Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Liners Galore, Part 2

Thursday, June 20, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Liners Galore, Part 2

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

Earlier this week we explored the history of liner notes and dipped into some excerpts published by Warner/Reprise throughout the late 60s. You can check out that article here. Today, we pick up where we left off, right in the middle of the Rat Pack's Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra

1966 - Frank Sinatra, Strangers in the Night

Back in New York, where he started, where twenty thousand bobby soxers since pressed themselves against the doors of The Paramount Theatre to see him, things are different. The brilliant bronze doors are green with neglect. On one side wall, the chalk legend: “The Animals Are Loved Only by Girls Named Josephine.”

Animals may come, and they sure do go, but Sinatra stayeth. He stays o sing. Whatever it says at the top of your calendar, that’s what Sinatra sings like: 65, 66, 99 … He isn’t with the times. More than any other singer, he is the times.

If the guitar were dis-invented tonight, a few thousand singers would be out on the amps. But not Sinatra.

He defies fad. His stayeth. He has known more and felt more about the stuff songs are made of, the words of poets. He’s been a Stranger in the Night, and you have to be long rid of baby fat to be that Stranger. You can’t sing the way he does until you’ve been belly to belly with Reality a few times.

That’s what makes insight, and what’s made The Sinatra. What’s made him last, and get better. Allowed him to last through The Age of Anxiety and The Age of Atom and The Age of Acne.

He’s lasted. Most men would give away twenty years of life to be him, or even to have his memories.

And if he tosses off a tired joke about his tired tonsils… If he smiles about hoping one of his kids come along soon so he can retire… If they didn’t he’d know he was in trouble. When they stop laughing, then you’re in trouble. But Frank ain’t in no trouble.

He leans into the front end of "Strangers" and starts singing all the way to "The End." And there's no chop-choppy phrasing along the way. No dit-dit-dit. It comes out mmmmmmmmm all the way. If he runs out of gas on a phrase, which is a very rare bird for the man, then he runs out of gas two-and-a-half miles after anybody else would. He sings like he's got an extra tank of Texaco in his tummy.

So the man’s the master of pop singing form. But that’s not the big thing. What’s the big thing is the way he uses form.

Sinatra, when he sings at you, doesn’t look at you. He looks about six inches behind your eyes.

His eyes a little far away. A little closer to where truth lives.

If you want to pick a word for it, pick one in seven easy letters. Honesty.

1965 - Frank Sinatra - September of My Years

Tonight will not swing. Tonight is for serious.

Inside, the musicians, led by coatless, posture-free Gordon Jenkins, rehearse their voice-empty arrangements. Waiting for his arrival. Outside, in the hall, the uniformed guards wait and wonder what to do with their hands.

Unruly fiddle players, who love recording like they love traffic jams, tonight they bring along their wives, who wait to one side in their black beaded sweaters. And these wives and these fiddle players and all of these are different tonight. For in a few minutes a poet will begin to speak of years ago.

He arrives. Tie loosened, collar loosened. The guards at the studio door edge out of the way. “Good morning, sir,” he says. “Who’s got the ball game on.”

Thirty orchestra wives wish they had the latest scores memorized. Four men look around for a transistor radio.

“Hello, Sidney, how are ya. What’s happening in the music business”

He strolls up behind Gordon Jenkins, who is rehearsing his strings. Sinatra listens for 32 bars, then turns to Mike Romanoff. “The way this guy writes strings, if he were Jewish, he’d be unbearable.”

The Prince wakes up a bit.

“You ready, Gordie?” “I’m ready,” replies Jenkins. “I’m always ready. I was ready in 1939.”

“I was ready when I was nine.”

He walks to his music stand, clearing his throat. “Think I swallowed a shot glass.”

Jenkins starts a song, conducting with arms waist high, sweeping them side to side. Not leading his orchestra: being the orchestra.

Sinatra begins to sing his September’s reflections. Jenkins, on the podium two feet above, turns from his orchestra to face his singer. He beams down attentively, his face that of a father after his son’s first no-hitter.

The wives in their black beaded sweaters muffle their charm bracelets.

He sings of the penny days. Of the rose-lipt girls and candy apple times. Of green winds, of a first lass who had perfumed hair. April thoughts.

