Monday, June 28, 2010

The Band Singer: Frank Sinatra's Recordings with Tommy Dorsey, 1940-42


Frank Sinatra's stature as an artist transcends his work to such an extent that he has become one of the most recognizable cultural icons of the twentieth century. But just as it happened with most vocalists from the 1920s onward, his career began as a band singer. By 1940, a very young Sinatra had been one of the featured vocalists with the Harry James orchestra for a few months. The James band was then still starting out, struggling to make ends meet and trying to pick up as many dates as possible. Sinatra had made a few fine records with the orchestra (all of them available on the budget-priced Columbia-Legacy CD Complete Recordings 1939) and appeared on enough radio broadcasts to attract the attention of Tommy Dorsey, the leader of one of the most popular swing bands of the day. As the story goes, when Sinatra was offered a spot with the Dorsey band, James recognized that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for his young singer, and so he simply tore up the contract that bound Sinatra to his orchestra and let him go. James was quick to find a replacement for Sinatra in Dick Haymes, and a fine replacement it certainly was.


The outstanding five-CD boxset The Song Is You, one of the most priced entries in my record collection, includes every studio recording made by Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, from the earliest sides to the four tunes that Sinatra cut in 1942 under his own name prior to leaving the band. The hits, like the smash "I'll Never Smile Again," are all here, and in many of the songs, Sinatra appears with Jo Stafford, Connie Haines, and the Pied Pipers, all of whom were featured vocalists of the Dorsey outfit. Sinatra often praised the bandleader for being one of his best singing teachers: indeed, these are formative years for him, moments when he was experimenting with singing techniques and developing his own vocal style, and of course, Dorsey's trombone playing was a source of inspiration for him. If the records with Harry James can be seen as the prehistory of Sinatra's art (and I am not using the term in a pejorative way, because many of the discs he made with the James band, such as "All or Nothing at All," have stood the test of time), the ones with Tommy Dorsey chronicle the early stages of Sinatra beginning to make pop history.


When Sinatra joined the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, it was still common practice to have the vocalist simply sing a chorus, with most of the space on the disc allotted to the orchestra. The bandleader and some of the soloists (and the Dorsey band boasted some first-rate musicians like Buddy Rich, Babe Russin, Bunny Berigan, and Joe Bushkin) were the real stars, the people that crowds came to see, and the singer was simply an added attraction, which explains why most records featuring a vocal chorus began and ended with the band and the brief chorus was introduced in the middle. Only established stars like Bing Crosby made records where the crooner was the main focus; band singers like the young Sinatra were merely ornamental. But as the popularity of the singers within the bands started to increase, bandleaders gradually began to feature them more prominently on records. During his tenure with Tommy Dorsey, Sinatra became one of the main attractions in the band and greatly improved his vocal abilities: by his own admission, he watched Dorsey closely as he took his trombone solos, learning quite a bit about breathing in the process, but he also began to pay more attention to the lyrics that he was singing and developed a soft, soothing sound that was all his own. Sinatra's voice never sounded clearer than in the 1940s, and his perfect breathing and interesting note-bending made his performances sound sexy and very appealing to his increasing body of female fans.

Listening to the tracks contained in this magnificent boxset, we can appreciate Sinatra's development from a mere band singer to a budding singing star ready to strike out on his own. Soon the band-singer-band structure of the records shifts to singer-band-singer, although, of course, the soloists and Dorsey himself always play a prominent role, and it is a pure delight to listen to Sinatra sharing the billing with Stafford, Haines, and the Pied Pipers. The orchestra sounds like a perfectly greased swing machine, the kind of effortless sound achieved after nights of playing together on the bandstand. The fifth disc in the set collects several tracks culled from radio airchecks that present Sinatra performing songs that he never recorded commercially with the band, including his final broadcast with Dorsey, from September 1942, in which he salutes Dick Haymes, who was to replace him again, before singing a beautiful rendition of "The Song Is You," a fitting finale for the collection. The booklet, illustrated with countless pictures, includes extensive notes by William Ruhlmann and Will Friedwald, as well as a complete discography. If these recordings are still unknown to you, you are in for a treat: although these are not all masterpieces and sometimes the material is a little beneath Sinatra and the orchestra, they always make it sound believable and engaging, and there are also a great deal of undeniable gems here. This certainly does not sound like the Sinatra of later years, but these are the recordings that first introduced me to his music, and hey, after all it is where it all began!



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