100 Essential Albums: #97 — Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back by Frank Sinatra (1973)
“And the sky has got so cloudy, when it used to be so clear…”
Chances are, you’ve never heard of Nolan Schmitz.
He died a long time ago, way back in 1955. He died seven years before I was born, which means I never had the chance to meet him. You see, Nolan Schmitz was my maternal grandfather. I was named after him. I was named after a man I never knew.
When I became old enough to comprehend and wise enough to understand, my grandmother told me a story. She recalled that hopeless night long ago when she returned home right after my grandfather’s funeral. The house was empty. It was a lonely place. Left alone with a daughter to raise (my mother), that became a moment of instant realization. She realized that she’d have to lift herself up, on her own. So, she learned a trade, then got a job, and eventually built a successful career for herself. But that first night spent alone was the toughest of many.
Anyone who’s suffered a defeat in life knows that healing comes one day, and one night at a time. So, what got my grandmother through that first night, and many more like it? How did she manage to endure a devastating loss and come to realize she still had a full life ahead? My grandmother shared a revelation: She did what so many millions of other women (and men) of her generation did when they felt loneliness and despair. She took comfort in music.
My grandmother put a Frank Sinatra album on the turntable. Suddenly, the house wasn’t so empty anymore. She listened to his voice booming from the speakers of a hi-fi stereo. Slowly, a personal transformation began. Sure, recovery took time. But at that moment it seemed everything was going to be okay — because Ol’ Blue Eyes said it would be so.
To this day, whenever and wherever I hear a Sinatra song — on the radio, in a movie, at a restaurant — I’m often reminded of that lovely story told to me by my grandmother. Even though she’s gone now, I can empathize with the pain she must have endured that first night, and many more like it, yet also appreciate the gift of calm and sedation roused within the listener’s soul by that unmistakable baritone voice emanating from the Capitol recording studio pressed into an LP record during the fabulous 50’s. If time heals all wounds, then perhaps the right sounds delivered in the perfect key can speed up the recovery.
Many of Sinatra’s recordings weren’t just songs. They were vicarious expressions of our very own deeply-subdued emotions, in many cases reflecting loss that Sinatra himself suffered over many decades. Sinatra’s voice conveyed both an acceptance of defeat and confidence that it was okay to feel sad and then reflect upon it. All our lives have ups and downs, highs and lows, and are a series of wins and losses. And there seems to be a perfect Sinatra tune for every one of those moments.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize why Sinatra connected with so many different people. Rich. Poor. Blue collar. Executives. Teamsters. Presidents. Men. Women. All races. My grandmother, too. I think it’s because every single one of us has experienced those Sinatra moments.
So much of the Sinatra canon is uplifting, mischievous, and flirtatious even. Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back, my latest nominee in the “100 Essential Albums” series, is not such an album. In fact, the playlist — consisting of just nine songs — is both subdued and somber, likely explaining why the album was widely panned by critics expecting yet another rollicking self-reinvention by the “Chairman of the Board.” Indeed, this collection of songs clocking in at a grand total of just 36 minutes is not a party soundtrack. It’s an introspective accompaniment for those who have loved and lost. It vinyl therapy.
Most albums are targeted at young people. The highly-anticipated 1973 release on the Reprise record label, produced by composer Don Costa, Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back is assuredly not. It’s the quintessential uber-rebellious statement of anti-modernity. It’s a vintage album seemingly casked for years inside a whiskey-coated oak barrel, covered in cobwebs, masterfully aged, and uncorked at the perfect time for an ideal occasion. It’s an album not just to be heard, but to be felt, for those of us who have experienced more than a little pain and endured loss in our lives. It’s the album one might hear spinning inside a nearly-deserted bar at 2:35 am. It’s the serenade of lost and lonely souls. These are Sinatra lyrics and melodies that successfully manage to soothe and salve following a job loss, a bitter break-up, a painful divorce, or even a death. Life isn’t Nice and Easy, and when it’s really hard, Sinatra’s voice waits there in the wings fully prepared to comfort us.
