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Holiday Gift Guide Review: Frank Sinatra, “Duets: Twentieth Anniversary”

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Frank Sinatra - Duets SDE

“May you live to be one hundred and may the last voice you hear be mine.”  The image of Frank Sinatra, glass in hand, delivering that favorite toast is an indelible one.  His wasn’t just a voice, after all.  Before he was Ol’ Blue Eyes or The Chairman of the Board, he was simply The Voice.  And through all its many changes, The Voice endured.  The pure, romantically-charged timbre that set the hearts of bobbysoxers pounding in the forties transformed into the ultimate instrument of ultimate cool during the fifties and sixties.  Cigarettes, whiskey and experience deepened the once-crystalline tone as the decades rolled on, but in any year, Frank Sinatra exuded an air somehow both untouchable and intimate…and always unflaggingly honest.  Yet until now, none of the roughly 60 studio albums recorded by the artist had ever been expanded into box set format.  Capitol Records has finally made that move with 1993’s triple-platinum Duets, now combined with its 1994 platinum follow-up Duets II.  The Duets – Twentieth Anniversary campaign includes a 2-CD/1-DVD Super Deluxe Edition box set (Capitol B0019342-00), 2-CD Deluxe Edition (with both audio discs from the box set, including bonus tracks), 2-LP vinyl set (with just the original albums) and single-CD Best of Duets highlights disc.

Duets, originally released on November 2, 1993 and included as the first disc of the Super Deluxe box, marked Sinatra’s return to Capitol Records after a more than thirty-year absence. His first studio album for the label since 1962’s Point of No Return, Duets teamed the celebrated icon with producer Phil Ramone, co-producer Hank Cattaneo, and a host of performers from various musical genres and eras.  It took a good deal of coaxing to get the 77-year old superstar into the studio to bring Duets to life, and a good deal of Ramone’s studio wizardry, too.  Duets, for good or ill, helped popularize the now rather commonplace concept of the virtual duet, as Ramone recorded Sinatra in the famous Studio A with Bill Miller at the piano and a full orchestra conducted by Patrick Williams…and nary a duet partner in sight.  (Wasn’t Sinatra always a trendsetter?)  All of the famous personnel would be added later, with Ramone using a fiber-optics system developed in part by George Lucas’ Skywalker Sound to record Sinatra’s guests.  Twenty years on, divorced from any controversy about the recording techniques, Duets holds up surprisingly well.  For all the illustrious talent on display on the LP, the reason why boils down to three words: Francis Albert Sinatra (with a little help from his friends).

Hit the jump to join us as we dive into Duets: Twentieth Anniversary!

By the time Sinatra entered Capitol’s Hollywood studios to record Duets, The Voice was a bit frayed, the timing a hair off.  But he had a not-so-secret weapon: unimpaired interpretive skills, the kind that raised the bar for the art of singing.  If there was any doubt that Sinatra was still, and forever, the master, the final track on the original Duets should have been evidence enough.  For Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby,” Sinatra was joined by Kenny G and his smooth-jazz tenor saxophone.  But the sax man doesn’t – can’t – detract from one of the finest recordings of Sinatra’s late career.  Quite simply, the quintessential storyteller Sinatra owned Arlen and Mercer’s quintessential saloon song.  A lesser talent might have overdone the pathos, or played up the melancholy.  But Sinatra’s matter-of-factly tender reading was filled with just the right amounts of swagger, resolve and defeat.  There were ghosts in Sinatra’s saloon, perhaps accounting for the slight quaver in his voice.  “One for My Baby” was a crowning moment.  If nothing else on Duets quite compared, the other tracks weren’t exactly without merit, either.

Much credit goes to the stunningly perfect arrangements originally crafted for Sinatra by the likes of Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Billy Byers, and reprised by Patrick Williams’ orchestra.  Most of these have become so ingrained in the consciousness that they’ve intimidated many a singer and arranger who have attempted to follow them, and Williams rendered them not as museum pieces, but with vivacity.  Sinatra was comfortable with these charts, and it shows in the best of his performances on Duets.

Ramone assembled his singers primarily from the worlds of R&B (Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Anita Baker, Natalie Cole) and pop (Carly Simon, Gloria Estefan, Kenny G, Julio Iglesias), with a cursory nod to rock (U2’s Bono).  Three of the performers were intimate acquaintances of the Great American Songbook (Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli).  The odd man out, Charles Aznavour, was (and is) a legendary figure in his own right, a so-called “French Sinatra” and accomplished composer, singer and humanitarian.

