Thursday, December 26, 2013

I Blame Sinatra

FIRST:  Program Update.  I will be on 790 KABC radio tonight from 9-midnight PST.  Among my guests will be Stephanie Edwards from Rose Parade fame.  Join me.  And tomorrow, I'll be on the air in Seattle.  Details in the morning.  Okay, back to today's post:

I’m not a great singer. Oh, I can fake it on karaoke night if everybody is drunk and I can carry a tune if need be for an improv sketch. But really singing – making someone swoon who wasn’t swooning already – that’s never been my strength. I always wish I could sing. It just seems like such a great outlet; a way to really let your emotions out without being diagnosed as a sociopath. How uplifting to be able to take a great song and do it justice. That must be so good for the soul.

So I envy good singers. They have a real gift. And yet, many of them squander it. How? By taking a wonderful song and stylizing the crap out of it, or worse, doing patter in the middle of it.

Barbra Streisand is a big offender of both. Maybe the finest pure singer of our time, she sends chills when she just sings a song as written. Take a modest tune like “Shadow of Your Smile.” Her rendition is just gorgeous.

But on other songs she flexes her vocal gymnastics to where the melody is unrecognizable.

AMERICAN IDOL has helped perpetuate this bad habit. There’s a big difference between “making a song your own” and “napalming it.”

And then there’s the patter issue. Watch a Streisand live performance. She’ll be singing a heartbreaking torch song like “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and stop to ask some kids in the audience how old they are and make a joke about how young her audience is before returning to the song. In a sense she has obliterated the song. Any emotional resonance is completely gone. And if you’re not going to sing a song like that to evoke a mood and emotion then what’s the point?

To say nothing of the fact that it’s so disrespectful to the songwriter. How thrilled would Tennessee Williams be if in the middle of STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, Marlon Brando had turned to the audience and said “anyone know a good Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side?” You wanna talk to kids, Barbra? Unless it’s Depression Day on SESAME STREET don’t do it during agonizing torch songs.

Streisand isn’t alone of course. Singers I’m sure get tired of singing songs they’re known for over and over. They spice them up to keep themselves interested. But the audience doesn’t give a shit that you’ve sung “People” eight-gajillion times. They want to hear it the way they know it. Pure. Simple. Like the fucking record. Especially in Streisand’s case when audience members have all had to mortgage their homes to afford tickets.

I blame Sinatra and all that “Rat Pack” shit he started. Maybe the greatest crooner of all time, his “Rat Pack” albums are painful. He’s not entertaining an audience he’s amusing himself.  There's another word for that and it starts with the letter M.

And Sinatra wasn’t funny. Not for a second. And what’s worse was that he thought he WAS funny.  That's a lethal combination.  Terrible racial jokes, insensitive remarks, bad double entendres, musty old clams – that was ole Blue Eyes' comedy repertoire. And all at the expense of the treasure trove of music he at one time sang masterfully.

Bob Dylan I put in a whole separate category. I went to Dylan concert and couldn’t understand one word he was singing or recognize one melody. He was three minutes into a song before I realized it was “Like a Rolling Stone.” What does it say about my generation when the voice of my generation slurs?

I guess I’m just a purist. Whether it’s Bono or Barbra, I want to hear the best most honest version of the song you can sing. Joke around after but when the music starts take me to where the songwriter intended. If only I had the God-given talent to be able to just show you what I mean.


Matt said...

But with Dylan he is taking you to where the songwriter intended, he just doesn't care.

Hamid said...

I'm with you 100% on the irritating and overwrought vocal gymnastics which you now get on every talent show. Quite possibly the worst example of the current crop of singers to come from talent shows is Jennifer Hudson. She doesn't sing, she yells. I saw a live performance by her on TV once and it was excruciating. She appears to be under the illusion that shouting the lyrics is impressive.

Aretha Franklin knew how to be powerful in her delivery without ruining the songs. But then along came Whitney "Crack is whack" Houston and Mariah "I'm a serious actress" Carey who, like Streisand, specialized in the ear gouging school of vocals.

