I am certain that when Frank Sinatra was a child, he must have gazed at the Manhattan skyline just across the Hudson River. If you’ve ever been to Hoboken, you know that the big city appears to be so close that you can almost reach out and touch the buildings. It’s a place where a young man can dream big dreams. When Sinatra was old enough, he made his escape. For him, and for countless others, “The Apple,” as he called it, became the center of the world.
The esteemed reissue masters at Rhino have chosen to commemorate this love affair between a singer and a city with a new five-disc package called, appropriately, Sinatra: New York. Four of the discs are audio CDs featuring Sinatra concerts from a variety of New York City venues. The earliest performance, on Disc One, was recorded at Manhattan Center in 1955 at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Tommy Dorsey band, a group which Sinatra had famously been part of in the 1940s. Sinatra does three songs with Dorsey and the band for the occasion. The remainder of the disc was recorded at the United Nations in September, 1963. It was U.N. Staff Day, and Sinatra performed accompanied only by pianist Skitch Henderson. Among the songs that day were “I Have Dreamed,” and “My Heart Stood Still,” from the Concert Sinatra album which had been released earlier that year.
Frank Sinatra was only 55 years old when he called it quits in 1971. Somewhat predictably, he returned two years later with Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, and a year after that he went on tour to benefit Variety Clubs International, a children’s charity. One of the stops on that tour was at Carnegie Hall on April 8, 1974. There, Sinatra not only sang classics like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Come Fly With Me,” but dug into his then-new album for splendid versions of “There Used To Be A Ballpark” and “You Will Be My Music.” I was reminded again of Sinatra’s wonderful practice of naming the songwriters of each song that he sang. It was an endearing gesture of respect from the singer to the artists who provided his material.
Later that same year, Sinatra returned to New York City for a two night stand at Madison Square Garden. The second night, dubbed “The Main Event,” was televised. The arena was set up as it would be for a boxing match, and Sinatra, who came on stage in boxing gloves, was introduced by Howard Cosell. We get the first night here. The band that night was Woody Herman’s Young Thundering Herd, and they accompanied Sinatra on standards like “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “My Kind of Town,” and newer fare such as “Send in the Clowns,” “Let Me Try Again,” David Gates’ “If, and Jim Croce’s “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” The latter actually sounds pretty good when given the big band treatment. True to the nature of the event, Sinatra was in a pugnacious mood, taking shots at the tabloid journalists he’d recently done battle with in Australia, and deriding the current public taste for what he called “acid rock.” Disc Three is the weakest of the set, owing to a combination of factors, including the impersonal nature of the larger venue, and Sinatra’s apparent state of mind at the time.
The final audio disc consists of portions of two shows, one from Carnegie Hall in 1984, and a late-career set from Radio City Music hall six years later. Sinatra is for the most part found interpreting the classics. One interesting moment occurs when he expresses his disdain for “Strangers in the Night” before singing it. The Radio City show closes, as it should, with the “Theme From New York, New York.”
The real gold, though, is Disc Five, the DVD. This disc presents Sinatra at Carnegie Hall in 1980. It is a majestic performance, visually and audibly stunning, from the then 65-year-old maestro. No matter who your favorite frontman might be, Springsteen, Bono, Jagger, Vedder, or anyone else, no one has ever commanded a stage the way that Sinatra did. I had the good fortune of seeing him perform twice. The second time was late in his career and in an arena, but the first time, at a nightclub in Atlantic City in the ’70s, was simply unforgettable. All of the years, all of the experiences, all of the skills are on display in Sinatra’s performance here, and the audience is in the palm of his hand throughout. If you’ve ever wondered why Sinatra was and is seen as the epitome of cool, I recommend this DVD to you.
It’s worth noting that the sound is magnificent for each of the Carnegie Hall shows presented here. With all due respect to producer Charles Pignone, who has done a wonderful job in pulling all of this together, Carnegie Hall just sounds so good, particularly for strings, that it seems like you all you have to do is throw a mic up and hit record.
In typical Rhino fashion, Sinatra: New York is more than just music and video. In addition to the 71 previously unreleased performances here (55 on CD, 16 on DVD), there are tributes from Martin Scorcese, Tony Bennett, Yogi Berra, and Twyla Tharp. There are liner notes from the legendary writer Nat Hentoff, and essays from film director William Friedkin, official Madison Square Garden photographer George Kalinsky, Sinatra’s audio engineer Tom Young, Frank Sinatra, Jr., and even Joe and Sal Scognamillo, who owned Patsy’s, Sinatra’s favorite hangout in New York City.
I’m not particularly fond of the designation “critic.” In any event, the music here is beyond any criticism I could level. It is simply above reproach. I could quibble about how many times we have to hear “My Way,” or “I Get A Kick Out Of You,” both of which are repeated in several of the shows here, but quibbles is all they would be. Part technical skill, part inspiration, this music is all magic. Last week one of my colleagues here at Popdose was saying how much he likes Sinatra, and wondering if there are other “crooners” he should be listening to. There were lots of suggestions: Cole, Bennett, and the like. They are all wonderful artists, but the fact remains that Frank Sinatra was a giant, and we will not see his like again. This package brings it all back home beautifully.