Frank Sinatra, arguably the greatest singer in the history of American popular music, has also been a considerable film presence, rising to real heights of acting and on-screen charisma (not always the same thing).
But television has been a more awkward medium for Sinatra. He can't control all the elements that go into a production on TV, as he did to sovereign effect on his best records and attempted to do with less success in his films. And the forced intimacy of the small screen, scrutinizing every sign of human discomfort, exposes his frailties in a sometimes endearing but often merely cumbersome way.
For his recent 75th-birthday special on CBS, Sinatra skirted those problems by entrusting the production to his daughter Tina and letting her concentrate on edited documentary and home footage. He didn't have to serve as his own host, peer into the camera, recite from cue cards, and sound sincere.
He had to do just that in his heyday, however, as purchasers of Frank Sinatra: The Reprise Collection, with three of his specials, can see for themselves. The shows in question are among Sinatra's most publicized: A Man and His Music from 1965; one of its sequels, from 1967, wordily entitled A Man and His Music + Ella + Jobim; and Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back from 1973.
It's a pity one can't purchase these cassettes separately, because the 1967 special is clearly superior to the other two. A Man and His Music finds Sinatra stiff and constrained on one of those dated TV-special sets that looks like it just landed from Mars. He isn't in the smoothest voice, either. In 1973, in his comeback from a brief retirement, his voice sounded even more gravelly, and the concert's wash of sentiment, however sincere his motivations, now seems calculated and commercial.
In 1967 he was in terrific voice and at his most confidently relaxed. Much of the pleasure comes from his collaborators and what they elicit from him. Nelson Riddle, his prime bandleader from the 1950s Capitol years, was his sole arranger and conductor here, with ebullient results. Sinatra's bossa nova duets with Antonio Carlos Jobim sound charming, one of his happier stretches beyond his natural idiom. But the prizes are his medleys with Ella Fitzgerald. The two artists not only respect each other but actually seem to like each other. A real treat, and almost worth the cost of the two other cassettes to hear it. B