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183) Nancy Sinatra & Frank Sinatra – “Somethin’ Stupid”

When Sinatra founded Reprise Records in 1960, one of the benefits of being Chairman of the Board was artistic freedom. Between his more standard offerings, he recorded a tribute to his onetime mentor, bandleader Tommy Dorsey (1962’s I Remember Tommy); paid homage to the late President John F. Kennedy with a collection of patriotic songs (1964’s America, I Hear You Singing); and revisited his pioneering ’50s concept albums with a rumination on aging (1965’s September of My Years). He also seized the opportunity to work with other high-profile talents he admired, cutting albums for the first time with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and bossa nova luminary Antônio Carlos Jobim.

Nevertheless, Sinatra’s most famous collaboration of the ’60s wasn’t with an orchestra leader or a songwriter, but his daughter Nancy. After sessions wrapped for the 1967 album Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, Sinatra swapped out the Brazilian musician for the pop starlet, and bossa nova for tepid MOR. Nancy’s regular duet partner, Lee Hazlewood, manned the production boards alongside Jimmy Bowen, who had recorded “Strangers in the Night.” On the docket was a novelty duet called “Somethin’ Stupid,” which would allow the Sinatras to share their love of singing, and also sell twice as many records as they would separately.

“Somethin’ Stupid” had first appeared the year before as a duet between the song’s writer, C. Carson Parks (older brother of songwriter/arranger Van Dyke Parks) and his wife Gaile Foote. It’s a simple song about a man and a woman platonically enjoying each other’s company until one of them “spoil[s] it all by saying something stupid like ‘I love you.’” The twist is that, because both are singing the same words simultaneously, it isn’t clear which was the one to awkwardly blurt out their romantic feelings. Carson and Gaile’s winsome recording has some corny appeal, but it’s much too slight to be an obvious candidate for a huge international hit.

Frank and Nancy’s version retains the basic arrangement of the original, including the hushed unison, non-harmonizing vocals and a flourish of Spanish guitar. The one addition is a strings section so heavy-handed that the song’s fragile charms buckle beneath its weight. Similarly, while Carson and Gaile’s vocal styles were well matched, the Sinatras, despite their consanguinity, are less of a natural fit. In fact, “Somethin’ Stupid” barely even qualifies as a duet — that would imply some sort of equal footing between the two partners. Even in half-assed “Strangers in the Night” mode, Frank dominates the recording, relegating Nancy to little more than an anonymous background singer. True, Frank was the superstar with the once-in-a-generation voice, but Nancy was at least as popular as her old man in the mid-’60s, and had an appealing vocal style of her own, though you wouldn’t know it listening to this.

Jokers have long snickered at the oddity of a father and daughter singing a love song to each other, but any incestuous overtones would only threaten to make “Somethin’ Stupid” more interesting than it actually is. Instead, the dully non-committal vocal performances overcorrect for any possible hint of romance, contributing to the record’s overall stale, airless feel. The Sinatras don’t even sound like acquaintances, much less lovers, much less relatives.

More bothersome, though, is the record’s paternalistic bent. The inequality between the two singers comes off as Frank indulging Nancy in play-acting at his career, all the while ensuring that she (and rock and roll, and youth culture in general) knows her proper place. Father and daughter may record a song together, but it will be one that befits his sound and image, not hers, and one where he’s given the lead role. He’s not ceding co-billing to some flash in the pan, even if she happens to be his daughter.

Despite Nancy’s minimal role and the song’s questionable themes, “Somethin’ Stupid” united the Sinatras’ fan bases, topping both the Hot 100 and the easy listening charts. But while the song became one of the biggest hits of 1967, it was also somewhat of a dead end. Frank would never again have a Top 20 pop single; even signature tunes like 1969’s “My Way” and 1980’s “Theme from New York, New York” were only middling chart successes. Nancy would briefly have better luck before making her last-ever trip into the Top 40 with the Hazlewood duet “Some Velvet Morning” in early 1968.

The Sinatras recorded two more duets, 1970’s “Feelin’ Kinda Sunday” and 1971’s “Life is a Trippy Thing,” but neither troubled the charts. Father and daughter would both return to duets with other partners over the course of their career. Nancy continued collaborating with Hazlewood into the ’70s (reuniting for Nancy & Lee 3 in 2004), then recorded a moderately successful country album with Mel Tillis in 1981. In the ’90s, Frank issued a pair of blockbuster albums, 1993’s Duets and 1994’s Duets II, in which he shared the mic with a series of younger singers. Notably, Frank insisted on recording his share of the duets alone, then sending them off for his partners to follow his lead. Much as with “Somethin’ Stupid” decades earlier, Frank made sure he was always the star of the duet. 3

Hit #1 on April 15, 1967; total of 4 weeks at #1
18
3 of 1062 #1’s reviewed; 17.23% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 03, 1967

163) Frank Sinatra – “Strangers in the Night”

In 1965, Frank Sinatra celebrated his fiftieth birthday with two albums overtly taking stock of his past: A Man and His Music, a mostly re-recorded retrospective of his biggest hits, and September of My Years, a concept album about aging. Sinatra had never exactly gone away – he spent the early part of the decade starring in a string of movies (mostly Rat Pack throwaways, but also The Manchurian Candidate), and his three or four albums per annum regularly charted in the Top 20 – but his pop dominance of the mid-to-late ’50s had run its course. Sinatra’s semicentennial heralded a comeback, one of half a dozen over the course of his career. September became his first album to go Top 5 since 1961, spawning a Top 40 hit with “It Was a Very Good Year.” More importantly, Sinatra sounded invested in what he was singing for the first time in years: a personal, melancholy reflection on regret and growing older.

Perhaps that’s why Sinatra so resented “Strangers in the Night,” his hatred of it well out of proportion for a banal love ballad. September was Sinatra making an artistic statement; “Strangers” was one for the dinner show, guaranteed not to make the audience reflect on their life choices nor remind them of their nearing obsolescence. It worked: “Strangers” became his biggest single since the advent of rock and roll and cemented his comeback on the pop charts. Nelson Riddle, whose sensitive arrangements brought out the best in Sinatra on ’50s classics such as In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely, here layers the record with bombast and floridity. Despite his distaste for the song, Sinatra’s a pro – his phrasing is impeccable and his voice in fine form. Nevertheless, his delivery rings a bit hollow, his reading as rote as the arrangement’s emotional signposts (ritardando -> dramatic pause -> key change). The closest Sinatra gets to letting the curtain slip is in the famous “doodie-doobie-doo” outro, a parody of his trademark scatting that ebbs into tuneless blither.

At the very least, Sinatra must have gotten some satisfaction from having matched his pal/rival Dean Martin’s feat of topping the post-British Invasion charts, and for having displaced the type of music he despised. But like “Everybody Loves Somebody,” Sinatra’s hit remained at the top of the Hot 100 for a single week before being replaced by the rock- and R&B-influenced acts that had become the new pop norm. Music like Sinatra’s and Martin’s had become a niche market, consigned to its own Billboard chart: Easy Listening, where “Strangers in the Night” held the top spot for seven weeks. Sinatra would manage one more mainstream chart-topper, but not without the help of a younger singe arguably even more popular than him at the time. By the end of the decade, Sinatra was obliged to cover the softer end of the rock spectrum he had once maligned: songs by Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles, the new standards. 5

Hit #1 on July 2 1966; total of 1 week at #1
163 of 1019 #1’s reviewed; 16.00% through the Hot 100

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Filed under 05, 1966