Home » Jazz Articles » Interview » Chuck Granata: On Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Johnny Mandel


Chuck Granata: On Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Johnny Mandel

Chuck Granata: On Sinatra, The Beach Boys, and Johnny Mandel

Courtesy Chuck Granata


Sign in to view read count
Chuck Granata is a record and radio producer, author, music historian and archivist. He has written four books on music and sound recording: Sessions with Sinatra: Frank Sinatra and the Art of Recording (Chicago Review Press, A Capella Books, 1999), Wouldn't it be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (Chicago Review Press, A Capella Books, 2003), Making Records: The Scenes Behind the Music (with legendary record producer Phil Ramone) (Hyperion Press, 2007) and the forthcoming Close Enough for Love (with Oscar-winning film composer and songwriter Johnny Mandel). Granata has contributed to and supervised the creation of dozens of CD projects (including four Grammy-nominated packages) at RCA Victor, Columbia, Capitol/EMI and Warner-Reprise Records. Notable recording projects include Frank Sinatra in Hollywood (Reprise/6 CDs); A Voice in Time and A Voice on Air (Columbia Legacy/4 CDs each). Granata is the producer and occasional co-host of Nancy Sinatra's weekly Nancy for Frank show on Sirius-XM radio channel 71 (Siriusly Sinatra).

All About Jazz: Good morning, Chuck. On behalf of All About Jazz, I'd like to thank you for taking time.

Chuck Granata: Good morning, Nick. It's long overdue that we have a really great music conversation. And it's good for me to be here with you.

AAJ: Okay, thank you. Let me get right to the questions. You are certainly an expert on the work of Frank Sinatra, in terms of his music, and other aspects of his contributions to American popular culture. Tell me, if you can, a little bit about the jazz influences on Sinatra, in terms of how the jazz instrumentalists and jazz music in general influenced him?

CG: Well, I guess we could start with the fact that Frank had a great "ear." And this was natural. This is something that came from God, really. It was a talent. He had a great ear, and without much musical training, he was able to take what he heard, and create something vocally that was different, and in the process become one of the most unique and preeminent vocalists of the 20th Century, in terms of pop and jazz music.

Now, I guess if we were to analyze it, we would have to go back to Sinatra's influences and what he was listening to in the mid-'30s, and into the '40s, which was Billie Holiday's records, and Bing Crosby's records. And both of those vocalists really are two of the earliest jazz vocalists. We need to remember that, before Crosby became a pop singer, he really was a jazz vocalist (in the beginning of his career). And Sinatra started to borrow the phrasing that Billie Holiday was using, which is really a characteristic of his genius.

Now, if we look at jazz, it's clear that Billie Holiday was influenced by Louis Armstrong, who phrased his trumpet playing and his vocals in much the same way, based on the blues and early jazz. So if we look at Louis Armstrong as the father of jazz, of jazz in the 20th century, and then we looked at the people that Louis influenced, it was those people that influenced Sinatra and his approach to instrumental phrasing, which he relied on for his entire career.

I remember the great cellist, Eleanor Slatkin, who was part of the Hollywood String Quartet, and a very close friend of Frank Sinatra, telling me that they were having dinner one night in Palm Springs at Sinatra's home. And he gave both Eleanor and Felix Slatkin, who played on dozens and dozens and dozens of his recording sessions, a great compliment. He said, "I try to phrase my vocals the way you phrase on your cello and violin." And they were kind of awestruck. And they said, "Well, Frank, it's mutual, because we try to phrase on our instruments the way you phrase vocally." So, he was influenced and inspired by many other vocalists and musicians—and not just jazz instrumental musicians. He listened to a lot of classical music, and the men and women in the orchestra, when he was doing his recording sessions in the '40s, '50s and '60s, and his radio shows a lot of the musicians, especially the string players, were drawn from symphony orchestras in New York and Los Angeles.

