Ol' Blues Eyes Is Back (Sort of)

There are certain musical performers whose appeal transcends genres, decades, and whole generations, whose influence will affect music long after you, Dear Reader, and I have become worm food. This by-no-means-definitive list includes Hank Williams Sr., Louis Armstrong, the Beatles, Charlie Parker, Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and Frank Sinatra. The latter, known alternately as Ol' Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, and The Voice, is celebrated with a four-CD box set spotlighting a massive hunk of his (and our) history, A Voice In Time (1939-1952) (Columbia/RCA/Legacy).

Voice In Time is perhaps the only package where one can hear (in depth) the first two major phases of Sinatra's career—as "boy singer" (as they were known then) with the Swing era orchestras of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey (1939-42) and as a maturing solo performer. Conventional thinking among Sinatra-philes is the man's 1950s stint with Capitol Records is his artistic peak. That may be (and it is), but let us not throw figurative babies out with the bathwater — Ol' Blue Eyes made some good music preceding his 1953 Capitol hook-up.

Like nearly every other singer of his time, Sinatra was in the thrall of Bing Crosby, the first pop singer to embrace amplification (the microphone). He absorbed smooth intonation from Crosby, but soon developed his own style by adapting his voice to the mellifluous phrasing of Tommy Dorsey's trombone, working at improving breath control while swimming. While some balk at Sinatra being labeled a "jazz singer," his approach wouldn't have been what it was without jazz — Sinatra could swing as mightily as any instrumentalist.

Disc one finds Ol' Blue Eyes a slightly callow (but in a charming way) youth, his honeyed voice dripping with starry-eyed romance and enthusiasm. The rest of the set wisely cherry-picks from his gone-solo days with Columbia Records. Mitch Miller, who was so stodgy and square he could've slept in a Kleenex box, produced some Sinatra sides during this period, saddling him with gimmicky production and mediocre songs. Thankfully, these are omitted. While rock- and jazz-weaned ears may find some songs corny (and truth be told, some are corn incarnate), there's no denying much of the Chairman's vocalizing is first-rate, sometimes magical. Voice In Time (which includes a few alternate and live takes for you collectors) is akin to hearing the Beatles' early '60s BBC sessions or the Band backing Dylan in 1965 — beholding the foundations of greatness being set.

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Mark Keresman