Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Sinatra and "Lush Life"

One of the questions that I had hoped James Kaplan's new biography of Frank Sinatra would answer was why Sinatra never recorded Billy Strayhorn's beautiful song of world-weary cafe society, "Lush Life," one of my favorite American standards. I'd seen a passing reference in another Sinatra book--Friedwald's, perhaps?--to one early 1950s attempt, aborted when an Ava emergency arose, but I hadn't ever happened across another mention or explanation..

Kaplan doesn't have anything to say about the song except for a quick aside in the acknowledgments. After explaining that the book's origins lie in an evening of dinner and drinks with a bunch of musicians who had worked with Sinatra, he writes that the anecdotes retailed at that table included one from Vinnie Falcone,
who was Sinatra's conductor and accompanist toward the end of the singer's career[. Falcone] spoke of his fruitless efforts to get Frank to record the great and legendarily difficult Billy Strayhorn classic "Lush Life." "Come on, Boss, just you and me and a piano," Vinnie said. Sinatra shook his head. Even the gods know their limits.
Oh, but think how much even a weak try at that one, with its languid introductory verse and slowly cascading climax, would have enlivened Sinatra's late output! To hear that worn voice intone those enervated lines . . . . Gods may know their limits, but that needn't stop us mortals from wanting to see them tested.

Kaplan's anecdote doesn't clear up the question of the earlier attempts at "Lush Life," however--but fortunately, a coworker came to my rescue, lending me Charles L. Granata's beautifully illustrated, fascinating Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording (1999). Granata worked on the reissues of many of Sinatra's albums, and his book combines accounts from session principals with information gleaned from the unedited tapes of session after session, from the blown takes to spoken instructions to the banter among Sinatra, his arrangers, and the musicians. Granata notes in his introduction,
To sit in a modern studio and eavesdrop, fifty years after these moments occurred, is a delightfully eerie experience. In some cases, the conversations are so absorbing and the fidelity so true that you feel as though you are sitting among the musicians in the orchestra.
It's a book to sit with before and after you listen to Sinatra's greatest albums; it's hard to imagine any Frank fan who wouldn't come away richer for the experience. To take just one example: in recording "Nice and Easy," Sinatra at first had trouble with the little rhythmic jog that closes the song, "Nice and easy does it / [beat] every time." "Ah, ya dirty mother! That quarter rest is murder!" he exclaimed. And of more import: Granata discovered that the song's signature pre-coda homage to Basie, "Like the man said, One more time," turns out to be Sinatra's own idea. Along the way, he also experimented with closing tags, including "Just put your hand on it baby, that's all," "Slowly, baby," and "Isn't that better, baby?", all of which seem more suited to Jim Backus's "Delicious" than to the slow seduction of "Nice and Easy."

To return to "Lush Life": Granata confirms that it was planned as the eighth song at a May 29, 1958 session for Only the Lonely, but was scrapped, "possibly owing to the fatigue of such a long session." But Granata also makes the strong point that the intricate, out-of-meter piano introduction wouldn't have meshed well with the elegant, late-night simplicity of Bill Miller's playing on the album's standout track, "One for My Baby." Add in the complexity of the vocal line--Granata quotes Nelson Riddle saying, "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."--and it seems like it was just too much for the tired singer. A few failed takes and the song was tabled:
"Put it aside for a minute," someone (possibly [Leonard] Slatkin says, and Sinatra sarcastically retorts, "Put it aside for about a year!"
And thus, through, it seems, no fault of Ava after all, ended Sinatra's attempts at "Lush Life."

Mine, however, are ongoing. I've been practicing it in the shower for years, and one of my few (always modest) goals in life is to get to where I can play it on the piano and sing along without making friends and spouse too obviously want to leave the room. I'm young yet . . . and despite my love of the song's alcohol-soaked ennui, far from weary enough to give up.

{Photos by rocketlass.}


  1. The 2008 PBS documentary "Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life" includes a segment on Sinatra's attempt to record LUSH LIFE.

    Many speculate that had Sinatra been able to successfully record the song, Strayhorn would have forever been rescued from obscurity.

    At any rate, the title continues to be in great demand for a new generation of singers and we are happy.

    A. Alyce Claerbaut
    Billy Strayhorn Songs, Inc.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation of the Granata book - I definitely want to check that out! Have you heard Ella Fitzgerald's recording of it, with Oscar Peterson at the piano? One of my favorites, and for once the pitch-conscious Fitzgerald bends the notes a bit to convey world-weariness and one too many cocktails. I could listen to her rendition of it forever. Thanks, Alison Hinderliter (friend of Rebecca Dudley and therefore Stacey)

  3. I love Ella more than anything, but I think Johnny Hartman's version of "Lush Life" is the standard. In fact, I think it's the greatest recorded male performance of a jazz ballad, bar none. Poor Hartman never got the recognition he deserved. I thought Sinatra was the greatest -- until I finally heard some Johnny Hartman.

  4. Great post - thank you, Mr. Stahl! And yes, Paul Nuccio - let us all have much more Johnny Hartman ... peerless delivery in a voice like rich chocolate laced with brandy.

  5. Frank's arrangement was not musical and surprisingly, no comments are made about that. It was very difficult to get a feel at different sections of the song.

  6. A search of the web will turn up a bootleg recording of the full Sinatra session for "Lush Life"--it would have been quite good if he had finished a take. But I agree the Johnny Hartman/John Coltrane version is absolute perfection. I also like Linda Ronstadt's version quite a bit--perhaps that's heresy?

  7. I think the answer is to convince (as I have just tried) Frank Sinatra, Jr. to "complete the song. His "As I Remember It" sewed how well he can replicate his father's sound. This would be a great contribution to Sinatra's oeuvre--with a little help from his son.

  8. I would love Frank Sinatra, Jr. to "complete" "Lush Life," finishing what his father started. He has shown with "As I Remember It," that he can replicate his father's sound. Modern technology could do a good job of blending the two--think Nat and Natalie Cole on "Unforgettable."