Frank Sinatra at 100: A Look Back at the Legend's Breakthrough Album 'Songs For Swingin' Lovers' (Exclusive Book Excerpt)

Frank Sinatra
CBS via Getty Images

Frank Sinatra for the CBS Television show, The Frank Sinatra Show in New York, NY. 

When we celebrate the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra today (Dec. 12), we’re actually celebrating many careers and multiple lifetimes of one amazing individual. As well as many different musical personas: the more innocent Sinatra of the 1940s is a very different animal than the aggressive Sinatra of the 1960s -- although there is a continuity that runs through all of his work. Where do the dividing lines occur? The most obvious point of demarcation is the transition from from the young Sinatra to the more mature Sinatra, which begins with the most celebrated "comeback" in all of American popular culture. I would argue that the new phase begins with his breakthrough 1956 album, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers.The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Fifty Greatest Jazz & Pop Vocal Albums, an in-depth look at the recorded masterworks of the Great American Songbook, coming from Pantheon Books in Spring 2017.

The received wisdom regarding said comeback is that it began in August 1953 with the release of From Here to Eternity. This was his first hit movie in a long time and also the one that launched his career as a "serious" dramatic actor.  But symbolically, his Oscar-winning portrayal of James Jones's "Maggio" more accurately represents the end of the first phase of his career.  Sinatra had to literally die on screen in order to be reborn. 

That rebirth began four months later with the recording of "Young at Heart," a song about new beginnings and fresh starts.  Sinatra’s reinvention of himself was fully realized in one of the great albums of his or any other career, Songs for Swingin' Lovers, recorded mostly in late 1955 and released in March 1956. Just as "Young at Heart" is a song about new beginnings and fresh starts, Songs for Swingin' Lovers starts with Sinatra declaring "You Make Me Feel So Young," in which he declaims loudly that there are bells to be rung and songs to be sung. 

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The singer's previous project was the torch-song-infused In the Wee Small Hours, in which he confronted the personal demons of his tumultuous "nosedive" period of the early 1950s. (Both Wee Small and Swingin’ Lovers, amazingly were arranged and conducted by the greatest of all Sinatra's collaborators, the brilliant Nelson Riddle.) With Songs for Swingin' Lovers, he was truly moving to the next phase in his life. Now that he had purged his soul of his sins, the time was nigh to pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again. 

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Sinatra makes a key statement not only with his choice of the opener ("You Make Me Feel So Young") but the closer ("How About You"), as well as the entr'acte ("I've Got You Under My Skin" which opens Side B of the LP).  All 15 songs on the released album are standards, deriving from a 25 year span from the 1923 "Swingin' Down the Lane" to the 1947 "Old Devil Moon."

This is the project where Riddle fully perfected his trademark introductions: after a few spins, even a casual listener can tell what tune is coming next just by the intros, none of which use the actual melody of the song in question. Sinatra would outline the general content of each arrangement to Riddle  -- the tempo, the structure, the general feeling - and the intros were one of Riddle's key areas of creativity, and he used these introductions as connecting passages to link fifteen separate tracks to each other and unify them into a concept album. Conceptually, it's but a mere half-step from the 1956 Swingin' Lovers to the completely continuous Miles Ahead, a year or so later.

If side A track one, "You Make Me Feel So Young" establishes the album's intentions, it's the first song of side B that marks the album's high point. Cole Porter wrote "I've Got You Under My Skin" as a rather torrid torch song, introduced by femme fatale Virginia Bruce in the 1936 Eleanor Powell vehicle Born to Dance; it was dark and dramatic, a light bolero and a sibling of "Begin the Beguine." Some Latin rhythm remained in the DNA of Riddle’s arrangement; he had been listening to "23 Degrees North -- 82 Degrees West," an original composition by arranger-conductor Bill Russo for Stan Kenton's orchestra.  The Sinatra-Riddle "Skin" begins almost like a 1930s dance band, with a foxtrot-y riff, primarily voiced by a bass clarinet.  Sinatra sings over that riff a way that sounds as if he's holding back, like enormous emotion is mounting within him but he's trying not to let it show. 

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Then, following the first chorus, it must have sounded to pop music listeners in 1956 as if all hell was breaking loose: the instrumental passage resembles Kenton at his most chaotic. First there's a gaggle of trombones led by soloist Milt Bernhart that that sounds like warring rhinoceri. In a sense, Bernhart loses his cool so that Sinatra doesn’t have to. Sinatra ends with a half chorus that illustrates his approach to climaxes, especially with regard to dynamics: he re-enters at the loudest point on the track and then gradually winds down for the ending, rather than going for a big long, loud note at the end, as say, Judy Garland might do.

To understand why Swingin' Lovers was so amazingly influential in its day and why sixty years later it’s still revered as a milestone accomplishment, we have to start with the title. "Swinging Lovers" was not just a catchy turn of a phrase: Sinatra meant it literally. As a concept, it would signify a major breakthrough in the evolving art of interpreting the American songbook.  Up until this point, in pop music in general, "swinging" and "lovers" were two separate concepts. Jazz meant uptempo, riff numbers, which, when they had words at all, tended to celebrate nonsense -- things like "A-Tisket, A-Tasket," "Sing! Sing! Sing!" or "Hit That Jive, Jack!"  Many of these were direct descendants of Gershwin's archetypical rhythm song, "I Got Rhythm," which formed the template (both harmonically and philosophically) for hundreds of so-named "rhythm songs" throughout the swing era. 

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Jazz musicians, following the lead of Louis Armstrong, one of Sinatra's personal heroes, had already proven it was possible to take a song that started life as a romantic ballad and jazz it up. But in doing so, they were changing a number from a love song to a rhythm song; they made it swing, but the romantic elements were neutered in the process. With Swingin' Lovers, Sinatra announced that it was possible to do both.

By adding a beat to a great love song, he proved that it could be erotic and rhythmic, that the two could enhance each other.  The beat made the lyrics more passionate, and the romance made the beat more compelling -- he showed that the heart is an instrument of rhythm as well as emotion.  He proved that the human heart could beat in solid four swing-time.