It may seem odd to regular Agit readers to find us covering Frank Sinatra, an artist who derided rock & roll at large and probably wouldn’t begin to have the time of day for the artists regularly found on these virtual pages. There was a time when Sinatra himself rankled an older generation, but that has little to do with my interest in the new deluxe edition of his Strangers in the Night. At the time of its release in 1966, Sinatra was already in his 50s and the rock & roll generation had taken hold—even if the album’s title track bumped “Paperback Writer” from the top spot on the Billboard singles chart.
No, simply put this record is a classic that transcends time or trend. My first exposure to the record came from a thrift shop, purchased on kitsch factor alone. But the initial goofiness of the Chairman’s “doobie-doos” soon passes to reveal an album as nuanced and sophisticated as more modern masterpieces. There was a reason that this was biggest record of Sinatra’s career, even as he and his generation of pop were falling out of favor.
First among the strengths of Strangers in the Night is its leadoff title track, which was recorded, sent to key radio stations as acetates via private plane, and became a hit before the rest of the album was even recorded. (Such a thing was just as unusual then as it is now.) Taken from a James Garner film, the song is an ever-crescendoing mix of swooning strings and Sinatra’s sultry croon. It comes off like a midsummer night’s dream, hinting at a passion just barely contained.
But the album is much more than its big hit. The subsequent “Summer Wind,” a German song translated by Johnny Mercer and done, like the rest of the record aside from the title track, with Nelson Riddle’s orchestra, is equally evocative. Here, a mix of a Hammond organ, a chorus of saxes, a stand-up bass, and brushed drums meld into a effusive backing that’s as warm and light as the song’s namesake. On this song, Sinatra is a master of delivery, effortlessly sounding sentimental without getting weepy. This one charted too, only this time in the Easy Listening category. They must’ve meant easy on the ears.
The remainder of the album never reaches any peak as high as the first two, but carries the mood. “My Baby Just Cares for Me” takes on a big-band sound, bursts of horns punctuating each platitude Sinatra makes about his baby. The take of “Downtown,” the Petula Clark hit, is interesting as a curiosity, with Riddle adding electric guitar into the mix, but “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” is just too over-the-top. Still, this record glides as if on ice, Riddle masterfully arranging each song.
For the deluxe edition, live renditions of “Strangers” and “All or Nothing” (with the orchestra) recorded in Tokyo in 1985 are included. Frank’s voice had aged in the intervening 19 years, but I wouldn’t have known that so much time had passed without the liner notes. He merely sounds a little weary, a little melancholy. It’s hard to separate Sinatra from the legends and the schmaltz, but Strangers is perhaps the singer, to paraphrase the original liner notes, at his most honest, working on his craft like the tradesman he was.