MOJO Time Machine: Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely

On 13 October 1958 Sinatra’s album began a five-week stint at the top of the charts

MOJO TIME MACHINE

by Fred Dellar |

13 October 1958

ALBUM-WISE, 1958 WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR INDEED FOR FRANK SINATRA . In the States he’d logged his first chart-topping long-player in Come Fly With Me, while two retrospective album releases also nudged their way into the Top 20. Additionally, on October 13 that year, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely took up residency at the apex of the chart, a position it held for the following five weeks.

Gloriously doom-laden and filled with such tear-stained material as Willow Weep For Me, One For My Baby, Blues In The Night, It’s A Lonesome Old Town and Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry, the album was hardly conceived under the best of circumstances. Nelson Riddle, who wrote the arrangements and shared orchestra conducting duties with Felix Slatkin, was enduring a year steeped in tragedy. His six-month-old daughter, Lenora, had died from bronchial asthma, while his mother died from cancer just four days after the first Only The Lonely sessions took place on May 29.

Sinatra himself was not in the most approachable of moods. Trombone player George Roberts recollected the singer being unpredictable during the sessions, saying Riddle, “was frightened of Frank, not physically, but because he could be in one mood and turn around and be in a completely different mood. That scared him because when he arranged something, he wasn’t sure if Frank was going to like it.”

There were other unpromising augurs. The planned original title, For Losers Only, was ditched, while Sinatra, in poor voice, flunked the initial recording of the Jimmy Van Heusen-Sammy Cahn title track and had to return to Capitol Studios to deliver a satisfactory take.

It was during the first album session that Sinatra attempted a version of Billy Strayhorn’s extraordinary Lush Life, but gave up after just a few bars. “I’ll leave it to Nat Cole,” Sinatra quipped (interested readers can hear it on YouTube). When the final sessions for the album took place, on June 25, his mood hadn’t improved. His ABC network Frank Sinatra Show TV series, star-studded but unconvincing, was due to be dropped and replaced by game show E.S.P., hosted by Vincent Price – which in turn was so dismal that it would be ditched after just three weeks.

I Thought It Was A Union Meeting....

Even so, Sinatra seemed impressed by Riddle’s settings and the huge array of quality musicians assembled for the recording dates. Al Viola, guitarist on the sessions, joked, ”We had so many musicians that when I got to the first date, I thought it was a union meeting.”

Riddle’s absence on some of the sides was due to a prior engagement, accompanying Nat King Cole on a series of Canadian dates. But he was full of praise for his stand-in, Felix Slatkin, who was first violinist. Riddle explained: “I wrote all the arrangements but Felix, a fine violinist and fine conductor, did the session while 
I was up in Edmonton, Alberta or one of those places.”

Riddle acknowledged the album as the best vocal recording with which he had ever been involved, while Sinatra himself hailed Only The Lonely as the greatest album he ever made. Housed in a sleeve that boasted a wonderfully- conceived portrait of Sinatra in the guise of Pagliacci, the sad clown, which was created by artist Nick Volpe, it seemed to be the perfect package. When the Grammys made their debut at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles on May 4, 1959, Sinatra was nominated in several categories, including Best Album and Best Male Performance.

“Frank was very moody and drank a lot afterwards.”

sandra giles

Yet, with the votes for the former split between Only The Lonely and Come Fly With Me, Hoboken’s hero lost out to Henry Mancini’s cool private eye soundtrack album The Music Of Peter Gunn. Eventually, the only Grammy Sinatra won was for Best Album Cover, which he accepted, though he admitted it should have gone to artist Volpe. His date for the evening, actress Sandra Giles, later told biographer Kitty Kelley: “Frank was so upset that he refused to let any of the photographers take our picture that night. He was very moody and drank a lot afterwards. I guess I should’ve been grateful that Elvis didn’t win anything.”

Lyricist Sammy Cahn, who, with composer Jimmy Van Heusen, provided the title song for both Only The Lonely and Come Fly With Me, found one grain of compensation amid the proceedings. After weighing up the considerable clout that Sinatra had with the reigning music establishment, he observed, “I guess that proves that this wasn’t fixed!”

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