216. Frank Sinatra – Strangers in the Night (1966)

Frank-Sinatra-My-Way-e1340246656172.jpg

On 6 June, Johnny Speight’s long-running sitcom Till Death Us Do Part was first transmitted on BBC One. Starring Warren Mitchell as the bigoted Alf Garnett, it ran well into the 1970s, with a spin-off, In Sickness and in Health, beginning in the 80s.

Returning to number 1 for the first time in 12 years (easily the longest gap up to this point) was Frank Sinatra, with one of his least favourite songs that is nevertheless one of his most famous, Strangers in the Night. When I wrote about his 1954 single Three Coins in the Fountain, I neglected to trace Ol’ Blue Eyes backstory properly, only going back to earlier in the 50s. Let’s go further back this time.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born on 12 December 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Italians ‘Dolly’ and ‘Marty’ Sinatra. Delivered via forceps, Sinatra was born with a perforated eardrum and severe scarring on his left cheek, neck and ear. A skinny child with bad acne, he was given tough love by his parents, and some biographers claim she abused him in his youth. His father was an illiterate boxer. Frank became interested in jazz music from a young age, and his idol was Bing Crosby. His uncle bought him a ukelele when he was 15, and he would entertain his family. Expelled from high school in 1931 for being rowdy, he took on several odd jobs and would sing for free on local radio stations. Sinatra never learnt to read music properly, and would do so by ear only.

In 1935 his mother persuaded him to join local singers the 3 Flashes. He worshipped them, but they only let him join because he had a car. Renamed the Hoboken Four, they won first prize on a local radio talent show, and Sinatra became their lead singer, provoking jealousy due to the attention he received from girls. By 1939 he was working as a singing waiter when he joined the Harry James Band as their singer, and it was with them that he released his first record, From the Bottom of My Heart. He then moved on to the Tommy Dorsey Band. Dorsey became Sinatra’s father figure, and he would learn and copy his mannerisms, and asked him to be godfather to his daughter Nancy, born in 1940.

For the next two years his popularity grew with each recording, and he pushed Dorsey to let him make music under his own name. He became obsessed with the idea of overtaking Crosby as a star, and following a legal battle he left the group. According to some newspaper reports, Sinatra’s mobster godfather had to hold a gun to Dorsey’s head in order to persuade him.

In 1943 Sinatra signed with Colombia, and Sinatramania was in full swing. It was around this time he became known as ‘The Voice’. His fame eclipsed Crosby and he would entertain US troops during World War Two. His first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra, was released in 1946.

As the 40s became the 50s, he suffered a career slump, thanks in part to his divorce, Mafia connections, departure from Colombia and rejection from Hollywood, but an Oscar-winning role in From Here to Eternity kickstarted his comeback. In 1953 he also signed with Capitol Records and began releasing some of his most acclaimed albums over the next few years, including Songs for Young Lovers in 1954, 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! in 1956. The title track to 1958’s Come Fly with Me became one of his best-known tracks. By the end of the decade the leader of the Rat Pack was so famous he was invited to be Master of Ceremonies at a dinner for Soviet Union President Nikita Krushchev.

In 1960, in order to give himself and other performers more artistic freedom, a discontented Sinatra left Capitol to form Reprise Records and began working with Quincy Jones in addition to his usual collaborator Nelson Riddle. By the time he turned 50 in 1965 he was immensely popular once more, performing with Rat Pack pals Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin at The Frank Sinatra Spectacular, transmitted live to movie theatres across the US. It Was a Very Good Year (which earned him a Grammy Award) and That’s Life, both very popular singles, showcased a reflective side to Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Which brings us to Strangers in the Night. Several men have claimed ownership over the years, but it’s still Bert Kaempfert’s name on the credits. The German conductor had connections to music’s biggest stars, having co-written Elvis Presley’s awful Wooden Heart, and it was he that hired the Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album My Bonnie. The melody to Strangers in the Night was originally called Beddy Bye and was used a part of the instrumental score to the comedy A Man Could Get Killed (1966). English lyrics came from Charles Singleton and Eddie Snyder, and one of the film’s stars, Melina Mercouri, was supposed to get first crack at it, but she declined. Sinatra’s version was recorded on 11 April, a month before work began on the rest of the album, and among the personnel were Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine and future star Glenn Campbell on rhythm guitar.

Despite its success, Sinatra not only disliked Strangers in the Night, he seemingly spent the rest of his career running it down. So why record it? Well, he needed a hit single. His albums were selling well, but singles were more important to the industry in 1966. He called it ‘a piece of shit’ when it was first played to him, but then he heard his rival Jack Jones had recorded it, and he was determined to outperform him in the charts. ‘The Voice’ was on cruise control during the recording, and as the track was about to fade, he performed the famous scat ‘dooby dooby doo’ etc. This was probably a sign of how little he regarded the song, but it became famous, and even inspired the name of the crime-fighting dog Scooby-Doo.

