In 1956, Frank Sinatra revived his flagging career with an album that would define the swing sound and go on to become one of the most highly regarded in history. John Palladino, now in his 92nd year, was at the controls...
During a remarkable, globally acclaimed career that spanned seven decades, the mid-'50s were, arguably, Frank Sinatra's peak years as a singer. Sandwiched between the 1940s — when, under contract to Columbia, his rich baritone helped make him popular music's first true teen idol — and the 1960s, when he recorded on his own Reprise label, this was the decade when Sinatra's velvety tones and unique phrasing made 'The Voice' not only widely imitated, but also instantly recognisable.
After declining record sales, personal problems and professional conflicts with musical director Mitch Miller resulted in Columbia dropping Sinatra from their roster in 1952 — at a time when he also no longer had a film, TV or radio contract — he turned his career around the following year when he gave an Oscar-winning performance in the eve-of-war film drama From Here To Eternity. Sinatra also signed to Capitol in 1953 and, in conjunction with arranger Nelson Riddle, recorded a string of darkly introspective ballads that gave full vent to his interpretative skills, as well as swinging, upbeat numbers that highlighted his sense of rhythm and unconventional timing, establishing his image as a finger-snapping hipster.
In his book Sessions With Sinatra, Charles L Granata describes the series of albums issued by Capitol between 1954 and 1961 as "models of perfection” and "the ultimate musical experience”. Songs For Swingin' Lovers! in particular is regarded by fans and critics as one of his very best. Together, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle and the cream of LA's musical talent collaborated to create exuberant, beautifully orchestrated reinterpretations of pop standards. Recorded between October 1955 and January 1956, it became the UK's first ever number one album, also climbing to number two in the US after its release in March of that year.
Among gems including 'You Make Me Feel So Young', 'Too Marvelous For Words', 'How About You?', 'Old Devil Moon', 'Anything Goes', 'Makin' Whoopee', 'Love Is Here To Stay' and 'Pennies From Heaven', the standout track was Sinatra's and Riddle's iconic reworking of 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. Written by Cole Porter in 1936, it was first performed by Sinatra on his own radio show a decade later. Riddle's arrangement underpinned Sinatra's deceptively effortless-sounding vocal with a series of orchestral crescendos that culminated in Milt Bernhart's wild slide-trombone solo. According to Riddle, the arrangement was inspired by Ravel's Boléro, and he finished it in the back of a cab on the way to the studio — the studio located at 5515 Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles that Capitol had established back in 1949.
Formerly the home of KHJ Radio Studios, this was the first facility that Capitol owned (the company had previously booked session time for its artists at various Hollywood studios). What's more, it was also among the first to record to tape, courtesy of Ampex 200 machines running at 30 ips, while the custom Capitol consoles offered basic, broad but very effective EQ — two positions for high frequencies, two for low frequencies — on 10 of their 12 channels.
Three studios were housed within the two-storey Melrose building. Studio A, situated on the upper level, had been the KHJ radio theatre, and as such it still boasted a four-foot-high stage at one end that could accommodate an orchestra, as well as audience seating for the star visitors who often attended Sinatra's sessions. When those sessions didn't employ a large number of musicians, they'd take place in the smaller Studio C on the lower level. Serving as Capitol's main live room, this was where Sinatra recorded his first 12‑inch LP in 1955: a collection of ballads titled In The Wee Small Hours that was also issued on two 10-inch discs and as a quartet of four-song EPs while the record company tried to settle on a format. Its heavily orchestrated follow-up, Songs For Swingin' Lovers, was tracked in Studio A, and sitting in the control room to the side of the stage with in-house producer Voyle Gilmore was engineer John Palladino.
"Voyle had a terribly unpleasant, touchy role,” Palladino recalls. "Other producers would be talking to the artists, telling them to do this or do that, but Voyle was just trying to keep things calm, and that was a great feat when working with Frank. A producer has the duty to make an artist comfortable, and if the artist isn't happy about his singing, it takes a lot of psychology to try to get the best take. Voyle, however, couldn't tell Frank what to do — nobody could — so he had to sit back while Frank stopped a take and talked to a band section or the conductor, trying to get things the way he wanted them.”
