MUSIC CLIP - OSCAR PETERSON, “MOONGLOW”
Welcome to Afterglow, I’m your host, Mark Chilla.
December 12th is the birthday of the great pop singer Frank Sinatra, so in honor of his birthday week, I’ll be revisiting an episode that explores one of his most fruitful musical partnerships: the one he had with the brilliant arranger, Nelson Riddle. Riddle entered Sinatra’s life in the early 1950s, and his arrangements on albums like In The Wee Small Hours, Only The Lonely, and Songs For Swingin Lovers is largely responsible for Sinatra’s successful creative renaissance during this time period. We’ll explore some of Sinatra and Riddle’s best collaborations this hour.
It’s Frank and Nelson, coming up next on Afterglow
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “BLUES IN THE NIGHT”
Frank Sinatra in 1958 with Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Blues In The Night.” That comes from Sinatra’s album Only The Lonely, arrangements by Nelson Riddle. Both Frank and Nelson thought this album was likely their best.
Mark Chilla here on Afterglow. On this show, we’re celebrating arranger Nelson Riddle, by exploring his work with Frank Sinatra in the 1950s and 1960s.
Nelson Riddle started his professional career playing third trombone in Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra. This was several years after Dorsey’s singer Frank Sinatra had left to pursue a solo career. However, his true skill was in arranging, and he left the orchestra for Hollywood to try to find work as an orchestral arranger. His first success, however, came in the early 1950s with his arrangements for Nat King Cole on hit songs for Capitol Records like “Mona Lisa,” “Too Young,” and “Unforgettable.”
MUSIC CLIP - NAT KING COLE, “UNFORGETTABLE”
In 1953, Frank Sinatra was signed to Capitol, looking for a way to revive his career. At this point, he was seen as a bit of a has-been in the record industry. The label connected him with Riddle, even though Sinatra preferred his longtime arranger Axel Stordahl. The first Stordahl and Sinatra recordings for Capitol, which were mostly melancholy tunes, weren’t selling well, however. So, Riddle took a stab at writing a few charts for Sinatra, among them a swinging version of the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler standard “I’ve Got The World On A String.”
The arrangement ebbed and flowed in all the right ways, rhythmically exciting, punchy where it needed to be, quiet where it needed to be, all with a steady swing that allowed Sinatra to sound somehow both relaxed and aggressive. Upon hearing the recording, Sinatra evidently exclaimed “I’m back, baby!” The song became a top 20 Billboard pop hit and the arrangement became Sinatra’s concert opener for many years.
Here’s that tune now. This is Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle in 1953 with “I’ve Got The World On A String,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “I’VE GOT THE WORLD ON A STRING”
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “JEEPERS CREEPERS”
Frank Sinatra in 1954 on his Capitol LP Swing Easy with the Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer song “Jeepers Creepers.” Before that, a Capitol single from 1953, the Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler song “I’ve Got The World On A String.” Both of those swinging arrangements were by Nelson Riddle.
The LP format became a creative playground for Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle. The length offered them the opportunity to create a series of songs all about a single theme: a concept album, if you will. Their next LP together became a defining example of this idea. It was called In The Wee Small Hours, an album of all songs about loneliness, heartache, and loss. It gave Frank Sinatra a chance to channel his depression, which had been plaguing him since his split from actress Ava Gardner. And it gave Nelson Riddle the chance to stretch his creative muscles, drawing upon influences from 19th and 20th-century classical music.
Some of the highlights of the album include the title track, the song “Last Night When We Were Young,” or the bluesy Duke Ellington song “Mood Indigo.” But I want to play one of the deeper cuts on the album, and one that I think shows off Riddle’s arranging style. It was actually the first song he arranged for the album, based on a chart he had begun while he was in high school, his first arrangement ever.
Here is Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle with the song “I See Your Face Before Me,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “I SEE YOUR FACE BEFORE ME”
Frank Sinatra with the Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz song “I See Your Face Before Me.” That was arranged by Nelson Riddle, on the 1955 concept album In The Wee Small Hours. Riddle actually began working on that arrangement back in 1939.
Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle’s next collaboration for Capitol Records was yet another iconic album. Songs For Swingin’ Lovers was another concept album, although with a slightly different approach: instead of songs about heartache, we had songs about love, all performed in an upbeat, swingin’ manner. Some of Riddle’s most recognizable arrangements come from this album, like Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which opens side B.
But I want to play a different arrangement, one from side A, that I think features some of Riddle’s most creative uses of rhythm, and timbre of the ensemble.
Here is Frank Sinatra in 1956 from the album Songs For Swingin’ Lovers with “It Happened In Monterey,” on Afterglow
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “IT HAPPENED IN MONTEREY”
Another Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle collaboration. That was “It Happened In Monterey” by Billy Rose and Mabel Wayne, from the 1956 album Songs For Swingin’ Lovers.
For Sinatra and Riddle’s next Capitol LP, they went in an even different direction. Riddle wanted to see if he could fully incorporate a more classical sound into a pop record. Gone was the big band, and in its place was a string quartet, supplemented with a few extra instruments, including flute, celeste, and clarinet. In essence, it was chamber music, with Frank Sinatra vocals soaring above, and the results were lovely.
Here’s a song from that album now. This is the Edward Heyman and Oscar Levant standard “Blame It On My Youth,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC CLIP - FRANK SINATRA, “BLAME IT ON MY YOUTH”
Frank Sinatra and the Hollywood String Quartet, led by violinist Felix Slatkin, with “Blame It On My Youth.” That was arranged by Nelson Riddle for the 1957 Capitol LP Close To You.
