Frank Sinatra spent a lot of time pining for the one that got away on “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely,” the 1958 album that many consider the finest of his career. And, legendarily, the recording sessions for the collection included the song that got away — the classic “Lush Life,” which Sinatra took a stab at in Capitol Records’ Studio A but gave up on midway through a take, never to return to the tune again.
That unfinished track has been such an object of fascination that it’s been written about in virtually every Sinatra biography, and bootlegs slipped out. But Sinatra’s record label and estate never saw fit to release it to the public… until now. Variety has the exclusive world premiere of a lyric video of Sinatra’s attempt at “Lush Life,” in advance of its inclusion on Capitol’s 60thanniversary deluxe edition of “…Sings for Only the Lonely,” due Oct. 19.
In the history of incomplete works by the 20thcentury masters, the idea of Frank and an unfinished “Lush Life” ranks up there in tantalizing myth with novels like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” or Raymond Chandler’s “Poodle Springs” (also started in 1958, coincidentally). Those works were rendered incomplete by the authors’ deaths, of course, whereas Sinatra had another 30 years in which to have taken another go at “Lush Life,” if he’d wanted to. But the effect remains the same: just as with an unfinished novel or symphony in which you dread the point of cutoff coming and are thinking, “Come on, stay alive a little longer,” listening to Sinatra do a few abortive takes of “Lush Life” and eventually get as far as the chorus, you may find yourself murmuring to the 1958 Frank to please keep going.
But he’s not heeding you any more than he was the session’s conductor, Felix Slatkin, who was filling in on May 29, 1958 for the song’s absent arranger, Nelson Riddle. “Hold it,” Sinatra tells the 38-piece live orchestra, mentioning the tune’s “tough enough” qualities. “Put it aside for a minute,” Slatkin suggests. “Put it aside for about a year!” responds Sinatra, impatient toward the end of a recording day that had him laying down seven successful tracks in addition to this one. But why’d he put it away for a lifetime?
“People have said that it might have been too hard for him,” notes Sinatra’s friend, archivist and reissue producer, Charles Pignone. “I don’t believe that. I don’t think Frank Sinatra ever skirted from any challenge, especially any musically. I just think he was uncomfortable with the arrangement. We had the same thing when we put out (a reissue of) ‘Ring-A-Ding-Ding.’ Johnny Mandel had come up with an arrangement of ‘Have You Met Miss Jones’” that Sinatra found difficult to work with. ”On the next album, which he did with Billy May, there’s an up-tempo arrangement” that proved to his taste. “In that case, it’s easy to know how Frank wanted that to go.
“I can’t speculate on why he didn’t do it” again later,” Pignone adds. “I don’t know why in ’58 they didn’t go back and do it. It could have been a time thing. But what I heard from Bill Miller is the story I’ll stick with. Because of my long association with the Sinatra organization, I had the pleasure of speaking over the years with many of the key players involved in this album. And Bill, who was Frank’s pianist for many years and probably at more Sinatra sessions than anybody over the years except Frank, felt with ‘Lush Life’ that if Nelson was there and not on the road with Nat King Cole, Frank might have been a little more comfortable and might have been able to make some changes.”
Pignone says it did come up again, decades later. “I can tell you that in the ‘80s when I was traveling with him, there was a man named Frank Military who was a real close friend of his, and who went on to be the head of Warner/Chappell Music. He had put together a list, because Frank was going to do an album of songs he had never recorded. I remember, at one of the dinners, Frank Military talking to him about ‘Lush Life,’ and Frank was agreeable to do it. That album never came to be.” But on the basis of that openness, says Pignone, “I don’t think there was any aversion to the song.”
In Will Friedwald’s book “Sinatra! The Song is You: A Singer’s Art,” Miller is quoted as saying that Sinatra “didn’t take the trouble to learn it (correctly),” and Riddle weighed in with, “It’s a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on,” said Riddle. “Not that he couldn’t have sung it with ease and beautifully, had he tried a couple of more times.” The Billy Strayhorn composition is a tricky standard, by any standard, but not so esoteric in its demands that it hasn’t been wrestled into submission by dozens of name singers over the years, from Cole to Donna Summer, along with Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Mathis, Sarah Vaughan, Rickie Lee Jones, Queen Latifah and, as the title track of an album she did with Riddle, Linda Ronstadt. Most recently, Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett cut it as a duet.
But in his book “Sinatra: The Chairman,” author James Kaplan argues that we shouldn’t mourn “Lush Life” being MIA because it wasn’t really a good fit for “Only the Lonely,” despite being in an appropriately melancholy vein, because it wasn’t really a great fit for Sinatra in general, and the way he inhabited very direct lyrics. “The number’s rangy chromatic melody — written as though warning the listener not to understand the composition or composer too easily— has the complexity of an art song by Schubert or Faure. It was wrong for Frank. He certainly had the musical chops for it… (but) in some basic way, ‘Lush Life’ didn’t speak to him,” Kaplan writes. “In the end (it) was an art song rather than a ballad.”
For whatever reason, its absence from the finished album meant there was one less for his baby, one less for the road. But the masterpiece that is “Only the Lonely” hardly feels incomplete, when songs that would go on to be Sinatra staples for decades to come got their first airing here and even the deep tracks offer deep wellsprings of emotional longing. In a week, Sinatra’s miserablist fan contingent will have good company in seeking out a deluxe set includes a remastering of the mono version and a brand new 2018 stereo mix.