While it's common knowledge that Frank Sinatra idolized Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and other jazz artists, he sadly recorded with too few of them in the 1940s. Much of this neglect was due to the image Columbia fashioned for him, his marathon schedule, and corporate fears and racism. Like film-industry movie stars of the period, top singers like Sinatra were told what to do and when to do it by the record labels that employed them. They had little choice.
In late 1946, Columbia publicists were positioning Sinatra as the crooning boy next door. The label's executives chose to play up his heartthrob qualities and minimize his affinity for jazz and African-American musicians. If Sinatra had too close a relationship with the jazz stars of the day, Columbia feared, the association might jeopardize his massive post-war fan base—white, love-sick teenage girls. The record company just wasn't willing to take the chance.
Writes Gary Marmorstein in The Label: The Story of Columbia Records:
"[After the war,] Frank Sinatra was the most visible illustration of the new phenomenon of the singer, rather than bandleader, as star. Sinatra, squired around by [Columbia executive] Mannie Sacks whenever he was back on the East Coast, remained the label's premier male singer... In three years following the end of the [recording] ban [by the musicians union] and the war, Sinatra commenced the first phase of his astonishingly intimate rapport with listeners."
Sinatra was a hot property. His innocent yet street-smart image and tenement-tight performance schedule were carefully guarded by Columbia's star-makers. By 1946, Sinatra was performing 45 shows a week during some months. That year also saw the release of his first folio album of 78s, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, and the debut of his own weekly radio show. On screen, Sinatra appeared at the end of Till the Clouds Roll By singing Ol' Man River. He also starred in the well-received It Happened in Brooklyn, in which he played a veteran without a family returning to the New York borough he loves and taking a job in a store playing the latest sheet music for teens. Let's click off Columbia's image bonus for Sinatra—a vet, a stray, a sensitive New Yorker, an average worker, a good guy, and great with kids. [Photo of Frank Sinatra in 1946 by Peter Stackpole for Life]
On the recording side, Columbia had Sinatra in the studio several times a month, up to six songs per session. Many of those recording dates were romantic affairs thick with strings and geared to soften up the pocketbooks of his target audience. Today, many of these sides are so impossibly lush that they barely hold your interest. Imagine what Sinatra would have sounded like in the mid-1940s backed by Lester Young, Ben Webster or Harry Carney.
Actually, we know what he sounded like with one of them.
On Tuesday, December 17, 1946, Sinatra joined the winners and runners-up in Metronome magazine's reader's poll to record a single side at Columbia's studios. Back then, the famed jazz magazine each year brought together as many of its readers' favorites to record two sides of a 78-rpm single. The magazine rotated the record labels from year to year, and in 1946 it was Columbia's turn. Since Sinatra was signed to Columbia, the label permitted him to make the session. The song chosen for the Sinatra side was Sweet Lorraine, with Nat Meets June, a blues, on the flip side that paired singers Nat King Cole and June Christy.
Backing Sinatra were Charlie Shavers (trumpet), Lawrence Brown (trombone), Johnny Hodges (alto sax), Coleman Hawkins (tenor saxophone), Harry Carney (baritone saxophone), Nat King Cole (piano), Bob Ahern (guitar), Eddie Safranski (bass) and Buddy Rich (drums). Informal arrangements were written by Sy Oliver, who also conducted the session.
The band was ready for the one- or two-take date. A day before it had assembled for a rehearsal session without Sinatra. Nat King Cole played Sinatra's vocal part on the piano, and Dave Tough sat in on drums for Buddy Rich.
When Sinatra came in to record the next day, the arrangement called for him to sing a chorus and a half on the mid-tempo standard. This gave everybody in the band an opportunity to solo for four bars or more. Listen as Nat Cole skips down the keys on the introduction, picking up bassist Eddie Safranski and drummer Buddy Rich on brushes along the way. Sinatra comes in and sings six measures and change with just the trio behind him before a restless Harry Carney jumps in behind him.
As Carney and Sinatra work together, Sinatra tries to hop ahead of Carney's obbligato. By the close of the chorus, the rest of the band joins in and the solos begin. Hodges is particularly pretty here, tiptoeing in and out of the melody before being overtaken by Shavers. Hawk comes in for a beautiful solo spot. Then Sinatra returns with a somewhat stiff reading on top of Carney and the swinging band. By the end Sinatra, backed by Cole, manages to offer up some of the hip timing savvy he'd exhibit in later years.
To hear Sinatra backed by Harry Carney is quite remarkable. And a thrill. Only two takes were made. Unfortunately, it's all we have of Sinatra merging with a team of jazz legends until he teamed with Count Basie on his own Reprise label in 1962. Imagine what could have been. What a shame.
JazzWax clip: Here's the recording of Sweet Lorraine with Sinatra and Carney, and the band. Dig Carney's sharp baritone elbows and how Sinatra maneuvers to keep from being caught by them...