by Harry Currie
Harry Currie is a conductor, arts writer, musician, and singer who was a vocal lead in BBC TV’s legendary Black and White Minstrel Show, had an HMV recording contract, and in 1989 was under consideration to play Frank Sinatra in Living Legends in Concert in Las Vegas. He declined for personal reasons.
Michael Bublé is a very fine vocalist. Let’s make no mistake about that. He has arrived on a scene which has lain pretty much fallow since Frank Sinatra’s vocal decline in later years and eventual death in 1998. The splash made by Harry Connick Jr. has largely abated, and Bublé is the flavour of the month, so to speak, for those who have enough appreciation to understand and appreciate good popular music and good singing.
Comparisons are inevitable, however, especially as Bublé has borrowed some Sinatra arrangements note for note – Come Fly With Me, for example. Some writers have expressed the opinion that Bublé is the new Sinatra for the modern age, and in some ways they are perfectly correct. But Bublé is appealing largely to a present-day audience that could be compared to Sinatra’s bobby-sox fans in the forties, but with neither the huge numbers nor the fervour and fanaticism that propelled Sinatra into the international idol he became from 1941 to 1949. That can’t happen today in this field.
Though the casual listener might very well think that Bublé is on a par with Sinatra both vocally and stylistically, to those who are discerning and possess a sense of musical integrity there are marked differences between the two singers.
Bublé has a great flair for note and phrase decoration, obviously influenced by modern pop singers. He can dance around the original melodic line with great flexibility, but only in short phrases. This isn’t vocal jazz improvisation as such, certainly not the vocalise of which Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme or Jon Hendricks were masters. And this kind of phrase decoration is certainly not new, for most classical singers in the Baroque era of music in the 17th and 18th centuries did it constantly, especially in recitative. But decoration like this is merely showmanship, no matter how well it’s done. It’s the kid on the bicycle saying “Look, Ma, no hands!” It’s calculated and carefully studied for effect. Bublé has a tendency to overdo it, and this is often not in keeping with the musicality or intended mood of the song.
Sinatra never did any of this. Even if he were aware of what the pop singers did, he would never have tried to emulate it. Sinatra was the pioneer who set a new standard for the American Popular Song. A pioneer starts with what others have done before him, builds on that, and sets out in a direction both unique and experimental. The Sinatra of the 40s was not the Sinatra of the 50s and 60s, for he had evolved and matured in those ten years, and he became definitive. Sinatra never calculated phrases or tricks of any kind for effect. His bending of phrases and occasional note substitutions are completely natural. When he sang it came from his heart, a spontaneous outpouring of vocal sound from his own life experiences that framed the words and music like no one had done before and no one has done since, though many have tried.
The vocal mechanism and the voice quality you have are pretty much what you are born with. It’s possible to learn how to better moderate this through proper use of the diaphragm for breath control and support, and you can spend years with a vocal teacher gradually building toward the voice you hope to achieve. But the sound is still largely what you inherited. Bublé has a great voice, strong, flexible, and with a wide range of dynamics and pitch. But he does have a slight harsh edge to the quality of sound, very noticeable when he sings softly. Sinatra has a much smoother sound, whether he sings in a gentle bel canto or soars loud and high, and this does much to add to the enjoyment of his artistry.
Sinatra was a man in conflict with himself. He was a bon vivant, a philanderer, a drinker, smoker, an occasional brawler, he loved with passion and lost with devastation, and he could never reconcile this with the person he knew he really was in the depth of his being. The flippant, insouciant presence he displayed was only a mask to hide his fears, guilt and insecurities. The only glimpse of the real Sinatra came through his singing, and in his song interpretations he revealed the joy, happiness, loneliness and despair which had shaped his life and his art in a way no singer had ever done before, and the sincerity he expressed was unparalleled. He not only believed in the words, he caressed them, and probably in this way found some release from his personal torments.
There were many male vocalists who sang a good song – Bing Crosby, Vic Damone, Dick Haymes, Sammy Davis Jr., Andy Williams, Harry Connick Jr. to name a few, and Michael Bublé rates among them. But not one of them ever got deep inside the lyrics and music as Sinatra did. In albums like For Only the Lonely and one of my favourites, Close to You, the heartbreak is maintained from the beginning to the end of both the songs and throughout the album. Yet listen to the early Swing Easy on Capitol and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, a single like I’ve Got the World on a String or the Reprise version of Come Fly With Me, the Sinatra-Basie albums, and the happy, joyful exuberance is so infectious and real that you can’t help smiling.
For all Bublé’s listenable good work it’s just Bublé being Bublé, trying to impress and dazzle with his virtuosity, and he certainly does it well, though often at the expense of the integrity of the song. But it doesn’t grab you by the throat or lift you out of your seat as Sinatra’s recordings can still do. Bublé has yet to establish his own persona through his music, and that may take years, even if he has the staying ability. So far he’s tried to cover all the popular musical genres to show he can do it, but he has yet to emerge as Michael Bublé.
We should all be thankful that Bublé is around, keeping ballads and swing alive with great orchestrations. But when the legendary conductor Herbert Von Karajan was asked in a BBC interview who he considered the greatest singer in the world, without a moment’s hesitation he named Frank Sinatra.
When Sinatra was the recipient of a Kennedy Center Honours Award in 1983, President Ronald Reagan said that “art is the shadow of humanity, and Frank Sinatra has spent his life casting a magnificent and powerful shadow.” Every male singer of ballads and swing after Frank Sinatra, including Michael Bublé, will always be in that shadow. There will never be another Sinatra.