Frank Sinatra – A Voice on the Air (review)

Frank Sinatra – A Voice on the Air – 1935-1955 (Columbia / Legacy) review

One of the most important and entertaining Sinatra collections ever released

Frank Sinatra’s rich legacy is well-documented in the numerous studio and live performances, and Hollywood movies released during his lifetime. Yet, Sinatra’s legend was first built on the popularity he achieved on radio. A Voice on the Air, a new, four-disc box set, explores this important aspect of his early career.

During the years covered by this collection, there was no social media, and television was in its infancy. Radio was king – for most, the only connection to the outside world. And, there was no bigger star during that time than Frank Sinatra. This set brings together not only music, but commercials, comedy routines, and bits of newscasts that not only paint a clearer picture of Sinatra the artist, but also act as an audio time capsule, giving us a glimpse into the humor, politics, fashion, and mindset of a bygone era.

A Voice on the Air isn’t merely a rehashing of familiar Sinatra tunes. In fact, it’s the exact opposite: each track was selected for its historical significance. Even though the singer recorded thousands of songs, there are many classic tunes that he missed; yet, he did perform them on radio. We get to hear his sultry take on the Mills Brothers’ “Paper Doll,” and a rousing rendition of Artie Shaw’s “Frenesi” – just two examples of songs never recorded by Sinatra. Other songs featured unique arrangements, like the lush rendering of his first solo hit, “Close to You,” or the upbeat take on “It Had to Be You.”

Sinatra’s singing is impeccably smooth throughout. Yet, it’s what’s between the songs that really stands out. He tells a fantastic story of meeting songwriter Victor Herbert as a young man that is very moving. After hearing him send out a song to soldiers wounded in the war, sing recently-deceased President FDR’s favorite song on his birthday, or signing off his show by saying goodnight to his kids, you understand why Sinatra was so popular. He came off as the “aww shucks” boy next door one minute, then could be full of confidence and bravado the next. Hearing the girls scream at the end of each song shows that the Beatles or Elvis weren’t the first performers to elicit this response in teenagers, especially at the end of “My Heart Tells Me.”

There’s also some very funny comedy routines, showing that Sinatra was indeed an all-around entertainer. Especially good is a segment where Bob Hope “referees” the “Battle of the Century” between Sinatra and Bing Crosby, with each pitching put-downs back at each other, making fun of Crosby’s hairline and Sinatra’s frail physique. Sinatra quips “it’s past your bedtime” to his legion of Bobbysoxers before launching into “Long Ago and Far Away,” another song he did not put on proper record.

The set begins with Sinatra’s first-ever appearance on radio as part of the Hoboken Four in 1935 doing the classic “S-H-I-N-E.” It’s nothing particularly special, but they do get points for being energetic. Two years later, Sinatra was on the Fred Allen show as part of the Four Sharps. The song they do is an instrumental called “Exactly Like You,” but it’s Sinatra who gets interviewed. Two more years go by and Sinatra is now with Harry James. They perform “Moon Love” – Sinatra gets one stanza and sounds a little nervous.
But soon he comes into his own with “I’ll Never Smile Again,” featured here alongside an interview with the song’s composer, Ruth Lowe.

Disc two devotes a great deal to the invasion of Normandy and the resulting war efforts. There’s a news bulletin featuring both President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower. Then, Sinatra sings “America the Beautiful,” and “Piece of the Peace.”

Disc three is full of duets, teaming with everyone from Governor Jimmie Davis (for his composition “You Are My Sunshine”) to Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, Johnny Mercer and even legendary composer Irving Berlin. There’s only a six month gap between tracks 22 & 23, yet you can hear Sinatra’s voice change from smooth to the more edgy delivery that would dominate his style for the rest of his life.

Disc four features several segments of Sinatra hosting Your Hit Parade, singing the popular songs of the day. Amazingly, he never did proper studio recordings for “On a Slow Boat to China” or “Tenderly.” There’s also a bit of studio trickery as two different performances of “Our Love is Here to Stay,” from two years apart, are sewn together.

The inclusion of various commercials gives us further insight into the culture during this time. Cigarette ads for Old Gold and Lucky Strike may be uncomfortable to listen to now, but were the order of the day. Hearing a Bobbi Curl or White Rain ad shows where Sinatra’s listeners were coming from.

A special note has to be made of the audio quality: warm, clear and inviting – it’s like you’re hearing these long-lost broadcasts on an old tube Philco radio. And yet, most everything here predates the advent of magnetic tape. Instead, they were taken from “transcription discs,” usually made of aluminum or even glass. These fragile records have deteriorated immensely over time, and yet – through clever use of modern technology, these recordings sound as fresh as they did when they first aired over 70 years ago. Photos of several of these discs can be found in the excellent companion booklet.

This unique collection helps paint a more vivid picture of this legendary performer. It goes along way toward showing why Sinatra was the biggest entertainer of his era. Even though Sinatra has put out hundreds of albums, A Voice on the Air is one of the most important releases ever released. —Tony Peters