During the summer I saw Blondie in concert for the first time and they were magnificent. Debbie Harry was on great form, singing the hits the way she did on record and saving the audience chatter for between songs.

Real John Galt said...

The biggest offenders are those who "stylize" The Star Spangled Banner. I guess that's why all TVs include a mute function.

norm said...

AHHH and that is why the "KING" was the "KING" Elvis sang them in person the way they were on records.
BS always pi**ed me off because it's her way or the highway. Just retire already Babs.

Southfield_Bob said...

I'm mainly with you, but I don't want to hear the exact same performance as on the record, or why pay to see it live? I saw the group America 40 years ago and their songs sounded just like their records and they didn't move or talk at all, just stood and played. What a waste of my money!

Worse to me is to go to a concert and hear the audience sing so loud that I can't hear the performer. Audience participation performers like Arlo Guthrie/Pete Seeger excluded.

Bruce Springsteen does a great job of marrying high-energy dancing, audience participation, and enough modification to make the songs fresh, without losing the feeling of them. If each song wouldn't go on for ten minutes... His voice is what Dylan's should be, but never was.

Gary said...

I once read that Frank Sinatra was envious of how easily Dean Martin could get laughs from an audience. So they agreed to switch up their on-stage banter for one show, with Dean setting up Frank for all the punchlines. They did it, and Frank got no laughs. Who knows how accurate this is, but it's sure easy to believe.

Larry said...

What about those supposed stars who are just plain bad performers? I once walked in on the kids watching a live Taylor Swift performance. The girl was "dancing." It was so bad that I had to ask, "Is this one of those Make-a-Wish things for a special needs kid?" And I was serious. She was flopping her arms around, looking like Elaine Benes on speed. Funny thing is, the kids all agreed with me that she's a terrible live performer, but they all still wanted her next CD.

Canda said...

Sinatra never tried to be too funny when performing alone, but he was always sure to give credit to the composers and lyricists of the songs he was singing.

Also, trying to compare the racial jokes of the early 60s to now makes no sense. Different time, different sensibility. Plus, they only did racial jokes with Sammy Davis, who participated. They NEVER did a racial joke when he wasn't there. And remember, Sinatra fought for Sammy Davis to STAY at the hotels they were performing in. And he won.

Eric J said...

Just as bad are the DJs who used to talk through the first couple of lines of the record. They break the mood by killing the lead-in. The first time I heard "Dark Side of the Moon", I though it was the DJ talking and laughing over the song.

Igor said...

Ken, I agree with you on everyone except Sinatra.

Sinatra was not a singer; he was a performer/songster. I don't recall ever hearing him actually hit a note. He'd slide into notes, then get interesting in the middle of the note, and often end it well - and so, it was all about the performance, with a song included.

As for those who could/can hit notes... Again, I agree with you.

That said, sometimes it seems to be a Broadway kinda thing with singers - that is, when the interruption for some spoken words actually complement the song.

Unknown said...

Igor, no offense, but you have a tin ear. Sinatra was one of the greatest singers ever. While it's true that he "performed" some songs, it was done to evoke strong emotions, as Ken maintains.
He may have lost considerable range in his old age, but in his prime he could hit any note he wanted. "Only The Lonely" and "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" are some of the finest examples of this.

tb said...

Your Bleeding Gums Murphy version of the national anthem made this point hilariously

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Real John Galt said...
The biggest offenders are those who "stylize" The Star Spangled Banner.

John, the big problem with this song and most others...the singer hasn't read the lyrics or doesn't understand them.

The Star Spangled Banner is a most underappreciated lyric and most I gather haven't read them.

RCP said...

What bothers me is being at a performance where the singer is obviously tired and/or bored - as if the audience were being selfish for expecting anything other than the least amount of effort.

Streisand respects her audience, but what's always missing in her live performances is that fire of her youth; of course it's unfair to lay that on her at 72, but it's not so much about what she's capable of doing vocally (she's still in great voice) - it's that that hunger and desire have long been tamed from decades of success and this comes across in her performances. A very good performance can still be a letdown from someone who's capable of brilliance.

