If there were ever a perfect song written about attaining nirvana, of finding the bliss we are all seeking, Sinatra’s “On A Clear Day” is it.
It‘s time for a little Frank… You see, Frank Sinatra was still having hits in the 1960s: “Strangers in the Night”, “My Way”, “That’s Life”, “It Was A Very Good Year” and others. He kept on recording into the ’80s and ’90s long after he should have stopped, but he had only turned fifty in 1965 and still had many vital recordings ahead of him.
Frank didn‘t listen to rock singers much, and he thought that popular music had generally gone straight downhill since and including the arrival of Elvis, but here‘s something to consider: rock singers, blues singers, folk singers, you name it, they all listened to Frank‘s music. People might go off Frank for the way he lived his personal life, but I doubt there‘s a music fan alive who ever went off Frank for the way he sang.
Oh, and speaking of Frank and his opinions on the “new music”, he once said that he considered George Harrison‘s “Something In The Way You Move” to be the best love song written in the past 50 years. His version of that song is worth checking out; he was surely one of the great song pickers of them all. So much of his recorded output stands the test of time because above all he knew gold from crap, even though he had the technique to turn ormolu into the genuine article.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born in 1915 and died in 1998. He began as a swing band singer and was a big star in the 1940s, so much so that Bing Crosby said of him, “Frank’s the kind of singer that comes along once in a lifetime, but why did he have to come along in mine?” Frank joined Columbia Records and then Capitol Records as a solo artist. For Capitol he made a series of incredibly moving and romantic ballad albums in the late 1950s after the heartbreak of a disastrous marriage with the beautiful Ava Gardner.
Some say Frank never got over losing Ava, while others believe the loss turned Frank into the artist he might never have become otherwise. There‘s nothing like the right love gone wrong to make a man grow up, and grow up he did. His voice changed, got deeper and darker, and he found The Cry. He never had The Cry before but when The Cry got into him everything had changed for Frank and everyone knew it. I‘ll bet it broke Ava‘s heart to listen to his rendition of “I Don‘t Stand A Ghost of a Chance With You” or “One For My Baby And One More For The Road”. As recordings they reach the artistry of Maria Callas, whose wounded heart and vocal outpourings are the standard for all romantic singers.
Here‘s what noted jazz writer Pete Welding had to say in the original liner notes of Frank‘s album ―No One Cares, recorded in 1959: “
For me, in recent years, the world has been divided into two groups of people: those who dig Sinatra and those who do not. There is, on the subject of singing, an impenetrable curtain between them. To me, it is as certain a truth that Frank Sinatra is the greatest ballad singer of his generation as that Charlie Parker was a musical genius, Frank Lloyd Wright an architectural poet, and Joe DiMaggio, hitting the ball, a thing of classic beauty.”
Frank eventually went out on his own, and was one of the first singers to form his own record company, Reprise Records. In the 1960s he made an unforgettable duo of albums: The September Years and Strangers in the Night, and there has never been a more beautiful pair of concept albums, traversing the reflection and acceptance of maturity in the September album to the exuberance and rejuvenation of a man determined to make every moment count in the Strangers album. He worked with his long term arranger and conductor, Nelson Riddle, who had a thoughtful, cohesive and swinging band to support the sessions. And speaking of sessions, Frank had his own style when it came to a recording session: he was elegance itself. It wasn‘t unusual for Frank to show up at the studio in a suit and tie, and then record with his jacket, tie, and starched French cuffs intact, as the cover art on Strangers in the Nightreveals.
A few short decades ago as a 17 year old freshman in University living in a roach-infested Ottawa rooming house, I went out to a little store on Bank Street and splurged on a cheap portable record player. Forty-two dollars got me the player and two albums, one of which was Sinatra, the other of which was Dylan‘s Highway 61 Revisited. I listened to both of them over and over again, and their impact still remains with me. What occurs to me these days is that no one I knew thought listening to such seemingly disparate musical genres was particularly strange. Back then people listened to everything and to quote Duke Ellington there were only two kinds of music then: good and bad.
