#Sinatra100 – Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle: The Capitol Years

By Matt Micucci

One of the most fruitful collaboration in music history. On Capitol Records, Sinatra and Riddle gave birth to some of the best records of the fifties.

Sinatra signed with Capitol Records in the early fifties. Despite his wishes of continuing to work with his faithful Columbia Records collaborator Axel Stordahl, it was only after the first sides they made together for Capitol fared disappointingly that his new label convinced him to work with the young and upcoming composer and arranger Nelson Riddle on I’ve Got the World on a String. The songs became a hit, which is considered the most symbolic of Sinatra’s musical rebirth, thus starting one of music’s most fruitful collaboration.

The two worked together again on Sinatra’s first album for Capitol later that year. On Songs for Swinging Lovers, Riddle was only the orchestrator, with uptempo man George Siravo taking care of arrangements aside from Riddle’s own Like Someone in Love. Both however left a clear imprint that provided a distinctive sound to the album. Siravo was more committed to the swing sound, while Riddle had no time for such conventions. In the end, however, it was Riddle that received full credit for arranging and had to personally apologize to Siravo, despite the whole affair not being his fault at all.

The following year’s Swing Easy was officially the first Riddle arranged Sinatra album. The two shared common interests as far as swing was concerned, itself recalling the style of Count Basie with whom Sinatra would collaborate prominently in the sixties. Swing Easy was designed as an album of standards aiming to give a new confidence to the vocalists, and the rich orchestration helped make it happen.

Throughout their years at Capitol, Sinatra alternated between upbeat albums and ballad driven ones with great ease. 1955 was the year of what is still generally regarded as Sinatra’s greatest album, as well as one of the first concept albums of all time – In the Wee Small Hours. The album is meant to evoke feelings of loneliness, and it is a well known fact that the session took place at an emotionally difficult time for the crooner, due to the end of his tumultuous romance with Ava Gardner. Similar feelings were evoked in Frank Sinatra Sings Only For the Lonely three years later, on which Riddle’s orchestration was affected emotionally by the recent loss of his mother and daughter.

Alternatively, in 1956 the two collaborated on Songs for Swinging Lovers, in which they returned to more upbeat tempo, with Riddle’s arrangements rethinking old standards in fresh new ways. The most representative of the great chemistry between Sinatra and the band arguably came from one of the tracks on this album, which is also one of the most celebrated songs of Sinatra’s whole career – I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and its breathtakingly boastful middle section. Similar principles applied to 1957’s A Swinging Affair.

The two even reached a middle ground, more romantic than seductive or melancholic, with their 1957 album Close to You. This also marked the two’s collaboration with the Hollywood String Orchestra, regarded as the first American born and classically trained chamber music group to make an international impact. It was recorded over a period of eight months and five different sessions.

With the start of the sixties, Sinatra had grown more restless with a lack of artistic freedom given him by Capitol, which led him to the foundation of Reprise and the beginning of his legacy as the “chairman of the board”. One would expect his final albums for the label to have been throwaways simply fulfilling his contractual committments. But while Nice ‘n’ Easy from 1960 and Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session!!! from 1961 are albums made for the vast majority of songs that Sinatra had already recorded throughout his time with Columbia in the forties, they are given brand new life by Riddle’s arrangements, giving them warm and cheesy textures in the first, and great excitement in the latter, which remains one of the hardest swinging records in Sinatra’s entire discography.

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