessing.
Bennett let "Best Is Yet To Come" fall into the hands of a hack arranger who dropped off the chart at the studio an hour before the session. Luckily, Cy Coleman himself happened to be there, looked through the arrangement, and knocked it into shape for Bennett. He's never really stopped singing the song - I think his most recent recording was a semi-Spanish version on his Latino-outreach album Viva Duets - and so people tend to think that he was the one who gave it its first big platform. But, to be fair, I think that credit belongs to Hugh Hefner.
Hefner had heard Coleman playing in some jazz joint in Chicago, where Playboy was then based, and he asked Cy if he'd be interested in writing a theme tune for a TV show he was planning, called "Playboy's Penthouse". I know that sounds a bit like Penthouse launching a show called "Penthouse's Playboy", but in fact this was before there was any such Penthouse to rival Playboy. The idea was that the show came from Hef's bachelor pad - in reality, a lavish penthouse-like set - in which exponents of "the Playboy lifestyle" discoursed on jazz and politics and sex while various bunnies and playmates hung on their arms and every word. So Coleman was signed up, and on the very first broadcast - October 24th 1959 - he sat at the ol' joanna and introduced the TV audience, instrumentally, to "The Best Is Yet To Come" while Hef wandered around with his pipe and whichever playmate was cuddled up on the piano bench next to Cy cooed appreciatively and fluttered her eyelids.
And so it wasn't until 1964 that Frank Sinatra got around to singing the song Coleman and Leigh had re-written for him. It was for his second album with Count Basie. The first, in 1962, arranged by Neal Hefti, is one of the very greatest albums of Sinatra's, Basie's or anybody else's career. If the second, It Might As Well Be Swing, isn't quite in that league, it's because (for the first but unfortunately not the last time) it was just a bunch of recent songs that had proved successful for other people - "The Good Life", "Wives And Lovers", "Hello, Dolly!"... The cover was cute, with headshots of Sinatra and Basie helpfully labeled "Frank" and "Splank", as the famously economical pianist was known to his band. The title was droll, too - a play on Rodgers & Hammerstein's "It Might As Well Be Spring". It Might As Well Be Swing means "We don't need Cole Porter or Harold Arlen. We can take ten random slices of MOR chart-filler and make these muthas jump."
Oddly, the two songs that stayed with Frank beyond the LP were the two oldest, and the ones that had been the longest gestating, as it were. They were also the two that Quincy Jones succeeded in re-conceiving for the Sinatra style, as opposed to too many of the others, which never got much beyond Frank swinging some other guy's hit. The Sinatra/Basie "Fly Me To The Moon" transformed the song, as we've discussed. With "The Best Is Yet To Come", it wasn't that Frank did anything that hadn't occurred to Tony Bennett; it's just that he did it more so. He bit into the song, liked the taste, and over the next 30 years never tired of it.
I've lost count of the times and places I saw him sing it. He would usually credit Cy Coleman & Carolyn Leigh and/or Quincy Jones and Count Basie, but what I mostly remember about his performances was the sheer joy in his face and sparkle in his eyes. He loved this song, and the deeper into it he got the more fun he had:
Wait till your charms are right for these arms to surround
You think you've flown before but you ain't left the ground
Wait till you're locked in my embrace
Wait till I draw you near
Wait till you see that sunshine place
Ain't nothin' like it here!
In October 1993, almost three decades after that session with Basie and Q, he recorded it again for the second CD of his celebrity Duets project. For this one, some fellow called Jon Secada is shoehorned into the track. Frank's flying as before, but Secada never leaves the ground.
The best was not to come for Carolyn Leigh. Cy Coleman loved her lyrics, especially for this song, from that opening plum-picking. He never thought singers would take to it because of all those intervals, but, as he told me all those years ago, "it seems if you present the challenge to people they rise to it." Miss Leigh was a fastidious lyricist. "Carolyn, like any really good writer, had a need to write. And she had a need to write excellently. Didn't make any difference whether it was for a pop song, a commercial for toothpaste, or a letter. Carolyn was a demanding artist and, as a result of that, she put everything she had into a lyric."
