History is written by the victors, so the music history of the mid 1960s generally focuses on the Beatles, Motown, the growing importance of the album, and the triumph of rock as an art form. History does not often acknowledge that the top male star of the same period was not a rock ‘n’ roller—it was that kid from Hoboken, Frank Sinatra.
Sinatra’s accomplishments in 1966, 1967, and 1968 were extraordinary. His work was nominated for the Album of the Year and Male Vocal Performance Grammys in all three years, winning each award twice. He was nominated for Record of the Year in both 1967 and 1968 and won the 1967 award for the #1 single “Strangers in the Night.”The Strangers in the Night album was also an enormous chart hit. For the week of July 23, 1966, it was#1 on the Billboard 200, his first #1 since 1960; the single was his biggest hit in over a decade. The kids who were buying the Mamas and the Papas in 1966 may not have been buying Sinatra’s records, but they were hearing them on the radio, because his songs were everywhere, even on Top 40 stations.
Why was Sinatra so popular then? Lemme answer that with another question: Have you heard the man sing?
In the summer of 1966, Sinatra was 50 years old. His resonant, trombone-like voice had never, and would never, sound better than it did during the last half of the 1960s. Its power is on full display on “Strangers in the Night” (with the famous “doo-be-doo-be-doo” ad lib at the end). There’s no better example of the Hollywood cool Sinatra epitomized in the 60s than on “Summer Wind.” Most of the songs on Strangers in the Night come from old-school songwriters, although Sinatra includes two by Tony Hatch, “Downtown,” a hit for Petula Clark, and “Call Me,” a song utterly forgotten today but quite familiar to listeners in the 1960s. Arranger and orchestra conductor Nelson Riddle is the album’s unsung hero, providing rich, innovative arrangements that enhance what Sinatra brings to the table.
The time-traveling mojo of pop songs never ceases to amaze—how they can bring back a place or a person or a moment and allow us to experience it again in the present. The amazing thing is that like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, we have no control over precisely what we’re going to experience. “Strangers in the Night” puts me into eight inches of water. From the first millisecond, I am six years old, splashing around with my brother in the inflatable kiddie pool, and somewhere in the background on a hot July afternoon, our hometown radio station is playing that song. It was again today, while I wrote this post.
In the next installment of The #1 Albums: the familiar historical order of the 1960s is restored.