Suggesting Sinatra: In the Wee Small Hours

Comes the spring and it’s Sinatra Season. I recall that I began to explore his catalogue in the spring of 1997 and when Frank Sinatra passed away the following May, I began to delve deeper into his work. Frank goes with any time of year but, for me, there’s something about Sinatra and spring.

In the first installment of Suggesting Sinatra we looked at Frank’s Columbia sides. Now we move chronologically to the next significant signpost in his catalogue. From the outset at his new home on Hollywood and Vine at Capitol Records’ famed home base, Sinatra planned his assault on the listening public. Singles worked for FS financially and kept the jukeboxes filled with tunes the kids could appreciate. But what he was really interested in was the Long-Playing 33 ⅓ record.

After beginning his tenure at Capitol with a couple of hit singles, Sinatra recorded the 10-inch records Songs for Young Lovers and Swing Easy!, both successful. But then, Ava.

Frank and Ava. © Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs/Getty

In the early 1950’s, Sinatra suffered two personal losses. First on Valentine’s Day, 1950, he left his first wife and the mother of his children, Nancy Barbato. Then he began his infamous relationship with Ava Gardner. The two loved each other and loathed each other wth equal intensity and were married in October of ‘51. The marriage could not sustain the weight of their infidelities and fiery disagreements and the two soon separated. Frank’s failing career was resuscitated with From Here to Eternity (1953) but his personal life was in shambles. 

Frank later would refer to himself as “an 18-karat manic depressive”, referring to his ability to intensely feel both the joys and sorrows of life. It was the sorrows of two broken marriages that Sinatra took with him into the studio when the time came to make his next record.

Sinatra is credited with having pioneered the “concept album”, which refers to a record with a unifying theme and songs that work together as a musical program. Often an album would be just a collection of singles but early on Frank saw the long-playing record as an opportunity to “act out” a drama over the course of fifty-odd minutes. In the Wee Small Hours, which Frank made with Nelson Riddle and containing what came to be known as “Ava songs”, becomes then a sad tale of love lost.

Riddle and Sinatra.

His voice on the record is at an interesting juncture. Frank had just turned 39 and this album finds him pivoting from the youthful and optimistic sound of the Dorsey/Columbia sides and adding in the shadings of life and experience. He is not yet the oaken-throated vocalist of the mid-1960’s and here he sings in a a pitch that retains remnants of his boyish self while you can’t mistake the undeniable result of hard life-lessons.

So often Frank’s 1958 set with Riddle, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, is singled out as his grandest torch album but I find Wee Small to be the more accessible record. In comparison with Only the Lonely, the previous album is Frank’s Allman Brothers record. Now, hear me out.

Only the Lonely having become the preeminent torch album in Sinatra’s oeuvre is legit. Frank’s son famously said that the record should be given out by prescription only. Perhaps owing to the recent deaths of his mother and daughter, Riddle employed a vast, mournful scope of sweeping strings and brawny orchestra for that album and the result is a dramatic program of grandiosity. While not exactly over the top, the performances on that Grammy-winner are mammoth. When looking at Wee Small, I can’t help but think of my favourite band, Florida’s Allman Brothers. I’ve always said that the Allman’s sound like soil; theirs is the most organic sound in rock music. Grounded and earthy, Duane, Gregg, Dicky and Co. based their music in the blues, a music that emerged directly from the earth and further found its validity in the realities of human feeling. Much the same can be said about The Wee Small Hours

Where Only the Lonely would display largesse, Wee Small presented a much more approachable and relatable set of songs. Warmth does not even begin to describe the sound of the album. While the songs on Wee Small are indeed about pain, it is an ache, a dull throbbing that is taciturn but is always felt. A pain that is grudgingly accepted almost with a chuckle and a shrug. Only the Lonely is agony, trauma. A fresh and open wound, a clean knife slice that reveals severed tendon and sinew, damage that invites madness.

In the Wee Small Hours sits somewhere between Only the Lonely and Close to You, a 1957 program from Sinatra and Riddle that features the Hollywood String Quartet. That record is quiet and regal, the small string ensemble giving it almost a haughty air. But Wee Small features songs arranged for small jazz group as well as songs featuring an orchestra. But even when a lot of players are on hand, the record never loses its intimacy.

