Frank Sinatra in the role of conductor during the 1956 recording session of Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color
In 1956, shortly after recording Songs for Swingin’ Lovers — which included the ultimate Frank Sinatra tune, Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” — Sinatra’s career was white-hot. His record contract with Capitol was up for renegotiation, which posed a financial challenge for Capitol, who competed with other labels, particularly RCA, for Sinatra’s services. “When we took him on two and half years ago, Frank couldn’t get a record,” Capitol executive Alan Livingston told Downbeat. “Now, every company in the business is after him.”
After signing Sinatra to a seven-year contract that carried an annual guarantee of $200,000, Sinatra biographer James Kaplan writes that he had a “virtual carte blanche to record whatever he pleased. The suits were happy enough with their star to grant him an indulgence or two, and the first was Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color,” which, as a self-described “frustrated conductor,” allowed him to play out this role. The result is an interesting recording that another Sinatra biographer, Will Friedwald, described as Sinatra’s “most ambitious work that did get released.”
In this excerpt from his biography Sinatra: The Chairman, Kaplan shares some details about this little remembered Sinatra endeavor. At the conclusion of the excerpt, graphic designer Paul Morris — whose popular “Cover Stories with Paul Morris” explores the graphic design of album cover art, and is published on Jerry Jazz Musician — writes about the cover design of Tone Poems of Color.
The idea for the album originated with a series of twelve poems about colors by the radio writer Norman Sickel, who had worked on the To Be Perfectly Frank series. (“Orange is the gay deceiver,” one began, “and I do deceive/but nicely./I am the daughter/of the yellow laughter/and the violent Red!”) Sinatra, who would take up painting in the fifties, liked the verses so much that he commissioned a dozen original orchestral works based on them, from a brilliant group that included Nelson Riddle, Alec Wilder, the bandleader and arranger Billy May, and the movie orchestrators Jeff Alexander, Elmer Bernstein, and Andre Previn. Conspicuously absent was [Sinatra’s first arranger] Axel Stordahl. Sinatra assigned each writer a different tonal color and text and then assembled nearly sixty musicians in Capitol’s new Studio A.
One of the first things Sinatra and the musicians discovered about the spanking-new facility was that despite Capitol’s exhaustive efforts to duplicate the rich acoustics of KHJ Radio Studios, the sound in Studio A was miserable. A photograph taken during a break in recording shows Sinatra perched on a stool, looking over at the redoubtable cellist Eleanor Slatkin, who’s leaning on her 1689 Andreas Guarnerius and grimacing as she apparently says something to him. She later remembered just what it was: “Frank asked me what I thought of the playback, and I said, ‘I think it sounds like shit!’ As the word came out, I heard the click of the camera as the photographer snapped the picture. I could get away with it — he just laughed!”
Frank adored the Slatkins, both Felix and Eleanor, as well as their two young sons, Leonard and Fred. The couple were brilliant, tough musicians who weren’t afraid to call a spade a spade, and Sinatra revered them as kindred spirits. They had begun playing on Frank’s Hollywood recording sessions for Columbia in the mid-1940s, but it was during the Capitol period, as Sinatra became increasingly fascinated with the Hollywood String Quartet, which Felix and Eleanor Slatkin had founded before World War II, that their friendship blossomed. “My dad and Frank became very, very close, and more reliance was placed on my father’s opinions,” Leonard Slatkin says. Felix Slatkin, Sinatra’s first violinist — his concertmaster — quickly established himself as the de facto orchestra leader on many of the recording dates for which Riddle is listed as both arranger and conductor. Like many arrangers, Nelson Riddle, for all his towering brilliance, was an indifferent conductor at best. (Sinatra biographer Arnold Shaw paints an unforgettable verbal picture of Riddle “conducting with the index finger of his right hand as if he were rhythmically pressing a bell-button.”)
“Conducting is primarily about showing the passage of time,” Leonard Slatkin says. “All music, at least [Sinatra’s] kind, relies on some degree of steady rhythm as it progresses. It means that you have to, as a conductor, physically be able to keep steady time but at the same time be flexible enough to allow moments where a phrase might be stretched out a little longer or speed up just a little bit. This requires a degree of technical skill that goes beyond just intuitiveness.”
Nevertheless, in the special context of the Tone Poem sessions – and with a little bit of help — Sinatra, who couldn’t read music, got along surprisingly well. On a couple of the sessions, Eleanor Slatkin recalled, her husband “was damn near conducting [the strings] from his chair, but Frank was so gifted musically that he could bring it all off.”
What he brought off was a pleasant and respectable album that was probably too highbrow for most of his audience and too lowbrow for classical listeners. “Interesting” is the adjective that mainly comes to mind. Sales were predictably light.
Tone Poems was a Capitol release, but the slipcover of the LP was also imprinted with the name of Esses Productions, a company Sinatra had recently formed and for which he had grand ambitions. “He informed the trade press,” [Sinatra biographer Will] Friedwald writes, “that Essex was a ‘full-fledged independent record company’ and that he himself remained ‘only nominally a Capitol artist,’ claiming that all Sinatra product was merely distributed by Capitol.”
[Capitol executive] Alan Livingston begged to differ, pointing out that Essex was “purely a paper deal for tax purposes. We still owned every Sinatra record made at Capitol, and in perpetuity.”
From the mid-1950s on, Frank and his lawyer Milton “Mickey” Rudin, of the Los Angeles firm Gang, Kopp & Tyre, would form a number of corporations with British-y names — Essex, Bristol, Kent, Canterbury — ostensibly, and sometimes actually, for the purpose of co-producing Sinatra’s movies and records but also (and arguably mainly) in order to lessen his personal income tax exposure. Essex might have started as a dream of Frank’s, but before long it would become a nightmare for Capitol.*
Paul Morris, creator of “Cover Stories with Paul Morris,” comments on the graphic design of Frank Sinatra Conducts Tone Poems of Color
* Excerpted from Sinatra: The Chairman, by James Kaplan