In 1963 Frank Sinatra told Playboy magazine that “if you don't know the guy on the other side of the world, love him anyway because he's just like you. He has the same dreams, the same hopes and fears. It’s one world, pal. We're all neighbours."
Perhaps he was thinking of his trip to London the year before, where over three consecutive nights in June, he recorded Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain, the only studio album Sinatra would ever make outside of the US. That album is reproduced here in this three-CD/one-DVD box set, with 50 previously unreleased recordings, including session material (outtakes) from the album, the spoken-word introductions by Sinatra to a 1962 BBC "light programme” radio special, a 1953 live session for BBC Radio's “The Show Band Show”, and a 1984 concert from the Royal Albert Hall. There’s also a DVD with a previously unreleased 1962 concert from Royal Festival Hall and a 1970 concert appearance. As an overall concept, the box can be seen as a companion to the Las Vegas and New York boxed sets released a few years ago.
In terms of Sinatra’s discography (and Sinatra released a mind-boggling amount of records during his career), Sinatra Sings Great Songs From Great Britain came after All Alone and before Sinatra-Basie: An Historic First, but all three records were released in the same year, 1963. As further context, the year before Sinatra starred in political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. For the recording of the album in London, Sinatra was “in between” wives; he was divorced from Ava Gardner, wife number two, in 1957 and married Mia Farrow in 1966, so Sinatra was something like single, if not on the prowl. What he made of British women is not documented here.
Disc one has the re-mastered Great Britain album with one bonus track, “Roses of Picardy” and the BBC Light Programme introductions. If you haven’t heard the album before, this one is very much string-based romance as opposed to brassy swing. The songs are themed with an emphasis on London (“A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”, “London By Night”) or associated with good old Blighty (“We'll Meet Again”) or with the loose idea of being overseas (“Now Is the Hour”, “The Gypsy”). Otherwise the remaining songs tend to be classic love songs. “The Very Thought of You” is extraordinary lush and demonstrates Sinatra was the master when it came to legato; at times his voice soars to unimaginable levels of smooth beauty, and generally speaking it is not a misstatement to say that he is probably the greatest ever singer any of us will ever hear in our lifetimes. “We'll Gather Lilacs” as a song is now a little old-fashioned, but it's still excellently sung, with a rasp from too many cigarettes. Despite his tobacco addiction, Sinatra shows an extreme level of breath control and interpretation. “If I Had You” and “I'll Follow My Secret Heart” are ballads expertly sung and show the timelessness of Sinatra’s voice. The bonus track “Roses of Picardy” is dramatic to say the least, a reminder that Sinatra was a master at interpretation.
Sinatra’s spoken word introductions which follow the album are interesting and set the context of the album; he comments that he could not resist the concept of British songs written by British artists. It becomes clear that Sinatra was not just “the voice”; he also knew a lot about the origins of the music, and knew more than you would imagine about the UK. Rival Bing Crosby is referenced on multiple occasions in some good humour.
Disc two will certainly intrigue Sinatra fans; the first six tracks evidence Sinatra working up material for the Great Britain album in CTS Studios. This means there are multiple takes of songs, but it gives us an idea of Sinatra’s strong work ethic and perfectionism. When he’s not happy with how things are developing, he drops out, and everything grinds to a halt. For the first take of “London By Night”, Sinatra coughs and splutters and the tape is stopped. For the recording of “The Gypsy”, things go awry because Sinatra says “he looked up and lost his place”. He then later gets a frog in his throat and has to stop again; it may have been Frank's world, with all of us just living in it, but from time to time old blue eyes could slip up.
Most of the performances however seem flawless, and you can only assume there were technical problems or minor issues with phrasing or orchestration to require further work. For “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” he halts a take mid-flow to focus on where to make a technical cut, but praises the trombone player for an excellent solo. After repeated attempts at “We'll Meet Again”, he tells the orchestra if the next one is not right, he'll be heading to a saloon. Sinatra's personality is revealed through the studio chatter as a demanding alpha male who would clap his hands to stop the orchestra if necessary, but certainly not a tyrant. In fact he comes across as quite personable, as one would hope for an icon of his stature and one whose reputation and career were founded in replicating human emotion through song. A word of warning however, although it's an interesting experience listening to these work tapes, the effect of repeat performances may render the listener a little cuckoo, to use some Sinatra terminology. It is, however, all in perfect sound quality.
The live radio session recorded for the BBC Show Band Show in 1953 is less perfect sound-wise, but there’s a great swing performance of “I've Got the World on a String”. The in-between radio patter is of its time, corny, but of historic value. Surprisingly Sinatra mentions a trip to the less than glamorous Glasgow, and talks of forthcoming trips to Manchester and Liverpool.
Disc three contains a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on 21 September 1984 and is essentially a run-through of Sinatra's greatest hits. At this stage of the game, Sinatra was in the second phase of his career, having retired from show business for a brief period. Working with Quincy Jones, he’d recently released the critically acclaimed L.A. Is My Lady, which is represented here. Sinatra is in good voice immediately as he steps out on stage, and seemed to need little public warm-up, kicking off with the breezy “Fly Me to the Moon” and “The Lady Is a Tramp”. “Luck Be a Lady” is sung with snappy verve, and the almost obligatory “My Way” is carefully rendered.
Sinatra at the Sands must still be the definitive live Sinatra album, but this recording is still a good representation of the era with Sinatra as a less youthful singer. The audience is surprisingly vocal for the Royal Albert Hall, and Sinatra has his hands full with a boisterous audience. He recognises the importance of the musicians around him in “Here's to the Band” -- without them, he says, he would have been selling, or stealing, tyres. “Don't Worry About Me” is a dramatic stand-out, full of weary self-pity. As the show peaks towards its conclusion, “New York, New York” and “Strangers in the Night” seem perhaps a little overblown, but this is perhaps the point; they could hardly have been left off the list, and he did what he had to do.
The box comes with a 60-page booklet by producer Ken Barnes, who attended the Great Songs From Great Britain recording sessions, original album liner notes, newly-written track annotations and details about Sinatra’s many visits to the UK. There are also two art print reproductions of original London concert posters. The DVD is not reviewed here, but all in all this one’s a no-brainer: if you like Sinatra, you’ll dig it, sooner or later, Frank.