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This compact disc album might have just as accurately been titled "Frank Sinatra - From The First To The Last," since its song program consists of the very first recordings he undertook for Capitol Records - the final four selections offered here, deriving from the April 2, 1953, recording session with which he initiated his eight-year association with the label - and, in its entirety, his final album project for Capitol, Point Of No Return, product of two recording sessions held in September of 1961. What unites this apparently odd coupling is the fact that on each of the two sets of recordings, made eight-and-a-half years apart, he was assisted by the gifted arranger-conductor Axel Stordahl. Long-time Sinatra fans will recall that he and Stordahl had collaborated extensively for more than a decade before the earliest of the recordings reprised here, and it was as a result of this long, close association - paralleling that which Sinatra enjoyed with Nelson Riddle during the singer's Capitol years - that he first had been enabled to begin working towards establishing his supremacy in the art of popular song. Stordahl, there can be little doubt, helped the singer immeasurably.

The two had first met in 1940 when Sinatra joined the greatly popular Tommy Dorsey Orchestra as featured male vocalist, replacing Jack Leonard who had had a falling-out with the trombonist-leader. At the time Stordahl was one of several orchestrators Dorsey employed, and over the nearly two years the singer remained in the trombonist's band the two became fast friends. When Sinatra made his first solo recordings outside the Dorsey fold in January of 1942, it was Stordahl who served as his arranger-conductor. And when the singer signed with Columbia Records in June of 1943, Stordahl was assigned the musical direction of his recordings. Over the ensuing ten years the two worked together almost continuously, Stordahl ultimately being responsible for arranging and conducting more than three-quarters of the singer's 266 recordings for the label.

It was during this period and largely, one suspects, as a result of Stordahl's guidance no less than the poised and elegant settings he so consistently provided the singer that Sinatra began to come into his own as a superior interpreter of popular song. As the decade advanced and their musical association deepened, Sinatra's singing became increasingly confident and assured, his musicianship surer and more keenly focused, and his interpretive abilities truer, more incisive and insightful. He became, in short, not only the finest, most accomplished singer of his generation but was well on his way to achieving the total, undisputed mastery of the genre he revealed in so many of his Capitol recordings.

During the final several years the singer recorded for Columbia he found himself increasingly at odds with his recording supervisors and especially Mitch Miller, the label's Artists and Repertoire Director, who were urging him to record what he felt were trivial, and often demeaning song materials. During the late 1940s tastes in popular music had moved away from the superior ballad standards Sinatra performed so well to a type of novelty-based popular song that was as simplistic as it was silly, insipid and often meaningless. Sinatra flatly refused to perform songs that, like I'm Looking Over A Four Leaf Clover, Come On-A My House or Near you, all major "hits" of the period, he characterized as bloodless and decadent. So, the singer was hardly surprised when in the Fall of 1952, his recording contract up for renewal, Columbia failed to extend it. His final recording for the label was, ironically enough, the Cy Coleman-Joseph McCarthy ballad Why Try To Change Me Now?

In the Spring of 1953, after earlier, protracted negotiations with RCA Victor had fizzled out, Sinatra signed with Capitol Records. To provide the singer an easeful transition to the new label as well as allow Capitol's recording directors time to develop a recording strategy for him, Stordahl was engaged to supervise his first Capitol recordings. Four selections were undertaken on April 2, 1953 - Lean Baby, I'm Walking Behind You, Day In-Day Out and Don't Make A Beggar Of Me - all but the first arranged by the conductor. Purposely arranged in the style of its writer Billy May, Lean Baby was orchestrated by Heinie Beau, another veteran of the Tommy Dorsey band who had also worked with Sinatra and Stordahl on various of the singer's Columbia recordings. It was coupled with I'm Walking Behind You as Sinatra's intitial Capitol single and, on its release did moderately well, both sides garnering a fair amount of radio play and the single selling sufficiently well to demonstrate to Capitol executives they were on the right track. Don't Make A Beggar Of Me was not released at the time and in fact did not appear on record until the late 1960s, when it was included in the Capitol album T2602. But the real trasure here is the previously unreleased version of the lovely Rube Bloom-Johnny Mercer ballad Day In-Day Out, with an absolutely fetching arrangement in Stordahl's most graceful manner and a Sinatra vocal of greatly touching expressiveness. It will come as a complete surprise even to knowledgeable fans of the singer. Not only is it quite different from the two later recordings of the song Sinatra did for Capitol - the Nelson Riddle-arranged and conducted version of March 1, 1954, and the one by Billy May from December 22, 1958, offered in the Come Dance With Me album set - but its existence was not even known of until now, which explains why it has not been listed in any discographies of the singer's work.

