Behind the Final Curtain

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Certain records are so iconic, so much a part of popular culture, that it’s like they’ve always existed. But as I frequently note, there was a time when they were current radio hits competing for airplay like everything else. One of them is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” which was all over the radio 50 years ago this month.

(Did I need to link to that?)

The story goes that after a dinner with Sinatra at which Frank expressed a desire to retire, lyricist Paul Anka started imagining what Sinatra might say at the close of his remarkable career. He channeled Frank’s tough-guy patois into a lyric of defiance and triumph and married it to a melody he’d purchased from a couple of French songwriters. Sinatra recorded it on December 30, 1968.

“My Way” hit the Billboard Easy Listening chart on March 28, 1969, at #12, went to #4 the next week, and to #2 on the chart dated April 12, 1969, tucked in behind Glen Campbell’s “Galveston.” It spent the next three weeks at #2, behind “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by the Fifth Dimension for two weeks and Andy Williams’ “Happy Heart” for one. After that, it stayed at #3 for three weeks before falling to #6, then #7, and finally out of the Easy Listening Top 10 during the week of June 7, 1969.

“My Way” wasn’t as big at Top 40 stations. It first appears on surveys at ARSA early in March, and it first cracks the Top 10 at WRKO in Boston on March 27. It took a while to catch on, with some Top 40 stations charting it high at the same time others were just debuting it. Over the course of its chart run, it was a Top-10 hit on Top 40 stations in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Dallas/Fort Worth, St. Louis, and Denver. On the Hot 100, it debuted on March 29 and topped out at #27 during the week of May 10, 1969.

Sinatra may have been contemplating retirement at the end of the 1960s, but at that moment, he was not far removed from one of his most successful periods, commercially and artistically. He hit #1 on the Easy Listening chart six times in 1966 and 1967, and two of those went to #1 on the Hot 100 as well: “Strangers in the Night” and “Somethin’ Stupid.” Another three of those six would rank near the top of any respectable list of Greatest Sinatra Performances: his voice may never have sounded better than on “It Was a Very Good Year”, and on “Summer Wind,” he’s equally good, backed by a slinky orchestra arrangement that’s almost unbelievably cool. On “That’s Life,” like “My Way” a backward-looking tale of how he got over, Sinatra seems truly amused by it all.

On “My Way,” Sinatra sings of his victories and defeats, “I find it all so amusing,” but he doesn’t sound amused at all. And compared to those songs of a couple of years before, “My Way” is a little off the peak. His glorious tone and phrasing isn’t quite up to those earlier examples. Maybe he rushed it a little: the 12/30/68 session was held in the afternoon before he took off for New Year’s in Las Vegas. Maybe he didn’t really believe what he was singing. Although Anka once said, “I knew he liked it,” one of his daughters said he found its lyric self-serving and egotistical, and in the late 70s he told an audience, “I hate this song,” even as he continued to perform it.

At least two other versions of “My Way” have charted. Brook Benton’s soulful uptempo version made #72 in 1970, and the 1977 live recording by Elvis Presley, which hit after his death, out-performed Frank’s original on the Hot 100. Over five decades, the song has developed a cult of haters, and their reasons for dislike are legitimate enough. It was played for the first dance at Trump’s inaugural ball, and it’s likely that nobody in the world believes the central conceit of “My Way” pertains directly to him more than Donald J. Trump.

But to Mr. and Mrs. America, turning on their radios in the blooming spring of 1969, knowing what they knew about Frank Sinatra during his 30-plus years as a central figure of American popular culture, knowing the story of the kid from Hoboken who became an idol to millions of women, a role model for the mid-century man, and the confidante of both presidents and mobsters, the story he told in “My Way” resonated. It became an anthem for anybody who ever got punched and got back up again.

6 thoughts on “Behind the Final Curtain

  1. porkyxi

    Any mention of It Was a Very Good Year, always flood my mind with memories of my dad, sitting in the dark smoking a cigarette, listening to. Album. Thanks for the Memories.

  2. mikehagerty

    Dave Marsh once described this period of Sinatra (and I’m paraphrasing) as in tune with the punch-drunk sentimentality of American men who were turning 50 and wondering what the hell it all meant.

  3. Tim Morrissey

    Two very different styles, both mastered by Sinatra. The “Very Good Year” arrangement was from Gordon Jenkins, a first-rate orchestral arranger who was an absolute master at writing for strings. “The Summer Wind” was arranged for Sinatra by Nelson Riddle (the last of so many excellent albums Riddle arranged for Sinatra) – a collaboration which produced some of Frank’s most swingin’ tunes. Billy May arranged a lot of the earlier Sinatra swingin’ albums, but Riddle is an absolute master of writing punchy stuff that got the most out of Frank. Sometimes Frank was, as you pointed out, a bit cavalier about his recorded performances, but he could be a perfectionist, as well. He famously demanded 23 takes of his definitive recording of “All Or Nothing At All” – another Riddle collaboration – and it’s an oft-told tale among musicians that the guys on that session actually stood up and applauded Riddle after their first run-through of his fantastic arrangement of “All or Nothing At All”.

    1. We make kids read Shakespeare because we think they should be acquainted with that part of the Western canon, and there’s a plausible argument for making them listen to prime Sinatra (and his chief arrangers) for the same reason.

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