You can probably guess what you’re getting with Frank Sinatra’s Concert Collection. Imagine a seven-disc, $80 box set of Frank Sinatra’s TV concerts from 1965 on, and what comes to mind? The shows drip with lavish quantities of glitz and hokum and tuxedos. Sinatra’s masterpieces for Capitol Records — “The Lady Is a Tramp”, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”, “I Get a Kick Out of You” — appear so often, you’ll find yourself fighting vainly the old ennui. The jokes are terrible, and the between-song patter is forced when it isn’t crass. Nearly every show is derailed by a ballad as boring as it is long; more than once that ballad is “The House I Live In”. (“A certain word: DEM-OC-RA-CY!”)
But then… in the middle of the previously unreleased Concert for the Americas (1982), Sinatra sits down with guitarist Tony Mottola to sing “Send in the Clowns” and 5,000 people hang on every note, apparently forgetting to breathe. During Sinatra and Friends (1977), also new to DVD, he shares a delightful “Oldest Established Floating Crap Game” with Dean Martin and baritone Robert Merrill. Elsewhere he does a thrilling “Pennies from Heaven” with Count Basie; his “Tramp” with Ella Fitzgerald swings magnificently.
In A Man and His Music (1965), the camera pulls in close for “Nancy”, an ode to his daughter, and you simply watch the master at work — seemingly without effort, Sinatra exhales each line perfectly and turns the underwritten song into a universal drama of affection tinged with regret. To reassure everyone she’s OK, Nancy herself pops up in the 1966 Man and His Music, prancing through “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” with her old man. Such are the vagaries of the showbiz heart.
Every Sinatra concert runs this gamut from sublime to ridiculous, though there’s more sublime stuff here than not. The most consistent program isn’t a concert at all; it’s a 2003 PBS compilation called Vintage Sinatra, a series of black and white clips from his ‘50s resurgence, on DVD for the first time. As in his TV specials, Sinatra sings straight to the camera, giving these clips the feel of early music videos. Wiggling, smoking, and smirking, he turns in a terifffffffffffically sexy “Kick Out of You”.
“One for My Baby” comes next, and Sinatra’s stark rendition — also with smoldering cigarette — reminds you that the guy was a recent Oscar-winner. Of course, if it’s garish Sinatra you crave, there’s no show more garish than Sinatra: The Main Event (1973). Sinatra plays Madison Square Garden from a boxing ring, Howard Cosell announces, and audience members dance to “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” while Walter Cronkite glares at them. Sinatra seems most at home in this setting; his jokes are still tasteless, but the hometown audience laps everything up and the singer has a ball. (“Especially THE PEOPLE — that’s America to me!”)
In Visions of Jazz, critic Gary Giddins writes, “[Sinatra’s] voice is transformed [in song], its extraordinary clarity and directness sharpened for expressive purpose, so that even the residual Hoboken inflections achieve eloquence.” These live performances demonstrate that transformation over and over, as the Jersey wiseguy monologues give way to singing that lays bare Sinatra’s soul, as though he’s shining a spotlight down a well. No other singer has so effectively split the difference between expressive artistry and unmannered clarity. When he sings with the operatic Merrill in Sinatra and Friends, Sinatra comes off as plainspoken, a regular joe without affect. When, during the same program, he duets with twangy John Denver, Sinatra might as well be Robert Merrill. His delivery hasn’t changed, but the contrast shows how he prized such classical virtues as vowel shaping, breath control, and subtly-deployed vibrato.
As he performs, Sinatra introduces each of his songs with the methodical pleasure of a child showing off his toys to company — he names not just the composers but the arrangers, delighting in his unequaled collection of Riddles, Costas, and Joneses. You can tell when he latches onto a song, because he tells you, and then it never escapes his grasp. “My Kind of Town” is the most performed song here, but “Come Rain or Come Shine” is his favorite, and George Harrison’s “Something” is “the greatest love song of the last 50 or 100 years”. (Too bad you can’t say the same for its Nelson Riddle arrangement.)
Amid these stalwarts, there are less-performed, unexpected pleasures: the Mangione-smooth “L.A. Is My Lady”, the underrated folk-philosophy-with-cigarette “Cycles”, the towering torch inferno “Angel Eyes”. When you see Sinatra create, you peer through a window into what makes songs — and art, and literature, and mature adult psyches — tick.