The album begins with track #1 — “You Will Be My Music.” This first song was composed by Joe Raposo, who interestingly enough is best-known for writing the theme to Sesame Street. Sinatra initially insisted upon filling the entire “comeback” album with only Raposo’s songs. But the record company instantly rejected the idea. Sinatra was furious with the decision and refused to enter the recording studio until all content was agreed upon. So, a compromise was struck and four Raposo songs appear on the album. “You Will Be My Music” is the ideal introductory track to this introspective collection of material that we’re about to experience. It perfectly sets the tone for the entire album:
Sinatra suffered more than his fair share of losses in both love and career. Divorced twice, his singing and movie career in shambles on more than a few occasions, investigated by the feds for alleged mob ties, his son kidnapped for a million-dollar ransom — Sinatra embodied in very essence of survival within an industry where most participants eventually become castoffs. He mastered the art of the comeback.
He’d already made two comebacks previously the first one 20 years earlier. After crooning his way into the hearts of bobbysoxers during the 40’s, by 1951 Sinatra’s singing voice was shot to hell and his career was thought to be over. Another flash in the pan. The phone didn’t ring anymore. Then, Sinatra somehow nabbed the part to play Maggio in 1953’s From Here to Eternity and won the Oscar. That relaunched Sinatra’s career as a popular singer and also turned him into a movie star.
By the late ’60’s, once again, Sinatra seemed passe. He loathed what was happening in popular music, perhaps because he was no longer a part of it. He piggy-backed his daughter Nancy Sinatra’s surprise chart-topping 1966 hit “These Boots Were Made for Walking” with what was thought to be a throwaway duet that somehow managed to reach #1 spot two years later, the song “Something Stupid.” Recorded as an afterthought, the duet was never intended by Sinatra as a serious venture. Pressed into updating his act and changing with the times, Sinatra agreed to record and release a new concept album, which turned into the disastrous and some say embarrassing 1970 collection titled Watertown. It became the only Sinatra album released during his lifetime not to crack the Top 1oo. [Listen to Watertown HERE]
Disillusioned with the direction music was heading, seemingly left for dead by the public and buried by critics in the modern era of singer-songwriters, Sinatra announced his retirement in 1971. He was offered but turned down the part of Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, which became a mega-hit not to mention an identity for Clint Eastwood. His marriage to Mia Farrow in ruins, vintage Sinatra crafted one (thought-to-be) final live concert album which sold modestly, then disappeared from public view into a two-year hiatus.
What happened in Sinatra’s life, and perhaps more important within his inner soul during those two years spent mostly in Palm Springs remains a matter of speculation. Many who were closest to him thought Sinatra would never perform, nor record music again. Then, he shocked everyone by announcing he intended not only to enter the studio again and cut a new record but would also follow up the project with a nationally-telecast live concert which would also be crafted into an album. Who knows, perhaps it was boredom. Maybe the money was simply too generous to pass up.
Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back was recorded in the summer of 1973 following almost three years spent in near oblivion. Characteristic of Sinatra’s al dente delivery, most tracks were recorded within a couple of takes, with no enhancements.
Track #2 is “You’re So Right (For What’s Wrong in My Life).” It’s a sentimental follow up to the opening song reinforcing the identity of this album, not as yet another reincarnate of the swinging Capitol era we’d become accustomed to from the master, but instead a deeply reflective take on romance and revelation that the guy doesn’t always get the girl.
Perhaps the best-known song from Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back is the third track, simply titled, “Winners.” Delivered in the bold operatic style of “My Way” which had been released four years earlier (initially, “My Way” wasn’t a hit), in the four decades since we first heard this uplifting melody,”Winners” has come to apotheosize personal triumph. Its a soundtrack often used to glorify sporting achievement. No doubt, it’s a beautiful song given ponderosity by the added weight of Sinatra’s bourbon-aged voice. “Winners” isn’t just motivation to the listener, it’s also the declaration that he’s back, too. It’s a standout uplifting aberration to what’s otherwise a very somber album.
Listen here to “Winners,” also written by Joe Raposo:
Following the heightened optimism of “Winners,” once again we’re forced to confront reality on Track #4 — “Nobody Wins.” This is another lovely but lonely melody, music and lyrics crafted by the great Kris Kristofferson, then at the top of his creative game.
