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Published on April 20th, 2015 | by Andy Sedlak

‘In the Wee Small Hours’ – Frank Sinatra [1955]

‘In the Wee Small Hours’ – Frank Sinatra [1955] Andy Sedlak

Summary: Sinatra’s remarkable candor and the gentle rise and fall of Nelson Riddle’s strings make 'In the Wee Small Hours' a lovelorn statement for the ages. Sixty years later, its perspective is still extraordinary and Sinatra’s delivery transcends “old school” to become “timeless.” 

5

Truly Classic


User Rating: 4.4 (2 votes)

Length: 48:41

Released: April 1955

Producer: Voyle Gilmore

Label: Capitol

Peak position on Billboard chart: 2

Some records can be played anywhere. Others are most effective in certain settings.

It’s remarkable the way certain albums shine at a house party while others are primed for highway driving. Some actually carve out little niches in your life – I have a friend who listens to Led Zeppelin IV every time he grills out.

Then there are discs that are best experienced alone. And Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is a record you need to get to know one-on-one.

Without question, it sounds best at night. A glass of scotch and a little yearning in the heart won’t hurt either.

Wee Hours - Frank with drink

This is the kind of record that goes best with a stiff drink.

History remembers the album – it turned 60 this year – as one of Sinatra’s finest artistic achievements. It may also be the first “concept” record ever made. It was an album, which is different than a collection of songs. In truth, the record feels like one long song. And that’s a compliment. In this case, it’s a compliment of the highest order.

The title song alone makes it clear that Sinatra’s focused on the type of solitude rarely felt at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. At the time, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” was newly written by Bob Hilliard. Hilliard may be best known for writing a few songs in the Walt Disney classic, Alice in Wonderland. David Mann was the composer. Mann was a WWII veteran who at one time served as a personal pianist to President Harry Truman. The song is about a toss-and-turn type of hurt. If you start the record from the top, it’s a fitting introduction to say the bare minimum.

From “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning:”

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson
You’d be hers if only she would call
In the wee small hours of the morning
That’s the time you miss her most of all

As “concept albums” go, this one doesn’t require a drawn out explanation. It’s about loneliness. Loneliness itself, however, is rarely an uncomplicated sentiment. And Sinatra, who you better believe was the top cop during these sessions, shows us loneliness is more than a mere jumping-off point. In the Duke Ellington-penned “Mood Indigo,” it becomes clear that it’s the mode in which the album will be delivered. By the time the third song, “Glad to Be Unhappy,” rolls around, we’ve added self-depreciation to the mix. And our idol is officially a lost cause.

From “Glad to Be Unhappy:”

Unrequited love’s a bore
And I’ve got it pretty bad
But for someone you adore
It’s a pleasure to be sad

Sinatra makes his first TV appearance on Bob Hope’s “Star-Spangled Revue” in 1950.

More than half a century later, critics routinely rank it among the best albums of all time. A few years ago, Mojo declared it one of the albums that “changed the world.” Back in 1955, In the Wee Small Hours triumphed in every commercial fashion. It rocketed into the Top Ten, where it flourished. It stayed there longer than any Sinatra album up to that point. It also became his highest charting record since 1947.

Consider that Sinatra released six studio albums in those eight years. He hadn’t charted that well since his bobbysoxer days.

…which had pretty much dried up, by the way. Sinatra was now pushing 40 and had been deliberately trying to re-market himself. But if the desire to re-market himself provided an artistic boost of sorts, then the women in his life took it the rest of the way. Take Ava Gardner, for example. The Hollywood starlet was Sinatra’s second wife and their relationship – it came on the heels of a divorce with Nancy Barbato – was headed for Splitsville. Those close to Sinatra insist it impacted the recording of In the Wee Small Hours.

You don’t say, eh? Sinatra may have been an actor, but this is a bummer you can’t fake. He’s practically bleeding on the mic. While researching the album, I found studio space was booked almost exclusively at night and there were reports of Sinatra breaking down and crying in the studio. This behavior coming from the man known for singing “My Way.”

