Rodgers & Hart & Sinatra

In recent years, friends have tagged me on Facebook asking for lists of favorite records and favorite books. I sighed a little when I received those assignments but enjoyed the thought and research involved with producing said lists, which can be found here and here. There might also have been requests for lists of favorite goat meat recipes, favorite Ibsen plays and favorite cities in Kansas with populations under 15,000, but I can’t remember at the moment, not that my memory is a reliable vehicle these days.

It wasn’t a sigh that greeted the challenge that befell me Sunday. No, I gasped when asked by my high school schoolmate Brian what is my favorite Frank Sinatra recording of a Rodgers & Hart song. I don’t know what prompted the question but it was a delicious one for several reasons.

First, songs by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart (Sinatra called him “Larry”) are among my favorites in the Sinatra pantheon, and that’s saying a lot. Rodgers the composer and Hart the lyricist worked together for almost a quarter century until Hart’s death in 1943. (That’s when Oscar Greeley Clendenning Hammerstein II came into the picture with Rodgers, though he had a perfectly fine career of his own and didn’t need to be anybody’s “and.”)

How to pick a favorite fruit from such a bountiful tree?

There’s “Lover.”

Lover, when I’m near you
And I hear you speak my name,
Softly in my ear you breathe a flame

and

Lover, when we’re dancing
Keep on glancing in my eyes
Till love’s own entrancing music dies.

Sinatra recorded it twice, in April 1950 for Columbia and March 1961 for Capitol. I prefer the earlier version, here.

And there’s “Where or When.” Sinatra recorded it in 1945 for Columbia, 1958 for Capitol, and again in 1993 for one of those vile Duets records, but I think it has worked better sung live. I heard him sing it twice, in September 1986 at the Chicago Theater and in October 1994 at Jones Hall in Houston, but the seminal version is the one on Sinatra at the Sands from January 1966, with the Basie band led by Quincy Jones. Have a listen here.

And there’s “Blue Moon,” from September 1960.

Blue moon, you knew just what I was there for
You heard me saying a prayer for
Someone I really could care for.

And there’s “Spring is Here.” Recorded in May 1958 for Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, the song is at once lovely and elegant and devastating, and the singer’s voice is in superb form. Long legato phrases extend without breath again and again. Listen here.

Spring is here —
Why doesn’t the breeze delight me?
Stars appear —
Why doesn’t the night invite me?
Maybe it’s because nobody loves me.
Spring is here, I hear.

I was pleased to hear the singer sing “Spring is Here” in April 1987, again at the Chicago Theater.

And then there’s Pal Joey (first a novel, then a Broadway show, then a movie). It was the 1957 film’s soundtrack album that I casually plucked from my parents’ record rack sometime in 1974, launching a lifetime of Sinatra appreciation. The first song I heard was “The Lady is a Tramp.”

I don’t know or care to know what it was that drew me in, but drawn in I was. And as the LP turned, the hits kept coming: “My Funny Valentine,” “Bewitched,” “There’s a Small Hotel,” “If They Asked Me I Could Write a Book.”

(It is outside the scope of this project, but if I had been asked a slightly different question — What is your favorite Frank Sinatra version of a Rodgers & Hart song? — then the answer would have been easy. It would have been this knockout duet with Ella Fitzgerald, from A Man & His Music + Ella + Jobim, taped Oct. 3, 1967.)

One Rodgers & Hart song over which I did not fret for this exercise was “Glad to Be Unhappy,” recorded in February 1955 for In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning. The lyric potential of

Unrequited love’s a bore
And I’ve got it pretty bad.
But for someone you adore
It’s a pleasure to be sad.

was not fulfilled by

Like a straying baby lamb
With no mammy and no pappy,
I’m so unhappy
But oh, so glad.

The song I was probably supposed to choose here was the February 1963 recording of “My Heart Stood Still.” The Concert Sinatra was — if you believe what the liner notes tell you — “an unparalleled achievement in the technology of sound,” having been recorded on 35mm film on Stage 7 of the Goldwyn Studio in Hollywood. Indeed, the eight songs, lifted by lush Nelson Riddle arrangements, are rich and sensuous. The voice is flawless, with the barest onset of the middle-age grittiness that I find so appealing in Sinatra music.

(Goldwyn Stage 7 is where the scores for Gone with the Wind, The Magnificent Seven, Spartacus, The Great Escape and Marnie were recorded.)

I heard Sinatra sing “My Heart Stood Still” twice, at those two Chicago shows, but that last note was a strain for a man in his 70s.

But what is my favorite Sinatra recording of a Rodgers & Hart song?

I came very close for my answer to choosing something out of deep left field. “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,” recorded in May 1966 and released on Strangers in the Night, is remarkable and likable to me by sheer virtue of its speed. The Nelson Riddle arrangement is a Formula 1 race, but the singer and orchestra keep up like champs. That recording is here, but an identical version was laid down a few weeks later at NBC’s Burbank Studios for A Man & His Music, Part II. Watch this.

What does that leave for a favorite? It leaves “It Never Entered My Mind” is what.

Once I laughed when I heard you saying
That I’d be playing solitaire,
Uneasy in my easy chair.
It never entered my mind.

A mournful March 1955 recording appeared on In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, but in the late 1970s Sinatra took to singing it live as half of a medley with Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “The Gal Who Got Away.” I heard him sing it in 1987.

The medley, recorded in April 1981, appeared on She Shot Me Down, and it is my favorite Frank Sinatra recording of a Rodgers & Hart song. The grit in the voice has turned to whiskey-soaked gravel, and love’s pain sears through. Here it is

Now, please, give me a year or two before even thinking of asking me about Cole Porter.

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