Sinatra’s Noir Masterpiece Turns 60
Mid-century men—the Greatest Generation and their kid brothers—were expected to be stoic, and keep their emotions in check, even in heartbreak. But Frank Sinatra gave them permission to wallow. All the things that went unexpressed, that they could not admit, became manifest on the albums of ballads Sinatra recorded for Capitol Records in the 1950s, especially the torch-song-trilogy he made with arranger Nelson Riddle: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Close to You, and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. Those LPs should have been sold with coupons for fifths of Jack Daniels and cartons of Marlboros: Here, guy, you’re going to need these.
You listen to Only the Lonely now, in a celebratory expanded edition for its 60th anniversary, and what strikes you is its unrelieved darkness, the film noir undercurrent of Riddle’s orchestrations. Unlike Gordon Jenkins, Sinatra’s other go-to arranger for the slow ones, Riddle didn’t put the sadness in syrupy boldface, sweeping the singer along on cascading strings. Riddle’s textures were dramatic, but subtler, with elements of jazz (he framed Sinatra’s voice the way Gil Evans did Miles Davis’s trumpet) and classical music. Has any pop album this gloomy ever been so popular? It was America’s #1 LP for five weeks, stayed on the chart for more than two years, and was nominated for the first Grammy Award for Album of the Year. Everyone my parents’ age seemed to have a copy of Only the Lonely in their sparse album collections. Maybe they were just enraptured by the impeccable, resonant singing, the sweep of the music. Or maybe it was the album the men listened to in the living room, late at night, quietly, because they felt Sinatra understood them in some deep way.
Even among Sinatra’s consistent output of classic albums in the ’50s, Only the Lonely stands apart, and for that a lot of the credit has to go to Riddle. After he’d worked on every Sinatra project on Capitol, the three albums preceding Only the Lonely found the baton in other hands. Jenkins arranged Where Are You and a Christmas LP, then Billy May took over for the swingin’, wingin’ trip Come Fly With Me, which hit #1 early in ’58 (like Only the Lonely, it was nominated for the initial Album of the Year Grammy; they both lost out to Henry Mancini’s music from Peter Gunn). Originally, Only the Lonely was going be a Jenkins assignment, but it wound up with Riddle, and what I hear is a response to a challenge, Riddle out to prove to Sinatra, Capitol, everyone, that he was in a league of his own. He sets the scene with the first track, the moody title song written by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, that’s like an opening-credits theme: “Each place I go,” Sinatra announces, “only the lonely go.” He’s going to tell us some stories. How did he end up in this state? “Each melody recalls a love that used to be.” It’s as though he’s saying, this is going to hurt some, and you’ll be here a while (most of the songs crack the four-minute mark), but here goes. Buckle up.
A tracking shot leads us into a bar. “Drink up, all you people.” Sinatra does not waste any time. He and Riddle segue into the album’s masterpiece, Matt Dennis & Earl Brent’s “Angel Eyes.” It’s devastatingly sad. Our narrator has had a few, and he’s opening up. Sinatra lingers seductively on the lyric’s four-syllable words. “Still it’s uncomfortably near,” “They glow unbearably bright”—“unbearably bright,” how perfect is that?—“The fact’s uncommonly clear.” This song could just have easily closed out Only the Lonely, with its mic-drop ending, “’Scuse me while I disappear,” but that slot goes to another melancholy soliloquy that became a Sinatra staple, “One for My Baby” by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer. The 60th anniversary package includes alternate takes of both, and you might consider buying it for just those tracks, and for the legendary-among-Sinatraphiles abandoned outtake where he tries to navigate Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and just…can’t…get there. “Let’s put it away for about a year,” he says. He never got back to it.
Sinatra is back at the bar on “One for My Baby.” “Put another nickel in the machine,” he sings. “Won’t you make the music dreamy and sad.” This album is, among other things, about how we use music as an emotional valve. There were no singles released from Only the Lonely—Sinatra tended to treat his LPs and his 45s as different art forms entirely—and probably that’s a good thing. Imagine if Capitol had put out “Angel Eyes” b/w “One for My Baby,” and serviced it to every bar in the United States that had a jukebox. At last call, Joe would have been wiping tears from the counter every night.
The album is filled with stunning moments, on “What’s New,” “Spring is Here” (Rodgers & Hart’s lament that a change in the weather does not cause a change in romantic circumstances), a powerful, sweeping “Ebb Tide,” a song whose lyric is not particularly unhappy, but which sounds in this incarnation like James Mason is taking a final walk into the ocean in the ’54 A Star Is Born. But aside from the two halves of my theoretical 45, the highlight of Only the Lonely is Cahn & Styne’s “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” Sinatra had recorded that one in the late ’40s for Columbia, but not with this much gravity; he is coming apart (“Since love has gone, can’t pull myself together”), declines any invitations to socialize. He can’t forget her.
In the liner notes for Only the Lonely, on the original vinyl edition, Cahn and Van Heusen write about composing the title song for him, and say “A Sinatra singing a hymn of loneliness could very well be the real Sinatra.” That might be true. Late in his career, toward the end, Sinatra was largely going through the motions. His voice was creaking, he was forgetful. His sets were filled with crowd-rousing hits (“My Way,” “Theme from New York, New York,” “My Kind of Town”). But at most concerts in 1994 (including a run in April at Radio City Music Hall), there would be a pause, and he’d introduce a “saloon song,” and it was either “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry,” “One for My Baby,” or “Angel Eyes.” “Have fun, you happy people, the drink and the laugh’s on me.” Nearly every night, in a moment that seemed like it was just for him, time would slow down, and he’d return to that place where only the lonely go.