Ring-a-Ding-Ding! was Frank Sinatra's first album for his newly formed Reprise label. Recorded in December 1960, Sinatra brought in Johnny Mandel to arrange after hearing his swinging work for Vic Damone at the Sands in Las Vegas. For years, the analog and digital releases have had a paper-thin sound and annoying echo. Now Concord has reissued this classic, cleaning up earlier sonic problems in the remastering process. What's more, there are two bonus tracks that make this new 50th anniversary release a must-own.
For years, I have listened to the bootleg recording of this session [pictured], complete with Sinatra's song rundowns, his conversation with Johnny and the band and his take-charge direction on approach. Tape was rolling throughout many of Sinatra's sessions, and someone must have walked off with a dub. To me, the bootleg has always been a fascinating document, providing a glimpse of Sinatra at work in the studio with leading musicians of the day. But for years, most people have not had the privilege of hearing this valuable "chef in the kitchen" stuff.
Now, on the new release of Ring-a-Ding-Ding!, you get a taste of what only a relatively small number of people have heard—Sinatra trying to figure out how to approach two songs and ultimately passing on them. One was Have You Met Miss Jones? Here, there were three problems: Sinatra viewed it as a ballad, making it starkly different from the rest of the album's punchy material. There also were mistakes in the musicians' parts due to late delivery of the score to the copyist. And there were high notes that Sinatra audibly says were going to be difficult for him to reach.
But what you get on the 10 minute and 19 second rundown session of Have You Met Miss Jones? is a taste of Johnny's early string writing, in all its soaring, elegant glory. You also hear how Sinatra approached nearly arranged songs for the first time in the studio, sometimes having trouble wriggling into them.
The other bonus track is Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart, which has been issued previously in compilations. It, too, was left off the original album, as Sinatra audibly thrashes about trying stand out among the strings, horns, piano and drums, which were crowding him out.
Johnny told me in a 2008 interview that he was pressed for time when he arranged Ring-a- Ding-Ding! and that he had to subcontract other arrangers to ghost a couple of the charts—a common practice in the busy Hollywood recording studios. On this new release, the arrangers are acknowledged: Skip Martin handled Be Careful It's My Heart and Dick Reynolds arranged I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.
Johnny also told author Charles L. Granata in Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording that Reynolds worked on part of Easy to Love and possibly When I Take My Sugar to Tea. "What I would do when I was in a hurry is write the intros and the ending, and they'd write the things in the middle," Johnny said.
Johnny's arrangements throughout the album are deceptively powerful. They swing relentlessly and often with intrigue fed by unusual instrumentation. You almost forget that there are strings on the date, largely because they never play more of a role than necessary, which is a credit to Johnny's masterful taste and restraint.
Consider In the Still of the Night, one of the album's finest tracks. It's perfectly tailored to Sinatra, giving him plenty of room to lay back on beats and rush forward on others. Listen carefully, and you'll hear that Sinatra sounds as though he is riding a team of horses at full gallop.
On this new release, the sound is much improved, with the hard edges polished off and warmed up, and the midrange much more distinct and distortion-free. This alone is a vast accomplishment.
As Granata wrote:
"When compared to the astonishingly beautiful and consistent sound quality of the Capitol recordings, many of Sinatra's Reprise efforts pale. The biggest problem with the singer's recordings from this period is their uneven sound quality: one album might be marred by mild distortion, excess reverb, an abundance of tape hiss, uneven mixing and balance; the next could be an audio delight.
"The first album, Ring-a-Ding-Ding!, was also the first weak link in a chain. The recent discovery of copies of master tapes, missing from the Reprise vaults for years, reveals some clues regarding the less than perfect sonics of this landmark recording, and underscores the importance of meticulous mixing and mastering."
Many of these issues have been resolved on Concord's new issue of this Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mandel classic. My only hope is that Nancy Sinatra and the Sinatra estate, in cooperation with Concord, allows for the release of more candid material as other albums are remastered and reissued. Sinatra is even more fascinating when you hear him with his creative sleeves rolled up.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Frank Sinatra: Ring-a-Ding-Ding!, the 50th anniversary release at iTunes and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Johnny Mandel's arrangement of In the Still of the Night (not from the new reissue, by the way). Listen how it opens hushed with strings and then shifts gears halfway through to a open-throttle swinger...