So he really took his God-given ear, and he took what he heard and translated it into his vocal craft. And that is really the crux of how Frank was influenced. And he has said himself, at many points during his career, that he admired the way Jascha Heifetz, a very famous classical violinist of the '40s and '50s, would use his bow, and a technique that made it seem like he never stopped to take a break, as he drew the bow across the strings of the violin and create a very seamless sound. He said that Tommy Dorsey did the same thing on his trombone. Now here you have a world famous classical musician, a world famous jazz and big band leader. And they both have a technique that Sinatra admires, which is a long, smooth way—the legato way—of phrasing. And Frank hears it, and he figures out how to apply that to a vocal. And that really becomes the foundation for his craft, that long, seamless vocal line, where it seems to go on for measures and measures and measures without taking a breath.

He is breathing, but in a way that you don't even realize it. And that's the same way a Heifetz would create that beautiful legato phrasing on his violin, and Dorsey would do the same thing with his trombone. And there we have the influences Sinatra drew from. From Billie Holiday specifically, he drew the way she would tease the beat within the measure of music. Sometimes instrumentalists—and this was really common in older music—turn of this 20th Century music—the players or the vocalists would sing directly on the beat and it sounded very staid, and kind of, almost like the rigid, relentless beat of marching band kind of music. And what Billie Holiday did which was just incredible and unique, was play with the beat. She would sing a little before the beat and a little after the beat. And it gave a very relaxed sound to what she was singing. But at the same time it created a wonderful tension, which kept you listening and wondering what she was going to do next. And that's exactly what Sinatra admired and borrowed from Billie. So it's these things, the instrumental and the vocal influences that he was listening to, and that created the Sinatra sound.

AAJ: When Frank was recording with, let's say, Billy May's big band, and Count Basie's band, and Quincy Jones' people, what was the interaction there, from that same standpoint?

CG: Well, again, with musicians and working with arrangers that he truly admired, if someone hadn't caught Sinatra's attention, they wouldn't be asked to work with him. And when you speak of Count Basie, let's say, that was really Frank Sinatra's favorite band. A lot of people don't realize that. They think, "Oh, his musical idol was Tommy Dorsey. Yes: he admired Dorsey's musicianship, and learned invaluable lessons from him. But, the first band that he [Sinatra] really loved was the Count Basie band, and this goes back to the '30s. As a matter of fact, there is evidence that he approached Basie, and suggested that he [Frank] become a vocalist with the band. At the time, Basie really wasn't using vocalists so much, even though he was backing Billie Holiday on selected sessions. He would have killed to sing with the Basie band. And honestly, the Basie band is really considered the greatest swinging band of all time. And it wasn't until the early '60s that Frank started working with Count Basie in the recording studio, then on the concert stage, and the rest is history.

The beauty of Frank Sinatra in his 70-year career is that there's never anything that becomes boring or stale. You could listen to the early recordings at Columbia, the very soft and tender crooner kind of recordings, and then you might want something different. So you jump to the '60s, when he was working with Basie. And they're two very different Sinatras. And that was the thing. It seems like every 10 years, he reinvented himself, and kept improving and changing the way he vocalized, always doing something different and getting better. But he was also able to kind of meander through all these different genres, and all of these different styles. So if you think about it, he affected jazz, and I am one of the believers that Frank Sinatra is a jazz singer—There's no doubt he's a jazz singer. There should be no argument about that. He could sing soft, tender, romantic ballads. He could do novelty songs. He could sing with a professional classical string quartet, and then turn around, and five minutes later, sing with Billy May's screaming big band. So he was able to take all of these things that he loved, and-blend them—be able to work credibly in all of those areas.

AAJ: Did Frank record with small groups, like the classic jazz quartet kind of a thing?

CG: He did some work, very rarely, with small groups. Too little, to be honest. During the 1940s he recorded a handful of sides with some trios and quartets: The Johnny Guarnieri Trio, The Phil Moore Four, The Page Cavanaugh Trio, The Metronome All-Stars and Alvy West and the Little Band at Columbia. He also sang with the Nat King Cole Trio and Slim Gaillard's Trio on the radio. Very few sides were commercially recorded, though. In the early '60s, he did a world tour for charity, and performed with a sextet made up of the greatest jazz musicians and studio musicians in the world. And that really proved that Frank could sing in the jazz context; was very comfortable with that idiom, and also was an indicator that that's where he should have gone, in terms of making a record, a real jazz record. He never did. And later—in the late 1970s and into the '80s, he would often do a song or two with a quartet or quintet whenever he performed live in convert. Some of those performances exist, but they've never been released. But those live recordings from the 1962 World Tour survive. Those live recordings survived, and have become the backbone of the Sinatra jazz catalog.

