Look, let’s put it this way: the early ’50s were not friendly to Frank Sinatra.
They began with the early death of his beloved publicist and close friend, George Evans, from a heart attack, and they only got worse from there. The bobby soxer crowd that had once flocked to him had outgrown what they saw as a washed-up crooner in his late thirties. His eponymous TV show, which had first aired in 1950 to rave reviews, was now having its second season panned, with CBS placing the weight of blame on Sinatra himself. Furthermore, Columbia, the label that had nursed him to stardom in the late 1940s, had dropped him like dead weight as his popularity continued to wane.
And I haven’t even mentioned his love life. His marriage with Nancy Barbato had been steadily deteriorating well before the ’50s, but the nail in the coffin was when reports of his affair with Ava Gardner came forth in February 1950. By October the next year, the two were divorced, and just 10 days afterwards Sinatra would marry Gardner, the start of a turbulent few years with gratuitous public fighting and immense resentment from both parties. By the time the two had finally settled their divorce, they had been apart longer than they’d been together.
Simply put, Frank Sinatra was a wreck. The man who had driven packed crowds to overflowing music halls was suddenly struggling to fill rows. At one point, he was relegated to performing at the Kauai County Fair in Hawaii. His voice, the beautiful, impeccable instrument that had made him a star, was bludgeoned when he suffered a submucosal hemorrhage of the throat. It’s rumored that in 1951, he even attempted suicide.
It’ll forever be a wonder that, in spite of every single one of his colleagues practically begging him to reconsider, Capitol’s A&R VP Alan Livingston signed him to a 7-year deal in March of 1953.
What followed was nothing short of salvation for Sinatra’s career. That August, he starred in From Here To Eternity, in a performance that bagged him a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his supporting role as Private Angelo Maggio. He’d release two albums that swiftly capitalized off that success, even starring in another film, The Man With The Golden Arm, a film that got him a nod for Best Actor at the Oscars.
The emotional trauma, the sudden career resurgence; all of it set the stage for Sinatra’s In The Wee Small Hours, which begins this list as maybe the first record to really understand the album format. Choosing a series of lovelorn ballads, torch songs taken from the Great American Songbook, Sinatra creates something that’s at once heartbroken and bittersweet, yet never defeated, playing out through two poetic sides of vinyl.
The music of In The Wee Small Hours is essential to the way it moves through its 16 tracks. Engineered primarily by Nelson Riddle, the arrangements are patient, intimate, and never resort to frills, giving room for Sinatra’s impeccable voice to move.
On “Glad To Be Unhappy,” the interplay between George Van Eps on the guitar and Bill Miller on the keys is stunning, with a gorgeous celesta laid atop Sinatra’s voice. The circular arrangements of “I’ll Be Around” are carried by a subtly winding rhythm, and the instruments blend into one another, whirling around his magnetic voice, quiet in some places and bright in others. The winds and strings on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” sound rich, adding pops of color to punctuate each of Sinatra’s phrasings to wondrous effect.
And there’s the impeccable title track, an immediate highlight. Sinatra’s voice is practically drenched in wistful longing here, and the strings seem to follow his vocal rises and falls. It’s hard to think of anyone who could carry this song like Sinatra does, with a soulful, velvety croon that’s downright irresistible. Of all the moments on here, this one shines the brightest.