Flying high

Music - Richard Cook on how old blue eyes came back from decline

Now that he's gone, Frank Sinatra is ever more vividly with us. The great voice of the 20th century has no feasible rival in this one, so far. Classic Sinatra: his great performances 1953-1960 gathers 20 songs recorded during the spell when he reasserted his eminence after a troubling decline and practically invented the way a generation of men wanted to be: hip, urbane, but unshakeably composed and mature. His younger contemporary Elvis Presley may have won over the teenagers, but Sinatra the older man seemed just as dangerously attractive. There's been no decline in singing since Sinatra's heyday: rock may not have encouraged the interpretative integrity that its predecessors lived by, but there are enough retro-stylists and jazz vocalists around to keep the American songbook open. Even so, listening to this mere handful of tracks underscores how hard it is for any singer to follow Sinatra.

Take track four, "My Funny Valentine", for example. This fragile Rodgers and Hart song is usually best sung by women, who make the point that they're addressing a vulnerable man and imbue the lyrics with even more tenderness. Sinatra does it at a slightly faster tempo than it often gets and, although he wasn't really a jazz singer, he brings his jazziest manner to the melody, paraphrasing it in a way that shows incredible daring. You feel he's walking on a tightrope on some of the cadences. Then he brings it back to earth for the closing words, so graciously that it feels like the smoothest descent from the rooftop line "Stay, little valentine, stay", which goes out at a volume that would force most singers into bellowing the words. Sinatra never did that.

Even so, it's not one of the very best tracks. With his boorish pub-lic persona and pen-chant for selfish hellraising, Sinatra must have empathised more than most with high-stepping songs such as "I've Got the World on a String" and "I Get a Kick out of You". In live performances, he sometimes overdid it: Cole Porter was so annoyed by the singer changing his principal line to "I Get a Boot out of You" that he left one show growling: "If you're not going to sing the song the way I wrote it, don't sing it at all." But in the studio, every temptation to overstep the margins of a song is resisted. Sinatra made the audience hear the lyrics as never before, and seldom since. He rarely bit off word endings or chopped the sense of a line. The ruthless way he trained himself to breathe, through long-distance swimming and watching how horn players took a breath for a difficult passage, was paying off in all of these sessions. Some of his slow, talking songs, such as "One for my Baby", are the set pieces that listeners remember when they think of Sinatra, but the marrow of the man is in the medium- and up-tempos which let him show off his invincible range.

In spite of their timelessness, these recordings also resurrect a lost era in record-making. Bob Norberg's new remastering reveals a fineness and lustre, although the one disappointment of this compilation is that there's no example of the arranging of Gordon Jenkins, the third maestro - after Nelson Riddle and Billy May - whose work bodyguarded Sinatra's vocals. It was some time after the big-band era, but the orchestras that Capitol hired were made up of players reared in the same crucible in which Sinatra had learnt his craft. Although the records suggested the dawn of a sophisticated new world of singing and performance, it was actually a final season before rock took over for ever.

The most singular track, even amid a long string of pearls, is rather hidden away near the end. Billy May's chart for "Come Fly With Me" is boisterous enough for Sinatra to take one or two liberties with his unflappable demeanour, but Sammy Cahn's lyrics were tailored for him, and they evoke a vanished age when air travel and crossing the world were not the mundane matters of timekeeping that they are now. To the end of his performing life, Sinatra liked to open his shows with this song. It's still an irresistible invitation.

Classic Sinatra: his great performances 1953-1960 is released by Capitol

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - the matriarchs