A Voice on Air: Frank Sinatra and the Golden Age of Radio
Nobody “owned” radio like the Voice, and in the decades since, no other star has come close to dominating the medium like Sinatra, as the newly released boxset A Voice on Air demonstrates
The ‘Golden Age’ of Radio; the expression calls to mind President Roosevelt addressing the American public during his “fireside chats", Orson Welles and “The War of the Worlds", Bing Crosby and the birth of the croon. But among all of these cultural titans of the World War II generation, no star shone brighter than Frank Sinatra. Nobody “owned” radio like the Voice, and in the decades since, no other star has come close to dominating the medium like Sinatra.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of New Jersey’s most famous son, and to commemorate the occasion Turner Classic Movies has been broadcasting old Sinatra TV specials from the 1960’s; clips from some of these specials were also featured in the recent Sinatra HBO documentary All Or Nothing at All. Watching these performances today, it's clear that Frank Sinatra simply was not built for television; his electric personality crackles, and occasionally fizzles off the screen, too “hot” for the cool medium of television. Television was better suited to a singer like Dean Martin, whose rugged good looks and meticulously-nonchalant stage presence could compensate for a relatively limited instrument. Radio -- unburdened by visuals, a medium which demanded of its audience careful listening -- was built for The Voice.
The new four-CD compilation Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air, 1935-1955 offers 100 Sinatra radio performances spanning his first 20 years as a recording artist, from humble beginnings as a scrawny 20-year-old with his singing group the Hoboken Four, to his rebirth as an Academy Award winner and king of swing in the '50s. The progression documented by A Voice on Air is remarkable; we can hear, with each passing year, Sinatra becoming stronger, more self-assured, and more skillful as both a radio personality and as an interpreter of popular song, keenly aware of all of the possibilities, and limitations, of the new medium. A Voice on Air is the sound of a man who sings as if he was born in a radio.
If you’re a serious Frank Sinatra fan, you could make an easy argument that Charles L. Granata has the best job on the planet. The American historian, author, part-time radio producer, and full-time archivist has been working on Sinatra-related projects for the majority of his professional life. Currently, Granata edits and produces Nancy Sinatra’s Siriusly Sinatra radio show on Sirius XM, and most recently, was one of the compilers and producers behind A Voice on Air.
I caught up with Granata via phone to talk about Sinatra, the race to preserve his recorded legacy, and what it’s like to live a life devoted to his music.
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Listening to A Voice on Air, I was impressed by how good these recordings actually sound. I mean, they’re all at least 60, 70 years old…
We were really lucky, and I can’t take all the credit, that’s for sure. I know sound, and I certainly directed the sonic tone that this package took on, but the credit for that really goes to my engineer, and our co-producer, Andreas Meyer. He’s amazing, a three-time Grammy winner, and just very sensitive to what we were trying to achieve.
It’s pretty amazing that [these recordings have] survived in the condition they’re in. You know, we’re starting to see that the original disc material is starting to deteriorate, and I think we’re starting to see the end of lacquer discs’ useful life span, unfortunately.
Every medium has its useful lifespan, and unfortunately I think we’re starting to see lacquer discs are reaching the end of [theirs]. They’re literally self-destructing, in a way. So it’s really important to get to these historical artefacts as soon as we can, and transfer them to some other medium so we at least have a preservation copy.
I think, in general, there’s this eye on preservation, especially at Sony Legacy recordings, where we have some of the greatest music in history residing in our vaults. They’ve made [a] really focused effort and commitment to transferring and preserving everything on a hard drive, on digital systems, so we have transfers.
But everything, as you know, comes down to “what is the priority?”
Because when you look at Michael Feinstein’s personal collection, which is now the core archive for the Great American Songbook Foundation, you’re talking about tens of thousands of disc recordings, from film studios and radio stations and private recordings that famous songwriters from the '30s, '40s, '50s made. You can’t do it all. So it really becomes a priority basis kind of thing.
What was the process like for deciding [which recordings] would go on A Voice on Air? What were the criteria?
I approached this project with specific criteria, but it’s interesting. Someone asked me that question this morning, someone who’s working with another artist’s catalogue and is trying to put together a two-CD collection of '60s songs from the radio, and she said “How did you arrive at this?” And there is a method to my madness.
Now, of course, the first criteria that I had is “What do I have that really sounds great?” Sonically. Because some of this material has circulated before, but in awful sound [quality].
Having access and having developed contacts with so many people who worked in the [music] industry in the '40s -- radio engineers, recording engineers that were doubling as CBS radio engineers at nights, and working at Columbia Records during the day -- having access to their collections and the things that they put together. In some cases they recorded a rehearsal on a disc, to test the balance, and instead of throwing [the disc] out they took it home, and put it on a shelf. And it stayed there for 60 years.
My first criteria was “what do I have that’s in really great sound [quality]?” Good enough that I can remaster and people will say “wow, that really sounds wonderful". That was my overarching criteria.
Once I listed all the material I had access to, I rated it in terms of sonics, from “A” to “D". Then I started looking at all the “A” and “B” material, and I started to really hone in and say “OK, on these discs and on these transfers that I have that are in very good sound, what songs did Sinatra sing on the radio but never record [for an album or single]?” And, if he did record them, what songs have completely different arrangements?