Everything else about their partnership was a pain in the neck, and eventually it bust them apart. But the songs survived. "I think they were written with purpose, and I think it was recognizable that they had style," Cy told me not long after her death. "They were songs that had a distinctive flavor to them. The combination of Carolyn and myself produced something that was a little different. It's not nice of me, I suppose, to give my own review on it, but I mean it's so many years ago, I suppose I can now."
By then, wherever you chanced to see Frank perform, you could almost rely on this one being on the set list. Mikal Gilmore, reviewing Sinatra for Rolling Stone in 1980, captures the general vibe. Sinatra opens with "I've Got The World On A String", and Gilmore is impressed:
It seemed like a fairly virile statement for a hoary pop singer, but in the next song, Cy Coleman's 'The Best Is Yet To Come', Sinatra went one better. Escorted by a walking blues piano line he entered the tune playfully, toying with syllables and phrases like a spry, sportive house cat pawing at a ball. Then, with a squall of horns swelling behind him, he suddenly tensed his voice into a stealthy instrument and pounced on the middle verse with an awesome iambic roar:
'The best is yet to come, and babe, won't that be fine
You think you seen the seen, but you ain't seen it shine...'
And so it went, night after night, year after year. On February 25th 1995 Sinatra appeared at the Marriott Desert Springs Resort in Palm Springs for his own celebrity golf tournament, and to a crowd of 1,200 people gave his final concert. It wasn't announced as such, only a few people knew, but I've heard from a couple of folks who were there that there was a palpable crackle in the air. The crowd seemed to discern that this night would be in some way significant. Willie Nelson was the opening act, and he was fine, but people seemed distracted. And then Sinatra entered, a man in his 80th year, singing songs he'd sung on a thousand other nights. There were just half-a-dozen on this occasion: "I've Got The World On A String", "You Make Me Feel So Young", "Fly Me To The Moon", "Where Or When", "My Kind Of Town"...
He made a few jokes about Frank Jr, his conductor, not wanting to go to the bar, and then Bill Miller, his longtime pianist, began the unmistakeable four-bar piano intro to Cy Coleman's tune, extended to eight on this occasion, because the old man didn't seem to be in any hurry to start singing. The band took it at a slightly slower tempo than usual, but Sinatra's ravaged voice was full of attack, full of energy, his arms stabbing the air. And then we were there, the final assurance:
The Best Is Yet To Come and it's gonna be fine...
And just to underline the point he added a low, growled "Yeeaaahhhh..."
Best is yet to come, come the day that you're mine...
Come that day when you're mine...
And I'm gonna make you mine.
The applause began. "Thank you very much," said Frank Sinatra. And that was it: The best was over. A 60-year performing career had come to an end. Backstage, someone mentioned a number he'd never got around to singing in those six decades, and a trace of regret seemed to cross his face. "We got to a lot," Bill Miller told him. "A lot of good songs."
Three years later, he was dead. Frank Sinatra sang all the great standards but it was Coleman & Leigh's he took with him into eternity. His gravestone bears the words: "The Best Is Yet To Come".
"Wouldn't it be nice," said Cy Coleman, "if it's true?"
~Mark's appreciation of Cy Coleman is included in his acclaimed collection of obituaries Mark Steyn's Passing Parade - which is also available in expanded eBook version. 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.
~For an alternative Sinatra Hot 100, the Pundette is also counting down her Frank hit parade, and is up to Number 21, Lew Spence and Alan and Marilyn Bergman's "Nice 'n' Easy". Meanwhile, Bob Belvedere over at The Camp Of The Saints is counting down Sinatra's Top Ten Albums and at Number Eight has Frank and Sy Oliver saluting Tommy Dorsey. And the Evil Blogger Lady explores Sinatra and Christopher Columbus: the Genoa connection.
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