Songs that saved your life: Frank Sinatra – “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning”

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FRANK SINATRA – In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning (1955)

Frank Sinatra died 13 years ago today, May 14th, 1998. And I barely noticed. Satisfied with the music of my youth, Sinatra represented a different set of musical values and themes. I did not need his art to give voice to my personal concerns. That would change.

When I finally took the plunge in March 2002, it was the result of a desultory five-year gestation period of Scott Walker solo records, ’60s bachelor pad swank, spy movie soundtracks and half-forgotten memories of some hard-swinging Tony Bennett numbers. After some careful reading, I chose Sinatra’s third Capitol Records LP, 1955’s In The Wee Small Hours, as my starting point. I love songs about heartbreak, and despite a youthful assertion that nobody could top Morrissey for dark-night-of-the-soul hand-wringing, I’d read no one ever did it better than Sinatra.

The Frank Sinatra of 1955 was back on top of the entertainment world, with a battle-scarred lustre lending gravitas to every move he made. Over the previous half-decade, he’d scandalized America like no entertainer before him, beginning with divorce as the consequence of serial adultery. He’d been fired by his film studio, dropped by his booking agency and released from his recording contract with Columbia Records. His press agent died suddenly; his doomed second marriage to actress Ava Gardner reduced him to suicide attempts and brawls with the press. He’d lost his voice and he was losing his hair. All of this was a matter of public record, which made his 1954 Oscar win for the role of Maggio in From Here To Eternity a life-changing moment without precedent or parallel in English-language popular art. His is referred to as the greatest career comeback in history.

Never a dull moment: Sinatra on the August 29, 1955 cover of Time.

Despite the career resurgence, Sinatra remained unhappy in his personal life. He never got over Gardner. It’s important to recognize that when listening to “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning.” Sinatra chose it as the title track and leadoff song for his first full-length album with Capitol. The long-playing record was in its infancy when the 39-year-old singer hatched the idea of crafting records with thematically linked songs. Sinatra wasn’t a songwriter. He chose from a pool of show and film standards and newly commissioned pieces from in-house writers. The “Hours” team of David Mann and Bob Hilliard had limited exposure to Sinatra at that point – Mann had played piano on a few Columbia-era Sinatra recordings – but from the moment they demoed the song for him, he was sold.

Not that I knew any of this in 2002. I just pressed ‘play’ and waited.

I was staggered from the first line. The phrasing is out of this world. Initially I couldn’t track what he was doing, but I was bewitched, fascinated. The Sinatra method involved studying a song’s lyric for days or weeks – without the music, mind – the better to parse its meaning and emotional potential. Music historian Jonathan Schwartz wrote Sinatra was “the only singer I’ve ever heard who could sing a semi-colon.” What you hear during “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” is the incandescent genius of an artist who has lived this song’s message night after night after night after night in his personal life, pumping the words full of the hard-won right to be reflective and lonely.

Sinatra also tailors his delivery to Nelson Riddle‘s beautifully delicate, lullaby-like arrangement. The whispered celesta-plus-strings introduction is all the set-up Sinatra needs, his first line stripping away everything save an impression of street lamp glow squeezing between the cracks in the window blinds, lighting on a motionless figure slumped in an easy chair, drinking or smoking alone, eyes fixed on the door. There’s no call for histrionics in such solemn company, so Sinatra flexes his portamento style of note-bending, gracefully rounding into notes, constantly playing with the intensity. Listen to the gorgeous first verse, how he takes his foot off the pedal on “morning,” the carefully enunciated p at the end of “asleep,” the drawn-out ssst in “most of all.” Weariness pervades, but tenderness is still present. It’s only after the mid-song interlude he returns with defeat looming closer: a truncated version of the first verse, in which he sings “you’d be hers if only she would call” at 2:07 with a different inflection from its first appearance at 0:59, hints at spiritual decay, the scene you’d expect upon checking in on a loved one a week further into their mourning period – the clothes more rumpled, days of stubble on chin and cheek, the shittier, cheaper bottle of bourbon tableside. When Sinatra sings the final phrase, “most of all,” the heaviness is nearly unbearable.

Staggering, stupendous stuff. It’s one of the finest vocal performances I’ve ever heard. Three minutes after I’d begun my Sinatra journey, I was all in. I was born to listen to this. I haven’t stopped.

Sinatra would go on to record dozens of songs in this vein – some nearly as good (the so-called “suicide” albums were chock full of this exquisiteness: besides In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You? [1957], Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely [1958] and No One Cares [1959] all mine the same elegiac mood with rewarding results) – but for me, the first cut was the deepest. For anyone who’s ever lost a night’s sleep to obsessing over love lost, broken or untouchable, “In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning” is your anthem of discontent.

Rest in peace, Frankie.

"Ladies and gentlemen, may you all live to be 102 years old and the last voice you hear be mine." Sinatra on the May 25, 1998 cover of Time.

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