AAJ: Let's jump ahead to your work, Chuck, with the book on Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds.

CG: Sure.

AAJ: Tell me a little bit about how Wilson was influenced by some of the jazz vocal groups, let's say, of the '50s, or maybe earlier?

CG: Brian Wilson was another genius. And I don't use that word lightly, even though I do think it's overused, but there's really no better word to describe his talent and capacity for writing and production. That's one of the things that drew me to writing about Brian, because if I had to think of an artist who like Frank Sinatra was also not a trained musician, in the classical sense, it would be Brian Wilson.

When I was considering who to write about after Frank Sinatra, the first person I thought of was Brian. Brian had a multidimensional thought process and approach to creating music—much the same as Frank Sinatra did—but he was also untrained. He didn't take music lessons, per se. He didn't study music theory, and writing and arranging. What Brian was influenced by was jazz vocals, specifically The Four Freshmen, who were one of the most successful and popular vocal quartets of the 1950s. One of the big hallmarks of 1950s pop and jazz music was the vocal quartets: "The Four Lads," "The Four Preps," The Hi-Los and many others.

Now, the one that really was—to my ears and obviously to Brian's—the most jazz-influenced (in strictly musical terms) was "The Four Freshmen." I had the chance to interview the founding members of the Four Freshmen when I was working on my Brian Wilson book, and they detailed for me how they would spend hours and hours practicing to get what they called "color chords." And that was the perfect way to describe what they did. You always get a beautiful blend when you have good singers singing in harmony—and when some of the singers are related by blood, as both "The Four Freshman" and "The Beach Boys" were.

What the "Four Freshmen" did, and what drew Brian's attention, and piqued his musical attention, was the fact that they were not singing "standard" chords. In other words, the musical scale has defined notes, and when you play an instrument such as the piano, you can play those notes specifically, and you can play chords that include and/or are based on specific notes.

But with vocal performances, you can explore and emphasize the little gradations in between notes. So, you were singing and you tuned your voice to an interval in between two notes—four different voices singing in between four different notes or three different notes to create a chord—you could create a very different chord, a very different sounding chord than an instrument could. The Freshmen coined the phrase "color chords" to describe the way they conscientiously did this. It was brilliant! And they capitalized on that, by really practicing this very unique style that could only be considered jazz in terms of the way that they crafted their musical sound. And that's what Brian picked up on. He realized that he could apply what he heard in the Freshmen's jazz sound to his own pop music. And for Brian and his brothers, that pop genre that they were working in was surf music. The result was this beautiful jazz-influenced harmony in the Beach Boys' classic songs like "Surfer Girl" and "In My Room," and as it grew, of course, Brian kind of branched out. Instead of just sticking to those mainstream "surf" hits that were hugely popular (which, by the way, was a genre that they created, based on what people like Dick Dale was doing instrumentally). But Brian actually took that a step further when he started to work on things like Pet Sounds [Capitol, 1966]. He started to apply it to more complex music and serious concepts. And of course, we know what happened, we know the history.

AAJ: How significant was the input of people like Carol Kaye, and Hal Blaine, and the rest of the "Wrecking Crew," working with Brian on that?

CG: The contributions of the Hollywood session musicians to Brian Wilson's work were nothing short of essential. Brian heard things in his head. He would hear the harmonies, and he would know the sound that he wanted to achieve, even before going into the session. However, because Brian was not a traditional arranger, he couldn't write that down. He couldn't translate the music that he was thinking of in his head to paper, the way a Nelson Riddle, Jack Nietzsche or Quincy Jones could. He had to rely on the musicians that he worked with, people like Carole Kaye, and Earl Palmer, and all of the other people like Billy Strange, and Glen Campbell to translate it to something the musicians could read. All the great players who were playing on everybody's records worked with Brian in the studio, and helped him put those musical thoughts into formal (written) chords and notes.

