Vintage Radio Broadcasts from a Master of Pop Vocals
Until now, there have arguably been four essential box sets for Sinatra fans: The Song Is You, covering his early work with Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra; The Best of the Columbia Years, which documents his first great period as a soloist from 1943 to 1952; The Capitol Years, which showcases his superb work with arranger/composer Nelson Riddle and others; and The Reprise Collection, which takes the Sinatra story through the sixties and seventies.
Now we can add a fifth box to the list of must-haves: A Voice on Air (1935–1955), a four-CD set that is being released to mark the 100th anniversary of the singer’s birth. The package—which comes with a 60-page book and contains more than five hours of music—Is remarkable on several counts.
For one thing, it includes a wealth of rare material: 91 of the 107 tracks have not previously been released and most have not been heard since they aired live on radio many decades ago. Moreover, though the recordings range from 60 to 80 years old and originated with glass and aluminum radio transcription discs and magnetic tapes, the sound quality throughout is excellent, thanks to a superb restoration and remastering job.
Also, the producers have wisely interspersed the artist’s performances with a variety of related material: commercials sung by Sinatra, a D-Day announcement by the singer, interviews with him, and on-air chitchat, including jokes that had audiences in stitches but that today seem corny beyond belief. The result is that we get a taste not only of the early Sinatra but also of another, very different era when radio played a central role in American life.
The time capsule is fascinating but the biggest reason to buy this collection is the music it contains. We already knew from records like the aforementioned Dorsey box that Sinatra’s immense talent was in rather full bloom early on, and this package underscores that fact. His musical landscape widened and his talent matured as years went by, but the sophistication and intimacy of his vocals, and the ability to simultaneously project self-confidence and vulnerability, are already on display in many of these tracks.
The material, which is arranged chronologically, is almost uniformly excellent. The set begins with a September 8, 1935 performance on the NBC Red Network’s Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour, in which a 19-year-old Sinatra appears with his first group, the Hoboken Four. (Paid $12.50 apiece for the appearance, the barbershop quartet attracted 40,000 votes and won the show’s first prize—a six-month contract to perform in concerts and on the radio.) Disc one continues with primarily big-band performances with Tommy Dorsey and others while disc two covers Sinatra’s teen-idol years. Disc three includes versions of numerous standards, including some that he popularized, and disc four finds the singer venturing into more adventurous territory—a hint of directions he’d follow on his Capitol and Reprise tracks.
Dozens of classic songs that Sinatra never recorded in a studio are here, as are markedly different versions of some of the best songs he did record. Among numbers in the former group are “Long Ago and Far Away,” “Don’t Fence Me In,” and “Aren’t You Glad You’re You?” Also featured are duets with artists like Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman, and Doris Day, and with songwriters such as Johnny Mercer and Irving Berlin.
If all this leaves you hungry for even more, you’re in luck: Sony Music has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution to issue Lost and Found: The Radio Years, a disc with 26 more broadcast recordings. (This CD is available only from the Smithsonian and its website.) All but three of the tracks have never previously appeared on an official Sinatra release, and there are 12 songs here that Sinatra never commercially recorded. The ones that he did record show up on Lost and Found in substantially different versions. Among the many treasures on this disc: a slow-paced 1943 reading of Cole Porter’s great “I Get a Kick Out of You”; a Porgy and Bess medley that includes “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”; and a dreamy rendition of Irving Berlin’s “Be Careful, It’s My Heart” that features Tommy Dorsey on trombone.
At this point, we don’t exactly need more evidence that Sinatra was the greatest pop vocalist of the last century. But it can’t hurt to have, can it?
Jeff Burger edited Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen: Interviews and Encounters and Springsteen on Springsteen: Interviews, Speeches, and Encounters, both published by Chicago Review Press. His third book for the same publisher will be available in fall 2016. His website, byjeffburger.com, contains more than four decades’ worth of music reviews and commentary.