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Frank Sinatra’s “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back” Reviewed

At the beginning of Randy Edelman’s “Around The World In 80 Minutes” performance in early April, 2022, he explained the skill of songwriting as based upon a very central idea both lyrically and musically. And this is exactly what makes one of Stephen Sondheim’s (at the minimum) biggest hits “Send In The Clowns” such a classic track. The song comes from Sondheim’s Broadway musical “A Little Night Music” (based upon Ingmar Bergman’s wonderful “Smiles Of A Summer Night”) (the movie? not so much!) and became a Great American Song after Frank Sinatra covered it on Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back in October of 1973. It uses a central image, that it is heartbroke as self-deprecating joke, and takes it all the way to its natural conclusion, “don’t bother they’re here”. It is Sondheim’s every skill in miniature.

Frank Sinatra brought the show stopping song out of “A Little Night Music” and into mainstream pop (Judy Collins would also garner a hit with it in 1974) with its inclusion on his 1973 52nd album, Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back. Sondheim had actually written the song for Glynis Johns (Mrs. Banks in “Mary Poppins”) and it is a story song, it is about what is happening in the musical as the couple switch roles and the singer is left alone after never having had much interest in the other person, and left alone once the interest occurs. The song is a deep ballad and also a beautiful crafted, quiet exercise in loss. Frank’s version is immaculately constructed and he caresses not just the inside of the song, his voice drifting up and falling down as “no one is there”, but the sympathetic production, the quiet melancholia. The song has proven itself a classic, in fact it pretty much started as a classic with a devastating last line. Here we have Sondheim at the peak of his power, yes, song, but also story, written in clipped off phrases (it is all those downbeat last words as it falls downwards) to cover for Johns vocal limitations. The orchestration is all soaring and strings and Sinatra’s hushed vocals are perfection (as you listen to Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, the singing is never a problem at all) and with a song as magnificent as “Send In The Clowns” he doesn’t push, doesn’t over sing it. He allows the song to tell him the story with zero foreshadowing.

Back from an aborted two year retirement (making his entrance again with his usual flair, right?), Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back, from the PR created nickname Ol’ Blue Eyes, through the collection of mediocre songs well sung despite him being 57 years old (when I saw him, two years before his death at the age of 82, his voice was shot and his timing excellent), the album is a business move and neither Sinatra nor producer Don Costa could locate the material he required.

For sure, Frank was sick of middle of the road middlebrow pop songs of the day which had derailed his recording career. The nine song album is damaged by second rate material. Four of the songs were by Joe Raposo, a man known for writing Sesame Street children’s songs and TV Themes. He wasn’t good enough of a songwriter to work with Sinatra and none of his songs work function except, of course, that Sinatra is singing them.

Ol’ Blue Eyes doesn’t swing in the slightest here, these are 70s ballads and nothing except for Sondheim is first tier. Kris Kristofferson’s country ballad “Nobody Wins” is given a Great American Songbook arrangement, not bad at all and the only other time the recordings are worth your while. “Dream Away” -from the Burt Reynolds vehicle “The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing” – was a co-write by Soundtrack guru John Williams and the King of MOR Paul Williams, but a minor track, “Let Me Try Again” is Don Costa discovery Paul Anka doing his translations of French chansons that brought us “My Way”. The album dissipates with two rotten, indeed barely mentionable Joe Raposo songs, the last one “Noah” I hope to never hear again – a song that wants to be an anthem yet is too clumsy to be anything of the sort.

There is no real problem with Frank’s singing and while Don is the definition of journeyman, he gives the songs a quiet power. But the songs simply aren’t there anymore.

Grade: C+

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