It’s mid-September, the leaves and the pages of the calendar are turning. Here in our little corner of the world it’s the New Year, a time for some sober and somber thoughts about whither we are headed. April may be the cruelest month, but September is hands-down the most reflective one.
My wife, my best friend and severest critic, is the first reader of these blogs. She catches my spelling errors, my typos and my incomprehenibilities. She doesn’t care too much for most of my kinds of music, but over these many years she’s learned to put up with it (at reasonable volumes). She often asks me why I can’t ever write about a nice song.
Here goes, Sports Fans – a great nice song about September and life and reflection, Frank Sinatra’s ‘It Was a Very Good Year’.
I’m not going to try to analyze Old Blue Eyes’ career. I have neither the tools nor the inclination. To tell you the truth, I’ve never been a great fan. I’ve always felt he was a very good singer of standards, even an excellent one, but with really nothing of significance to add artistically. Perhaps some of that negative bias is an arrested-adolescent reaction to my mother’s bobby-sox utter flutteration over him.
Sinatra’s contribution to our music can’t be overstated. He took the work of great theater composers of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s –Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers – and recreated their songs in the 1950s and ‘60s as The Great American Songbook.
Some of us jazz snobs like to maintain that he’s not a jazz singer, certainly not in the sense that Ella and Louis were. He certainly swung, but improvisation wasn’t part of his musical vocabulary. The jazz singers I most admire praise him without reservation as The Master of breath, phrasing, repertoire and attitude, but that sounds like damningly faint praise if you’re arguing that he’s an artist.
But I’m thinking that maybe I’m letting some old prejudices unfairly color my listening habits over the years. Not that Frankie needs my approbation. But maybe I have been missing some very obvious qualities that trillions of other people have been enjoying since 1939.
I have indeed always been a fan of ‘It Was a Very Good Year’. Yeah, the strings are a bit over the top, but what the heck, it’s September, life is passing by, one wants to indulge in a bit of gooey reflection.
I got very nervous when I saw that the song was written by one Ervin Drake, but a quick check showed that his parents were Max Druckman and Pearl Cohen, so I calmed down. He also penned classics such as ‘Perdido’ (great performances here by Duke Ellington and here by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), Frankie Laine’s inspiring ‘I Believe’ (recorded also by both Barbra Streisand and Elvis Presley), and ‘I Wuv A Rabbit’ (you don’t want to miss this video).
In 1961, his agent asked him to write a song for the mega-popular Kingston Trio. He obliged by knocking out overnight ‘It Was a Very Good Year’, here in the original version, the lead sung by Bob Shane. A couple of years later Sinatra heard it on his car radio, and thought it would fit perfectly in the album of melancholy and introspective songs he was assembling at the time.
Here’s a fascinating video of Ervin telling the whole story.
That album, “September of My Years”, thirteen songs on the theme of aging and reflection, won the Grammy in 1965 as Album of the Year. It beat out the soundtracks for “Mary Poppins“, “My Fair Lady“, “Fiddler on the Roof“, “The Sound of Music“ and “Hello, Dolly“ (talk about a bumper crop!) as well as Barbra Streisand’s “People”, The Tijuana Brass’s “Whipped Cream & Other Delights”, Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home”, and “Beatles ‘65’, “Hard Day’s Night” and ‘Beatles VI”. The song ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ won the Grammy as Best Male Vocal Performance.
The speaker recalls his life in terms of his loves, at the ages of 17, 21 and 35. Now (at 50, in Sinatra’s case), he remembers it all as sweet and clear vintage wine. I suppose many of us would like to reflect back on our lives in similar terms. The Turtles, Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, William Shatner, Boris Karloff, Michael Jackson, Statler & Waldorf (the two old geezers in the opera box in The Muppets), Robbie Williams (dueting posthumously with Old Blue Eyes), Homer Simpson, Ray Charles with Willie Nelson – they all did so, some reverent, some as parodies.
I never had a very high opinion of Sinatra as a person. I recently rewatched “The Godfather” (the First), in which ‘they say’ the singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino) was modeled on Sinatra. If you remember, Johnny’s floundering career was resurrected by a bloody horse’s head (“an offer he can’t refuse”) getting him a major Hollywood role. In 1952, Sinatra’s floundering career was recharged by his performance in “From Here to Eternity”. I wasn’t there personally, so I don’t know how he really got the part.
But there is a fascinating video of Sinatra recording ‘It Was a Very Good Year’ in the studio, under the baton of Gordon Jenkins. Sinatra often hosted a few cronies at his recording sessions, but allowing in cameras was a rarity. The clip is worth watching closely.
I would have expected Sinatra in the studio to be glib, self-satisfied, strutting and vain. The truth is very far from that. He’s all business, deadly serious, and palpably engaged in the very evocative material. Just at the end of the ‘When I was 21’ verse, you see a thought pass across his face, a very serious memory I suppose, and he’s visibly moved by it. He turns to the page, checking the score.
As anyone who’s been on stage knows, there’s no alternative to emotional commitment. You want to convey an emotion, you gotta experience the emotion. It’s gotta be there, on stage, in real time. What’s going on in Frank’s mind seems very, very real to me, thoroughly convincing. He’s thinking about the passage of his life. Every one of us thinks about that in September. Every one of us is mortal, every one of us has one year less left in his life. That’s pretty harrowing.
Then check out his face on ‘When I was 35’ at the beginning and at the end of the third verse. He smiles slyly. It’s not a glib smile, it’s the smile of someone who had a memorable experience years ago and has just relived it in his mind. I don’t know what Frank was doing when he was 35, but it looks like he is viscerally recollecting a very good year indeed.
And then in the final bars, after he’s finished singing, he’s listening to that army of violins conclude the story, he’s visibly moved. It’s over, and boom, “What was the time on that?” He just won my heart, Frank did. 100% passion, 100% technique. 200% artistry.
Sinatra died in 1998 at the age of 82. Gordon Jenkins died in 1984 at the age of 74. In 2015, Ervin Drake made it to 95. That’s a lot of very good years, especially 1965, when their song captured the musical world,
We’d like to take this Septembral opportunity to wish all of you A Very Good Year.
When I was seventeen, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for small town girls and soft summer nights.
We’d hide from the lights on the village green when I was seventeen.
When I was twenty one, it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for city girls who lived up the stairs,
With all that perfumed hair and it came undone when I was twenty one
Then I was thirty five it was a very good year.
It was a very good year for blue-blooded girls of independent means.
We’d ride in limousines, their chauffeurs would drive when I was thirty five.
But now the days grow short, I’m in the autumn of the year.
And now I think of my life as vintage wine from fine old kegs.
From the brim to the dregs, it poured sweet and clear, it was a very good year.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:009: Barbra Streisand, ‘Lover Come Back to Me’ 065: Ella Fitzgerald, ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most’ 101: Kurt Elling, “Li’l Darlin’”