Frank Sinatra is America’s greatest bard of city life. He has sung signature tunes associated with three of the nation’s largest urban centers: “L.A. Is My Lady”, “My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)”, and of course, “New York, New York”. As a Jersey boy, it’s this last city with which he’s most associated. So it’s not surprising that the Chairman of the Board enjoyed performing in the Big Apple. He’s playing to a hometown crowd. What is shocking is that the 71 tracks on this new 4CD/1DVD set of Ol’ Blue Eyes singing in the Empire City have never been previously released.
Sinatra was a prolific performer with an audience hungry to own just about anything and everything with his name on it, and he wasn’t shy about cashing in. It’s hard to find a year between 1943 and his announced retirement in 1971 in which he didn’t have multiple releases. Even after that, he continued to release new albums with older material, as well as making a series of comebacks. Why this particular material was not previously issued is unclear. The material is uneven, but enough of it is first rate that one has to be grateful that this music has seen the light of day.
The first disc begins with the Chairman in grand voice performing three songs at the Manhattan Center in 1955 with Tommy Dorsey and his band. These songs were hits back in the early ‘40s, and Sinatra croons them as smoothly as he did in that decade. The irony lies in the fact of what had happened in popular music in the meantime. The year 1955 is associated with rock and roll, the time when Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” became the first song to reach number one on Billboard’s Pop, Rhythm & Blues, and Country & Western charts simultaneously. Even the young-sounding Sinatra comes off anachronistically as an adult. He’s singing to a mature audience.
The rest of the disc comes from a September 1963 show held at the United Nations’ Manhattan office to celebrate U.N. Staff Day, accompanied only by pianist Skitch Henderson. Sinatra is loose. He jokes about cigarettes causing cancer, the conflict in Vietnam, and his personal financial troubles in a lighthearted way. This pre-assassination-of-President-Kennedy, pre-Beatles era is considered a golden age of innocence for acts like Sinatra. He takes a page from the Great American Songbook and covers two songs by the Gershwin brothers, two by Richard Rodgers, and one each by Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter. Sinatra is truly masterful here, as he turns a love song like “My Heart Stood Still” into a dramatic three-act play with his careful phrasing, and has a ball with the sly wit of songs like “A Foggy Day”.
The next disc covers a performance more than 10 years later in April 1974 at Carnegie Hall, after Sinatra had retired. Unfortunately, his voice has audibly deteriorated. He still knows how to swing, but there’s a raggedness in his throat and a rough edge to his delivery. A comparison of “I Get a Kick Out of You” with the version he does on the first disc shows the Chairman is less than at his best. The material is also weaker. His attempts at being hip (Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown”, David Gates’s “If”) shows that just the opposite is true. There are a few good moments. A Sinatra disc is never without some merit, and when he’s energized on tracks like “That’s Life”, his joy is infectious.
The third disc, recorded just six months later at Madison Square Garden, finds Ol’ Blue Eyes in much better form. While it seems specious to keep putting Sinatra’s singing in the context of social and historical events, the man switched political allegiances during the early ‘70s and became a supporter of President Richard Nixon, who was forced to resign in August of 1974, a time about midway before these two performances. Perhaps Sinatra was stressed by national events during the April 1974 gig, the month Nixon first released the Watergate Tapes, and had relaxed with the rest of the country by October.
Whatever the reason, while the repertoire of the second 1974 show is similar to the first, Sinatra’s performance is much better. He delivers chestnuts like “I Got You Under My Skin” and “The Lady Is a Tramp” like he’s back in a Vegas nightclub in 1957. Even newer songs, like Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Life”, brim with vigor and verve.
The fourth disc is almost evenly divided between a 1984 show at Carnegie Hall and a 1990 gig at Radio City Music Hall. Somehow, Sinatra sounds better even though he’s a decade or more older at these concerts. While his vocals are lower in pitch, he still knows how to let his voice climb the register for effect. Plus, he’s able to hold the notes longer than before. He makes “Come Rain or Come Shine”, sung when he’s almost 70 years old, sound as fresh as if it were minted the day before. And the 75+ year-old Sinatra turns back the clock with “Summer Wind”. The emotional weather reports suggest the Chairman has found peace in old age. There’s a softness to the vocals that paradoxically reveals an inner strength.
You can already see this in the DVD, recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Sinatra’s truly in his element, smiling to the adoring crowd and belting out songs with a beautiful, supple voice. There isn’t a bad track. He even makes the schmaltzy “Send in the Clowns” both watchable and listenable, and turns “The Best Is Yet to Come” into a promise one can believe.
In addition to the music treasures, the box set comes with never-before-seen photographs and written tributes by quintessential New Yorkers Tony Bennett, Yogi Berra, Twyla Tharp, liner notes by jazz critic Nat Hentoff, and notes by his son and sometimes musical producer, Frank Sinatra, Jr. Also included are essays from more unusual contributors including movie director William Friedkin (who never directed Sinatra), owners of Patsy’s Italian Restaurant, Joe & Sal Scognamillo, and Madison Square Garden official photographer George Kalinsky, making this package one for both the Sinatra completist and a revelatory historical overview of the legend’s long career arc.