It’s a pleasure hearing Aretha Franklin return to standards, and she joins an engaged Sinatra on a lively “What Now My Love.”  Like Franklin, Barbra Streisand also spent a portion of her career away from the classic songbook, and she brings an adult contemporary sheen to her rendition of George and Ira Gershwin’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You.”  It’s the rare track on which Sinatra acknowledges his long-distance duet partner, referring to “my Barbra” in the lyric, and his heartfelt, even fragile vocal is perfectly joined by Streisand’s still-resplendent, creamy tone.   Gloria Estefan isn’t as natural a match as Streisand, but her duet on “Come Rain or Come Shine” is another standout, largely thanks to Sinatra’s undiminished style as an Arlen interpreter.  Even when his voice is rough around the edges, as on this track, he’s able to get under the skin and to the core of the blues.

Natalie Cole reclaims her birthright on the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” singing a Neal Hefti arrangement adapted by Patrick Williams.  Another second-generation superstar, Liza Minnelli, is playful on Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “I’ve Got the World on a String.”  Sinatra’s old friend Minnelli might have been the most natural choice to join him on “(Theme from) New York, New York.”  After all, she and Frank shared the song (a signature of both) on the Ultimate Event tour.  But Astoria’s own Tony Bennett more than holds his own with his close pal on John Kander and Fred Ebb’s anthem, adopted by not just the Big Apple, but the world.  Bennett changes the lyric to “your little town blues,” etc., in deference to his friend and hero.

Among the more surprising tracks on the original Duets, Luther Vandross is spirited on a loose “The Lady is a Tramp.”  Though a powerful singer, R&B great Vandross doesn’t overpower Sinatra, utilizing skills honed as one of the most prominent background singers of his era.   Bono’s respect for Sinatra is well-known, and that reverence comes through on his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” – even if the younger singer’s shifting vocal quality is a bit of an acquired taste where Cole Porter is concerned.

Frank Sinatra - Duets DEWith the great success of Duets, a second volume was inevitable.  It arrived just one year later and adhered to the same template as the first, with old friends (Antonio Carlos Jobim, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Lena Horne) joined by an even more eclectic roster of admirers including Willie Nelson, Chrissie Hynde, Jimmy Buffett, and a certain Frank Sinatra Jr.!  As before, the results were mixed, but there were plenty of highlights.

One of the most inspired choices was to include Stevie Wonder on “For Once in My Life.”  Wonder had already made Ron Miller and Orlando Murden’s song his own via his uptempo rendition, and it made perfect sense for him to revisit it with Sinatra and Wonder’s onetime Motown labelmate Gladys Knight in Don Costa’s famous swing arrangement.  Just as inspired were the invitations Ramone and Cattaneo sent to Antonio Carlos Jobim and Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.  The 20 recordings made by Jobim and Sinatra on the albums Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim (arranged by Claus Ogerman) and Sinatra and Company (arranged by Eumir Deodato) are among the most stunning in either man’s catalogue, with Sinatra bringing the art of intimate singing to new heights.  Jobim joins Sinatra here on “Fly Me to the Moon,” and supplies a bossa nova introduction that transports the listener back to those earlier albums.  The main body of the song features Quincy Jones’ chart of Bart Howard’s song; while a true bossa nova treatment for the entire track would have been preferable, there’s still charm in hearing these old pros go at it one more time.

Likewise, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme make pure magic on the gently swinging Rodgers and Hart ballad “Where or When.”  As with Jobim, it’s hard not to wonder what even more wonderful results would have emerged from a face-to-face duet session, but the track “as is” is still sheer nostalgic delight.  (Lawrence’s Sinatra tribute, Steve Lawrence Sings Sinatra, utilized the arrangements gifted to him by his friend Frank, including for “Where or When.”  The album is a warm, heartfelt and impeccably sung tribute.)

As with Jobim or Lawrence and Gorme, there’s an added emotional frisson to Lena Horne’s duet on “Embraceable You.”  There’s real intimacy despite the recording circumstances as Horne addresses Sinatra with her formidable, smoky pipes.  For his part, Sinatra’s sensitive, almost halting response to her via Ira Gershwin’s lyrics is altogether affecting.  Another winning match is with Linda Ronstadt.  The Nelson Riddle veteran was up to the challenge of “Moonlight in Vermont,” wrapping her chops around the art song in Patrick Williams’ arrangement based on Billy May’s original.  Ronstadt complements Sinatra’s occasionally rough delivery with her clear, pure tones.  Unlike Ronstadt, Chrissie Hynde didn’t venture into standards territory, but she’s cool and sultry on “Luck Be a Lady.”  The family vocal resemblance is apparent on the boisterous “My Kind of Town” with the younger Sinatra; unfortunately a planned duet with Nancy Sinatra was never completed.

Less successful is Sinatra’s pairing with Luis Miguel on an awkward “Come Fly with Me.”  An odd lyric change obliterates Sammy Cahn’s original rhyme scheme: “If you can use some exotic booze, there’s a bar in far Bombay/Come on, fly with me, we’ll float down in the blue” is sung in the first verse, though the latter line should be “Come on, fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away” to preserve the “away”/”bombay” rhyme.

