At the moment  I am listening to “Frank’s Place” on XM-Satellite Radio. Host Jonathan Schwartz just played a song written by his father, Arthur Schwartz: "I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan" from Sinatra’s A Swinging Affair, which he recorded in 1957, a year after Songs for Swinging Lovers. “Sinatra extended the life of this music by twenty-five years,” Jonathan says. Now he’s playing Rosemary Clooney singing Gershwin’s "Strike up the Band." And here's the Duke Ellington band with the maestro’s "Mood Indigo," very mellow, and here’s Sinatra in saloon mode with the same song.
A year has gone by and the show is now called “High Standards.” I wonder why the change. Maybe the Sinatra estate threatened to sue over taking Frank’s name in vain. Anyway, here is Mel Torme, "Dancing in the Dark," and Nelson Riddle, "Out of My Dreams," and Lena Horne, "Out of Nowhere," and Stacey Kent, "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart," and Sarah Vaughan, "My Heart Stood Still." And here is the Sinatra of 1946 with "Sweet Lorraine" as arranged by Sy Oliver with Nat Cole at the piano, Johnny Hodges on alto sax, and Coleman Hawkins on tenor. Jonathan brings a lot of imagination to his playlists. I remember, though it happened seven or eight years ago, the day he advanced the thesis that three Hammerstein lyrics – "Make Believe" (from Show Boat), "People Will Say We’re in Love" (from Oklahoma) and "If I Loved You" (from Carousel) -- were versions of the same idea. Each arose as a solution to the problem of creating a theatrically persuasive love duet between two persons who had not yet met, barely knew each other, or were feuding. Each relied on a conditional premise, a supposition or, in the case of "Make Believe," a frank suspension of disbelief. And though I love the Kern song best of the three, I think Schwartz is right in saying that the three exist in a progression, that "If I Loved You" is – from the theatrical point of view -- the best of the three, and that the “bench scene” in which it figures is the consummate example of the Rodgers & Hammerstein strategy.
In his autobiography Schwartz recalls the exact moment he became an ardent Frankophile. It was in the early 1950s and on a jukebox the young man heard Sinatra sing "The Birth of the Blues" (Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson). He says he played it a dozen times. And he's right, it is a fantastic performance, brilliant. Jonathan's fidelity to Sinatra is famous. One Sunday afternoon in December he plays a rare recording of Sinatra singing the Soliloquy from Carousel. It’s an unusually long, musically varied tear-jerker of a song in which the character, a ne’er-do-well carnival barker, imagines that the baby his wife is carrying will be a boy, enjoys the thought, realizes that it may be a girl, and finally vows to make or steal the money needed for the child’s upbringing, “or die.” Sinatra gives it all he has. It’s his birthday, December 12. He has been dead now for nine years. The song ends: “Or die.” There ensues a hush. Then Jonathan says, “I know you’re listening,” and I get the strong feeling that he is talking not to the radio audience but to Sinatra.
In 1986 Schwartz won a Grammy for Best Album Notes, which he wrote for FS's The Voice -- The Columbia Years, 1942-1952. One recent afternoon Schwartz plays "Frenesi," "Perfidia," and "Amapola" back to back to back: three songs with one-word foreign titles. You remember "Amapola," don’t you? Years later it would serve Sergio Leone as a recurrent motif throughout his Jewish gangster epic, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), a cinematic masterpiece, with James Woods and Robert De Niro. When Sinatra went to the White House in the fall of 1944, the President asked Frankie what would be number one on the hit parade that week and promised he would keep it secret. “Amapola,” Frank said, and for an instant FDR looked a bit confused. Was the singer speaking Italian? Sinatra was so skinny that after he left Roosevelt chuckled. So that’s what the girls are going for these days. In my time they liked a little more flesh on the bone. You didn’t know Sinatra got invited to the White House? What’s more he had an audience with the pope. It was a year later, after the war, when Sinatra was making his first trip abroad to entertain the troops. He was traveling with Phil Silvers. Singing and dancing, the future Sergeant Ernie Bilko had supplied the comic relief to the romantic leads Gene Kelly and Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944). I bet you didn’t know that Phil Silvers wrote the lyrics for the Sinatra standard "Nancy (with the Laughing Face)." Well, he was a great pal of Sinatra, and the two of them - so goes the story -- were on their way to see Pope Pius XII in the Vatican. “Wait till I see that Pope,” Sinatra said. He was going to give him a piece of his mind about Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rants in Detroit. Of course when he entered the papal presence he thought better of it, and when the pope asked him what he sang he replied earnestly with a list of song titles starting with "Ol’ Man River." Now it was the pope’s turn to look puzzled. By “what do you sing” he had meant to ask whether the singer was a tenor, a baritone, or a bass.
Happy birthday.. -- DL