I'll give the example of the beautiful French horn wail in "God Only Knows," which the player himself—a classical musician from the Los Angeles Philharmonic who'd never played on a rock or pop date—described for me. Brian walked up to him and hummed the melody to him. "This is how I want it to sound. I want you to do a slide, a glissando, and I want it to just blend into everything else," Brian explained. And that musician remembered every detail, because working this way was so unusual for him. Everything he had ever played was notated, and was written in front of him. And so were the parts of all the players around him. Here, Brian was actually teaching him the part in the studio, and there was no music. He had to play from instinct, and from his musical knowledge, and create the instrumental part from what Brian was humming to him. And the same thing happened with Carol Kaye. He would tell Carol "Here's what I would like..." And, often he would ask Carol to help him transpose something. If he needed to write out some chords or a melody on staff paper, he would actually go to Carol, or one of the other trained musicians who knew how to write music, and ask for their help. He had no hang-ups or problems doing that—he was that confident! Carol told me that she would look at the paper, and she would chuckle because what he had written was great music, but the stem would be on the wrong side of the note because he didn't physically know how to put it on paper. So he did rely on people like Carol, Don Randi, Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, and so many other people who were the backbone of his fantastic pop "orchestra."

I could never overstate how integral Don Randi was to those sessions. Don was one of the great players on that Hollywood studio scene in the '60s, playing keyboards on most of Phil Spector and Nancy Sinatra's records—and the Beach Boys, of course. Don always had great jazz bands, too, and he opened the Baked Potato jazz club in L.A. in the '60s! He's still playing today, by the way. I just had dinner with Don in Palm Springs in February, and he's playing, he's recording, and he's doing very well. So it was these musicians that really enabled Brian to transfer that wonderful sound that he heard in his head to the recordings that we know and love.

AAJ: Wow! Let's jump ahead to the forthcoming book on Johnny Mandel. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of that book, where we are on it, and for those who may not be more familiar with Mandel, other than M*A*S*H*.

CG: One of the examples of Frank Sinatra hearing something, and kind of filing it away in his brain, is the relationship he developed with Johnny Mandel. In 1960 when he, Frank, was starting his own record label, Reprise.

He was caught in a bit of a quandary, because he was still working at Capitol, and the arrangers that he was using at Capitol (Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Billy May) were all artists who were signed to Capitol Records. So, while Frank starts Reprise and is recording concurrently for his new label and Capitol, he couldn't use any of the arrangers that he had been using for the previous 10 years!

But he remembers someone he'd seen in Vegas one afternoon when he stopped in the Copa Room at The Sands to watch a Vic Damone rehearsal. Frank felt that the music was spectacular. He turned to whoever he was with—I would assume it was Bill Miller—and said, "Who is that conducting the band"? And the person said, "That's Johnny Mandel. He just wrote the music for "I Want To Live," and blah, blah, blah. And Frank said, "Aw man, he's incredible."

Now, two years later, Mandel gets a call from Frank Sinatra, who says, "I'm doing my first album for Reprise Records; it's a jazz album, and I want you to do the charts." And that's how Frank Sinatra and Johnny Mandel began working together. It happened because Frank heard Johnny's work two years earlier in Vegas, and you would think he hadn't given it a second thought. Two years later, boom! Here's Johnny Mandel working in the studio with Frank on the first Reprise LP, Ring-a-Ding-Ding [Reprise Records, 1961].

AAJ: Wow.

CG: Now Mandel had yet to hit his peak. He was working in films, he was composing music for film. He had played in and written songs and charts for the Basie band, Buddy Rich, and Artie Shaw—the great swing and dance bands— dating back to the early '40s. And now, he's writing for Frank Sinatra.

