Bob Dylan and Annie Lennox have each released standards albums recently, joining a long procession of contemporary singers that extends back to Willie Nelson and his 1978 Stardust album and includes Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, and, in the finest and most improbable effort of all, British pop king Robbie Williams, with Swing When You’re Winning (2001). Such albums invariably are described as “Sinatra music,” because, in nearly every case, Frank Sinatra recorded what became the standard version of these songs. Dylan, whose not-bad Shadows in the Night (2015) consists entirely of Sinatra music, says that Frank Sinatra “is the mountain you have to climb, even if you only get part of the way there. . . . Nobody touches him. Not me or anybody else.”
Ben Yagoda rightly devotes the cover of his new book to a 1950s-era photograph of Sinatra singing in a recording studio. Then he wrongly makes Sinatra a relatively minor character in his story. You’ll read a lot more about songwriters like Jay Livingston and Ray Evans than you will about Frank Sinatra here, and you may find yourself wondering why.
Yagoda is best at describing the technological changes that shaped popular music during the first half of the 20th century. Until records were invented, songs entered homes in the form of sheet music. Because they were sung by families gathered around the piano, tunes had to be easy to play and lyrics easy to remember. Home music became professionalized with the invention of the phonograph. With singers and instrumentalists competent to handle hard-to-play melodies, and harmonies now supplying the music, composers such as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin embraced the new opportunity to write sophisticated songs.
Early discs could only play one cut per side, so these writers learned to compose to an AABA form (two choruses, the bridge, then another chorus, each eight bars long), benefiting from that discipline of form as surely as sonnet writers have from theirs. Then, in the 1920s, along came radio to provide a mass audience for these records, which were often performed by big bands. Microphones, another innovation, meant that a band’s singer didn’t have to belt to be heard. Record makers, radio programmers, jukebox owners (they bought half of all records in the late thirties), and the big bands all placed a premium on new songs, the assumption being that no one wanted to hear (much less buy) numbers they’d heard before. Popular songs, even from movie musicals or the stage, generally were dismissed as ephemera: all the rage today, tossed in a drawer tomorrow.
Frank Sinatra was the young band singer in the early 1940s who figured out that modern audiences would appreciate hearing forgotten gems from old Broadway shows by writers like Porter and Kern. Recklessly, or so it was thought at the time, he left the popular Tommy Dorsey Orchestra to strike out on his own. Tenderness, not fervor, was what a wartime nation was looking for, Sinatra calculated. And so the typical songs in his early repertory as a soloist—sung conversationally, even intimately, into a microphone and played on a record or over the radio—were old Broadway compositions originally written for heartsick female characters: “Someone to Watch Over Me” (the Gershwins), for example, or “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart) or “All the Things You Are” (Kern).
It’s not too much to say that, in resurrecting them, Sinatra was inventing the whole idea of standards and, thereby, creating the Great American Songbook.
But not without a struggle. Postwar audiences, Yagoda shows, were more interested in novelty (“The Doggie in the Window,” accompanied by barks) and gimmickry (“Mule Train,” complete with whip cracks) than quality. Along with two busted marriages and some serious vocal problems, the new fad reduced Sinatra’s clout and placed him at odds with the leading pop impresario of the day, Columbia Records’ Mitch Miller. Even when Sinatra had a hit with a flaccid number like “Goodnight, Irene” in 1950 he could barely hide his disgust: “You oughta do a lot of songs like that,” a disc jockey brightly told Sinatra on the air.
“Don’t hold your breath,” he replied.