After starting out as a band arranger at LA's City College in 1941, John Palladino obtained an engineering job at Radio Recorders in Hollywood, which was one of the studios where Capitol regularly booked session time in the days before they had their own facility. This was where Palladino worked with Capitol artists such as Nat 'King' Cole, Jo Stafford and Peggy Lee, and when the company then acquired the KHJ Radio building at 5515 Melrose Avenue in 1949, he relocated there as a Capitol employee.
"Studio A was a very awkward place to record,” he now says. "The stage didn't provide us with enough space for a lot of our setups, but we eventually learned how to use it, taking advantage of the size of the rest of the room to get the right sound. In those days, it was pretty hard for someone to design a studio and be sure he'd done it right, so the record companies would often just find a hall, a church or some other big old place that they'd then try to adapt to their needs. That happened a lot on the East Coast, and in this case it also happened in LA.
"Back then, the control rooms were often an elongated area with a mixing board and other equipment, and down at the other end there'd be a single mono speaker as well as a window overlooking the actual studio. We were terribly limited by the number of channels and microphones we could use, but I have to say that the consoles' rotary pots made it very easy to mix multiple channels at the same time, nudging them with your fingers because they weren't as far apart as the sliders.
"Working with variables in terms of the instruments, the players, the mic placements and the orchestrations meant we were in a constant state of flux and had to make judgements all the time. I would try to interpret what the arranger was trying to do, and if I could help him out a little bit with regard to the dynamics, that's what I was able to do very well with the rotary pots.”
Meanwhile, a major contributor to Frank Sinatra's signature vocal sound when he moved from Columbia to Capitol was the U47 valve capacitor microphone that Neumann had begun manufacturing in 1949.
"Beforehand, when I'd worked at Radio Recorders, the art of applying equalisation was something we always wanted but couldn't achieve very well,” Palladino recalls. "Whenever something we were recording didn't sound right to us, we'd have to scrounge around for another mic that had the characteristic we were looking for. Then, as soon as we got the equalisers, we were able to get over that hurdle. The microphone we used the most back then — and which was excellent — was the [RCA] 44 [ribbon mic]. I used it for Nat Cole's vocals and all of the early Capitol stuff, but it had a mellow character and we couldn't get the brightest high end out of it. Well, when we got the U47 and used it in place of the 44 — on, say, a sax section — all of a sudden we had the sound in the studio that we'd wanted all the time, with a rising characteristic to the mid-range and a bright high end. We didn't have to do anything else, and after we got a few more U47s, we started using them for vocals.
"Another advantage to the U47 was the directional pattern that favoured the voice and didn't allow it to be drowned out by the orchestra. That's why it got to be tremendously popular and became an industry standard in the days when singers like Frank Sinatra recorded in the studio with the band.”
Not that the RCA 44 became redundant. For a mono big band session, John Palladino's standard setup would comprise a 44 in the middle of the reeds section, placed about two and a half feet off the floor to get a fat sound from the five saxophones; a 44 or U47 on the four trombones; another 44 on the four trumpets that, positioned just above the trombones, were also picked up by the trombone mic; a 44 on the piano; a single RCA 77 placed above the drum kit; an Altec 639 on the acoustic bass, or an Altec contact mic that could be strapped to the instrument; and a U47 or 639 on the acoustic guitars.
"I'd use the small-studio technique,” Palladino explains, "meaning close miking with equalisation and reverberation. Still, the studio always had an effect on that in terms of the musicians. They'd want to hear themselves playing like they did on stage, but that wasn't always possible in the studio, which is why instead of having a straight-line pickup on the five saxes — where the centre guy might be four feet from the microphone and the guy on the end might be six feet from it — I'd make them sit in a circle, with three on one side of the mic and two on the other.
"Having experimented as to where the sound really came from on each instrument, I found that miking lower — maybe two-and-a-half to three feet above the floor, shooting straight under the music stands — provided a nice fullness to the saxes. You see, on stage the sax section would play standing up, but even when they addressed the microphone full-on they still wouldn't get the boost that the floor provided. Sometimes, that was very difficult to handle because the woodwind guys would have to play multiple instruments: after playing a sax, a guy might then have to play a flute, and we didn't have extra mics [to accommodate different setups].
