Uncle Frank: Sinatra and the Slatkins

Uncle Frank: Sinatra and the Slatkins
January 1, 2020 leonard slatkin

“A friend is never an imposition.” —Frank Sinatra

The time was the early 1950s. The place was Hollywood, and the world was that of the recording studio.

If you were on Frank’s good side, you could not ask for a better friend. And if the opposite were the case, you could not ask for a worse enemy. At least that is what they used to say. Fortunately for my family, the former was always true.

I was born in 1944 and my sibling, Fred, in 1947. By the time we arrived on the scene, Frank already knew my parents well. My father, Felix Slatkin, was the concertmaster of the orchestra at Twentieth Century Fox, and my mother, Eleanor Aller, was the principal cellist at Warner Brothers, the first female to occupy a leading chair in any of the 11 studio orchestras.

Sinatra was intensely curious about the world of classical music. While recording for Columbia Records in New York, he had even conducted an album of compositions by Alec Wilder. This pretty much dispels the idea that he could not read music. Perhaps he was not proficient at grasping a full score, but there was no question that he understood the basics of music notation.

Frank Sinatra moved to Hollywood permanently upon leaving Columbia Records in 1952 following an ugly rift with the company. He signed a six-year contract with rival Capitol Records, which had enticed the crooner with its star-studded roster of talent and the promise of more artistic freedom. With Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman and George Shearing on the label, among others, Sinatra would have many opportunities for musical collaboration. But first, he had to reinvent himself.

No more bow ties and bobbysoxers—Sinatra aimed to keep his adoring fans while also building a new base of admirers more attuned to listening rather than dancing. At Capitol, he would be working with the absolute best in the recording field, from producers and engineers, to arrangers and musicians. Notably, this was around the same time that West Coast jazz was starting to move over into the popular music culture. As Charles L. Granata observed in Sessions with Sinatra, “Capitol was everything a record label strove to be: chic, cool, artsy, hip. … Soon, Sinatra would discover that going there was the single greatest move of his career.”

The switch from big band singer to a jazz-tinged vocalist was not easy. At first, Sinatra wanted to stay with his primary arranger, Axel Stordahl, and there were some attempts at singles on the new label. When it was clear that this combination was not working as well as he hoped, the young Nelson Riddle came on board. It was a dream match. My parents were around for this changing of the guard, and since Frank relied on their opinions, they were among the first to tell him that this was the direction in which to go.

My parents had signed with Capitol back in 1947 as members of the Hollywood String Quartet, together with violinist Paul Shure and violist Paul Robyn. Their decision to include “Hollywood” in their name stemmed from the fact that each was a leading musician on the movie soundstages. At the time, they were severely criticized for choosing that moniker over, for example, “Los Angeles String Quartet.” However, my father maintained that it was essential to have the motion picture world thought of as an equal to the so-called “serious,” high-art community.

The group relied almost entirely on its recorded product, as studio life prevented touring. They visited San Francisco regularly and gave concerts in various venues in L.A. Some took place on Sunday afternoons at the art museum. I have been able to track down a couple of transcription discs from those broadcasts, but so far, the majority remain hidden.

By 1952, the quartet was recognized as one of the finest ensembles of its type in the world. Their recordings of both familiar and lesser-known compositions were uniformly met with the highest plaudits. It was only natural that Sinatra would want the Hollywood String Quartet for virtually all his recording projects with Capitol.

Even before the first Capitol sessions took place, Sinatra would come to our home to listen to the famed foursome. My brother and I were still quite young, and at a break in the rehearsal, Uncle Frank, as we came to call him, would take the two of us up the stairs, tuck us into bed, and sing us to sleep. Lullabies from “The Voice” are among my most cherished childhood memories.

Along with my parents, virtually every great studio musician participated in Sinatra’s Capitol sessions. The legends who played on these recordings included flutist Arthur Gleghorn, clarinetist Mitchell Lurie, French hornist Vince DeRosa, and trumpeters Shorty Rogers and Manny Klein. Foremost among the luminaries who graced the studios was the pianist Bill Miller, who worked with Frank for more than 50 years. He was a frequent visitor to the house when Nelson and my dad were collaborating on the charts.