VP81955 said...

Aretha Franklin knew how to be powerful in her delivery without ruining the songs. But then along came Whitney "Crack is whack" Houston and Mariah "I'm a serious actress" Carey who, like Streisand, specialized in the ear gouging school of vocals.

Franklin was from a different generation...also, let's not forget that before she moved to Atlantic and had "I Never Loved A Man," "Chain Of Fools" and other classics, she spent about six years at Columbia as a singer of jazz and standards. They didn't sell very well and to our ears she sounds rather restrained -- but that doesn't mean she didn't use some of the techniques she learned from gospel (more obviously used at Atlantic). Throughout her career, though, she always knew to harness them, something you can't say for her heirs and heiresses. Since 1990, mellisma has run amok, and "American Idol" has only made things worse. "Diva" has replaced "superstar" as the most overused word in the English language.

I'm listening to Sinatra's "Where Are You?" CD (Frank's initial collaboration with Gordon Jenkins, as well as his first stereo album) and the accusation that he was not a singer is nonsense. No vocalist ever told a story better in song than Sinatra -- from the sparking sound of "Songs For Swingin' Lovers" to the melancholy of "In The Wee Small Hours," arguably the greatest pop album ever made. And he did it for decades, from learning the ropes with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey to his romantic Columbia ballads (unjustly ignored for many years until they finally were repackaged in the late '80s), to his nonpareil Capitol albums, to his inconsistent, but occasionally brilliant Reprise sides. I saw Sinatra twice in concert, in 1983 and '86, and he was in fine form both times.

For male America pop singers of the 20th century, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Elvis Presley top the list, though all had substantially different ways of putting a song across.

Marty Fufkin said...

I'm in the minority because I would enjoy concerts more if the performers did more to personalize the evening. I can stay at home and play the CD if I want to hear a note-for-note rendition of the hits, but that seems to be what audiences want. I would rather hear my favourite performer do a set of numbers that he/she/they haven't released yet, such as a live sneak preview of an upcoming album.

While I somewhat agree with you Ken, I will defend the singers who break into chatter. They are trying to personalize the experience and form a bit of connection with the audience. It also proves they're not lip synching.

Anonymous said...

While I find vocal "gymnastics" annoying, I disagree fundamentally with the premise that the performer is required to service the audience. A performer may choose to give the audience part or all of what it wants but that is a choice, not an obligation. I enjoy performances most, both as a listener and as a performer, when the performer does what they want to do and the audience, while contributing their energy, is not steering the performance.

I realize that many disagree with my view.


Alan Tomlinson

Dixon Steele said...

I saw Streisand last year at the new Barclay's Center in Brooklyn. I saw the second of two shows she did and she was smashing. I've been a fan but not a fanatic, but I must say I was blown away.

I haven't loved everything she's done, but to perform like this at her age? Are you kidding?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Dixon Steele: "at her age"? What about Pete Seeger, still performing with enormous energy in his 90s?

One of the great things about the best folk musicians is that communicating the songs come first.


Ralph C. said...

Ken, I'm watching the fourth season episode 19 of Cheers where Sam decides to go "skiing" right after he beat Woody in a game of racquetball. He tells Woody that if he needs help behind the bar to call Bob. Who's Bob? Did Bob has a last name and/or history? Thought I'd ask.

Liggie said...

If you want someone who can balance singing and banter, see a live show of jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit. She gives great respect to the songs (her "Over the Rainbow" is heartbreaking), but she is also wickedly funny and loves busting audiences' guts with laughter. On Twitter, I joked that Jane sings samba like Astrud, scats like Ella, and wisecracks like Bette.

The Mutt said...

I went to a Paul Simon/Bob Dylan concert a few years ago. It was so strange to see Mel Brooks and Vincent Price singing all those classic songs.

D. McEwan said...

Having spent some years working in cabaret and piano bar, I've done a lot of singing and heard a lot of singers, and Sinatra is the bane. As one pianist put it to me, "If they've been raised on Sinatra, they're lost already. You can never make them unlearn all the horrible bad habits they acquired listening to Sinatra."

