Before We Was Fab: Frank Sinatra, “Learnin’ the Blues”
I can’t believe this series has been running for half a year and there has been not a single entry from Ol’ Blue Eyes himself. I mean to rectify that now, and I’ve chosen one of my favorite Sinatra songs from the ’50s for the occasion.
Written by Dolores Vicki Silvers, “Learnin’ the Blues” was first released by Frank Sinatra as a single in the spring of 1955 (Capitol Records F3102), b/w “If I Had Three Wishes.” It never made it to a proper studio LP but has been featured on several compilations, of which I believe 1956’s This Is Sinatra! was the first. That album, incidentally, was the first collection of Sinatra singles and B-sides issued by Capitol, and all feature the arrangements of the legendary Nelson Riddle.
Look at Silvers’ lyrics and you’d suspect “Learnin’ the Blues” to be a typical Sinatra torch song in the vein of In the Wee Small Hours, but that’s interestingly not the case. Rather, Riddle imbues the number with a brassy but gentle swing to blunt the impact of lines like, “The cigarettes you light / one after another /Won’t help you forget her / and the way that you love her / You’re only burnin’ / a torch you can’t lose / but you’re on the right track / for learnin’ the blues.” This rendition is too casual and fun to be a real downer, but stays grounded thanks to the lyrics. It’s sort of a swingin’ cautionary tale if you will.
“Swingin’ the Blues” was released in the days before the streamlined Billboard Hot 100 but was a hit nonetheless. By June ’55 it had cracked the Top 10 of all three major pop song charts — Best Sellers in Store, Most Played by Jockeys, and Most Played in Jukeboxes — and it hit #1 on the disc jockey chart on July 9. Its stay at number one last just one week, as on July 16 it gave way to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock.” I don’t know if there is all that much significance in that switch, but it sure feels like it.
I don’t think you need me to tell you how the trajectory of Frank Sinatra’s career went after 1955, other than to say that by some arguments he still had his best music ahead of him. As for Dolores Silvers, a former Ford Agency model who was reportedly offered the chance to be the first female co-host of The Today Show, she drifted away from the entertainment industry some time in the late ’60s as far as I can tell. Silvers died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.