A handful of bonus tracks have been appended to each album.  On Duets, you’ll hear Luciano Pavarotti on “My Way,” but the intensely personal statement is, of course, diluted by the presence of any duet partner, even one as distinguished as Pavarotti.  The fact that the legendary tenor isn’t a pop singer (of any genre) makes his appearance stand out, and it’s indeed best enjoyed as a bonus cut.  Tom Scott replaces Kenny G on a previously unreleased mix of “One for My Baby,” and many might find Scott’s more subtle playing preferable to Kenny G’s finished cut.

For Duets II, there’s another “My Way” – this time with Willie Nelson, another veteran of the Great American Songbook.  Though Nelson exudes homespun charm on the album proper’s “A Foggy Day,” his less-is-more, laidback vocal style isn’t ideally suited for the bombastic anthem.  (Both Pavarotti and Nelson’s “My Way” renditions were included on the 90th Birthday Edition of Duets, with Nelson’s version on the U.S. issue and Pavarotti’s released internationally.)  Also from the country world, Tanya Tucker is solid on a previously unreleased take of “Embraceable You,” and George Strait’s previously available duet of “Fly Me to the Moon” from his Strait Out of the Box is reprised.

A DVD includes the 1993 Duets EPK (Electronic Press Kit) plus the music video for Bono’s duet of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and bonus interviews from the period with Tony Bennett, Bill Miller, Hank Cattaneo, engineer Al Schmitt, artist LeRoy Neiman and others.  The 15-minute EPK is light on information, and it’s too bad that a retrospective documentary couldn’t be produced, putting Duets and its sequel into perspective.

The Duets: Twentieth Anniversary box is lavishly packaged in classy style befitting the artist. The individual discs are housed in a folder adorned with a photograph of the young Sinatra, while the gatefold vinyl LP jacket has the original LeRoy Neiman Duets paintings on the front and back covers.  A 20-page booklet includes box set producer Charles Pignone’s straightforward appreciation of the albums, as well as David Wild’s original Duets notes and Bill Zehme’s for Duets II.  Larry Walsh, who remixed many of the recent Sinatra reissues on Concord, has remastered.  In a nice touch, the set has been dedicated to the late Phil Ramone, who died earlier in 2013.

Where this handsomely-designed package truly disappoints is the paucity of rare, desirable bonus material.  What a treat it would have been to hear something on the order of Frank Sinatra – Solos, the original, unvarnished recordings made by Ramone and Cattaneo before portions of Sinatra’s vocals were spliced out to accommodate the duet partners.  These in-the-raw recordings (some of which have been leaked) would have made the perfect companions to the finished versions and the perfect tribute to Sinatra the artist.  Other unreleased outtakes also exist, including Sinatra’s vocal for the proposed Nancy Sinatra duet “Nice ‘n’ Easy” and studio recordings of “Moonlight in Vermont,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Angel Eyes.”  (Sinatra’s vocals on “Moonlight” and “Valentine” on Duets II were actually culled from concert performances, not in-studio takes.  More information on the sessions can be found here at the Sinatra Family Forum.)  Without any of these key recordings, Duets – Twentieth Anniversary falls far short of being the revelatory re-evaluation of these important albums that it could have been.

Completists should take note that a Target-exclusive edition of the Best of Duets highlights CD (Capitol B0019437-02) includes one track not on the box set, “All the Way” with Celine Dion.  In addition, the U.K. version of the box set adds Capitol’s 2002 Classic Duets release featuring vintage duets with artists such as Louis Armstrong, Peggy Lee, Ethel Merman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and others.

There’s quite a story still left to be told about Frank Sinatra’s Duets, a story of how technology met artistry to create two vastly successful albums.  Though this box set only tells part of that story, one hopes it will lead to future deluxe sets dedicated to the cream of the crop or the top of the heap of Sinatra’s legendary albums, whether Songs for Swingin’ Lovers Ring-a-Ding Ding! or Sinatra/Jobim.  (In the case of the latter, the unreleased 5.1 surround mix would make a particularly delectable inclusion.)  With his 100th birthday approaching in 2015 and his music as integral a part of our culture as ever, Frank Sinatra deserves nothing less.

Written by Joe Marchese

December 6, 2013 at 13:13

One Response

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  1. Very good set of comments. Yes Duets is flawed but fascinating. This reissue is another missed op as you say. And when will the SInatra estate realise the gems of the SInatra Solos – which amount to more than 30 tracks – and could be put out as a double album. They are – in the tracks released on various bootlegs – revelatory and moving. They could even be combined with such gems as Sinatra’s last ever concert performance from 1995.

    As you say I hope all of this and more finally sees the light of day in 2015. Its Frank’s Planet after all!

    Gerry Hassan

    December 9, 2013 at 15:46


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