"This was educational for the arranger. He had to know some of the pitfalls of recording, and that he couldn't all of a sudden just go from a full sax section to a little old flute solo. He had to somehow work it into the arrangement so that the guy could, perhaps, quickly get up and go to another microphone. In the beginning, someone like Nelson Riddle didn't know how to write for a recording... and we didn't know how to record for a recording! We were all learning at the same time. I'd tell him, 'Nelson, I can't do this. You've got the strings here against the brass and it won't work.' Well, Nelson became very adept at that — he was very good — and all of the on-call arrangers got wise to that, too.”
In the meantime, Palladino had to ensure the strings, also miked as a group, weren't drowned out by the rest of the instruments. "The string mic drove me crazy,” he remarks. "When recording a full orchestra, I might have 16 strings to balance out, and if the bass got into that string mic I'd suddenly have a lousy bass sound and not know where it was coming from. I'd think it was coming from the bass mic, but it wasn't: it was reverberating into the string mic because the studio happened to be resonating at that frequency. I'd get a kick out of being told 'You've got too much bass.' I'd say, 'That's right, there's too much bass.' But there wasn't too much bass; there was too much leakage and the bass sound deteriorated to the point where it was like a big boom. That's why, for most of the studio sessions, I'd have very close miking on the bass and, in some cases, the mic would be strapped onto the bass.
"In those days, we didn't have a lot of microphones and I never heard of using five of them on a drum kit. I'd be lucky to have five microphones for the whole session! Now everything is close-miked, and the danger of that is you're placing a lot of importance on the engineer who can change sounds drastically. It's better to balance the musicians and let them handle their own dynamics. But there's also no getting around the fact that, on most early recordings, the poor drums suffered the most. They were always being picked up in some other place, like on the vocal mic, and the acoustic guitars suffered too because there wasn't enough gain coming out of those instruments to enable us to cut down on the leakage.
"Still, the nice thing about being an engineer for a specific company in a specific room was that we'd get to learn all the tricks and know exactly what an instrument was going to do if you placed it somewhere. What helped us the most was that the musicians were so good. We had the cream, all of the top session guys, and they were just fabulous. They'd help us as much as they could and it was amazing how they would cooperate.”
According to John Palladino, isolating the vocals was one of his biggest challenges. Frank Sinatra would need to be screened off when, in 1957, stereo entered the picture at the newly constructed Capitol 'Tower' on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street. Before this, however, he'd record — and enjoy eye contact — with the band, and as there were so many musicians during the Songs For Swingin' Lovers! sessions inside the Melrose facility's Studio A, Sinatra had to sing on the floor just below the stage in order to attain the necessary isolation.
"Eventually, vocal booths started to show up, but Frank would not work separately from the musicians,” says Palladino. "For the In The Wee Small Hours sessions in Studio C, the background music was tuned in with the kind of material we were doing — it was very light and delicate — and so everthing was pretty much open. Working with the Hollywood String Quartet, he could stand right next to the guys without any problem, and he loved it. But on Songs For Swingin' Lovers! the stage inside Studio A was full: eight brass, five saxes, four rhythm, 16 strings, and they were sitting practically on top of one another.
"As it happens, that worked out very well. Unable to put Frank up there with the band, I had him stand just in front of the stage, and I also put a little screen behind him to cover [sound reflections] from the back of the auditorium while he was facing the orchestra. The strings wouldn't cause any trouble, but there could be leakage into his mic from the drums and the brass, and that got real tricky. With everything going at the same time — sustained strings against rhythm against the trombones and saxes — it was amazing how Nelson pulled it off, balancing his licks so that I could lower the mics a little bit and not get too much leakage when, all of a sudden, the big band came in. That was very difficult, but it came out quite well.”
Such was the case with 'I've Got You Under My Skin'. Added to the Swingin' Lovers song list at the last moment, its hastily completed arrangement earned Nelson Riddle the musicians' applause after the band ran through it for the first time. At Sinatra's request, Riddle had worked with bass trombonist George Roberts on the long, tension-building musical crescendo that leads up to the bridge. When asked if he knew any Afro-Cuban rhythmical patterns, Roberts had suggested lifting the opening trombone lines from Stan Kenton's '23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West', resulting in the crescendo that leads up to Milt Bernhart's red-hot trombone solo.