So, for instance, [Sinatra] recorded “All or Nothing at All” [for release on an album or single] several times during his career, most notably with Harry James and a jazz band in 1939. But in 1943, he performed it on the radio with an orchestra, with a Raymond Scott arrangement. So, it was a completely different sound behind him.
By and large, I really focused on unrecorded, unperformed Sinatra songs, and unrecorded arrangements that were all in good sound. My next step was to really hone in on a theme.
It really went from a six-CD concept, down to a four-CD, which, believe it or not, I think strengthens it. Because we were then offered some material from the 1953-55 period which would have otherwise fallen outside of our purview, or domain. And that really changed the whole idea, because now, with the inclusion of those three years, I was able to neatly offer a perfect capsule view of Sinatra’s first 20 years [as a recording artist] and do it in a way where you can really hear how he grew along with radio, and how he was omnipresent on radio in those years.
He was all over the place on radio, I think more than any artist of all time…
[A Voice on Air represents] the first real concentrated period when he was becoming an icon. He hadn’t yet gotten there. He certainly was one of the world’s biggest entertainers, in the ’40s -- the first teen idol, the first “American Idol", if you want to say.
But you can hear the progression as he starts out in 1935, singing with [Sinatra’s first singing group] the Hoboken Four, just as a 20-year-old kid. And then, 20 years later, with his very last radio series "To Be Perfectly Frank", he ends up as this cool, sophisticated swinger who has been to the top, slid down to the bottom, and has now resurrected himself and reinvented himself as a whole new performer and artist…
What did you learn through this process of compiling A Voice on Air? As a man who has studied Sinatra for so long, is there anything that surprised you?
In listening very closely, as I have, to these performances while I was transferring them in the studio, and then while I was listening to them to make decisions about where to edit intros, and things, and listening to the remastering through headphones, and through speakers, and in the car, and on the computer, and on my home stereo system. What I noticed in the early '40s is that for as strong an instrument that Frank Sinatra had vocally -- and he did have a very strong instrument -- there was still a fragility to his voice.
There are moments when, in 1942 and ’43, when he brings his vocal line down as thin as a butter knife, and it cracks just a little bit. And I looked at Andreas Meyer, our engineer, and I said “Wow. I never noticed that.” Because a lot of times when you hear Frank out in front of the band, even if he were to crack a little… you don’t notice it because there are other things going on. But I think that’s part of the tenderness and vulnerability of his voice at that moment, in the early '40s. He had this incredibly pure sound. And when you really hone in, and you listen to it, it was fragile. It was tender. It wasn’t just that he was trying to convey that vocally, he truly had that vocal tenderness and vulnerability. So that was a surprise to me.
The other thing that I really was struck by -- which I knew, but this really drove it home -- [was that] Frank always predicated his artistry on the quality of a song, specifically the lyrics. But I also noticed that even when he was singing some of the lesser songs -- songs that were not exactly “I’ll Be Seeing You,” or “These Foolish Things” -- he was still having fun with it. He could still sing those songs with the same verve, and the same “truth” that he sang the other songs [with].
And I thought that that was cool because… on radio Frank was so comfortable and natural, and he had his self-deprecating way of singing some those songs that were lesser songs, so to speak.
But he remained a professional.
Absolutely. But, you know there were [other] singers that would sing it professionally. But I think Frank was self-deprecating enough that even if he knew it was not a great song, he sang it, and made his plot. He might crack a joke about it and give you a wink and a nod, and then he’d launch into it.
When I read about music historians such as yourself, and archivists, I always wonder: you spend so much time and energy researching, and writing about [a single artist], do you ever have to take time now and then to completely get away from [the music]?
Do you ever set out to go on a “Sinatra-free” week or month so you can come back to the music refreshed? Do you ever tire of it, I guess is what I’m asking.
To preface this, you have to think about what I do on a weekly basis, and I’ve been doing this for eight years. I produce and mix and sometimes co-host with Nancy Sinatra, her weekly radio show at Sirius XM. It’s a three-hour show that we do once a week, and in that three hours we play an average of between 55 and 60 songs. I think we’ve done 320 shows altogether, over those eight years.
I’m listening to Sinatra music constantly, because of the show. At the same time, I’m listening for pleasure, which I still do -- listen to CDs in the car, and sometimes at home. And then on top of that, especially the last two and a half years, I’m listening very critically to all of this radio material. I can honestly say I have never, ever felt like I was on “Sinatra-overload", ever.
And I think that this is a wonderful thing about a Frank Sinatra, a Bing Crosby, an Ella Fitzgerald. Their width and breadth of styles, and the range of years that they spent performing, is so great that when you look at Frank Sinatra, there’s four very distinct Sinatras. It’s almost like there’s a Sinatra for all seasons. When you’ve had enough of listening to that crooner from the ’40’s, you turn to the swinger from the ’50’s. And then you say “OK, I’ve listened to enough of that, let me listen to Sinatra and [Antônio Carlos] Jobim.” Completely different. And then I might say, “I want to relive going to see Sinatra in 1981,” and you listen to a live concert from ’81.
And each of these eras that he worked in -- in each of these different artists that he created for each of these eras -- leaves you with such a wide variety of music, and so many genres and styles, that you can never get tired of it. And there’s also that underlying theme of quality. It’s quality songs, it’s quality orchestration and musicianship, and it’s quality vocal performance.
I still listen to this music that I’ve been listening to for 30 and 40 years, and I still hear nuances, and things I didn’t hear before.