My morning routine involves getting to my office around 7 a.m., sitting down with a cup of coffee and cranking up my record player. Today I slipped Frank Sinatra’s post-retirement album, Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back, out of its sleeve and gave ‘er a spin.
And that’s when serendipity took over. As I read the liner notes (record albums, you’ll recall, often had wonderful essays printed right on the sleeve, and you could read them without use of MIT’s electron microscope), I was struck by these words by record executive Stan Cornyn:
“It was 106 degrees that day, June 21, 1973, and it was the hottest June day ever in L.A. And the longest day of the year.”
I glanced at my calendar. As I write this it is June 20, 2013, and that means that 40 years ago tomorrow, Frank Sinatra strode onto Sound Stage Seven of the Goldwyn Studios, nodded to his longtime conductor Gordon Jenkins, and proceeded to record the album that would mark his triumphant return from his much-ballyhooed retirement roughly two years earlier.
He was almost 58 years old, which is how old I happen to be now. In 1971 Sinatra thought he had accomplished all he could as a singer; he knew his legendary breath control was finally crying Uncle after a lifetime of smoking; he knew the future belonged to guitar bands, not saloon singers.
But a man of Sinatra’s monumental talent (and ego to match) couldn’t sit in the audience forever. “I just figured I’d do some work,” he told Cornyn.”No fun trying to hit a golf ball at eight at night.”
To some, Sinatra’s last decades prove he should have stayed retired; that he just didn’t have the chops that he had as a young man. Well, who does? But what he lost in range and timbre was little compared to the man’s ability to tell a story in song, which seemed to grow with each year. When his voice breaks a little on Stephen Sondheim’s masterful “Send in the Clowns,” it’s a catch born of too many years at the circus. When he seems to swallow a tear on Joe Raposo’s haunting “There Used to be a Ballpark,” it’s the mournful remembrance of a guy who once sat there in the bleachers of the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field, and who is conscious of the sweet suffering life has brought since the days each of them were turned to rubble.
Sinatra was 58. I’m 58. When I look back at stuff I wrote when I thought I was a hotshot, I’m sometimes pleased to realize I’d still write it the same way today—but often I’m a little embarrassed by my swagger, by my supremely misplaced sense of self-confidence.
When Sinatra re-imagined himself as an elder statesman, returned from self-imposed exile to help us all put our lives into perspective, he extended his career two decades. Nobody forgot the other Sinatra, the one with all the breath and booze and women he could handle. But this new guy, well, he was a little more like us. And although he was still bigger and badder than we were, that just made his frailties seem so real we could touch them.