Thursday, May 03, 2007

Why is an album an album?

Ever wondered why most people call CDs albums, and almost everyone called the Long Playing 33 1/3 rpm record an album? The reason is simple. Major artists had sets of 78 rpm recordings that were packaged together in a cardboard casing and sold as an ‘album’ of the their recordings. Frank Sinatra was not the first album, but it was the first to be thematically arranged, something of a recurring theme throughout the remainder of his career. It could almost be called a concept, but not quite. The four 78s in that first album had a wonderful cohesion, and as Columbia have reissued a CD of the album you can relive the experience, it certainly stands the test of time.

The Voice of Frank Sinatra was probably conceived by Columbia in isolation from Frank. Whether Frank and Axel were specifically asked to record the songs included in the album (interestingly we now always say ‘on the album’) or whether they were just collected together from the two recording sessions has been lost in the mists of time. If it had been the intention to release the album why did Sinatra’s label wait over four months to record the second set of four songs? There were five other recording sessions between July 30 and December 7 1945 so there was ample opportunity. The July session took place in Hollywood from 8 in the evening until 11.30 (you couldn’t record songs like this during the day) and is arguably the single best four-song session of the 1940s (quite why they didn’t stick to Hollywood for the second set is difficult to understand). Everything at the first session is perfect. It’s as though Frank is living every moment of those songs, you ‘feel’ the emotion. The ‘sound’ of the studio adds to the atmosphere, the arrangements (all eight songs were done by Axel Stordahl) and the playing of the studio orchestra is flawless.

Another significant difference between these sessions and regular recording sessions is the size of the accompanying orchestra. It is not even an orchestra but a nine-piece group consisting of flute/oboe, two violins, cello, viola, piano/celeste, guitar, bass and drums. It all adds to the intimacy of the album and creates a significant difference to Frank’s normal 78 rpm releases. Given the difference in costs of an album versus a normal release it is as though they are aiming at the Waldorf Astoria crowd rather than the regulars at the Paramount, a conscious effort to move Frank’s appeal onwards.

The album was like a trip down memory lane for Frank - the newest song was ‘You Go To My Head’ from 1938 and the oldest, George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ from 1927. It also was a nod towards Frank’s hero Bing Crosby, who was still beating him in the popularity stakes. Bing had recorded ‘Try A Little Tenderness’, ‘Paradise’ and ‘(I Don’t Stand) A Ghost of a Chance’ in the 1930s, as well as co-writing the latter. Another of Frank’s mentor’s Billie Holliday had recorded ‘These Foolish Things’ in 1936 with jazz pianist Teddy Wilson and his Orchestra

Amongst the many myths about Sinatra and his achievements is that this album topped the first ever Billboard chart. The truth is that honour belongs to Nat King Cole, whose album King Cole Trio Collection of Favourites went to No.1 on March 24 1945, a full year before Frank’s album came out. The Voice of Frank Sinatra did stay at the top (the album chart was just a Top Five until August 1948) for seven weeks in 1946, spending a total of eighteen weeks on the charts.

When I was writing my book about Sinatra an American who grew up with Sinatra shared his memories with me. It helps to understand what Sinatra was all about back then. This is what Harry Agoratus had to say. “You had to be a teenager when The Voice Of Frank Sinatra was released on 78s. It was as if a bombshell exploded. We had never heard any singing like this from the other crooners of the day; Bob Eberle, Crosby, Como et al. The idol of the bobbysoxers was a SINGER! We were not sophisticated enough to understand things like phrasing and breath control, we only knew that this was what singing is supposed to be. From our standpoint it was, it made us Sinatra fans.”


r morris said...

Interesting post, Richard. Two ways I constantly date myself with younger people--1) calling anything with music on it an album and 2) calling computer paper 'typing paper'. Ah, well, we all get old and obsolete.

Richard Havers said...

You should be happy to date yourself Rob. I think we've been lucky to have lived through some great (musical0 times and I constantly count myself lucky. Anyway, you and I are not old and obsolete we're experienced!