Wee Hours - Gardner Sinatra

Sinatra and Ava Gardner — a doomed marriage that led to the album’s tone.

The orchestral arrangements on In the Wee Small Hours gently rise and recede, effectively serving as the appropriate backdrop for a free-roaming mind. Nelson Riddle, a New Jersey native whose career stretched from the 1940s through the 1980s, handled these duties. Think of Riddle as the Pharrell Williams of his day. He collaborated with everyone from Nat King Cole to Judy Garland to Linda Ronstadt.

Sinatra, Riddle and producer Voyle Gilmore (he later produced the Kingston Trio) cycle through all the hallmarks of heartbreak. There’s the it’s-here-one-day-and-gone-the-next track, “Last Night When We Were Young.” And the don’t-forget-about-me-track, “I’ll Be Around.” Of course, a record centered on loneliness would be incomplete without a well-built tune about denial. Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is an excellent choice. Carmichael also wrote “Georgia on My Mind,” but “I Get Along Without You Very Well” is arguably his most complete composition. Bob Dylan would later echo the sentiment in his 1989 track “Most of the Time.”

From “I Get Along Without You Very Well:”

I get along without you very well
Of course I do
Except when soft rains fall
And drip from leaves, then I recall
The thrill of being sheltered in your arms
Of course I do
But I get along without you very well

These are feelings Drake wears out erasers trying to express.

Sinatra remains best known for the vocal signature he put on songs. He was all about phrasings, feelings and vocal footing. Many performers have since come along to sing in the same style, but there’s an age-old ingredient – as mysterious as it is indescribable – that makes Sinatra the most iconic interpreter of songs of all time.

Wee Small Hours - Frank recording 1955

Sinatra at a 1955 recording session.

A song like “Can’t We Be Friends,” which is so lyrically candid it’s almost uncomfortable, may sound goofy coming from Johnny Mathis. Sinatra, however, brings that same old indescribable ingredient and builds a captivating narrative.

From “Can’t We Be Friends:”

I thought I found the gal I could trust
What a bust, this is how the story ends
She’s gonna turn me down and say,
“Can’t we be just friends?”

Hands down, the most heartbreaking line Sinatra sings is “She dances overhead on the ceiling near my bed.” But the album never crosses over into martyrdom like Kanye West’s famously lovelorn 808s & Heartbreak did. And Sinatra never allows himself to hang his head as low as Dylan did on his 1997 masterpiece about lost love, Time Out of Mind. For better or for worse, Sinatra came from a time when men were more willing to put on a face. And despite his lyrical candor (“Stars have lost their meaning for me”), he never blames anyone for putting him in his situation. That, of course, makes his darkest moments all the more compelling.

Aside from the title track, none of the other songs on In the Wee Small Hours get mentioned in the same breath as many of Sinatra’s classics. It doesn’t seem like you ever hear anyone rattle off their favorite Sinatra tunes and stick “I Get Along Without You Very Well” next to “Summer Wind.” But when people remember Sinatra albums, this is the one that’s always mentioned. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

John Mayer covers the album’s title track in 2008 — 53 years after Sinatra first recorded it.

Everything about it is complete – especially the iconic album cover that depicts Sinatra submissively smoking a cigarette under a street light. It looks as if any one of the lines on the record could be swimming through his head. At the end of the day, the album clears the most elusive artistic hurdle there is. It’s timeless. Men and women are lonely in 2015 and they were lonely in 1955. The same goes for folks in 1855 and it’ll still be true in 2055. In the Wee Small Hours will never, ever sound dated.

In the Wee Small Hours isn’t a rock album, though it thematically fits into the mold of rock music with its contextualization of a man on the ledge. Of course, there’s more than mere drama at work here. There’s believability. And regardless of how a singer comes to sing the blues, what matters is that they’re sung with a transparent heart.

Restless nights come to us all. Tune this up next time you’re in that unfortunate position.

It’s as hardnosed as easy listening ever got.

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About the Author

Andy Sedlak is a former television reporter who lives in Dayton, OH. He grew up in a household that pumped Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel every weekend. He instantly became a new man when he discovered Bob Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” in junior high.



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