Track #5 is the familiar Stephen Sondheim classic, “Send in the Clowns,” which this album probably could have done without. Virtually every major recording artist of the ’70’s recorded this song at least once, the rendition by Judy Collins towering over the rest. Pressured perhaps by the recording company to include the song, “Send in the Clowns” comes across as the weakest selection, although it’s arguably the second most familiar tune of the collection. Even Sinatra can’t salvage it.
“Dream Away” is Track #6, which is jointly written and composed by John Williams (Star Wars theme) and one of the best-forgotten songwriters of the day, Paul Williams.
Track #7 is arguably one of the most powerful songs Sinatra did during the entire decade, another Paul Anka gem was co-written with the great Sammy Cahn, “Let Me Try Again.” The song reflects upon past mistakes and makes a desperate plea to give broken love one last chance. Here’s a short video clip of a Sinatra singing “Let Me Try Again” during a 1974 concert. The best moment comes about 45 seconds into the track when Sinatra bows to the audience in gratitude for applause in mid-song with the lyric, “Let Me Try Again,” which carries added significance given this was in the midst of the third comeback. “I know that I said I was leaving, but I couldn’t say goodbye….” Please watch and listen. It’s magnificent.
Upon a first listen, Track #8 seems to be an out of place reminiscence about baseball. But in reality, the song is a lament to what’s come and gone and no longer with us. It’s an ode to our childhoods and distant memories. It’s homage to the void. “There Used To Be a Ballpark Here” is yet another Joe Raposo masterpiece. Reportedly in reference to New York losing two baseball teams during the ’50’s, “There Used To Be a Ballpark Here” has been championed both by Dodger fans who miss the Ebbets Field and Giants fans for whom the Polo Grounds is but a faded memory. But it’s really as a song about any kind of loss and lament, evidenced by the song’s final lyric, “And the sky has got so cloudy, when it used to be so clear.” Now, you’re beginning to understand why Sinatra wanted the entire album to be content provided by Raposo.
The album closes with a final tune written by Raposo, the uplifting religious-themed ballad, “Noah.” Another seemingly odd selection on what was purported as a comeback album, especially as a swan song, “Noah” most certainly was hand-picked by Sinatra who likely insisted upon a powerful final curtain call, beaconing us to “walk with the lions, soar with the eagles, and sing with the nightingales.” If only we do just that.
And since we can’t, then it’s okay to dream.
After Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back was released it moved as high as #12 on the album charts, an aberration amidst the musical times. Shortly thereafter, Sinatra performed a live concert held at New York’s Madison Square Garden which was nationally telecast on NBC. The television special jointly produced by Jerry Weintraub (of Hollywood fame) and Roone Arledge (best known for creating Monday Night Football), the live concert was billed as “The Main Event” and took on all the trappings of a heavyweight prize fight.
Giddy at the prospect of Sinatra swaggering into the arena packed with celebrities and half of the New York underworld sitting ringside, legendary sports announcer Howard Cosell was propped up to recite the most absurdly ridiculous impromptu train wreck of an introduction ever heard on television. Watch the full 3-minute introduction below, in all its glorious horror.
Note that this concert was also packaged as an album (appropriately titled The Main Event) which includes songs from Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back. However, while the live album does have its moments, the material and delivery often seem rushed. Outtakes from this concert (available on YouTube) show Sinatra, who wasn’t someone to conceal his frustrations, was clearly unhappy with the constraints of live television and constant interruptions of commercials.
[Sinatra reportedly had a severe cold all week and never rehearsed this concert with the orchestra — he went onstage without ever having worked on the material, which makes this live televised performance pretty remarkable, despite numerous flaws]
Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back ranks nowhere near the pantheon of Sinatra’s best albums. In fact, it doesn’t crack most Sinatra aficionado’s nor music critic’s top 20. It’s a flawed masterpiece of disjointed emotions, which is precisely the feeling many of us have experienced in the wake of a loss.
Nonetheless, this album is essential for those of us who recognize that music isn’t always intended as a happy diversion. Music is not just a party soundtrack. Great music can also be a tonic for despair and a band-aid on a broken heart.
My late grandmother, and millions more will attest.
Note: This is the latest segment in a series of reviews and retrospectives of my “100 Essential Albums,” which will be posted here regularly on my website over the next year, or so.