Thankful, Sinatra & Jobim

I suppose there are lots of things to be thankful for in life. And this week, Thanksgiving, is the time to think about these things and give air to the thoughts in your head. But this is a music column, mainly, so I got to thinking about something musical that I am thankful for. I’m not sure why but my mind drifted south, to Brazil, but not in the ways you might think.

Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim 1998. I’m 23 years old, working at Wherehouse Records #9. I had been back from Australia for four weeks and was working a night shift. It was March and one of those March nights when a warm south wind spikes the temperatures. On this night it was about 70 degrees, but a seventy-degree day that feels like heaven. Larry, the resident genius on staff, popped open a copy of a record I had never heard before: Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. I was changed after I heard it.

Recorded in two days in the Winter of 1967, the first thing that struck me (and only improved on the reissue later that year) was the cover: it was black with a photo of Frank in the foreground and Jobim in the background. They are in studio, overhead lighting turning blue from the rising smoke. The photo is bordered in grey and a marine blue-green, a warm color for a warm record. The record is also shockingly brief, 28 minutes and change. Sinatra is famously quoted as saying that he hadn’t sung so quietly since suffering through a case of laryingitis. Mixed in among the traditional standards are songs written by Jobim. Sinatra sings these songs in such a way that they stand out among the rest of Sinatra’s catalog. For me the song that stands out, the song that I am thankful for being introduced to, is “The Girl from Ipanema.”

Written in 1962, the song is famous and creates images in the head of warm beaches, small bikinis, and the type of woman described in the lyrics. There are hundreds of cover versions of the song. Many large names are associated with the song: Astrud Gilberto, Stan Getz, Walter Wanderley. There are traditional jazz versions of the song, bossa nova versions, heck, even a wacky disco version. I love them all for the visions they create and the pangs of longing that are so rich in every version of the song. Ok, maybe not so much the disco version.

For my tastes, the best version of this song is the Sinatra version. Something about the age in his voice lends something to the song, sort of a wistful weariness tinged with desire and memory. The call-and-response with Jobim is also great. Jobim’s soft voice, slightly higher than Sinatra’s, really cleanses your mental palate. You just hear the two of them and picture the photo on the LP cover. Yet for all the words Sinatra sings, it’s the words Sinatra doesn’t sing that put this version over the top.

The lyric is “Tall and tan and young and lovely.” Every version I have heard of the song uses the exact lyrics. When Sinatra gets to the final verse of the song he drops the articles. “Tall AND tan AND young AND lovely” becomes “Tall. . . tan. . . young. . . lovely.” It changes the whole texture of the song. It adds a layer of interpretation, a layer of forlorn experience that pushes the song into a higher plane. Sinatra was always great at adding emotions that you didn’t think could be represented in song. Listen to his two great bottom-of-the-barrel LPs from the 50s, Sings For Only The Lonely and In The Wee Small Hours. There was pain in those songs, something more that the listener inferred, even with the directness of the lyrics. And so by bringing his own supreme talent at infusing lyrics so did Sinatra infuse that line, those THREE WORDS, with so much more.

As time moved away from the release of the LP Sinatra branched out into different, more “modern” music. The two artists cut another LP together entitled, Sinatra/Jobim but it never saw the light of day, only dribbling out on 8-Track in 1970s. Seems the label was gun-shy due to poor sales. One side of recordings were released on Sinatra & Company in 1971, the second side featured the words and works of John Denver (“Leaving on a Jet Plane”), Burt Bacharach (“Close To You”), and Joe Raposo (“Bein’ Green”—yes, Frank covered Kermit). He never breathed bossa nova again.

For me Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim is a last high-water mark for Sinatra. I have many, many LPs of his that I enjoy yet I always return to this LP. The LP represents the last time that Sinatra was really relevant as an interpreter and as an artist as the body of work he was singing appeared to fall outside of his “traditional’” material. It was risk-taking, if a few years tardy, but the results are rewarding all these years later. I don’t give thanks for too much in this world, but musically and emotionally, I’m thankful for Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

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