He sings with perspective. This vital man, this archetype of the good life, this idolized star … this man pauses. He looks back. He remembers, and graces his memory with a poet’s vision.

He has lived enough for two lives, and can sing now of September. Of the bruising days. Of the rouged lips and bourbon times. Of chill winds, of forgotten ladies who ride in limousines.

September can be an attitude or an age or a wistful reality. For this man, it is a time of love. A time to sing.

A thousand days hath September.

1967 - from Francis Albert Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim

It had begun like the World Soft Championships. The songs, mostly by Antonio Carlos Jobim. Tender melodies.Tender like a two-day, lobster-red Rio sunburn, so tender they’d scream agony if handled rough. Slap one of his fragile songs on the back with a couple of trumpets? Like washing crystal in a cement mixer.

Seemed like the whole idea was to out-hush each other.

Decibels treated like daggers. The arranger tiptoeing about, eliminating some percussion here, ticks there, ridding every song of clicks, bings, bips, all things sharp. Doing it with fervor matched only by Her Majesty’s Silkworms.

And Sinatra makes a joke about all this. “I haven’t sung so soft since I had the laryngitis.” Singing so soft, if he sang any softer he’d have to be lying on his back.

Hours earlier, Sinatra & Co. moved into Studio One. Nobody much around except a couple of Rent-a-Cops. Sinatra there half an hour early, as never before. He begins running down the melody of the new songs. Softly whistling, smoothing away wrinkles.

The booth begins to fill up with gold cuff-links, Revlon red fake nails, Countess Mara ties.

Outside, through double-glass windows, musicians with black fiddle cases wander warily in, chatting about the weather in Boston, the governor in Berkeley, anything but pizzicato. Along the studio walls, the wanderings of miscellaneous Brazilians in yachting caps and silver mustaches.

And then, casually, at eight, exactly eight, Sinatra looks over at the conductor and “Well let’s try one, huh?”

At first, it does not groove right. This is not ring-a-ding-ding. Sinatra mother-hens the session closely: “Let’s have an‘A,’ huh?” as he snaps the orchestra.

The “A” passes quickly around the infield: piano to strings to reeds.

They run through the song once. Then . . . pause. Long. Long. Like standing there while the Judge opens up the verdict envelope. The arranger-conductor, not made of asbestos, sensitive in his position, there between Jobim and Sinatra, looking over at Sinatra, worrying “Tempo?”

“No, it’s a good tempo. It’s the only way you can do it. You have to hang with it.” Sinatra’s assurance: there is only one tempo for this song; any other tempo would be wrong. Have been, are, and forever shall be wrong.

One more exploration of the song, to catch more wrinkles. Sinatra himself, at a rough spot in the bridge, stops cold. Long. Long. He points to himself as the culprit. “That was an old Chesterfield that just came up on me. Around 1947, it felt like.”

You feel for anybody who will blow it on the next take. It begins. The long, long. About a minute and a half in, then the trombonist braaacks a note. Braaack. That obvious. He can’t look over at some other trombonist; he’s the only trombonist. So he sits there, a blutch-colored felt hat sagged across the bell of his horn, hung there to keep it Soft. Poor Trombone Player knows: his music said B and it came out F and Jesus was it wrong.

Sinatra looks over. “Don’t sweat it,” he says.

The trombonist tries a joke back: “If I blow any softer, it’ll hafta come out the back of my neck.”

Next to Jobim perches Jobim’s personal drummer, a Brazilian who can look simultaneously alert and stoned. Flew in to Hollywood specially for this, but not from Rio. From Chicago, figure that out.

“Soft, son, hold it down.” A bronze-colored sofa pillow slumps back against his bass drum.

This drummer, named Dom-Um Romao, looking like he should be selling weird rugs in Arab doorways. Looking like a tricky one, Martha. Between takes, the way he keeps the tips of his fingers warm under his armpits. His arms crossed that way, the fuzzy goatee, looking like a road company Buddhist.

In contrast, the Conductor, a German. Claus Ogerman, speaking always Germanic phrasing. “Yes the introduction, I will slow down each time the fourth beat.” There in his blue cardigan sweater, fully buttoned. So starched even his sweaters have creases.

