Today is Frank Sinatra’s birthday. He was born on this date in 1915.
Fifty-four years ago today, December 12, 1967, Sinatra celebrated his fifty-second birthday at work in his Reprise Records studio with Duke Ellington and his orchestra. The two-day session yielded the only collaboration between the two giants, an eight-song album titled Francis A. and Edward K.; no television special followed to capture the two on stage together or sell copies of the album, and only a couple photos show them together (one of them is seen at top).
Ellington was sixty-eight and his collaborator/arranger of the previous quarter-century, Billy Strayhorn, had died just six months earlier. With no Strayhorn, Sinatra brought in his arranger, Billy May (“Come Fly with Me”), who discovered that many of Ellington’s musicians were not sight-readers. Rehearsals would be needed. Legend has it that Sinatra had a cold, a condition that possibly contributed to the several moments on the record in which he begins to sound like the late-1970’s “Theme from New York, New York”-era Sinatra, with pauses between the pentameters.
In his legendary Esquire magazine profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Gay Talese describes the effect Sinatra sniffles could produce in himself and others:
Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel—only worse. For the common cold robs Sinatra of that uninsurable jewel, his voice, cutting into the core of his confidence, and it affects not only his own psyche but also seems to cause a kind of psychosomatic nasal drip within dozens of people who work for him, drink with him, love him, depend on him for their own welfare and stability. A Sinatra with a cold can, in a small way, send vibrations through the entertainment industry and beyond as surely as a President of the United States, suddenly sick, can shake the national economy.
From the mid-1960s on, Sinatra had produced a few collaboration albums—with Antônio Carlos Jobim and with Count Basie, most famously, so the concept of an Ellington “summit meeting” struck most listeners at the time as an obvious contribution to both men’s libraries. But Sinatra was averse to engaging in “Great American Songbook” albums, as he graciously conceded that concept to Ella Fitzgerald and her career-long project. The song selection was going to be vital to the album’s success and reputation.
The sessions resulted in a tantalizing but brief, thirty-five-minute-long suite of just eight songs, only one of which is an Ellington original, “I Like the Sunrise.” The rest are a mix of contemporary Broadway, pop, and standards. The song list is short enough to give it in full: “Follow Me” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe; “Sunny” by Bobby Hebb; “All I Need Is the Girl” by Stephen Sondheim and Jule Styne; “Indian Summer” by Victor Herbert and Al Dubin; “I Like the Sunrise” by Duke Ellington; “Yellow Days” by Álvaro Carrillo and Alan Bernstein; “Poor Butterfly” by Raymond Hubbell and John Golden; “Come Back to Me” by Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner.
The complaints about the omission of Ellington’s most famous songs began with the first reviews, which focused on the absence of Sinatra renditions of “Sophisticated Lady” or “In a Sentimental Mood,” or of Ellington’s band not swinging with Sinatra and the songs he had made famous. Thanks to Sinatra, however, this always was the idea behind the project: Bring the two talents together into the studio and see if they make something new.
Two songs with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner versus one Duke Ellington number. Even the various online encyclopedia entries about the album, brief as they all are, give all the reasons why the album was reviewed poorly and sold worse: Sinatra had a cold; Ellington was elderly; his band no longer sounded as full as Ellington’s band had sounded in the past, so Billy May had to hire session musicians to join in; and only three days were devoted to the project, one to rehearse and two to record. The album peaked at 78 on the Billboard charts.
There is even some dispute over who is heard playing the piano on the recording, Ellington himself or Jimmy Jones, a pianist who is not listed on the album as a part of the personnel but whose name appears on the list of session musicians on the studio log. In a 1982 interview, Billy May remembered that Jones “played most of the time,” and that Ellington stayed in the control room “until we were ready for Frank to come out and sing,” which can be interpreted to mean that Ellington did not rehearse with his band but played once the team was ready to record a take. (“Put Your Dreams Away,” 419)
Jones had taken part in an Ellington session a couple of years earlier, Ella at Duke’s Place, on which Ella sang a version of “I Like the Sunrise.” Thus, this song was one that the Ellington orchestra had in its recent recording history when this similar project with Sinatra developed. The song was a part of Ellington’s Liberian Suite, which was commissioned by that nation for its centennial celebration in 1947. It is the first part of six, and it is the only section with a name and lyrics.
Ella Fitzgerald’s version swings, more than a little, and it sounds like a declaration. She even creates some space for herself to scat a bit. It is great:
Back to December 1967 and Frank Sinatra’s birthday. Whether it is Jones that we hear on piano or Ellington himself, the piano heard under Sinatra’s voice is understated, weary but looking forward, repeats phrases and sometimes only decisively delivers a part of a phrase, drifts in, fades out, but it always serves to underline sections of the vocal. It is beautiful, and it duets perfectly with Sinatra’s voice, which, cold or no cold, strains when straining gives precisely the best effect.
Mid-career Sinatra meets late-career Ellington and the result may not have been as swinging as the audience thought it ought to be, but it produced moments of emotional insight that approached philosophical depth. A track like this is a minor classic.
On a mid-December day when daylight in upstate New York is oh so brief, a reminder that I like the sunrise, too, can be rejuvenating. Thanks, Francis A. and Edward K.
and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirty-first season:
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