Since, true to form, Riddle's chart only specified the space that had been left for this solo, Bernhart was free to improvise. The trombonist took full advantage of this, but he was soon worn down by Sinatra's quest for perfection. Notorious for refusing to do more than one or two takes on a film set because he didn't want his acting to become stale and thus rob a scene of its vitality, Ol' Blue Eyes had no such reservations in the recording studio. Accordingly, he kept telling Bernhart "Let's do another” with regard to his performance on 'I've Got You Under My Skin', and by the 10th take the soloist was exhausted.
"That was a dirty trick to play on Milt,” says Palladino. "He'd get in there early and practice the stuff, and then he had to play at full volume. We could have said to Frank, 'Why don't we intercut take one or two with Milt's solo?', but that never occurred to me. And besides that, Frank really didn't like editing. He was fastidious about capturing complete takes, and so I did very little editing on his recordings.”
Exhausted after 10 takes, Milt Bernhart was also exasperated when John Palladino then chimed in from the control room to say that, since the trombone sound didn't have enough bass, Bernhart should stand closer to the brass mic. The problem was, said mic was on a high riser and the trombonist wasn't tall enough to get near it. So, Sinatra quickly resolved this issue by helpfully finding a box for Bernhart to stand on.
"The five saxes were very close to the edge of the stage,” Palladino explains. "Immediately behind them were the four trombones, and then behind them were the four trumpets. Milt was in the middle of all of them and they were going full blast, so it wasn't a case of him performing the solo while everybody else was quiet. This was one of those situations where he could not get up from the group and go sit somewhere else — he couldn't move. So, Frank put him on that little box and I was scared to death, because if Melt fell off and ruined his lip we'd have the biggest lawsuit in the world. I mean, I've seen guys fall off the back of a riser, and oh God — would you like to do that with a Stradivarius?
"It was crazy, but I still had to be very careful about anything I said from the control room, because Frank would be listening and he'd countermand whatever he didn't like.”
Sinatra was equally critical of his own performances, which is why he and the musicians ran through 22 takes of 'I've Got You Under My Skin' before he was at last satisfied with what he heard.
"Some of those takes could have been false starts where they got through a few notes and then stopped,” Palladino points out. "I doubt there were more than four or five complete takes. Frank knew his own voice pretty well, and when he wasn't singing well, he'd walk out of a session. I've got to give him credit for that. In fact, I've got no criticism of Frank at all. His criticisms of the musicians' playing were really top-notch, because they locked in with what he was doing. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he wanted the band to do.”
Sinatra certainly sang well on these sessions. Capitalising on the distinctive sound that Nelson Riddle established on Songs For Swingin' Lovers! — including George Roberts' melodic bass trombone, Harry 'Sweets' Edison's Harmon-mute trumpet and, in line with Sinatra's own suggestion, sustained background strings — he delivered 15 peerless vocal performances. A 16th track, 'Memories Of You', was eventually considered unsuited to the album's uptempo feel, and remained unreleased until the 1990 Capitol Years three-CD box-set compilation.
"Frank was so easy to record,” says John Palladino, who retired from the business back in 1981. "I could read him and feel exactly what he was going to do with the microphone. There were no surprises. Watching him, I could tell what he was leading up to, and if I had to help a few low notes in terms of the volume I would do that without him seeming to pick up on it. The range of volume that you could put on records in those days was limited to a great extent, and a lot of engineers got into trouble by limiting different things. Well, I would not use limiting. I figured if the singer was going to belt, I'd have to believe that he wanted that dynamic. So, I'd save a little bit beforehand and then just let it go.
"Most artists don't know how to use a microphone. They get in front of it and it's like the same way they use it when they go out on the stage. They're either blasting into it or moving around, and they forget how they're addressing it. If you address it close, your bass comes up a little bit, and if you address it to the side then you're changing the frequency response. You want to have a consistent sound. Well, even when Frank had to sing long sessions, he never misused the microphone. And I also don't recall him ever criticising anything that I did. If he didn't say anything, that means I must have got it right, and with Frank Sinatra that was no mean achievement.”