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The Chairman: Reprise Records’ Early Years

Reprise Records was Frank Sinatra's own label, and it turned the singer into a record executive.

sinatra-reprise

Photo: Record Cover

"The Concert Sinatra" from 1961 was one of Sinatra's ambitious projects for Reprise. These projects ended up bankrupting the company after a few years.

In 1960, Frank Sinatra went from being a mere pop star to a bonafide music mogul. That year, he formed the brand new record label Reprise Records, and became “The Chairman of The Board.” This hour on the show, we’ll explore the early years of Reprise Records and hear from the singers who called the label home, including Sinatra himself, his friends like Sammy Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin, as well as other singers like Keely Smith and Mavis Rivers.


The Chairman

The story of Reprise Records begins, strangely, with Norman Granz. Granz was the impresario in charge of Verve Records, of jazz’s most important labels in the 1950s, boasting a roster with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Oscar Peterson, and Stan Getz. Granz and Sinatra were no fans of one another: they were too similar and too controlling to ever get along.

Norman Granz was interested in selling Verve Records around 1960, and Frank Sinatra was interested in buying it. Sinatra was growing very frustrated with his current label Capitol Records. He was tired of answering to someone else, and wanted more control, more ownership, and more power.

He made a play for Verve, but Granz was not interested in ceding control over to Sinatra. Granz sold the label to MGM instead. But the seed was planted in Sinatra’s head. He wanted his own record label.

It was late in the year 1960, soon after Sinatra finished the presidential campaign for his friend John F. Kennedy, when he became the Chairman of the Board of Reprise Records… “Reprise” as in the musical term “to play, and play again.” There’s no truth to the old rumor that Sinatra pronounced “re-prize,” as in a “reprisal against Capitol Records.”

Ring-A-Ding-Ding

Sinatra was technically still under contract with Capitol when he founded Reprise. He tried to make a big splash with his first Reprise album, to compete with his current Capitol albums on the market. The first Reprise album was a hard swinging record called Ring-A-Ding-Ding. “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” was actually one those phrases that was part of Sinatra’s unique vocabulary. His friends Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn had a little fun turning this Sinatra-ism into a song. The arranger on this album was Johnny Mandel, a young arranger who Sinatra discovered in Vegas. Sinatra wasn’t able to land some of his regular arrangers like Nelson Riddle or Billy May for various contractual reasons, but they would make the leap to Reprise soon.

Sinatra continued to undermine Capitol Records of his that were on the market. Sinatra Swings, his second album for Reprise Records, came out two months after a very similar Sinatra album called Come Swing With Me. Both were arranged by Billy May, but Come Swing With Me was recorded for out of obligation for his old label, Capitol. Sinatra tried to give the Reprise record the purposefully similar title Swing Along With Me so people would confuse it with Come Swing With Me, but Capitol fought back.

The Rat Pack and Other Friends

The direction of Reprise in its early years was built on the tastes of Frank Sinatra. It became a repository for the work of his friends and other singers he enjoyed, as well as a few comedy records, but absolutely no rock and roll. Sinatra’s Vegas pals played a role in Reprise’s first few years, including Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, and Bing Crosby (once they could all be freed from their other contracts).

Two of Reprise Records biggest female singers from the early years were Keely Smith and Rosemary Clooney. Both singers were close with Sinatra (he and Smith worked together at Capitol), and he played a part in bringing them along to his new label. For Clooney, her first album for Reprise in 1963 was an album of ballads that she actually recorded years two years earlier for RCA. It was arranged by Nelson Riddle, but RCA never released the album. Desperate for material, Sinatra bought the recordings masters, and released it on Reprise under the title Love.

One of the biggest coups from the early years of Sinatra’s Reprise Records was the addition of bandleader Count Basie to its roster. Basie and his Orchestra made four studio recordings for Reprise in the early 1960s. Two of these recordings were duets with the chairman himself. The Sinatra-Basie sessions were touted by the label as a “Historical Musical First,” and they remain some of Sinatra’s most memorable, relaxing, and swinging recordings.

Other singers that worked on Reprise included jump blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon and the marvelous (but mostly forgotten) Samoan jazz singer Mavis Rivers. In 1960, Rivers was touted as the next big thing and compared to Ella Fitzgerald. One thinks that had she started her career a few years earlier, she would have been a much bigger star. But unfortunately, she became popular just as the idea of a “jazz singer” was something of a relic. Rivers recorded three albums for Reprise Records.

Pet Projects And Next Steps

Many of Sinatra’s own albums were pet projects for the singer. These included his duet with Count Basie, his remembrance of Tommy Dorsey (his former bandleader), and some larger projects like Sinatra and Strings and The Concert Sinatra. These last two projects showed the singer flexing his muscles a bit by performing with a large orchestra, often with some weightier material, something that would define his later career in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The Concert Sinatra from 1963 was one of Sinatra’s finest performances. The arrangements were by Nelson Riddle and featured an ensemble of over 70 musicians, the largest group to ever assemble in a studio to back a pop singer. That session also includes a marvelous version of “Soliloquy,” another Rodgers and Hammerstein song, from the show Carousel. Sinatra was initially supposed to play the lead role of Billy Bigelow in the 1956 film version of Carousel, but got spooked by the demands of the role, and left the production.

By 1963, almost as soon as Frank Sinatra founded Reprise Records, he gave it up. Call it his capriciousness, but Sinatra sold the company to Warner Brothers in August 1963, in a generous deal that left him out ahead. The driving reason for the sale was that Reprise was hemorrhaging money. Sinatra’s reluctance sign rock artists closed him off to a huge part of the market, and his ambitious pet projects bled the company dry.

One of the biggest culprits was his pet project The Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre. This ambitious four-disc set featured everyone on the Reprise catalog—including Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, The Hi-Los, Dean Martin, and Keely Smith—performing songs from recent Broadway hits like Finian’s Rainbow, South Pacific, and Guys And Dolls. It was an expensive project that didn’t pay off commercially for the label.

It did, however, produce one of Sinatra’s most memorable recordings. The tune was “Luck Be A Lady” from Guys And Dolls, a film Sinatra starred in 8 years earlier. Sinatra’s swinging version of this tune was perfectly suited to his new Vegas lifestyle. And it’s also one of the last recordings he made while serving as the Chairman of the Board for Reprise Records.

Music Heard On This Episode

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Mark Chilla

Mark Chilla, originally from Atlanta, GA, is the Production Director at WFIU, where he also hosts Ether Game and Afterglow. He studied music theory at Indiana University and taught various music theory courses at IU and Butler University. He enjoys film, woodworking, learning new instruments and the Beatles.

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