Having been a star for over a decade, Frank Sinatra's career looked like it was over when the 1950s dawned. A bitter dispute with his record label led to his departure from their roster, which meant that not only his recording contract was null and void, but that he was left without a radio show, and could no longer appear in films or on television. Sinatra was dead. The man who looked like he might become the next Bing Crosby had been lost to time. Surely.
One man was prepared to give Sinatra another chance - Alan Livingston, the vice president of A&R at Capitol Records, and a major Sinatra fan. He offered Sinatra a 7-album deal, which the man himself gladly snapped up. One problem - Capitol had a roster filled with irrelevant, anachronistic 40s stars. What was to stop Sinatra blending in and becoming just another faded star?
Obviously, history has taught us that Sinatra was a special case in just about every way imaginable. Livingston and his Capitol cohorts, meanwhile, had a masterplan that would exploit that to maximum potential. That masterplan involved a young composer and arranger named Nelson Riddle.
Sinatra was resistant to Riddle's involvement at first, yet the reason he'd left Columbia a few years previous was their insistence on using gimmicks to sell records. It wasn't hard to know that Riddle was exactly the kind of person Sinatra needed to make the kind of music Columbia wouldn't let him.
Forward to 1955. Sinatra had already released two records with Riddle - Swing Easy
and Songs For Young Lovers
- and had established a pattern for his career of a dance album followed by a melancholy album, followed by a dance album, and so on. This schedule now called for Sinatra to deliver a melancholy album. Not that he'd want to do anything else - his relationship with Eva Gardner had fallen apart spectacularly.
That's why In The Wee Small Hours
is often referred to as the first ever concept album. This was Sinatra dealing with how lost and alone he felt when Gardner left him. In an era where albums effectively did not exist - the 12-inch disc was not invented until shortly after the release of in The Wee Small Hours
, and when it was invented, this was the album that came to define the medium - In The Wee Small Hours
was a revelation. It was the first recording that sustained a mood - any mood - for its entire length. It was the first recording specifically designed to flow the way we now expect albums to. And it was the first recording intended to be listened to one sitting, rather than broken up and digested on a song-to-song level.
So this, right here, can legitimately not just be called the first concept album ever, but could even be called the first genuine album ever. Scary thought, huh? That fact makes In The Wee Small Hours
a serious contender for the most influential musical work of the 20th century.
History remembers Sinatra as an arrogant, swaggering man, full of life and full of bravado. "My Way". "New York, New York". Even "Love & Marriage", later adopted as the theme for TV series Married With Children. In The Wee Small Hours
destroys that notion. This is the sound of a man descending into depression, a man alone. His legendary voice is now underpinned not by masculinity, but by longing and sadness. His reading of Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" is heartbreaking (the emotion invested into the opening couplet is stunning); opener "In The Wee Small Hours of The Morning", written specifically for the album, even more so. The real high watermark, though, is the album's centerpoint. Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love?" sees him crying, wounded.
You gave me days of sunshine
You gave me nights of cheer
You made my life an enchanted dream
til somebody else came near
Somebody else came near you
I felt the winters chill
And now I sit and wonder night and day
Why I love you still?
So, the album's concept is a night spent longing for a lost love. Simple, yes, but devastatingly effective. After all, compare it to later concept albums. How often does a person spent a night alone and lonely, compared to how often they go blind, deaf, and dumb, and win some kind of pinball thingy?
Riddle's arrangements throughout are brilliant. They don't jump off the page at all, but they're sympathetic and imaginative - the instrumental sections on "Ill Wind" being a highlight, along with the intro to "I'll Never Be The Same". In fact, oddly enough, Riddle appears to grow into the project as the album goes along - his music gets better and better towards the second half of the record, although there's something magical about the distant, distracted piano intro to "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning". Make no mistake, though - this is Sinatra's show, and Riddle understands that.
This album spurred him on to a string of equally great albums (Songs For Swinging Lovers!
and Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely
being of particular note, the latter feeling like a direct follow-up to this). More importantly, it sealed his place in history like nothing he did before or after. It not only restored him to the level of fame he'd enjoyed in the 40s, it also won him an entirely new audience. Sinatra was now a bigger star than he'd ever been.
In truth, In The Wee Small Hours
may seem slightly dated to a new listener - the influences here stem clearly from vocal jazz and film scores, and Sinatra himself quoted Billie Holiday as a major influence on proceedings. (Curiously, and ironically, Holiday's 1958 album Lady In Satin
was directly influenced by this album, and includes versions of "Glad To Be Unhappy", "I Get Along Without You Very Well", and "I'll Be Around".) There is, it must be said, not a guitar in sight, which alone may put some off. But repeated listens reveal a rich, textured, warm album that creates a world any listener can immerse themselves in, should they so wish. It's just a quality album - and quality never goes out of fashion.
Rating this album reveals a slight flaw in the Spuntik rating system - there are better albums than this, albums I enjoy more, that I would only rate 4.5. Yet, when one of the options is 'Classic', there's absolutely no other way to rate this album. It's a classic in every sense of the word.
Serious fans of music can be split into two camps - those who own this album, and those who have a big fat gap in their collections.
Within The Genre - 5/5
Outside The Genre - 4.5/5
In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning
Glad To Be Unhappy
I Get Along Very Well Without You
Deep In A Dream
What Is This Thing Called Love?