“It was the deep, deep blueness of Frank’s voice that affected me the most, and while his music became synonymous with black tie, the good life, the best booze, women, sophistication, his blues voice was always the sound of hard luck, and men late at night with the last ten dollars in their pockets, trying to figure a way out.” -Bruce Springsteen
“Throughout my career, if I have done anything, I have paid attention to every note and every word I sing – if I respect the song. If I cannot project this to a listener, I fail.” –Frank Sinatra
The very first album I ever wrote about was a Frank Sinatra album, so it was only appropriate that the first time I revisited an artist on the Musical Training Plan, it was Ole Blue Eyes. Sinatra was a true artist, but he was also outrageously handsome, immensely charismatic, and a shockingly good actor. Undoubtedly, when one thinks of Frank Sinatra they see a man in a black suit and tie commanding a room and a band with nothing but his voice. But the man had quite an acting career as well. On IMDB, Sinatra has a whopping 68 acting credits, yes, seriously, that many. While some of those performances were probably nothing to write home about, Sinatra really could act and over the course of his career he earned 2 Oscars to prove it. Best known for his performances in serious films including The Manchurian Candidate and From Here to Eternity (for which he won best supporting actor), the Voice himself also had his fun doing movies that he himself would produce, most notably Ocean’s 11. And, frankly (pun intended), who could possibly make more sense as a big movie star than one of the most larger than life pop culture figures of the 20th century?
Yes, by the mid 50’s Sinatra had rebounded from a career slump and was once again a figure in the world of entertainment of herculean proportions. His transition from young heartthrob adored by teenage girls to mature, respected, full grown man is one that few have ever pulled off and he somehow became an even more titanic figure in the 2nd phase of his career. All of this is important to remember when considering today’s addition to the Musical Training Plan, quite possibly Sinatra’s greatest album, the definitive pioneering work responsible for the album as we now know it, and unquestionably one of the finest albums ever recorded: In the Wee Small Hours.
Released in 1955 as Sinatra’s 3rd album with Capitol records and Nelson Riddle, In the Wee Small Hours is one of, if not the, first concept album. To this day it may be the quintessential breakup album, a somber, slow, honest album set after midnight but before the sun rises; a time for loneliness, regret, booze, cigars, and reflection on days long past. Sinatra has been described as the “Poet laureate of loneliness”, but never had he been so melancholic as he is on In the Wee Small Hours, and the result is striking even 66 years later. Frank Sinatra was a pop star, a towering figure who made chart topping hits and box office successes while going out with beautiful women and traveling the world, but on this album he lays himself bare and is shockingly human. The emotions Frank sings of and with on this album are emotions that every adult knows well: sadness, longing, regret, loneliness, and while recording Sinatra was brought to his knees by all of these. The incident that has been cited over the years as inciting Frank’s emotional state that drove him to make In the Wee Small Hours was his failing relationship with his 2nd wife, Ava Gardner. Though they wouldn’t officially divorce until 1957, Gardner filed for divorce in 1954, and both of them knew it was over. Their relationship, filled with extramarital affairs from both parties among a slew of other problems was never one built to last, but Sinatra had never been so enraptured with a woman and, fittingly, had never been the one who was being left. The loss of Ava leveled the man, but when I listen to this album I can’t help but also think of Nancy, Sinatra’s first wife, the mother of his children, the woman he’d met and fallen in love with as a teenager, long before his stardom. Sinatra’s affairs and infatuation with Gardner were ultimately what drove him to leave poor Nancy, and as he sat alone in the wee small hours of the morning in the wake of Gardner leaving him surely he felt regret, or more accurately, remorse for what he did to Nancy.
Regardless of whatever the true, full extent of Sinatra’s motivations for this album were, he was able to harness it all into truly incredible music. Sinatra’s incredible voice is totally vulnerable, disarmingly beautiful, human and honest and Nelson Riddle’s instrumental accompaniments fit like a glove. While only 1 song on this album was actually new, and none were written by Sinatra, Frank was definitely in control of this album as a whole. Every song was handpicked by Frank himself, every accompaniment written to his specifications, the song order, the packaging, hell even the size record it was printed on were chosen by Sinatra himself so that his album could be as perfect as he wanted it to be. Certain songs were reworked considerably, most notably “I Get Along Without You Very Well”, which had been a big hit as an upbeat swing song. Sinatra took that song and slowed it down, and by controlling his voice and altering the instrumental he made the words take on an entirely new meaning. As the album progresses, so does the hurt and desperation in Sinatra’s voice, perfectly mirroring the pain in a failing relationship. We picture Frank in his home getting more and more drunk and suffering more and more in his solitude as the night drags on, and what a sobering image that is. Sinatra’s emotions come through so clearly on each and every track and some accounts claim that after finishing the recording on “When Your Lover has Gone”, Frank broke down and started sobbing in the studio. Yes, the emotional sincerity and relatability certainly elevate this album to greatness, but it would all be for nothing without good music.
As mentioned earlier, Nelson Riddle’s orchestral accompaniments fit each track like a glove, and as much as that helps, this is most definitely a Frank Sinatra album. Most of us are used to hearing Frank’s voice being loud, proud, confident, and powerful, but such moments are virtually nonexistent on In the Wee Small Hours. The power in Sinatra’s vocals on this record come from the subtleties, it’s softness, the sense that behind each word Frank is fighting back tears, and wow is it an enrapturing experience for it. You can’t be happy listening to this album, but that doesn’t mean that it’s bad. Even if you aren’t sad coming into it, Frank sucks you in and not so much makes you sad, but makes you think. When listening to this album I often find myself drifting in thought about my own life, my own experiences (few as they may be) with romance and loss, and overcome with sympathy. I connect to Sinatra from beyond the grave, his suffering doesn’t become mine but I feel for him all the same. Sinatra was a man who wouldn’t sing what he didn’t believe, a man who’s music became an extension of his experience, and because he suffered we believe his suffering. There have been many artists and albums since 1955 who’ve put their pain to song, but few have done it so well for an album, done it in such shocking fashion, or done it so effectively as Frank Sinatra.
If you’re participating in the Musical Training Plan this month, I can’t guarantee that you will enjoy this album, in fact I’ll bet that almost none of us will really have fun listening to it, but good Lord is it a worthwhile experience. God bless Frank Sinatra, bless you for reading this blog, and please help us to appreciate great works of art like this one more often.