Nothing kills a nice cabaret room faster than a singer getting up and turning into Sinatra Junior. Slurring, sliding into notes, "Scooby-dooing," lyrics paraphrased if not omitted altogether, and when they do, on rare occasions they get a lyric right, they are deaf to the lyrics' meanings: grinning their ways through sad dongs, or getting overly dramatic with something as light as Singin' in the Rain (It's about the singing, not the rain.)

I was lucky, I grew up in a very musical home (a lot of musical talent in my family) where Sinatra albums were never to be found, as Mother disapproved of, as she put it many times: "That Mafia Thug."

D. McEwan said...

OK, that should be "Grinning their ways through sad songs, not "Sad dongs," thought those can be hard to grin through also.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Barbra's singing? I can't believe it's not like butter! Like a whole stick of butter!

This kind of singing sometimes becomes a parody of itself, not so much because of the singers who developed it but because of it becoming institutionalized as the "way" to sing, when it's only one option.

Over the top singing of that kind will probably lose favor once a clever comedy performer finds a way to spoof it the way Bill Murray did it for lounge singers.

What is annoying is when untrained singers start by attempting the gymnastics. You have to learn the rules before breaking them.

Gary Theroux said...

I pretty much blame Whitney Houston for encouraging a whole generation of "divas" to follow her example by adding as many completely unneeded curly-cues to lyrics that were written to be sung straight. The finest songbirds of the past -- from Jo Stafford to Petula Clark, Karen Carpenter to Olivia Newton-John -- all believed that songs -- emotional snapshots taken at one point or another along a romantic adventure -- had to be sung is such a way as to paint a clear portrait of the emotion each was crafted to convey -- and not turn a performance into a showcase for irrelevant vocal gymnastics. "Singing," said Gladys Knight, "is acting to music. In concert I have to act in order to switch from sounding ecstatic during one song to broken-hearted during the next. The trick is to be BELIEVABLE." And that's the essence of soul -- making music sound like you're singing from your heart. As George Burns said about his craft. "Sincerity is the key. If you can fake that, you can be an actor."

Anonymous said...

I think a big part of Whitney Houston's problem, besides all the obvious personal stuff, was that she never took to the standards. She could have done them and done them well with the right arrangers (See Linda Ronstadt). Her mom did some Bacharach and had she done the same, her career as as singer might have gone in a different direction, and she might be alive today.
With one or two exceptions of her big hits, she chose material poorly, and tried to compensate with all that ear gouging.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I thought Dolly Parton was the one with big tits...oh bit hits...never mind!

Perry Lambert said...

I Love you Ken!


I have been a singer and a performer since my youth. I've listened to all types of singing....but I do not blame Frank Sinatra for the overblown, over the top, singing that you hear today, just the opposite.

You see, It's a complete generational thing. the "American Idol" syndrome of "doing licks" It's an R&B thing that started in the late 40's and progressed when Rock and Roll appeared and made it's maturation with Motown. Sinatra was never an R&B singer, nor was he really a true jazz singer in the style of say Ella, Mel Torme, or even Anita O'Day...all who could could scat at the drop of a hat!

But Sinatra had something more then all of them, or what Torme describes as the the three C's...concentration, credibility and consistency. When Frank sang a song...he put his stamp on was his...and no one had that in aces like Sinatra.

For example Frank once sang the Barry Manilow song "I write the songs" written by Bruce Johnston. he changed one pivotal lyric that cemented it as "his" version and it made sense " I sing" Just that little thing made it all the more different then anyone else and more authentic to the performer.

In regards to "Sinatra and all that “Rat Pack” shit", Sinatra never, ever, interrupted a performance he was doing to do "patter!" When he did do his "set" in a Rat Pack performance...he still never did that! I have plenty of bootleg to prove that!

However, I can tell you that when the three of them were on stage and after all three of them did their set. They had what was called "a long medley of tunes" with alternate lyrics (mostly provided by Sammy Cahn) where they would joke around and kibitz.