The buzzing continues, with grey-templed producer Sonny Burke conferring on last-minute scoring changes, standing by with vats of oil lest troubled waters rise. To the side, Jobim’s goateed producer, Ray Gilbert, soothing softly in Portuguese.

On the next number, Jobim will sing duet with Sinatra. “Tone,” as Sinatra calls him, bends in close to his microphone. His hair undressed, finger combed. His jaw moving with precision, moving to each new vowel, his lips moving like yours do when you write a check for over $1000. The slight and tousled boy-man, speaking softly while about him rushes a world too fast. Antonio, troubled not by the clamor in the world. Troubled more by the whisperings from his heart.

The song’s last note. Keep quiet until the cymbal stops ringing. Dead quiet. Only Sinatra, a born peeker, can’t wait. He liked that take. He bends over, peeking into the control booth, unwilling to wait for the endless cymbal overhang to end. Peeking in at the engineers, as if daring them to reveal any Electronic Irreverences.

They reveal none.

“That,” says Sinatra, “should be the record.”

During playback, Sinatra leans on the conductor’s vacant podium. The only parts of him you see just popped white cuffs and worry lines in his brow. He’s Worry personified, like he’s in the last reel of “The Greatest Birth Ever Given.”

Around him circle the rest. The circle, too, listens to the playback.

Grown men do not cry. They instead put on faces gauged to be intent. They too listen hard, as if half way through someone whispers buried treasure clues.

It’s over. Sinatra walks away. “Next tune,” he says. Around him, the circle. Half-stammering, half-silent, because they can’t think up a phrase of praise that’s truly the topper.

Except for Jobim.

He walks up to Sinatra. A peculiar walk, like he’s got gum on one sole. He puts his arm around Sinatra. He hugs Sinatra. Both men smile.

Jobim turns out to look at the circle around them. His face alight, proud of his singer. His face triumphant. As if to say, and all along, you thought he was Italian.


Trini Lopez

1966 – Trini

He walks thin, carefully combed, teeth key-board polished, shirts roll collared, cuffs silver linked, trousers spaghetti-narrow. In clothes alone, a $400 per outfit guy, not counting silver, gold, and platinum content. Neat as a pin, and as nourished.

He talks Dallas soft, with a little boy smile that has a way of changing girls’ minds. But that’s not what sets him apart. Not what make his different from 70,000 other Dallas Spanish-Americans. Not what changed his Saturday nights from ten years back, when Saturday night in Dallas was when you got together and threw rocks at tractors.

On stage, he starts easy, he and his sidemen seeming forced up high. Waiting for no good reason. On like an eager acrobatic act that’s finally hit the big chance, like St. Louis at last, Maude!

“All right, everbody, he we GO!” he pushes through his mike. And they all sit out there with their show-me faces, looking tolerant and wondering if this thin kid’s worth the $3.50 cover.

And then Gene hits his drums, charges into them. And Dave strangles the neck of his guitar, flanging his fingers across the silver strings. And Trini leans into the mike, plugging himself in to the audience, transfusing his excitement across the five yards of smoke between his voice and their patient hearts.

About the third number down, the transformation is complete. The audience is his. Tribal magic – electronified, turned on, juiced up – engulfs the crowd. Their eyes change from tired to eager to craving.

“HWEE” yells Trini into the stomping, clapping, singing mass before him. Hundreds of cravers, united in the sensual act of rhythm. He lines out the melody in a spirited-enough voice, but he’s selling something else: excitement.

Give ‘em a charge.

The old “release” peddler.

Young as tonight, plugged in, hung up on what’s happnn, Red Cadillac’d, singing high and handsome cause Monaco and Basin Street, Vegas and Acapulco’re a damn sight better than lobbing rocks at Caterpillar tracts.

SING TO ME, AMIGOS! He yells out and the voice throb back at him. Their eyes follow his long fingers.

He’s got them where they live.


Lee Hazlewood

1966 – Friday’s Child

When you’re locked up for any length of time in the same world with Lee Hazlewood, you get to acting differently. You slouch down in your chair more; you feel overstuffed. The days seem longer, slower, warmer. You drawl a bit, cause the way Lee talks sounds so easy, so right.

