Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Frank Sinatra was good enough to sing off-key just to make a point

In 1959 Frank Sinatra played two shows in Australia. To try something different, and presumably to keep costs down, he decided he was going to be accompanied by a quintet led by the vibes player Red Norvo.

Sinatra liked to think he naturally belonged to the brotherhood of jazz musicians. Norvo opens the show with a number and then introduces "a new boy singer we've added". This is clearly a gag but it's also a recognition that Norvo and his musicians aren't just there to provide a foil for Sinatra's celebrity.

What ensues is both a band gig and also one of those performances where the musicians don't seem to be troubled by the worry of who might be listening. It's not just the way Sinatra plays with the lyrics or the inclusion of on-tour gags like "On The Road To Mandalay" (lyrics by Kipling). It's the serene, carefree bounce of the way he leans on the drummer's roll underpinning the line "when I get you up there" in "Come Fly With Me".

The performance, which is frictionless throughout, is beguiling enough to make you forgive the tape hiss. The show was only recorded because somebody in the venue's sound booth decided to press "record" just as it got under way and it wasn't released until the late 90s.

As Adam Gopnik points out, the downside of Sinatra's perfectionism could be a tendency to chide musicians to the point of bullying. When the pianist gets the wrong chord at the beginning of "All The Way" Sinatra sings deliberately off-key. I'm trying to imagine the rock singer who'd have the nerve to do that.


  1. Pete Wiley's voice always sounded a tad flat to me until Mark pointed out in one of the Word podcasts that Wiley sang through the entirety of 'Story of the Blues' half an octave out of tune.

    Someone in the studio must have noticed. No one had the nerve to say.

  2. Sarah Vaughn, of course, deliberately sings the word 'key' off-key in the phrase 'the way you sing off-key' in 'They can't take that away from me', and there is at least one other example of a singer going off-key on purpose, but I cannot remember who and where - possibly in 'With a little help from my friends' (What would you do if I sang out of tune ...)

  3. From what I know, singing off-key is not possible in this day and age. The electronic gizmos adjust everything, removing all trace of humanity and quality. Good job for some (many) of course, but not so good for the "real" singers.