Starting a pattern Frank would return to often, he uses a recently written title track that serves as an intro to a record that features songs from the Great American Songbook. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” sets the tone and a celesta is employed, a keyboard – or “idiophone” – that is used throughout. This title track has become one of the more identifiable Sinatra tunes, one often used to represent his torch singing. For me, the use of the celesta is ironic. It sounds to me like a lullaby, something that is sung to a child to lull them to sleep. But for the man in these songs, sleep never comes. Ellington’s “Mood Indigo” is a rare instance of 1950’s Sinatra/Riddle presenting a pure jazz song. Speaking of irony, Hoagy’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is a sad lament of resignation that Riddle drapes in sumptuous strings.

“Deep in a Dream” is indicative of the very “visual” quality of this record. The lyrics of many of the songs conjure vivid images of the singer in the middle of the night tortured by his thoughts. “Deep in a Dream” features shimmering strings that suggest the rising smoke of the lyric. The gentle blast of sound that follows on the heels of “I wake with a start” is a fine touch. “I See Your Face Before Me” has delightful rhyming and “Can’t We Be Friends” opens almost jauntily with the introductory verse. Here is another song offered in true jazz fashion and Sinatra has rarely sounded as vulnerable as he does when he sings “what a bust”.

“Last Night When We Were Young” has perhaps the biggest drama of the record and employs the biggest strings but then “I’ll Be Around” returns to a gentler sound as the record seems to come in waves, charting the lows and the lesser-lows of an endless night. “It Never Entered My Mind” is a devastating song of regret. Frank revisited the song later, using the Riddle arrangement in a stark and stirring medley with “The Gal That Got Away” on the last great album of his career, 1981’s She Shot Me Down. “Dancing on the Ceiling” is another wonderfully visual tune with more celesta. Frank takes you right into his barren room and describes his visions. The strings return for “I’ll Never Be the Same” and the program closes with one of the few songs that bear Sinatra’s name as composer. “This Love of Mine” was first recorded in 1941 by Sinatra when he was still with Tommy Dorsey.

As someone who often listens to music with his imagination, this album puts me in an apartment in Hollywood in the early 1950’s. I can see the floor plan clearly. This music plays from a hi-fi in the living room while a forlorn figure drifts from room to room. Smoking, definitely smoking. Moving from the balcony under the stars to the bedroom laying under the dance floor ceiling… I can see it all.

Actually, In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely put me in mind – as I’m sure they do you – of the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Before you unfollow, let me explain. The first Jack Sparrow film, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), is a wonderfully entertaining pirate movie in the grand tradition. Grounded in something close to reality, it is great storytelling and the entertainment value comes from the filmmakers’ attempt to simply tell a classic tale of adventure on the high seas and on land in tropical buccaneer havens. When that film proved a success, the producers ratcheted things up to the extreme. Dead Man’s Chest (2006), the first sequel, is loaded with CGI and eye-catching special effects, as if the thought was that now that we’ve got your attention with a simple pirate story, we’ll bring in even more viewers with a visual extravaganza on a grand scale. 

The parallel lies in the idea that In the Wee Small Hours is living room music, to be enjoyed in the solitude of your den. Only the Lonely is the Hollywood Bowl, it is a showcase of perfect singing and incredible orchestration of songs meant to reach many; listen here, everyone, to how sad love can be. With Only the Lonely, Frank and Nelson are telling the world; in Wee Small, they are just telling you.

I said that Wee Small represents an accepted pain. It’s a tale of a man resigned to his torment. I picture a man turning away from a painful sight, flipping up his collar and taking a long drag as he walks off into the cold mist of an endless night; like the film noir-inspired cover photo. But these songs are a companion, a salve for an ache. An ache that is weighty but somehow manageable. Torment that comes from the choices one has made to enter the arena, to love knowing full well that an utter rout is not out of the question. A man who has stepped up to the tables and who has gripped the dice with the ever present knowledge that only by loving can you scale the heights. And only by loving can you wind up facing the wretched solitude of the wee small hours of the morning.


In the Wee Small Hours (1955)

From Capitol Records. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, produced by Voyle Gilmore (Released April 25, 1955. #2 Pop)

Side One: In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Mood Indigo, Glad to Be Unhappy, I Get Along Without You Very Well, Deep in a Dream, I See Your Face Before Me, Can’t We Be Friends?, When Your Lover Has Gone

Side Two: What is This Thing Called Love?, Last Night When We Were Young, I’ll Be Around, Ill Wind, It Never Entered My Mind, Dancing on the Ceiling, I’ll Never Be the Same, This Love of Mine

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