You’ve got to admire a fellow like record producer Phil Ramone. A larger than life figure in the world of music, Ramone worked with some of the finest artists in the industry, spanning across multiple styles and genres of sound and entertainment. Having worked previously with Frank Sinatra in the mid to late 1960s, not to mention running the sound board at his New York studios during the recording of Sinatra’s album “L.A. Is My Lady” in 1984, Ramone was determined to work with the singer once again on some sort of recording project, and by the dawn of the early 1990s, Ramone’s desire would become a reality when he signed on as producer for one of the most controversial (at least, to critics and Sinatra fanatics) benchmarks in the Chairman’s career. It was called “Duets.”
Dubbed “the recording event of the decade” by the firm in charge of album publicity, “Duets,” and its eventual sequel “Duets II,” would become a memorable moment in the Sinatra canon, both for positive reasons and somewhat less savory ones.
After an aborted attempt to see if Sinatra would record a new torch song album along the lines of his 1950s classic “In The Wee Small Hours,” Ramone approached the nearly eighty year old entertainer with the idea of recording a number of his classic songs along with a bevy of modern-day entertainers.
Ramone’s reasoning behind the idea of the project is a noble and nostalgic one that owes heavy to the legend that was Frank Sinatra. When Sinatra asked why they would go into a studio and just re-record the same music he had made years before, Ramone showed just what a Sinatra fan he was by making a comparison to Laurence Olivier performing Shakespeare in both his young days and his older days. Although the material was the same, it could be shaped into something new and exciting due to the fact that intertwining life caused the artist to inadvertently reinterpret the material.
Indeed, when listening to Sinatra sing his classic standards again some thirty to forty years after he initially recorded them, the sense of a man who had done a lot of living and learning through the years in between is fairly prevalent, in the best of ways.
Capitol Records was chosen as the distributor for the project, marking Sinatra’s return to the ornate recording facility that his records had helped build (in the years between 1953 and 1962) more than thirty years after he had first worked there. After a few aborted attempts in the early summer of 1993, in which the production was beset with some problems (among others, Sinatra’s reluctance to record in a special booth built for him), Sinatra returned again one evening in July to try to get the project off the ground. Requesting that the technicians in studio set him up to sing on the floor in front of the orchestra (like his many concert performances), a small stand was built with Sinatra able to sing his vocals through a hand held microphone.
With multi-talented composer Patrick Williams leading the orchestra through the session, the assembled personnel watched as Sinatra got himself on a roll, rattling off one tune after another effortlessly in an exuberant display that recalled the singer’s days of yesteryear.
During this session and a few to follow, vocals were captured for about thirty tunes, twenty-seven of which would comprise the two albums. It was only then, after the miraculous feat of getting the singer into the studio to record his voice, that the controversy over the final product began. While the album title as well as the overall concept would lead one to think that each singer individually came to the Capitol studio to record their parts of songs with Sinatra, revolutionary technology that was still somewhat in its infancy at the time was utilized behind the scenes in order to speed up the process and present a refined product.
The songs on which Frank sang were recorded on multiple channels, isolating vocals from orchestra, allowing technicians to drop out the Chairman’s voice and add in the sounds of a duet partner. While this process robs any natural camaraderie from the recording (Bobby Darin and Johnny Mercer’s album “Two Of A Kind” comes to mind), the aging star had already been showing off his quick change temperament with the process as was, and, as a man who liked to get things completed quickly, if he had to wait around and pander to record with each partner, he might have walked on the project. As time would tell, some individuals would wish he had done so anyway.
Duet partners were chosen (among them Luther Vandross, Gloria Estefan, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, Tony Bennett and Liza Minnelli), and sent their respective songs, many of whom recorded their parts at studios across the world and sent them via phone line to Hollywood, where the parts would be spliced and mixed together to best effort. With Frank’s vocals leading the way, there was room for duet partners to put spins on phrases and ad lib to give the listener the impression of togetherness.
Released in November 1993, the first album would reach triple platinum status, a first in Sinatra’s career, selling over three million copies. The second album would be released the following November. While the general criticism focused on the unusual nature of the recording process, the reaction in the negative spun off into several different directions. There were those who felt that Frank’s voice was old and tired and he shouldn’t have even attempted to record. There were also those who felt the duet partners were an obtrusive to a legend at work, and that their “spins” did nothing to enhance the material. Others noted on the sound of the new recordings themselves, calling them flat and vastly inferior to the originals.
Like this author, there are individuals who appreciate these albums for what I feel they were supposed to represent: carefully constructed tools to bring Sinatra to the ears of a modern audience. With the help of a roster of recognizable guest stars, the intent was to introduce the sounds of a legend to a younger listener. Given the record sales, it’s safe to say that this was partly achieved.
Despite the aura that surrounds, there are some nice moments along the way for audiences of all ages: Sinatra’s duets with singer Gloria Estefan on “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Linda Ronstadt on “Moonlight In Vermont” are notable performances, as are the swinging pairings of Frank with Natalie Cole on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and Jon Secada on “The Best Is Yet To Come,” the orchestra particularly cooking well on the latter tune. In addition, many agree that Sinatra’s reading of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” the last tune on the first album in which Sinatra is paired with instrumentalist Kenny G, is a thoughtful, emotion-filled performance that compares favorably with his original reading of the song nearly forty years prior. It is perhaps the singular tune that most relates to Phil Ramone’s Laurence Olivier-theory from which the genesis of the albums emanated.
Sinatra diehards view the albums as Frank’s truly last end all to be all time behind the microphone. The sentiment of this fact would hit home even heavier after a certain bootleg disc came into existence on the black market simply as “Solos” a few years after “Duets” release and the passing of Sinatra in 1998. Someone had smuggled the sounds of sixteen full Sinatra performances from the Capitol studio while Frank was recording his parts before any alterations or duet additions could be made to the recording. A valued collector’s item today, it stands on its own as ample proof that Frank Sinatra, even at the age of seventy-seven, still had “it.”
Even though most remain sharply divided at the mention of the words “Sinatra” and “Duets” today, it’s kind of comforting to know as that he was still in the studio handing out the best of the chops he had left only a few years before the man upstairs called him up to the big casino.
When confronted with that fact, as a Sinatra fan, these albums are good enough for me.
Until next time, Sinatra lovers!
Jerry Pearce is an amateur singer in the vein of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, and Dick Haymes and has released two discs of standards music, Crossroads in 2010, and One Summer Night in 2016. Samples of his music can be heard on his YouTube Channel. To purchase his CDs use the form box below.
Comments or questions are welcome.