Frank Sinatra | Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (March 1956)
Jazz / Vocal Jazz / Traditional Pop 44:00
Three minutes – that’s all you get. From start to end, the average pop song can fit a love story, a broken heart, a lifetime of emotions, into just 180 seconds (give or take a few either side). But what makes that such a perfect length for a track? Why do we rarely hear a song last no more than 30 seconds or span out to a distant 10 minutes or more? With the odd exception, why has the Western world accepted that the time it takes to boil an egg is sufficient for a masterpiece of music.
Of course, the real reason is simply one of technical limitations. When the first singles were released at 78 rpm, it was only possible to record that amount of time on to the vinyl. Anything much longer would simply not fit – you had space for three minutes, so it made sense to make use of it. But it has been a long time since the days when those particular vinyl recordings were available; we’ve developed over the years to the point where, with our MP3 players, it is entirely possible to record hours of music as just a single song. Yet the three-minute pop song has remained – even thrived – as if this is the only length that the human brain can cope with hearing.
I know that there are exceptions – from the short blasts of thrash metal numbers to the sprawling sound of jazz performers (just take another listen to some of the wonderful tunes in the last album – rarely do you worry that Duke and his band have exceeded their allotted time). But, by and large, the traditional popular music hit, from the 1950s until today, is as close to three minutes as you can humanly hope for (in the case of The Jackson Five’s ABC, in fact, it is right on the nose). It persists on albums (most tracks on any long player will rarely extend beyond the four minute mark) and there is no getting away from the fact that, once your song starts, you have only a few short minutes to make the most of it before it ends.
The reason why we insist on keeping songs at this length is harder to fathom. But there is something about the shortness which works – they are long enough to tell us a story and etch their ways into our brains, but not so long that they outstay their welcome. Pick a favourite number and I suspect that you will be able to play it a good number of times on a loop before tiring of it. The art of the catchy tune, which has us humming along and tapping our feet, seems to be interwoven with the length of time it takes to run in its entirety.
So it comes as little surprise that Frank Sinatra follows this rule with one of his best known albums (which, as it happens, was the first album to ever reach the top of the official album charts in the UK). It surely cannot be a coincidence that the 15 tracks on Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! last a total of 45 minutes. Work it out – that’s an average of three minutes per number. Ol’ Blue Eyes seems to have found the formula and, wouldn’t you know it, it put him in the position of claiming the first ever number one.
Much of the credit for this album’s success (and arguably Sinatra’s change of fortune in the mid-1950s) is down to the brilliant arrangements of Nelson Riddle. Riddle had helped boost the career of Nat King Cole when he arrived at Capitol at the start of the decade, and the studio wanted to use him to help the newly arrived Sinatra find success. Frank had initially resisted but, after finally relenting, the result was the smash hit In The Wee Small Hours. Realising that Riddle was a good thing, the pair teamed up again a couple of years later. The final product was a million miles away from the misery of their first effort with the more upbeat Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! And what an album it is.
Things kick off in style with the brilliant You Make Me Feel So Young. From the off, this is clearly no repeat of the previous Sinatra record (in fact, only one slower song was allowed to be included to avoid it sounding anything like In The Wee Small Hours). The joie de vivre of the number, with Frank sounding like the excitement of young romance and the first budding of love wants to just explode out of him, is infectious. The arrangement truly makes one feel the burst of youth again and puts a smile on the face.
This is the Chairman of the Board that I remember; the swinging lounge lizard, crooning to the Las Vegas crowd. And while that may sound like damning him with faint praise, don’t be fooled. This is an album that never puts a foot wrong. The smooth tones of Frank’s voice against the warmth of the music turns this into a dream of an album. As he glides into It Happened in Monterey, the open roads of 1950s Europe open up before you; you can feel yourself in an open-top car, Audrey Hepburn by your side (to be fair, this may be more of a personal fantasy), driving down to a town by the sea, the sun glistening off the ocean. And the mood continues with You’re Getting to be a Habit with Me, another song of love and desire with no doubts or fears of unrequited feelings. When Sinatra sings on this album, the sun appears and all is right with the world.
The music continues to bring a smile to the face, with such classic renditions as Got You Under My Skin and Makin’ Whoppee (has anyone performed this number any better? The mischief in Sinatra’s voice as he sings the story of a man desperate for some nookey, but ends up in a relationship where he certainly isn’t wearing the trousers, you can almost see his broad grin). And if Anything Goes sounds a little out of place (one of the few times when Sinatra comes so close but doesn’t quite manage to pull it off), then it is all wrapped up beautifully with How About You.
We’re only seven albums in and already Sinatra has appeared twice (he makes it onto the list one more time but has to wait until 1967 for that third pleasure). And while there is no denying the excellence of his first album on the selection, this is the one for which, at least to this point in proceedings, he needs to be remembered. Like a summer’s day, this one still shines brighter than many of those which have come in the six decades since. As a way of starting the UK’s first album chart, there are few records more deserving than appearing as its first number one. This is a record which truly deserves to be on any list of the world’s greatest ever albums.
If you have a Spotify account, you can listen to the album here:
Next time: The “Chirping” Crickets by The Crickets