Frank Sinatra, “A Voice on the Air 1935-1955” (Columbia/Legacy, Four Discs.)
The truth is so much of old American show business is appallingly corny when encountered now in a new millennium. On this four-disc set released as part of the wave of Sinatra dry goods to coincide with the Sinatra centennial Dec. 12, you hear Sinatra on the radio from yes, Major Bowe’s amateur hour in 1935 to a Bobbi Home Permanent and White Rain radio commercial from 1955. Michael Feinstein, in the collection’s bang-up notes, introduces it as “a period of Sinatra’s life that was the most fertile, creative and exciting – and important in the context of the Great American Songbook.” There are all kinds of contemporary ears with which to hear this music – a nostalgist’s ears (not many people left who actually REMEMBER it from its first time around), a scholar’s ears and the scoffing, disbelieving ears of a millennial who couldn’t possibly help sometime guffawing at utterly shameless show business from a shameless era. Nevertheless, it’s terrific stuff. History is, for one thing, well-served by Sinatra selling Victory Bonds and then-Gen. Eisenhower announcing the “liberation” of Europe on D-Day. There is, too, genuine eloquence seemingly out of nowhere when Sinatra introduces a song by Victor Herbert and some genuinely funny interplay among Sinatra and Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. (On the other hand, just Hope along with Sinatra is near poisonous.) You have to hear some of this radio joshery and praise of Old Gold cigarettes to understand just how far from everything we know about Sinatra is the material written once upon a time by writers who should have been jailed for felony. The music performances, thank heavens, describe a far much smaller and more appealing gamut. There’s precious little rubbish. Quite a few marvels are here and some anomalies you’d never imagine to exist in a million years. Sure there are great duets with Doris Day, Johnny Mercer and Nat “King” Cole (a particular gem) before Mercer and Cole would join him at Capitol Records, which rescues Sinatra from Mitch Miller. But would you believe Sinatra doing duets with jive master Slim Gaillard on “Cement Mixer (Put-I, Put-I) and Gov. Jimmie Davis on his great song “You Are My Sunshine” (how many all-time pop classics are written by governors, after all?) It’s all over the map over the space of four discs, to be sure, but one thing it always is, even at its worst, is fascinating for everyone with a passionate interest in American popular music.
3½ stars (Out of 4)