The Chairman, Renewed
By David McGee

Frank Sinatra
Concord Records/The Frank Sinatra Collection

In the heat of the moment when Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In the Night” single was released in 1966 and became so popular it knocked the Beatles out of the top spot on the singles chart, the big news around it was centered mostly on how artist and record had both been embraced by the rock ‘n’ roll generation. Sinatra was hip again, and the same young people who swooned to “Strangers In the Night” also helped make the Chairman of the Board’s Rat Pack partner Dean Martin a roaring prime time '60s success when he starred in his own loopy variety show. It wasn’t the first renaissance of Sinatra’s career, nor the last, but it was a jump start to a fruitful remainder of the decade for the artist: during the next four-plus years his album releases would include his first collaboration with Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967, Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim); three deeply introspective and stirring collections (1967, The World We knew, its title song being a collaboration between the composer of the “Strangers In the Night” melody, Bert Kaempfert, and the great American pop songwriter Carl Sigman); 1968, Cycles; 1969, A Man Alone); one of his most underrated—and by far the strangest—of his concept albums (1970, Watertown, produced and written by the 4 Seasons’ Bob Gaudio, arranged, conducted by the Seasons’ Charles Calello and thematically centered on the emotional fallout from a wrecked marriage); and several more exemplary singles, including “That’s Life” (#4, 1966) and its B side, “September Of My Years”; the chart topping duet with daughter Nancy, “Somethin’ Stupid” (1967); and one of the unqualified monuments of his Christmas catalogue, the beautiful, wistful masterpiece from Jimmy Webb, 1968’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas” (which was also included on what proved to be Sinatra’s final Christmas outing, The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas). What Strangers wrought, in the end, was the final, focused surge of heightened artistry by the kingpin of 20th Century American pop vocalists. After Watertown he would release only seven more albums between 1971 and 1984, with only one of those, 1981’s She Shot Me Down, ranking with his classic albums from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Watertown, then, was a watershed, but Strangers was a turning point. For a hot minute there in 1966, he grabbed a young audience that had no memory of his younger celebrity/infamy, and had barely even heard, if at all, the young Sinatra honing his artistry with the Dorsey band and on his own, on Columbia, working with producer/arranger Alex Stordahl. As far as that generation knew, the Dorseys’ fame rested solely on theirs being the first national TV show to book Elvis Presley.

Frank Sinatra, ‘Strangers In the Night’ in concert

Quite by accident, the “Strangers In the Night” single bespeaks a certain desperation on the part of Sinatra’s studio braintrust—his new producer Jimmy Bowen, taking over from Sonny Burke, and musical director Ernie Freeman. This pair had at the ready a new song with music by Bert Kaempfert and lyrics by Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder. Kaempfert had composed the melody as the theme for the James Garner film, A Man Could Get Killed; Singleton and Snyder supplied the sentiments that made it “Strangers In the Night.” The real problem was the looming release of the song as a single by both Bobby Darin and Jack Jones. Bowen summoned Freeman to put together an arrangement of “Strangers” for Sinatra, and Sinatra, despite not being knocked out by the tune, agreed to cut it. We know what happened next. But over time, especially with the reissue of pretty much all of Sinatra’s recorded oeuvre, even V-discs he cut for the Armed Forces in WWII, “Strangers,” though losing none of its winsome beauty, has come to sound a bit out of whack. The strings and orchestra are lumbering, even a bit pedestrian, with none of the nuanced elegance Sinatra was accustomed to in working with, first and foremost, the great Nelson Riddle. His vocal, then, is on the heavy, lugubrious side, simply on the note, reportorial, standard-fare crooning, even a bit ragged at the end of verses; and at the big finish, he practically mocks himself, burbling, “Do de do be do/do do do di da/da da da da da-di-ya-ya-ya,” his voice trailing off to tunelessness at fadeout, as if he’s tired of the whole mess. Recorded on April 11, ’66, the single was pressed up immediately and on the radio within 24 hours; by June it was #1 in England; by July it had topped the charts in the States.

