Frank Sinatra Conducts the Music of Alec Wilder (1945)

By Matt Micucci

Released on March 4, 1946, The Voice of Frank Sinatra is regarded by many as being the first ever studio album by Frank Sinatra. But this is a fact that is only partially true, as the album was indeed his first album, but as a vocalist.

The claim to the title as first album bearing the name of Frank Sinatra on its front cover goes to one released on Columbia Records a year previous entitled Frank Sinatra Conducts Music of Alec Wilder. And as the title implies, Sinatra here played the role of the conductor, a fact that still surprises some people, especially considering the fact that when he started his professional career as a vocalist in his teenage years, he never learned to read music and always played by ear.

This didn’t stop Sinatra from thinking he could somehow pull it off, which is a testimony to his determination as well as his incredible natural skills. According to many, his baton swinging technique was just as good as many great conductors of the time.

It is still unusual, however, that the star on the rise should decide to undertake the herculean task of conducting a large orchestra. It is more than likely that Ol’ Blue Eyes had chosen to do so partially out of his friendship with the composer of the music, Alec Wilder.

Wilder was born in Rochester, New York on February 16, 1907. A largely self taught composer and conductor, his music represented a unique blend of American musical traditions from jazz to the popular American song with the classical foundation of European forms and techniques.

Frank Sinatra first came across his music backstage at New York’s Paramount Theatre on a portable record player in the early part of 1939 – the two most likely met thanks to record producer Mitch Miller who was among those most responsible for Wilder’s rise to prominence and would also, along with Wilder, become a lifelong friend and collaborator of Frank Sinatra.

The ensemble is cohesive in the record, and reserves some terrific moments. The tracks are lovely wistful pieces that represent a semi-classical take on the jazz and swing that was popular at the time. Mitch Miller himself is featured as a musician, and his leads on the opening track Air for Oboe and Air for English Horn and String are among the highlights of the album.

The original record was composed of six tracks conducted by Sinatra over a lengthy period of time between March 1939 and December 1945. The CD re-issue was beefed up with seven more recording of Wilder pieces by the Alec Wilder octet, most of which were recorded around the same time.

Between 1946 and 1983, Sinatra conducted seven albums and occasionally conducted live orchestras onstage. In 1957, with Sinatra on top of the world, he conducted the orchestra on the Peggy Lee album The Man I Love, Lee’s first 12 inch LP Record after re-signing for Capitol Records in the same year. The last of such works came in 1984, when he conducted for trumpeter Charles Turner on the album What’s New?

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