Friday, June 28, 2013

Smooth baritones of summer #1: Crosby and Sinatra

My thing never was duets, I liked doing them, but, you know, I just never got into it as much as Bing did. Bing did so much singing with the Andrews Sisters and backup singers, also he liked singing with another voice, just having another presence around. His stuff with Armstrong, for instance, was fabulous stuff. When I sang with Bing early on, I was so nervous to be with this big gun I probably didn't sound so hot. But, you know, when we did the movie together, we sang together and did OK, but it never went over as well as I wanted. Bing's voice was great, he bent over backwards to mesh it with whoever he was singing with and he had, you know, so much practice from singing duets for so long. The little girl he sang with in the movie, he even pitched up to her level. He was real talented in that department, you could say.
There is a lot in that quote.

I'll start with "the little girl he sang with in the movie". The movie in question is High Society and, because there is a child actress in the movie. you might assume that Sinatra is referring to some duet he sang with this child. But he doesn't sing any duet with her. The duet he sings is with Grace Kelly!

So why does Sinatra brush Grace Kelly off as "the little girl he sand with in the movie"? Because she and Crosby had a torrid affair during the filming of that movie and that ease with women that men like Crosby and Bogart had was something Sinatra coveted just as much, if not more than, Crosby's superior skill singing duets. (Being a lover was very much a part of Sinatra's public persona, of course, but the evidence suggests that he wasn't very good at it despite Ava Gardner's famous bragging point about 19 pounds.)

The point here is not to enter into an interminable debate about which man was better. Both were very, very good (although Crosby doesn't get as much credit as he deserves these days while Sinatra tends to get overpraised). But if we compare their ability to do certain specific things, then there are clear differences between the two men.

I'll get to Sinatra later this summer, but here are some of the things that Crosby was very good at that Sinatra couldn't do.
  • Sing the blues
  • Syncopate
  • Harmonize with other singers
  • Be at ease with women (not unrelated to the previous point)
  • Sing in a way that was healing and soothing
The ability to harmonize is most of what Sinatra is getting at in the quote above. There are, of course, recordings in which other singers sing with Sinatra but that is a very different thing from a duet in which two singers sing with one another. That requires a two way adjustment and Sinatra couldn't do that nearly as well as Bing. Why not? For starters, Crosby has much, much, much better intonation. Even if Sinatra had worked at singing with others as long and determinedly as Crosby, he just wasn't as good a musician. Crosby (who started as a drummer) also has a much better sense of time than Sinatra and always knows where the one is (which also helps explain why Crosby can syncopate and sing blues well whereas Sinatra can't sing the blues at all).

But there is another reason: Sinatra is a bit of a narcissist in a way that Crosby and his generation never were. The video above is the only Crosby-Sinatra duet that really clicked. If you watch it carefully, you can see why. When Crosby responds to a line that Sinatra has sung, he does so musically, pitching his voice to complement what Sinatra has just sung. When the shoe is on the other foot, Sinatra relies on his ability to act rather than on musicality. Sinatra isn't actually drunk be he uses the fact that he is playing someone who is supposed be drunk as a crutch. It's a very telling difference between the two men and between the eras they represent.

No comments:

Post a Comment