One melancholy ballad, and the whole of his art

IN concert Frank Sinatra used to introduce "One For My Baby", the most celebrated saloon ballad in his repertoire, with an extended passage of spoken scene-setting. Over the years his description of the lonely loser at the bar became exaggeratedly flip and hip ("his chick flew the coop ... took all the bread"), but when, finally, he broke into song ("It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place") he was instantly another man.

There are four recordings of this song by Sinatra, but the classic is the one made in 1958. His favourite arranger, Nelson Riddle, provided the discreetest of string-and-woodwind punctuation, but the burden of the accompaniment is born by Bill Miller, Sinatra's pianist. He plays undulating chords in the background with a peculiar mixture of empathy and detachment, a kind of eternal bar-room honky-tonk man. He also offers a comment on the song and the man who sings it; he's the man who's heard it all before, the hypnotic repetitiveness of his playing suggesting some vast uncaring ocean, in which the protagonist's tears can be swallowed up and forgotten. And, in his professional capacity, Miller is the economical accompanist, setting off his employer's vocal and Harold Arlen's melody to maximum effect.

There is the same duality in Sinatra's singing: a perfectly controlled performance of a man who's falling apart. Miraculously, though the technique is there for all to hear, it never obscures the emotion. Sinatra's torch- song sound was that of a man near the end of his rope, and he never sounded closer to it than here. It is the sound of defeat but not quite of despair. At the end of the song ("That long, long road") the singer pulls himself together, at least enough to get himself out of the bar. The album, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, might have been subtitled "Songs for Swinging Underdogs" but the composite hero who sings them always retains a residue of dignity.

Johnny Mercer wrote the lyric for a specific situation in a Fred Astaire movie, but it sounds better out of context and it helps that we don't know the story. Mercer may not have been great on dramatic character but he was wonderful on detail. And it's these details - the small hours, the solitude, the wistful bravado ("Set 'em up, Joe"), the jukebox hungry for nickels, the compulsive button-holing, the implicit awareness that his hearer can't and doesn't care ("Joe, I know, you're gettin' anxious to close") - on which Sinatra seizes. He turns the song into an archetype that's intensely specific. His voice at this time was at its richest but he paints here with a small palette. However, our awareness of the power in reserve gives the haunted vocal a resonant undertow.

"Won't you make the music easy and sad?" he pleads, and answers his own request. Actually, Mercer wrote "dreamy and sad", but I doubt if he minded the alteration. And Sinatra never has to emote to convey emotion. Sometimes, later, he blustered his way through up-tempo numbers but in ballads his touch and his taste were infallible.

To hear the same hushed intensity elsewhere, listen to his tender recording of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Dindi" in which he conveys a dawning humility in the face of beauty: the beauty of the song and of the person to whom it is sung. For evidence that he could maintain his finesse, his delicacy, his feeling for the specifics of words, music and emotions, in a happy mood, try "You Make Me Feel So Young", a classic that swings without ever hitting you over the head with rhythm.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

    £7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

    £30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

    Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

    £27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

    Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

    £16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

    Day In a Page

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'