Despite a string of successes together from 1953 through 1957, Frank Sinatra opted to choose different arrangers besides Nelson Riddle to work with for a few albums. Gordon Jenkins’s lush arrangements were the basis of the album Where Are You and the bold and brassy Billy May was chosen for the album Come Fly With Me. However, at this time, Riddle was chosen to be Sinatra’s chief conductor both on Frank’s new television show, and live in concert.
Riddle was the conductor on a June 1957 concert in Seattle which was bootlegged and then officially released as an album in the 1990s. Let’s hear a track from that album now, which features a Nelson Riddle arrangement as well.
This is Frank Sinatra, live at the Seattle Civic Auditorium in 1957 with “I Won’t Dance,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “I WON’T DANCE”
Frank Sinatra live in Seattle in 1957 with “I Won’t Dance.” Nelson Riddle was the conductor of that live recording, featuring an arrangement that he made for the 1957 Frank Sinatra album A Swingin’ Affair.
In just a moment, we’ll have more from Frank and Nelson stay with us.
I’m Mark Chilla, and you’re listening to Afterglow
Welcome back to Afterglow, I’m Mark Chilla. We’ve been exploring the partnership between Frank Sinatra and arranger Nelson Riddle this hour, a partnership that produced some of Sinatra’s most acclaimed work.
In 1958, Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle teamed up again in the studio for another iconic session together, a session that many (Frank and Nelson included) considered to be their best. The album was yet another concept album, featuring all torch songs. It was called Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely. At the time, Sinatra’s divorce with Ava Gardner had been finalized, and Riddle had lost his mother to breast cancer and his six-month old daughter to bronchial asthma. These events helped bring an extra layer of meaning to the already heartbreaking songs.
Riddle’s arrangements on this album are particularly evocative. On the 1953 Carl Sigman and Robert Maxwell song “Ebb Tide,” Riddle creates a musical depiction of the tide ebbing and flowing, channeling the music of Claude Debussy.
Here is Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle with “Ebb Tide,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “EBB TIDE”
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “THAT OLD FEELING”
Frank Sinatra with the Lew Brown and Sammy Fain tune “That Old Feeling.” That comes from the 1960 album Nice ‘N’ Easy. Before that, Sinatra with “Ebb Tide,” from the 1958 album Only The Lonely. Both of those arrangements were by Nelson Riddle.
Sinatra and Riddle’s partnership continued into the 1960s. They kept trading off between more romantic, introspective albums, and fast-paced swinging albums, all while following a single concept. Their next was swinging yet again, and possibly their most swinging. It was called Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session, and on it, Riddle was tasked with amping up some old tunes that Sinatra had recorded way back in 1952 on a Columbia Records LP called Sing And Dance With Frank Sinatra.
Here is a kicked up version of the Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown song “Should I?” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “SHOULD I”
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “OH, YOU CRAZY MOON”
Frank Sinatra with a couple of arrangements by Nelson Riddle. Just now, we heard the Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen song “Oh, You Crazy Moon” from the 1966 album Moonlight Sinatra. Before that, the song “Should I” from Sinatra’s Swingin Session from 1961.
Frank and Nelson’s final session together came in 1966 on the album Strangers In The Night. Perhaps it was Sinatra’s fading star in the pop music landscape, or perhaps it was Sinatra’s desire for more complete control, but whatever magic these two created in the mid 1950s wasn’t working in the mid 1960s, so they largely went their separate ways.
However, Nelson could still inject some life into an arrangement that could keep Frank on his toes. And that’s exactly what he did on the final cut on the album “The Most Beautiful Girl in The World.”
Let’s hear it now. This is Frank Sinatra with Rodgers and Hart’s “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE WORLD”
Frank Sinatra and a Nelson Riddle arrangement of “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World,” recorded for the 1966 album Strangers In The Night, Sinatra and Riddle’s last full album together.
To close off this tribute to the collaboration between Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, I’ll turn to their 1963 album The Concert Sinatra, their most substantial recording session together. In this session, Frank wanted to go big, an album of 76 orchestral musicians gathered on a soundstage to record some of Broadway’s biggest numbers. The only arranger Sinatra trusted for the project was Nelson Riddle, and Riddle was more than up for the challenge. The Concert Sinatra is a dazzling record, and Riddle strikes the right balance, utilizing the extent of the full orchestra but never overpowering the star.
The song I’ll play now is the song that closes off the album, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s dramatic song “Soliloquy” from the musical Carousel. The song is dramatic and sweeping, told from the perspective of the musical’s antihero Billy Bigelow. Billy has just found out he’s going to be a father... to a son (he assumes). But then he suddenly realizes that his son might in fact, be his daughter, and he understands how ill-equipped he is to handle such a task. Bigelow is not a very sympathetic character in the show, but the song is one of the best from the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog for its ability to express a wide range of emotions.
It wasn’t Sinatra’s first time recording this—he had done it in 1946—but this recording with Riddle arranging and conducting is arguably his best.
Here is Frank Sinatra in 1963 with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Soliloquy,” on Afterglow.
MUSIC - FRANK SINATRA, “SOLILOQUY”
Frank Sinatra in 1963 with “Soliloquy,” a song from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Carousel, told from the perspective of an expectant and unprepared father. That comes from the album The Concert Sinatra, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle.
And thanks for tuning in to this Frank and Nelson edition of Afterglow.
Afterglow is part of the educational mission of Indiana University and produced by WFIU Public Radio in beautiful Bloomington, Indiana. The executive producer is John Bailey.
Playlists for this and other Afterglow programs are available on our website. That’s at indianapublicmedia.org/afterglow.
I’m Mark Chilla, and join me next week for our mix of Vocal Jazz and popular song from the Great American Songbook, here on Afterglow