Frank Sinatra would have turned 100 years old on December 12th. CBS celebrated the Sinatra centenary with an all-star broadcast featuring Lady Gaga, Celine Dion, Sam Smith and other vocalists who could never in their wildest dreams hope to match the interpretive depths of the Chairman of the Board. Sinatra deserves the kind of reissue program that would give today’s young talent a lesson or two in what this iconic singer was capable of at his peak. A Voice on Air is not that reissue. The four-disc set is the first official release of Sinatra’s radio performances, and covers a period starting with his developing years in the late ’30s and ending as his voice nears its mature peak in 1955. It’s a gift box that doesn’t lack for great singing. Unlike last year Sinatra box set, London, this (eventually) presents the skinny kid from Hoboken at the height of his gifts. But the radio show was not the best format for his talent.

A Voice on Air begins at the very beginning: Young Blue Eyes’ 1935 performance on “Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour.” Even those familiar with the purity of Sinatra’s voice with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra might barely recognize the young man singing “Shine.” It’s a historical curiosity, even more so as a taste of how old time radio was programmed – you can hear the tap dancer’s solo. A curiosity from 1937 doesn’t feature his voice at all; Sinatra leads an instrumental group called the Four Sharps in a version of “Exactly Like You,” with an incongruous opening quote from the Carl Stalling cartoon standby “Powerhouse.” Host Fred Allen tells the leader, “You have a strange name. Are you related by any chance to Ray Sinatra [a bandleader for Mario Lanza]?” The young entertainer is uncharacteristically soft-spoken, and without a trace of his future bluster replies, “He’s a cousin.”

The rest of disc one covers Sinatra’s time with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey orchestras. “Moon Love,” with Harry James, provides the earliest taste of what Sinatra would become, his voice still in the bloom of youth but already showing his signature control and phrasing. From the beginning of his career, Sinatra was used to being surrounded by the best musicians – Dorsey turns in some blistering solos here. Yet, Sinatra’s own instrument hasn’t matured; at this stage in his career, he was was a sensitive crooner with an innocence and vulnerability that will surprise anyone who only knows him from “Strangers in the Night.”

This music is sometimes dated but frequently beautiful. The problem with much of this set is overlap. Many of these recordings are available in similar arrangements on studio recordings that this box set’s target audience will already have in their collection. And in some cases, those studio arrangements could have used some improvement. The radio version of “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon),” for instance, has the same corny backing vocals by the Pied Pipers, a male chorus that ruins a romantic mood with exclamations like “We’ll nix the squares!

One thing these early radio recordings offers that studio recordings don’t is history: you hear Sinatramania up close as the serene ballad “Moonlight Mood” is suddenly interrupted by a burst of young girls screaming. Who knows what gesture caused this communal ecstasy? It’s evidence that the young entertainer’s persona was very different from the cranky old man that many of us grew up with. Still, Sinatra deserves to be remembered not as a historical figure but as a vital artist, and time and again The Voice on Air turns into a lesson plan, including a D-Day broadcast from then-President Eisenhower.

On disc three, you can hear Sinatra’s voice start to mature, and the set offers more winners like a duet with Nat “King” Cole on “Exactly Like You” (without the strange “Powerhouse” intro). In one of the box set’s most unusual tracks – and one of its best – Slim Gaillard gives Sinatra lessons in “vout,” the hepcat language Gaillard devised. It’s not exactly Sinatra’s forte, but he holds his own with Gaillard on “Cement Mixer (Put-ti Put-ti).”

The final disc covers Sinatra as he begins recording for Capitol Records, where he made his greatest albums. There are wonderful performances here. A sparely accompanied “It’s Alright with Me” is one of the few tracks here that beat the studio recording (made for the film Can-Can in 1960). The ballad “A Hundred Years From Today” seems to anticipate ’60s free love with the lyric, “Don’t save your kisses/ Just pass them around.” Like other tracks on this set, this recording will be familiar to bootleg collectors, but the improved sound quality will be a treat for the obsessed fan.

It is nevertheless the nature of the obsessed fan to complain about record company priorities, and Old Blue Eyes’ catalog is deep with treasures that, despite a wave of box sets, can only be heard on tantalizing bootlegs. Outtakes exist from the series of masterpieces that Sinatra recorded for Capitol Records. The sound quality is superb, the different takes fascinating; you can hear arrangements and phrasing develop over the course of a session. There are Sinatra fans out there with the money and the interest to make this vast catalog a cash cow much like Bob Dylan’s has become. Will the record companies tap this audience while they’re still alive? A Voice On Air has moments that the Sinatra fan will drool over, and good music all around. But the dedicated fan won’t need all four discs, and most will be left hoping that the Capitol coffers are opened up for what would be a truly essential archival box set.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Takuya Kuroda: Fly Moon Die Soon

The Japanese trumpet player leads a tight band that draws from soul jazz to ‘70s Miles to …