Frank Sinatra had a big hit in 1966 with “It Was A Very Good Year”, and that was a very good song. It still is. But the show-stopper of all of Frank‘s performances for me that year is the Broadway tune, “On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever)”. It is a swinging, simmering masterpiece of dynamics and control, with Frank revealing the depths of the song in ways that no other singer had done before him or has done since. The song is from the 1965 musical of the same name, but the Nelson Riddle orchestra updates the arrangement and Frank Sinatra updates the attitude.
Stan Cornyn said this of Frank in the original liner notes to the album:
“Sinatra, when he sings at you, doesn‘t look at you. He looks about six inches behind your eyes.”
Part of this comes from his precise diction that still somehow manages to sound American and casual, a remarkable achievement for someone who attended high school for only forty-seven days. Part of this comes from his breath control, despite his addiction to cigarettes. You see, Frank was a swimmer, and he trained his breath with long underwater laps on a regular basis, gaining the ability to surprise the listener with his unsurpassed ability to put more into, and get more out of, a single phrase or word that other singers would simply gloss over. But the main thing is Frank‘s honesty and interpretative instinct with the meaning of a lyric, and the marriage of the lyric to the music. I say marriage because the lyric and the music of any song are entities unto themselves, as different from each other as a man and a woman, and as difficult to unite. I can think of many lyrics who should have sued their music for divorce on grounds of infidelity, drunkenness and cruelty.
Only a very other singers have achieved the Sinatra brand of propinquity with words and music, and for some reason they‘re women: Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. And Maria Callas, who is perhaps the greatest singer ever. Frank had the ability to make every word of the lyric necessary and beautiful. The greatest of actors on the stage (and film: think Meryl Streep) reveal especially to the playwright the depths and shades of meaning in his own construction; to do this with a popular song, as Sinatra did continually for more than twenty years, is a triumph of the highest artistic order.
Was the mystery of life ever more beautifully expressed than by Lerner-Lowe?
On a clear day rise and look around you
And you‘ll see who you are
On a clear day how it will astound you
That the glow of your being outshines every star”
Sinatra‘s dynamics in this performance, as always, are impeccable. Frank knew how to build a song and he built this song to last a thousand years. The quiet parts of the song are almost whispered to the listener, as in “you can hear, from far and near, a world you‘ve never heard before.”
To quote Pete Welding one more time
“If I had my way (and the Comstock Lode to pay the bill) I would have Frank Sinatra record every song I ever liked. I wouldn‘t care how he did it, with what accompaniment, with what interpolations or changes in tempo. I know I would like it.” (from the liner notes of the Sinatra album ‘No One Cares’, 1959)
“On A Clear Day” is an exquisite performance, made deep and lush by the swelling of Riddle‘s small orchestra with the big-band swing behind him. It‘s one of exuberance that not only accepts but overcomes the heartbreak everyone experiences at some point in life. If there were ever a popular song written about the experience of realizing universal consciousness, of attaining nirvana, of finding the bliss we are all seeking, “On A Clear Day” is it. That‘s not necessarily what Lerner and Lowe wrote into the song, but it‘s definitely what Sinatra brings to his timeless interpretation.
Here‘s what Stephen Holding said about Frank in the 1993 Rolling Stone Record Guide:
“Frank Sinatra’s voice is pop music history. […] Like Presley and Dylan — the only other white male American singers since 1940 whose popularity, influence, and mythic force have been comparable — Sinatra will last indefinitely. He virtually invented modern pop song phrasing.”
And Gene Lees reminded us in his book ‘Singers and the Song II’ :
“When Leonard Feather did a poll of musicians for his 1956 Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz, Sinatra got almost half the votes”. This, among so many other reasons, is why opera stars and jazz musicians still collect his records.