There will be plenty of deluxe reissues of 50-year-old albums this fall — the Beatles’ landmark White Album among them — but, it’s safe to say, only one significant 60th anniversary edition. Variety can exclusively announce that “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” will be getting the expanded treatment October 19. To preview the set, we have the premiere of a brand new remix of one of the album’s most enduring tracks, “Angel Eyes.”
A deluxe “Only the Lonely” has long been hoped for and rumored among Sinatra buffs, as aficionados generally consider this one of the best entries in his catalog, and more than a few would deem it the greatest. (Super-fan Elvis Costello once wrote an essay declaring it his favorite record of all time.) The 1958 classic first arrived amid a fantastically fertile era, not too long after the actual dawn of long-players, when Sinatra was using the new LP format to pretty much invent the concept of concept albums. And the concept here was… misery.
“It is a depressing album,” offers Sinatra’s archivist and longtime reissue producer, Charles Pignone, “but it’s pretty perfect in my estimation.” Sinatra actually made three albums in this deeply melancholic vein, the others being “In the Wee Small Hours” and (in an example of truth in hilariously despondent titles) “No One Cares.” Fans split over whether “Small Hours” or “Lonely” is the superior “saloon songs” album of his career, depending on whether they prefer the small, sparse combo of the former or lush orchestration of the latter. “Only the Lonely” has Nelson Riddle conducting what he considered to be the best arrangements for any vocal album in his career, so if you have a thing for brilliant strings, it’s the apex of Sinatra at his lowest.
The two-CD and digital packages coming out next month will feature both the original mono version of the album and a brand new stereo remix, plus a handful of alternate takes and outtakes. (A vinyl iteration features only the fresh stereo version, spread across four sides for higher fidelity.)
What’s interesting in the case of “Only the Lonely” and a few other early LPs is that the stereo and mono aren’t merely different mixes of the same recordings, a la “Sgt. Pepper” and some of the rock albums to follow in the ‘60s. Sinatra’s vocals are exactly the same in both versions, but the orchestration sounds distinctly different to attuned ears, because the dozens of players were mic-ed differently. For the mono release, which was considered by far the primary one in 1958, a multitude of microphones were set up around the orchestra, who accompanied Sinatra live in Capitol’s subterranean Studio A. For the stereo LP, which was a more experimental gambit at the time, just two microphones were placed overhead to pick up all that playing. As Pignone puts it, “in later years, most everything was recorded in stereo and folded down [for mono], so there’s not a big difference. But in this case, if you listen closely, you’ll hear different things and instrumentations that you won’t hear on one version versus the other.”
Audiophiles have never reached any kind of consensus over which version is better, although the mono’s reputation has benefitted from being consistent through six decades of re-releases, while the stereo has been subject to a confusing succession of configurations and mixes over the years. The new stereo version has been mixed by Larry Walsh from the restored original masters, and mastered — in one of his last pre-retirement missions — by Ron McMaster, both working in the Capitol basement within yards of where Sinatra laid down the tracks.
“I’ve been with the Sinatras since 1984, and I’ve worked on a lot of albums and reissues,” says Pignone, “but I feel without question that this is one of the greatest pop vocal albums of the 20th century and beyond. It’s the gold standard of a torch album. We’ve been waiting for a certain time to put this out. I thought about doing it around the centennial in 2015, but we didn’t want other things to take away from it. So with the 60th anniversary coming up, we thought it was the right time.”
When Variety published a farewell tribute recently to McMaster, the mastering legend, he named “Only the Lonely” as one of the favorite projects he’d ever worked on. That tipped a lot of Sinatra fans off that a deluxe reissue must be in the cards, since no version of “Lonely” that McMaster had worked on had ever come out. But actually, Pignone says, it’s a little more complicated than that. He says that a producer he doesn’t name “took a whack at” doing a remix in 2013 or 2014, and it got as far as being mastered by McMaster. But when Frank Sinatra Jr. came to Capitol to hear it, he didn’t like what he heard and immediately vetoed it, so a new edition would have to wait a few years more.
Among the extras in the new deluxe set is a legendary recording of Sinatra trying his hand at recording one of the great ballads, “Lush Life”… and giving up a few minutes in. His failed attempt is finally appearing on a Sinatra release, 60 years later. “This is one of the cases where years ago somebody who was working at Capitol went in and made a tape of it and put it out as a bootleg,” Pignone says. “That’s kind of unfortunate. But now it’s officially out and sounding better than ever.” Why did Sinatra never come back to it? “People have said that it might have been too hard for him. I don’t believe that; I don’t think Frank Sinatra ever skirted from any challenge, especially any musically. I just think he was probably uncomfortable with the arrangement,” on a day when Riddle was not around to retool it to the singer’s tastes. “As you hear, Frank just says, ‘Let’s put it aside.'”
Ten of the dozen songs from the album would figure into his live shows at some point or another, and three became staples. “The saloon trilogy of ‘Angel Eyes,’ ‘One for My Baby’ and ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry’ stayed with him from the time of this album until he quit,” says Pignone. “When I was with him [in the ‘80s], he was also doing ‘Spring is Here.’ He liked ‘Gone with the Wind’; he actually did that on the ‘Welcome Home Elvis’ ABC TV special he did in 1960.” One of the songs, “What’s New,” actually became more identified with Linda Ronstadt than Sinatra. But “he had a special affinity for this album and did songs from it probably more than any of the others over the years.”
From “What’s New” to… what’s next, when it comes to the catalog of the greatest singer of the 20th century. “We’re lucky because we always say that with Frank, there are no generation gaps,” Pignone adds. “Every generation seems to find him and gravitate toward that music because of the authenticity, which, in this day and age, we need more than ever. Are we issuing as much physical as we used to? No, and that’s because of the marketplace and people are streaming, but we’re lucky to have a partnership with Universal where we still get to do these, and we have on the planned schedule a bunch of these seminal albums that will hopefully get the same treatment. We have a five-year plan, depending on how the marketplace goes — a boxed set a year and then one or two reissues. Right now, I’m working on Sinatra and Ellington (the 1968 album “Francis A. and Edward K.”), which was at Reprise (Sinatra’s post-Capitol label). This catalog is so good that I think there’ll always be an appetite for people to hear it at the best it can be. And as long as there are quality people around working on the reissues, even when I’m gone, people will find something [that was lost] or find a way to improve it. On this one, there wasn’t that much to improve.”