You're correct to say Frank wishes he could be like Dean when it came to a joke telling. It just wasn't his forte. But you know what, you watch him just talk and speak from the heart,...and he could run rings around ANY of the performers today with his sincerity. Justin wishes he could be Sinatra.

I'll tell you the true test of a singer...anyone who could, at anytime. be asked to sing something....COLD. No rehearsal, No production team, Ho handlers, just a key, a bell note, and a down beat, and you're off. Don't you remember the Mike Douglas Show. Remember how many performers and singers would come on and just sing around the piano with Mike and Joe Harnell?

I have tape that Joe gave me that has Louis Armstrong, Mike, and Pearl Bailey. The shear entertainment is unbelievable! You'll will never see the likes of Britney, Lady Gaga, and so on EVER do's too frightening for them. They're out of their league and it's a different ballgame.

It means that you have to be real, sincere, and authentic. and pop singing today is not about that...,it's about production and the spectacle!

Next time you watch an award show watch the singing performances...not one of them will be "simple"...even the camera shots and cut-a-ways are 3 to 5 seconds, production dynamics, eye candy, dancers, pyro, video screens and dancing bears!

To sing simple...well that just takes too much work to do...really!

Lorimartian said...

From what I've seen of Sinatra in his youth, he deserved the acclaim. However, IMO, the aging Sinatra I grew up with was an overrated, lazy singer resting on his laurels. I could never get on that bandwagon. I'll take Sammy, forgiving some self-indulgent behavior, and Matt Monro over Frank any day.

Anonymous said...

With all this talk about age having an impact on how one should perform, it must be mentioned that Christopher Lee released his second heavy metal album on his 91st birthday.

He has also made the charts recently with a version of Jingle Bells which features a B-side of Sinatra's "My Way".

It's not bad.

Hamid said...

Sinatra may have been a great performer but I personally find it troublesome to listen to or watch him objectively, given his very murky and sinister past. Someone who partied with mobsters and drugged and raped an unconscious Marilyn Monroe and had photos taken of it as potential blackmail material.

Elvis was a better singer and live performer than him anyway.

Pat Reeder said...

You sound just like me on the vocal pyrotechnics and over-the-top ululations that pass for singing these days. Those don't convey the lyric, they just convey the message, "Listen to what I can do with my throat! Ain't I somethin'?!" It probably started with Whitney and Mariah, but Christina Aguilera pushed it over the deep end. And now, every song has to be a bigger production than Ringling Brothers, with dancers, lasers and fireworks, to cover up the fact that there's no melody, the lyrics are garbage, and the singer can't really sing.

My wife, Laura Ainsworth, is an actual singer, who grew up with a dad who played, sang and arranged for Tommy Dorsey, Freddy Martin, Tex Beneke and others, and led vocal sessions on famous radio jingles for PAMS and TM. As a little girl, she'd watch him bust jingle singers' chops to get harmonies absolutely perfect, and play sax behind people like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme. She has such perfect pitch that while she admires Sinatra's interpretive skills, she says she has a hard time listening to him because he's often about half a step flat. She now has two albums out, and while they've gotten raves, some jazz critics don't know what to make of her because she doesn't screw around with the songs in the currently popular fashion. One critic even called her take on a ballad "operatic," when it was nothing of the sort. It was just sung as the songwriter intended without a lot of frippery, the way singers like Jo Stafford or Julie London used to do. It's been so long since anyone heard that, critics have forgotten what it is or that it's even possible anymore.

We both hate all the fake over-emoting that's so prevalent now. Singers screech and wail as if they're being tortured, when it's actually the listener who's being tortured. And Perry Lambert is right: very few of today's singers could just stand at a mic live without all the production help and distractions, and sing a song simply. Here's something that would terrify a lot of them: it's from Laura's first album, her version of "Skylark" cut with the great female jazz guitarist Chris Derose. It was cut live in the studio with zero post-production, straight through in one take, after working out the arrangement in about five minutes. It's the anti-American Idol...

Pat Reeder said...

