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!








Anonymous said...

Dear Anton, Thank you for your wonderful presentation of the Sinatra-Dorsey box set, which was printed in 1994 and which I, believe it or not, just made up my mind to buy in these present days.
And I'm very glad I did, because it is a complete set and is also very accurate.
Also the digitalization is very accurate, while I bought other Dorsey-Sinatra CD releases and they proved to be very disappointing, with faked stereo effects or with amplifications that altered the sound of the old recordings and made me really nervous every time I heard them. In this RCA box set, on the contrary, the sound is of good quality but has not been altered or modernized, so you really get the impression that you're listening to old but well preserved 78 records and you jump backword in time, in 1940, in an old american house or ballroom where this music was being plaied.
The fifth CD, as you already remarked, is a great treat, with wonderful broadcast recordings and with Frank's farewell to the Dorsey orchestra, which historically documents the Sinatra that was going to be.
I tip you off about the fact that there is another very interesting CD document of the Sinatra-Dorsey which is called I'ts All So New and is published by Budda Records.
It presents radio transcription recordings made betwenn 1940 and 1942 and many of these songs have not been recorded commercially. The last two tracks of the compilation come from a Warbond program and feature Frank urging listeners to buy the bonds and then performing the song Be Careful, It's My Heart.
There is also a recent 4 disk box set which presents the complete Sinatra-Dorsey studio recordings, but I prefer the old RCA 5 disk release, because there are only studio recordings and no radio rarities, many alternate takes, which give you an anpleasant feeling of repeat and the 1942 session with Axel Stordhal is not presented there.
Thank you very much for the attention you gave to this perhaps too long post of mine and best regards from
Max Cattani from Italy

Anton Garcia-Fernandez said...

Dear Max,

Grazie per il tuo messaggio! I apologize for having taken so long to read it and reply, but I've been out of town for about a month, and I've only seen it this morning.

I appreciate your kind words about my article on the Sinatra-Dorsey box set, which I wrote about seven years ago... As you say, this box set, The Song Is You, is the best way to get a thorough introduction to Frank Sinatra's work with Tommy Dorsey—it features all the studio recordings and some great radio broadcasts, the sound is fantastic, and the liner notes are very informative and well written. I bought it many years ago, about the time when it was first released, and I listen to it very often. Sinatra's voice was crystal-clear in the early '40s, the band is a joy to hear, and the arrangements by Sy Oliver are top-notch.

Thanks for your tip about the Buddha Records CD 'It's All So New.' I also have it, and it features some interesting Sinatra-Dorsey broadcasts with outstanding sound. Buddha actually released a companion volume with more broadcasts entitled 'Learn to Croon.' If you don't have it, that second volume is also highly recommendable. When it comes to big bands, beyond the original studio recordings, I've always found live broadcasts and airchecks extremely interesting because they present the band in a live setting and often feature longer, hotter solos.

If you enjoy Young Blue Eyes live on the radio, another interesting box set to seek out is the recently released A Voice on Air, which features Sinatra broadcasts from the '40s and '50s with great sound throughout. Like you, I also prefer the 5-CD Sinatra-Dorsey set to the recent 4-CD set of studio recordings, although I also have the latter and play it often. I own many Sinatra box sets, and in this YouTube video, I review some of them, inclusing The Song Is You:

Once again, thanks for your very kind comment on my article. I hope there are other posts in The Vintage Bandstand that may be of interest to you, and please feel free to leave comments and feedback whenever you wish!

Grazie mille,

Anton G.-F.
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