He tells lots of stories, mostly about his ‘billy friends from the hill country. He’ll tell you about the novel he’s noodling with, about a ‘billy named Elmo Furback who takes a bus from Phoenix to L.A., which isn’t exactly Ian Fleming but does benefit from a straight-line plot. Or about the Christmas Eve he swallowed a big bug in the May Co. parking lot. Or about the time he got locked in the john at the Toluca Lake Hot Dog Show. Or drawl on about his Darliln (his black-haired Southern belle of a wife, Naomi).

And while you’re sitting there listening to the world of Barton Lee Hazlewood, you catch yourself with a stupid grin spread across your face.

This is Lee Hazlewood’s album.

“Big deal,” say you. Listen.


Bill Cosby

1968 - 200 M.P.H.

… just common to all grown men: the fantasy which places him snug and bucketed behind the steering column of some sleek Italo-Anglo-Franco dream machine. A fantasy which straps him in womb tight, and sends his roaring down Euclild Avenue past all those envious virgins who turned him down for dates to all those Junior Proms. Take that, Muriel Furbridge, as flying tires choke her in clouds of dusty revenge. In this album, Cosby devotes an epic twenty-two-and-a-half minutes to everyman’s 200 m.p.h. fantasy. It is Cosby’s finest.

Bill Cosby, uniquely enough, has created a new mountaintop in the range of American humor. Alone among a thousand comics and clowns, only Cos has found humor deep in everybody’s every day. He’s talking about us – not in our Sunday best – but surprised in our rottenest sneakers. He’s telling about us with a humor real as penny jawbreakers. As beautiful as skinned knees. It’s a new humor, from a better man. And on that new mountaintop, the Cos is all alone.


Sammy Davis, Jr.

1961 – Meets Sam Butera and the Witnesses

… This same group has been breaking up crowds night after night since, roughly, the day they learned to count to 21. They’re pros at making mayhem.

With the inspired singing of Sammy Davis inspiring them, each member of The Witness was excited and way, way up for this recording session. Davis, too, was obviously having a helluva romp making this album. The combination was the biggest thing to hit Vegas since the last convention of Goodyear blimps. Two enormous talents were colliding and loving it. The results rocked Vegas so much Hoover Dam had to send out for more Dutch boys.


Bob Newhart

1965 – The Windmills Are Weakening

8:05 PM. Pasadena, California. The Ice House (a theatre-restaurant).

An improvised control booth set up for remote recording. Bulky equipment crowds the room. Inside, it looks like an oversize toy chest filled with humming Roto-, Electro-, Mechano-, and Spaco-toys. Beer cans filed in the corners. Cider kegs for chairs. Engineers, finishing off meatball pizzas.

The engineers talked quietly among themselves, marking time discussing skate-boarding, women, the Palm Springs Open, whatever.

Newhart’s in there. He doesn’t hear them talking. He’s occupied with a clipboard, a sheaf of new monologue lines, phrases and pauses. His height is minimized by all the equipment. He doesn’t look up from his notes, like the guy who is used to being picked last when they chose up sides.

A way off, he hears the audience jamming noisily into the lobby, looking for a big night. No little ole Pasadena ladies in sneakers. The Ivy League cut and basic black gowns predominate. Also a lot of hand holding.

A head sneaks into the doorway. Newhart studies his clipboard.

“The first show’s jammed. No more room.”


So…What Happens Now?

At Warner-Reprise, after these mid-Sixties of liner notes, there came inside the label a spurt of what got called Creative Services. Writers and artists and girls became popular in the east end of the building. Joel Friedman, the exec in charge of Marketing (and so packaging and so liner notes), was about to take a year’s leave of absence to study for a law degree.

Label head Mo Ostin came down the hall to where the typewriter folks were, and asked it this group would like to handle advertising, too.

“Sure, boss.”

And so written ads also came out of Warners, and a bunch of other attention getters.

It took years longer for liner notes to first get hidden inside plastic boxes for CDs, then for albums to get lost in digital clouds.

Feels now like we’re missing something.


-- Stay Tuned