My opinion of Strangers in the Night lies somewhere inbetween popular opinion and Frank. It’s a nice melody, and its better than his first number 1, but he also recorded many better songs down the years. I guess a large part of its popularity may lie in the romance of the lyrics. The idea of two strangers falling in love upon first sight in the dark and then staying together all their lives is enduring.

It’s fair enough if Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t like the song, but the homophobia he displayed at the time can’t help but spoil any enjoyment I might have. He apparently thought it was about ‘two fags in a bar’, and in a concert in Jerusalem in 1975 he changed the lyrics to ‘love was just a glance away, a lonesome pair of pants away’. Not only that, he believed Campbell was giving him the eye during the recording and insulted him. His disdain didn’t fade over the years either. When he introduced it at a concert in the Dominican Republic in 1982 he called it ‘the worst fucking song I’ve ever heard’

Nonetheless, it did the job at the time and spent three weeks at the top, and the album of the same name was one of his biggest sellers. Not bad going for ‘a piece of shit’.

Written by: Bert Kaempfert/Charles Singleton & Eddie Snyder (English lyrics)

Producer: Jimmy Bowen

Weeks at number 1: 3 (2-22 June)

Births:

Playwright Mark Ravenhill – 7 June
Actor Samuel West – 19 June 
Rally driver Michael Park – 22 June 

115. Elvis Presley – Wooden Heart (1961)

ELVIS+doctor+macro.jpg

It came as no surprise that the best-selling single of 1961 was by Elvis Presley. However, I would have hoped it would be one of his better tracks, something of similar quality to Are You Lonesome Tonight?. As history has proven time and time again in the charts though, it’s that some artists can release any old tat, and that often, there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to the number 1 single. Here is a prime example. Wooden Heart is probably Elvis’ recording nadir, and yet it stayed at the top for a ridiculous six weeks.

The song was based on the German folk song Muss i denn by Friedrich Silcher. It’s possible that, as with It’s Now Or Never, Elvis heard the original while based in West Germany and fancied recording it, but if so, he never admitted to it. This is understandable. It took four people to adapt this song, and the guilty party are Elvis soundtrack collaborators Fred Wise, Ben Wiseman and Kay Twomey, along with German bandleader Bert Kaempfert. A year later, Kaempfert hired the Beatles to back Tony Sheridan on his album, My Bonnie, released in 1962.

It featured in his new movie, GI Blues, in which he played the magnificently-named Tulsa McLean, a solider serving in West Germany who also has a music career. Wherever did they draw the inspiration for this particular plot? I haven’t seen the film, and definitely have no intention of doing so, but he sings Wooden Heart to a puppet. Let that sink in for a minute. It would seem that Elvis’s transformation from dangerous heart-throb to family entertainer was complete.

Is there anything good to say about Wooden Heart? I suppose you could argue it was a brave decision for Presley to turn his hand to something so different from his standard fare. And, annoyingly, it is rather catchy. But so catchy it deserved to be number 1 for six weeks? No. The lyrics are trite, too, and half way through, Elvis starts singing the words to Muss i den, then a translation of the new lyrics at the end. Maybe this was his weird way of paying tribute to the country he lived in for two years? I really don’t know.

Wooden Heart didn’t even get released as a single in the US, so the people behind him may have known it might cause his reputation some damage. However, a cover by Joe Dowell later made it to number 1, so there’s the proof that US audiences were as bad as British. Eventually, Elvis’s version was sneaked out as the B-side to Blue Christmas in 1964.

Tottenham Hotspur won the Football League First Division title for the second time during the reign of Wooden Heart, defeating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 on 17 April. They have failed to win it since. On 27 April, Sierra Leone became the latest country to gain independence from the UK – perhaps they discovered we had picked Wooden Heart as the best single available? 1 May saw betting shops become legal under the terms of the Betting and Gaming Act 1960, and 19 people died in a fire at the Top Storey Club, a nightclub in Bolton. This tragedy resulted in the swift passing of a new Licensing Act to improve fire safety.

Written by: Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey & Bert Kaempfert 

Producer: Steve Sholes

Weeks at number 1: 6 (23 March-3 May) *BEST-SELLING SINGLE OF THE YEAR*

Births:

Politician William Hague – 26 March
Rugby league player Ellery Hanley – 27 March
Filmmaker Michael Winterbottom – 29 March
Actor Robert Caryle – 14 April
Fashion designer Bella Freud – 17 April
Actor Nicholas Lyndhurst – 20 April
Chef Phil Vickery – 2 May

Deaths:

Artist Vanessa Bell – 7 April