Frank Sinatra’s “Christmas Songs By Sinatra” Reviewed
It is impossible to place Frank Sinatra’s third album, released as four 78 rpms and also as a standalone 10 inch disc, in its specific time period. For one thing, Christmas Songs By Sinatra, was recorded between 1944 and 1948 (it was released in 1948), so it doesn’t have a singular sense of event despite its singular sense of event. For another thing, these eight songs we have heard many, many times, and that’s just by Frank. Finally, it isn’t an album album, it is 1948 and still we are dealing with a collection of singles pierced together. Sinatra’s debut went to # 1, the follow up peaked at # 2, but Christmas? # 32. Maybe they were a little worn out even back in 1948.
Conceptually, the album splits down the middle: four secular carols and four Christian carols: Irving Berln’s “White Christmas” sets the pace, “Jingle Bells,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Down” concludes the songs that put Jesus in the back seat. The birth of the Christian Messiah is front and center on “Silent Night, Holy Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “O Little Town Of Bethlehem,” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. But even if you can imagine listening to these songs with fresh ears, Bing Crosby owns “White Christmas” and since da Bing was the proto-type crooner, the father to Frank’s son, why would Frank even bother competing at this early stage (OK, not early but it feels early since we know what happens next)? More, how can you cover “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” with Judy Garland still in her prime? Garland’s epic original, off 1944’s “Meet Me In St. Louis” wasn’t even wet behind the ears, and Sinatra can’t sell the “had to muddle through,” even in 48 he wasn’t much of a one for muddling: Sinatra was a legendary badass with heavy Cosa Nostra contacts. In 57 he had it changed to “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” Not bad, not as good. And that’s my take on the two central covers here.
On five of the eight songs we are saddled with the Ken Lane Singers, who are fine but aren’t Frank. And all the way through the eight songs, Axel Stordahl is missing his usual arrangement skills, all the backup singers got in the way. Two years (and 16 songs later), Sinatra would start using various arrangers till he settled on Nelson Riddle, but this was the first chink in the Alex-Frank relationship. There would be other Christmas albums before it was all said and done.