Frank Sinatra | In The Wee Small Hours (April 1955)
Vocal Jazz / Traditional Pop – 48:41
Growing up, I remember seeing Frank Sinatra performing on the television. By this stage, in the 1980s, he seemed a relic to me; someone my grandparents listened to. The overweight elderly gentleman (who, to be fair, was probably only in his late 60s) was a far cry from the music which I listened to each week on Top of the Pops.
Even as my musical tastes have developed, Ol’ Blue Eyes has never really hit my radar. Despite the love which so many seem to possess of him, I have always maintained that singers like Tony Bennett did it much better. How I knew this is beyond me – while Tony Bennett is certainly one of the finest singers of the last 50 years, it seems odd that I should make this assumption based on just one or two over-played Sinatra recordings. Songs like My Way or New York, New York may be bone fide classics but when you have heard them so often, they do lose some of their sheen. Which makes listening to In The Wee Small Hours something of a revelation.
Going back to the albums of the mid-1950s is an interesting exercise. My musical knowledge, in terms of history, is fairly sound in the most part when it comes to the development of modern music. Yes, I have one or two blind spots, but from the middle of the Swingin’ Sixties (say around 1963 and the arrival of The Beatles) I like to think that I have some understanding of the context of the records. I know who was writing for other artists, how one band would compete with another to create a better sound, the musicians jumping from one act to another as they settled into their chosen genre. But as I press play and the opening piano of the title track from In The Wee Small Hours begins to stream through the speakers, I suddenly feel lost. I have no concept of this period in time. It is completely alien – my parents’ records, which, as my musical tastes were awakened in my youth, would be brought out and played on the old record player, all dated from the 1960s, not the 1950s. Rock ‘n’ roll had made way for the British Invasion and the coming of the hippies in their collection. Sinatra is someone I have no connection with.
I have some vague knowledge of Frank, naturally – you don’t become Chairman of the Board without some of your legend being spoken of even by youngsters who have never even played one of your songs. By the time In The Wee Small Hours was released, Frank had fallen from his days of grandeur in the 1940s to one of a washed out performer, ready to be thrown aside like so many former superstars. His marriage to Ava Gardener was on the rocks and he was at his lowest ebb. It was in this context that he recorded the melancholic sounds of In The Wee Small Hours. And, boy, can you tell. With my only experience of Frank being the jolly, swinging, finger-snapping star of Vegas, this is a whole new world for me.
Things begin gently with the faint, almost hesitant, sound of a piano before Frank’s tones begin to intonate the title track. His voice seems almost sleepy – this isn’t the confident voice of a man commanding performances to crowds of cheering fans. Here is a lonely man who is feeling the pain of lost love; one who is deeply missing his soulmate, a connection he thought he had made but which proved to be crumbling before him. It is strong enough to bring you up short: as he continues into Mood Indigo, you realise that this is not a one-off; here is album in which a man’s soul suffering is laid bare. It is the sound of solitude and facing those demons with only a stiff drink to protect you.
And it works so well. Instantly, you feel a need to pour yourself a whiskey and sit at a bar in some American city, lost in thoughts of loves that could have been. Sitting here with the tunes seeping out of the speakers, you realise that this is a record which has to be heard under specific circumstances. This isn’t one to pull out at parties – this is one to pay a visit to late at night, when you’re sat alone, wondering why everyone else is partying and leaving you in isolation.
Widely regarded as launching the age of the album (and concept albums at that – you can trace the story of a man broken by love throughout the recording), you couldn’t ask for a greater start to a journey through the 1,001 best albums of all time. While many things have moved on, there is still a power in returning to just one man using his voice to express his inner thoughts. If the next 1000 albums can reach this standard, it is going to be an easy ride.
Any stand outs among the tracks? Obviously the opener is a rightly remembered classic, but isolating one or two songs seems to defeat the purpose of this album (and, quite probably, this project). Grab that bottle of spirits, turn down the lights and wallow in the sound of a true great. Frank – I apologise; I understand now why you are considered so great. Thank you for entertaining me with your misery.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: Elvis Presley by Elvis Presley