What Johnny did in subsequent years was really hone his skills, not just as a film composer, but as a songwriter, arranger, and producer. In 1964, he writes a theme for a film called The Americanization of Emily. The Main Title is "Emily," but it's just an instrumental melody. But the studio and Mandel asked Johnny Mercer to write some lyrics, and it became one of the most gorgeous songs in the canon of American popular music. The following year, Mandel is asked to write the music for an Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film called The Sandpiper. The film was boring as hell, but this time he works with lyricist Paul Francis Webster, and the song they wrote—"The Shadow of Your Smile" won the Oscar and has become one of the most recorded and performed standards of the 20th Century! Mandel's credibility and value in Hollywood really amped up in the mid-'60s, and in 1969-1970, he wrote the music for the film M*A*S*H*. And of course, that became world-famous, not just as a film, but as a television show.

The M*A*S*H* theme, "Suicide Is Painless," was kind of like a throwaway melody that Johnny wrote for one of the more comedic scenes in the film. Then, director Robert Altman came to him and said, "I like that melody. That would be a great song for the opening credits." Mandel thought he was nuts, and Altman himself embarked on writing a set of lyrics. But, they couldn't get it right! Altman went home one night and said to his son (who was 14 at the time) "I'm having trouble getting lyrics for this song. You're just a dumb kid—you play guitar. Here, see if he can write some words to this melody." And Michael Altman takes the music, goes outside and sits under a favorite tree in the backyard, and starts playing it on the guitar. In a couple of hours he came up with the lyrics to Johnny's melody; the song became "Suicide Is Painless: Theme From M*A*S*H*." And it's funny, because Michael Altman told me that his father used to half joke (and I say half joke because Michael said, "I was never sure if he was serious and bitter, or if he was really making fun of himself") by telling people, "I directed that damned picture. It took me a year, and I made $350,000. It took my 14-year-old kid a few hours to write the lyrics to the theme song, and he made three million." So it's pretty funny. But that is probably one of the most familiar Johnny Mandel songs of all-time.

Of course, there are so many others. In addition to Mercer and Webster, Mandel collaborated with many wonderful lyricists: Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Paul Williams, Peggy Lee, Morgan Ames, Dave Frischberg He pretty much hit almost every major lyricist in the business. And, he wrote some really beautiful songs: "You Are There," "Close Enough For Love," "Where Do You Start." There are so many great Mandel songs from the '70s and '80s. And of course, he arranged full albums for Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Michael Feinstein, David Allyn, Jo Stafford, Diana Krall and Shirley Horn (whose collaborations with Johnny are epic, and revered by musicians and vocalists alike). So Johnny's star really rose in the early to mid '60s, and he is right now 94 and living in Malibu. And up until about two years ago he was still writing charts. Slowly, but he was doing them. He did some work with Michael Feinstein, and I think that was the last arrangement he wrote was something for Michael, and that was about two or two and a half years ago. He really has had just an amazing career. I have had the pleasure of knowing Johnny for about 25 years or so, and we really became close in the last eight years. The last five years we've been working on his memoir, which is finished, and hopefully will come out next year, either later this year or early next year.

AAJ: Terrific. Okay, Chuck, on behalf of All About Jazz. Thank you so much for taking time. This has been incredibly informative, and we appreciate your taking time to do it.

CG: Nick, it's been a delight to talk to you. I love when I can talk to musicians, and people who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the music— all kinds of music, and every aspect of it. So I'm always happy to talk about the things we love, as we did today, and try to tie them all together. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do. So, thanks for having me.



For the Love of Jazz
Get the Jazz Near You newsletter All About Jazz has been a pillar of jazz since 1995, championing it as an art form and, more importantly, supporting the musicians who create it. Our enduring commitment has made "AAJ" one of the most culturally important websites of its kind, read by hundreds of thousands of fans, musicians and industry figures every month.

You Can Help
To expand our coverage even further and develop new means to foster jazz discovery and connectivity we need your help. You can become a sustaining member for a modest $20 and in return, we'll immediately hide those pesky ads plus provide access to future articles for a full year. This winning combination will vastly improve your AAJ experience and allow us to vigorously build on the pioneering work we first started in 1995. So enjoy an ad-free AAJ experience and help us remain a positive beacon for jazz by making a donation today.



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.