Philly Pops celebrates Sinatra centennial

It's Friday with Frank again! and Saturday with Dino!

The sounds of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin are coming back to Philadelphia!

Publicity photo of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra from “The Dean Martin Show.” (Creative Commons via Wikimedia)

On Columbus Day weekend, the Philly Pops, under the direction of Michael Krajewski, will bring back the songs of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, a vital part of the Great American Songbook. Michael Andrew and Deana Martin will sing songs from the Great American Songbook — “I've Got You Under My Skin,” “Night and Day,” “That's Amore,” “Everybody Loves Somebody,” “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and thousands of other songs that made American popular music the gold standard throughout the world.

It wasn't always America's playlist. For many years, critics declared it dead or dying more often than the theater. Rock and roll, R&B, folk, heavy metal, and country were all more popular than the Songbook.

But in Philly — the land of Sid Mark and his long-running radio show Friday with Frank, the city that has more Dean Martin tribute singers than a Las Vegas lounge — the Great American Songbook has always been alive and well. In the rest of the country, especially during the disco craze, the Songbook seemed terminal. But, every decade has seen a new star of contemporary music turn to the songs that America has never forgotten. In the ’80s, it was Linda Ronstadt; in the ’90s, it was Rod Stewart; and in the 21st century, it's Lady Gaga and a host of other pop singers. The songs written before your mother was born continue to inspire musicians and speak to a growing audience.

“Come on and hear…”

It all started early in the 20th century with Irving Berlin's hit song “Alexander's Ragtime Band.” While there had been popular American songs before then (see Stephen Foster), none achieved the incredible success of Berlin's catchy tune. Since then, the Great American Songbook has evolved into a body of work that rivals all other genres of music. From the simple, often slangy language of a Berlin ballad to the complex poems in sound of Stephen Sondheim, the Great American Songbook is a magical prism through which we can see reflected the kaleidoscopic American experience, from the heart of San Francisco to the city that never sleeps, New York, New York.

For many years, one of the bastions of the songbook was Atlantic City’s 500 Club, which holds a special place in the careers of both Sinatra and Martin. For Sinatra, it was a place where he was welcome even during the lean years of the early 1950s when Mama could bark all she wanted to, but no one would buy his records. For Martin, it was where he first performed with Jerry Lewis. Before that 500 Club date, Martin was a singer whose career seemed over before it had even begun. After that, he was the King of Cool.

Rat pack brat

Dean Martin's daughter Deana had a front row seat for the heyday of the Rat Pack and its mad, brilliant performances in the city it helped make famous, Las Vegas. With four CDs herself, Deana is a veteran of the vocal style that can make a lyric come alive. But it wasn't always just the music of Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin that made her heart sing. She told me that when she was a teenager, Deana was into her own generation's music: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez.

After her father died on Christmas Day, 1995, she listened to his albums to feel closer to him. The more she listened, the more the music spoke to her. “It's timeless and classic and speaks to your heart,” she says. “You can relate to the lyrics because everyone has heartache, everyone falls in love — that's what life is all about.” As for the music itself, Deana appreciates that "there are so many different ways to sing the songs, you can make them your own."

Deana’s October 10 concert in the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center will be more than just a concert of great songs; it will be a night of humor, sing-alongs, "making new memories and bringing back old memories." Deana will show home movies of her father with his Rat Pack pals and a special video of her singing “True Love” in a duet with her father, a project similar to (and done by the same team as) Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable” duet with her father, Nat King Cole.

Riddle’s importance

Nat King Cole and Sinatra share a vital part of the Songbook: arranger Nelson Riddle. In the early ’50s, Riddle teamed up with Nat King Cole for a series of beautiful hit records: “Unforgettable,” “A Blossom Fell,” “Mona Lisa,” and “Pretend.” Soon after, he became Frank Sinatra's go-to arranger, collaborating with him on 22 albums over 30 years. While Riddle's arrangements for Cole and Sinatra are his most famous, Riddle arranged for singers as diverse as Judy Garland, Kiri Te Kanawa, Linda Ronstadt, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald — and Dean Martin. Riddle arranged one of Dino's best known recordings, a song that has become the theme song for Las Vegas: “Ain't That a Kick in the Head.”

Nelson Riddle (right) with Frank Sinatra (center)
Nelson Riddle (right) with Frank Sinatra (center)

Philly Pops conductor Michael Krajewski says, "Nelson Riddle's arrangements were as important to the success of Sinatra's records as was Sinatra's singing." Part of the reason we are still listening to Sinatra 100 years after his birth is that "he carefully chose his songs, singing only the best of the American Songbook," Krajewski says. He feels that Sinatra "respected the music and wanted his performance of it to be the very best it could be." His commitment to excellence, his talent, and his choice of great arrangers make his music timeless.

Part of America’s musical DNA

Krajewski believes that the Great American Songbook is part of America's cultural history. The Philly Pops is not only committed to performing this music, he says, "It is in its DNA." His favorite big band is the Count Basie Band, which he saw many times — "so powerful, so entertaining." He thinks that the Philly Pops playing those great Sinatra/Basie collaborations will be a highlight of the show.

The Great American Songbook has become a lasting part of our cultural heritage because of the constantly evolving interpretations of these standards. Sinatra and Martin recorded many songs multiple times throughout their long careers, each performance changing as their lives had changed. It is little wonder that new performers keep on finding new ways to sing and new arrangers find unique ways to present these songs.

So if your heart ever stood still when you met someone, if that someone had breathless charm, if you ever wanted to fly away with your new love into a summer wind, or found someone who makes you feel so young, or got moonstruck by someone's angel eyes, or lost someone and felt like you would never smile again, or found yourself all alone listening for your phone to ring at a quarter to three, or were knocked out by love like a kick in the head, then you will relate to this timeless music. It's the music of your life.

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