Correction to the above, from my wife: Sinatra's often half a step sharp. Sorry, she's the one with perfect pitch, not me.

VP81955 said...

The downside of Sinatra's success with "Songs For Swingin' Lovers" is that it encouraged all sorts of imitators, from Buddy Greco to Babby Darin. Not that some of them weren't good on occasion, but they often were too imitative, lapsing into self-parody.

As I stated earlier, I wish the recordings from Frank's Columbia era had been in wider circulation earlier; he was a brilliant balladeer (the stereotype of him from this period as someone who made bobbysoxers swoon -- a proto-Justin Bieber? -- doesn't do him justice), and he had talent on uptempo sides, too; think of "Saturday Night (Is The Loneliest Night Of The Week)" and the later "Deep Night" as proof.

Listening to Sinatra's Columbia records from this period is like watching Loretta Young's pre-Code movies: It forces you to (positively) re-evaluate a career.

RCP said...

Correction: Barbra is 71 until next April (my car tires were all flat this morning).

Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder said...

I'm as big a Sinatra fan there is but I have to agree about some of those Vegas sets with Sammy and Dean in tow. So many of the lines sound like they're supposed to be jokes but don't even really make sense. One night I drove my wife crazy by making up Frank and Dean "jokes" for about an hour straight. "We done had a showdown at the casino last night, folks. The ladies wore fur and Sammy slapped a mule."

April said...

I'm with you, for the most part. I sing for a living (between busking and parties) and pretty much all I do is jazz standards. There is sometimes a wee bit of boredom when you sing a song for what seems like the millionth time, but I have to remember that this isn't for me. It's for the people listening.

I think people are confusing making it your own with making the melody unrecognizable. It's one thing to fool around a little, add a trill or a slide or just a little "color" here and there. But some people just mangle it and I feel like you have to show more respect for the composer than that. I think it goes back to even before Frank, who sang things fairly straight up until later in his life. I respect Billie Holiday, but if I were to listen to most songs as done by her, I'd have no idea what the actual melody was. I prefer Ella Fitzgerald. She'd play around with the repeats, but she'd always sing it straight the first time through. Like Greg Ehrbar said up there - you have to learn the rules before you break them.

And it's true what other people were saying above, I think people have confused singing as loud as possible with conveying deep emotion. Why not play the quieter emotions once in a while? Sometimes I just feel bombarded by the end of a song. American Idol is partly to blame there, where anyone that hits that loud "glory note" is hailed as the next big thing. And it's not just bombarding, it's bad for the voice, belting at the top of your range too often.

And hi, Ken, first time commenting. I found your blog thanks to the AVClub when I was doing a series watch of Cheers along with their (sadly stopped) reviews. I'd never seen the series all the way through, but I grew up with the grown-ups in my life watching it and quoting it (my Dad's favorite is Norm's "Women. Can't live with em... pass the beer nuts.") and I actually did watch most of Frasier when it aired (also Wings was a family favorite. That show just doesn't get enough credit). I thought I'd give current tv a break and work my way through some of the late classics. Anyway, I'm really enjoying popping in here and reading your recollections on those and so much more. :)

Igor said...

peabody nobis - Mel Torme hit notes; Sammy Davis, Jr. hit notes; Sarah Vaughan hit notes. Frank Sinatra found notes. IMO.

Igor said...

Addendum to peabody nobis -

I just noticed that Pat Reeder, above, cites his wife - a pro singer - as saying that Sinatra sings a bit off key. Sharp, as it happens.

Again, Sinatra was a great performer, but he was not a great singer.

Unknown said...

Igor, we'll just have to agree to disagree on this Sinatra deal. Different strokes and all.
I never cared for some of his "hipster" patter, and his personal life was a sordid affair, but when he was on his game, there was nobody better.

Rex said...

Rather opinionated piece, and with an opinion, only some people will agree. For instance, he claims people want to hear the singer perform a song exactly like they hear it on a record. On the contrary, if you are a true fan, you probably have listened to the song a hundred or more times and welcome artistic variations on the song. A true fan likes to collect as many live version variations on each song that they can find!