Between the “Strangers” April release and its June-July triumphs came the sessions for this album, in May, with Nelson Riddle back on the case. That something has changed is evident from the first laid-back, swinging orchestral moan on what became a certifiable Sinatra classic, “Summer Wind,” the very understated elegance of it bearing Riddle’s indisputable, refined signature, but with one striking alteration—the master whose lush, romantic strings functioned as subtext to Sinatra’s musings had added heft to his sound by way of a pealing, right-hand B3 organ riff—as if Dave “Baby” Cortez had snuck into the session—along with a sultry, smoky tenor sax, both being flourishes more identified with the brassier Billy May, one of the other great arrangers Sinatra had worked during his Capitol tenure, than with Riddle. And right away Sinatra sounds more at ease—there’s a good reason this performance is a classic—taking the lyric at a more deliberate pace, even caressing it, but surely luxuriating in the carefree lyric, bringing that cooling breeze to palpable life on tape. It’s one of his best recordings—authoritative, personable, inviting, with an edge of melancholy in his memories of losing his gal, and of the hurt lingering through the ensuing seasons. At the same time, Sinatra is hardly the bereft soul of Wee Small Hours; this one is resilient, even optimistic that the wind in question, having blown ill, might right itself in his favor again.

Frank Sinatra, ‘All Or Nothing At All,’ his first recorded performance, in 1939 with the Harry James Band, is reprised on the Strangers In the Night reissue

From that point on, save for a slight bump when he hits “Downtown” and “Call Me," Sinatra sails through the album, his confidence in the material and his own interpretations overflowing in his performances, maneuvering through the Riddle arrangements with complete understanding of the shadows and the light therein.  Those “bumps”—“Downtown” and “Call Me”—both written by Tony Hatch and big hits for Petula Clark—were selected perhaps in a misguided calculation to raise the Chairman’s hipness quotient, but instead simply plod along; especially on “Downtown” Sinatra sprints ahead as if he couldn’t finish soon enough, and even sounds like he’s saying “ewww” instead of “oh” during a closing, rather precipitous flourish at song’s end. On the plus side, he revisits one of his own landmarks, “All Or Nothing at All,” his first recorded performance, in 1939 with the Harry James Band, which he reprised, more successfully, as a young solo artist in 1943. Here, the 50-year-old Sinatra drops the dreamy pretense advanced by his younger self and basks in the glow of a cheery Riddle orchestration that commences at low ebb, almost echoing the beginning flourish of “Summer Wind,” then gradually gains steam as Sinatra matter of factly insists on a total romantic buy-in, or an equally resolute bow-out. On Lerner-Lowe’s “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever),” he and Riddle soft-peddle the brio most artists had brought to the number and opt for a subdued, reflective ballad treatment that breaks out of its introspection only at midpoint, when the horns burst forth with a rush of business before soberly receding into the ensemble, Sinatra creating a compelling tension with his emotional restraint from start to finish, no matter what’s going on around him. The ring-a-ding-ding insouciance of a strutting “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”; the organ-driven, jazzy setting for Sinatra’s wry, subtle phrasings in “My Baby Just Cares for Me”; the jolly hustle and bustle romp through Rodgers and Hart’s “The Most Beautiful Girl In the World”—this is Sinatra on familiar turf, in his universe, working the room, so to speak, like he owns it, and conjuring an intoxicating atmosphere of life-affirming spirit in the subtext he explores in the finely crafted lyrics.

Frank Sinatra, Rodgers and Hart’s ‘The Most Beautiful Girl In the World,’ live

Of three bonus tracks included on this disc—an alternate take of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” and two live cuts from a 1985 concert at Tokyo’s Budokan Hall, “All or Nothing At All” and “Strangers In the Night”—listen to how much more intimate Sinatra is with “Strangers” 19 years after its birth than he seems on the original recording. Though altogether darker in temperament than the hit version, it’s also more compelling in the force of the singer’s engagement with its storyline, in which the prospect of two people previously unknown to each other forging something meaningful without the benefit of illumination makes the titular “night” metaphorical rather than literal. By 1985 Sinatra’s sense of it, as heard here, is that of a torch singer sensing the endgame shadowing his romantic aspirations.

So this is one of the telling Sinatra moments. He would work with Riddle only one more time, on “Whatever Happened To Christmas,” from The Sinatra Family Christmas Album, but would strive through Watertown with some of his key collaborators in the studio—Gordon Jenkins, Claus Ogerman and Don Costa, principally—before stumbling in the ‘80s. As a moment not of reinvention but rather of renewal, Strangers In the Night rises above a couple of unfortunate song selections—and the artist’s corresponding throw-away performances thereof—to stand honorably with the finest examples of latter-era Sinatra.

Strangers In the Night is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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