It was at the singer's second Capitol recording session that he was first teamed up with Nelson Riddle, initiating one of the most fruitful and artistically gratifying collaborations of his career, Riddle in a very real sense serving Sinatra through the Capitol years as had Stordahl during the previous decade. Riddle, in fact, arranged and conducted fully two-thirds of Sinatra's 300-odd Capitol recordings. Other of the singer's recording sessions were arranged by Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and Felix Slatkin, and Stordahl was not called on again until the Fall of 1961.

By this time the singer had secured his release from Capitol in order to form his own record label - Reprise Records, which was started in early 1961 - but under the terms of the agreement he was to make further recordings for Capitol. The album which reunited him with Stordahl, the as it turned out aptly-titled Point Of No Return, was the final album project Sinatra was to undertake for the label with which he had so often and so consistently scaled the greatest heights of his career. And although many at the time thought the singer would turn in something of a perfunctory job on an album recorded solely to satisfy a contractual obligation, the results give the lie to that.

First, it was a stunning collection of songs, all excellent ballad standards which had the added benefit of not having been over-recorded. And the program itself was a particularly well-chosen one, alternating familiar songs with a number of less widely known but no less worthy ballads, each in fact gaining from contrast with the other. In his flawless, insightful interpretations, Sinatra gave them all equal weight. He did not stint on any of them and, rather than being indifferently performed, the performances comprised one of the singer's most perfectly realized song programs, offering singing of a knowingly focused, lucid, breathtaking mastery and beauty. One would be hard pressed to instance better, more finely detailed or beautifully shaped readings than those the singer accorded a number of these songs - the deeply affecting September Song for example, I'll Remember April, There Will Never Be Another You, These Foolish Things, Memories Of You or When The World Was Young. These performances contain, in fact, some of the most maturely confident and rewardingly expressive singing Sinatra ever commited to record, full of a nuanced, controlled emotionalism all the more effective for the easeful, almost conversational naturalness with which he infused each and every one. Simply, they are the work of a master.

The singer, there can be no doubt, was at peak vocal and expressive form on these performances which rank with the finest, most compelling achievements of his Capitol years. No little assistance was provided him by the lovely, elegant and knowingly economical settings devised by Stordahl and Heinie Beau, who orchestrated I'll Remember April and It's A Blue World under the former's direction. Acknowledging Sinatra's primacy in these performances, the two men provided him a perfect, unobtrusive tapestry of orchestral textures and spare, pastel washes of color on which to trace his special vocal magic. Rarely had the singer been so well served by his collaborators, for throughout this immensely satisfying farewell recital Stordahl's and Beau's orchestrations support and underscore his masterly singing with an unerringly artful economy of expression that can stand as the very apogee of taste, intelligence and focused discretion.

No throwaway this. Hardly. And while rarely acknowledged as such, Point Of No Return is one of the enduringly great Sinatra albums, a marvelous program of songs which the singer graced with some of his most deeply sincere and affecting expressive artistry. And popular music just doesn't get any better than this.

Pete Welding

Point Of No Return (1962)

Capitol CDP 7 48334-2

When The World Was Young
I'll Remember April
September Song
A Million Dreams Ago
I'll See You Again
There Will Never Be Another You
Somewhere Along The Way
It's A Blue World
These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)
As Time Goes By
I'll Be Seeing You
Memories Of You
Day In-Day Out
Don't Make A Beggar Of Me
Lean Baby
I'm Walking Behind You

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Come Fly With Me
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Point Of No Return
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The Concert Sinatra
September Of My Years
Moonlight Sinatra
Strangers In The Night
The World We Knew
A Man Alone
Sinatra & Company
Some Nice Things I Missed
Sinatra Love Songs
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