Ten years after his death, 13 years since his last live performance and a decade and a half removed from his final studio recordings, the stream of "new" product from Frank Sinatra has never stopped. And as long as there's an audience out there and money to be made, there's no reason to think it will dry up anytime soon.
Some from-the-vaults releases, like the Vegas or Frank Sinatra In Hollywood box sets, have been revelatory, with nice packaging, detailed annotation, and previously unheard music that can stand alongside just about anything in Sinatra's catalog. Others have been little more than rote greatest hits packages, sometimes baited with a rarity or two for the collectors.
Nothing But The Best, due out next week, is an example of the latter, with 21 tracks recorded between 1960-80 that most Sinatra fans probably have already, plus a previously unreleased, posthumously re-orchestrated version of "Body And Soul" from 1984. It sounds good, and the remastering on the older tracks is definitely better than anything else out there, even if we need another CD with "My Way" and "Strangers In The Night" like we need a hole in the head.
But there's still a treasure trove of unreleased Sinatra music out there that has yet to see the light of day. A lot of it circulated on bootleg CDs and LPs for years until Nancy Sinatra, acting on behalf of her father's estate, almost singlehandedly put a stop to the trade a few years back. I can't blame her for clamping down, although her claims that Frank hated bootlegs passionately seem wildly exaggerated, if not downright mistaken. Regardless, it's made collecting Sinatra music a lot less fun for a lot of hardcore fans.
Sinatra's estate has, over the years, taken several bootlegs, cleaned them up a little, and put them on the market for the masses to enjoy, which I think is a great idea. Here's another half dozen that they should get to before I'm back here writing about The Voice's 100th birthday celebration in 2015.
Carnegie Hall, New York (6/25/80). Hot on the heels of his comeback album, Trilogy, which featured "New York, New York," his biggest hit single in over a decade, Sinatra played two sold-out weeks at Carnegie Hall. His voice was at its latter-day peak, and the band, led by the great arranger/conductor Vincent Falcone, was cookin'. This show was professionally recorded in both audio and video, but for one reason or another never saw the light of day. It would make a great live album and DVD, hint hint.
Duets For One (July-October 1993). Even at the end of his career, with his voice and his memory shot, Sinatra could still make magic when you stuck him in front of a microphone. The only problem is that Jon Secada, Chrissie Hynde, and all the other ill-advised electronic "duet partners" that got paired with Frank on the two Duets albums couldn't. And that's why they're his two most unlistenable albums. However, over a dozen of Frank's unadulterated SOLO recordings for the album have leaked out, and while they're far from great Sinatra, they're never embarrassing and often quite moving. And as a document of FS' last studio recordings, they deserve to be widely heard.
Arie Crown Theatre, Chicago (7/18/65). As justifiably legendary as Sinatra's 1966 shows with the Count Basie Orchestra (immortalized on the live album Sinatra At The Sands) may be, their two-week tour from the previous summer is even more fabled among die-hard Sinatraheads. Perhaps the mystique exists just because Sinatra supposedly didn't allow any of the shows to be professionally recorded, although audience tapes have been around for ages. But a few years ago, a decent sounding soundboard recording from this Chicago show finally surfaced. The performances even more swingin' than on Sinatra At The Sands, if such a thing is possible, and the set list is radically different. Frank fans haven't lived until they've heard the Basie-ized version of the great torcher "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning."
The Lost Reprise Recordings (1974-88). In 1995, Reprise released the 20 CD behemoth The Complete Reprise Studio Recordings. They lied. There's still an album's worth of unreleased tracks and noteworthy alternate versions in them there vaults, most of them from the late '70s and early '80s, when Sinatra was in great voice but wasn't always sure of what material to record. Some of it has snuck out on bootlegs , but much of it remains locked away. Nancy Sinatra excitedly reported that a 1978 studio session, long thought lost, had resurfaced, but five years later, it's still unheard.
Sydney, Australia (12/2/61). Of the 100-plus Sinatra concerts I have on tape, LP and CD, this one is, hands-down, the best. I'd give an eye-tooth or two to have been at this display of the greatest singer of the 20th century at the height of his powers, singing his ass off for 23 virtually perfect songs. This show was also videotaped for a TV broadcast.
The "Perfectly Frank" Sessions (1953-55). Would you believe me if I told you that over 60 studio recordings exist of Frank Sinatra singing with a small jazz band? And that among those 60-plus songs are over two dozen that he never recorded before or after in the studio? And that among those songs are amazing versions of standards like "S'Wonderful," "Love Me Or Leave Me," "I'm In The Mood For Love," and "Them There Eyes?" And that they were recorded during the mid '50s, the era which produced some of his greatest records? Assuming you're a Sinatra fan, you'd probably say "You're kidding!" followed by "How can I get a hold of this stuff?" To which I'd answer "No," and "You can't."
Shockingly, astonishingly, inconceivably, these tracks, which were recorded for Sinatra's radio show "To Be Perfectly Frank," have never seen the light of day commercially, although they were available on bootlegs for many years. Why? Beats me. These recordings would force a reevaluation from all the naysayers who claim he wasn't a jazz singer, and they would also add a lot of classic songs to his canon. This goldmine is nothing less than the Great Lost Sinatra Album, which is to say the Great Lost American Pop Album.
Now that the race is on to get CDs into the racks and online before people stop buying music altogether, I've got high hopes that at least some of this stuff will wind up in the bins at your local record store, or at least on your downloading service of choice, before too long.
But even if the "powers that be" keep sitting on their hands, I'm not worried. File sharing, the beast that's killing the music business, is also the thing that's keeping the bootleg business alive and well. Now that you don't need stores or pressing plants -- or, for that matter, money -- to get music to the masses, it's tougher than ever to stop the distribution of verboten goodies from the record companies' vaults. To which I say, Ring-a-ding ding!