Sinatra’s first album for Capitol was entitled Songs for Young Lovers. This recording and its follow-up, Swing Easy, utilized relatively small orchestral forces. Each member of the Hollywood String Quartet was featured, along with saxes and a few other wind instruments. It was during these early days in the relationship that we started to visit Sinatra in his home as well as on the road. He had a beautiful house off Coldwater Canyon Road where he hosted celebrities from various parts of the show biz world. I met Danny Kaye, Robert Mitchum, Lauren Bacall and so many others. But I was just a kid, and even though I knew who these people were, it was too early for me to idolize them. They were just folks who happened to be around.

My mother told a story about one evening at the Sinatra home: “Frank was an unbelievable host. We were having dinner at his home, and he had a gallery of paintings facing the dining room table—it was like a hallway. And I looked up and said, ‘Oh my God—that clown is absolutely incredible!’ I went bananas over this painting, which he had created himself. When we left, it was in my car—he gave it to me!”

Throughout the mid-Fifties, we also had occasion to visit him in Palm Springs and Las Vegas. It was in the former location while roaming around his house that I discovered some photos of the nude Marilyn Monroe. There was even a deck of cards with the then-forbidden pictures on the non-playing side. I also remember sitting out by the pool one time and falling asleep. When I woke up, my back was the color of a well-boiled lobster, and I was in agony. Frank called a doctor, and with a few applications of some sort of salve, I recovered from the worst sunburn of my life.

In Vegas, we stayed at the Desert Inn. This was the hotel and entertainment center of Sin City in the early days, only the fifth resort to exist at that time. Sinatra had made his debut there in 1951, and the Slatkins were thereafter invited anytime we wanted to visit. In those days, they allowed kids into the casinos, but we could not gamble. It didn’t matter. Uncle Frank let us play the slots anyway.

My brother and I loved hanging out by the pool. Since my parents usually stayed up with Frank and his buddies well into the wee hours of the morning, Fred and I went to breakfast by ourselves and then spent the rest of the day swimming. Messages to guests were delivered via a public address system, and once in a while we would hear, “Leonard and Freddie Slatkin, please go to Mr. Sinatra’s Suite.” Perhaps this was to prevent another case of sunstroke.

By the time Sinatra started recording on the Capitol label, the company had moved its facilities to the studios of KHJ, a radio station located on Melrose Avenue. Frank and my parents were consulted as to the acoustical properties of this location, and everyone agreed that it was well-suited for a wide variety of genres and styles. This is probably what accounted for the particularly excellent sound on the Sinatra recordings of the early Fifties. Across the street from the studio was Nicodell’s bar and restaurant, as well as Lucey’s, where the musicians and producers would go after evening sessions.

Frank relied on the playbacks as a way to really understand the whole process of recording. He would go into the booth after a first take, usually with his front-stand musicians, listen intently, and then go back into the studio to give instructions. On one infamous occasion, he asked my mother what she thought of that first take. Her reply, in front of everyone: “It sounded like shit!”

Capitol Records was expanding its worldwide reach and found that the office space on Melrose was too limited to accommodate the number of people being added to the staff. In 1954, plans developed to have a new building, the Capitol Tower, erected right off the most famous intersection in L.A., Hollywood and Vine. In addition to providing a work environment for its employees, the new facility would also house three recording studios suitable for almost all of its artists, with the exception of large orchestras.

By the time the structure was complete, Sinatra had become the prime draw for Capitol, and the Hollywood String Quartet was the label’s most influential group in the classical field. Surprisingly, the first album recorded in the new building featured Frank and my parents, but not in the usual way. Sinatra did not sing a note of music. Rather, with a great deal of coaching from my father, who was accustomed to leading the orchestra from the concertmaster chair, Frank was featured in the role of conductor.

Tone Poems of Color was an orchestral album for which various composers submitted works based on the hues of the rainbow. Although an intriguing idea and concept, the fan base was not much interested in this, and sales were not strong. However, some of the pieces had real merit, and it might be worthwhile to revisit some of the colors.

At the time, Capitol Tower was touted as the tallest and roundest structure in Los Angeles. My dad used to try to convince me that the shape was supposed to represent one of those turntables that included a record changer. You would stack vinyls on a stick in the middle of the machine, and when the tonearm retracted, the next song or album would fall neatly onto the previously played disc. Theoretically, you could then listen to several hours of music without having to leave your chair.

According to my father, every hour one of the floors of the Capitol Tower would magically move horizontally, allowing the stories above to drop down one level. The bottom floor would elevate to the top of the building and then glide into place, waiting for its next turn. I would walk the three miles and stand on the corner to wait for this event. When I got home and said that nothing happened, my dad would come up with some excuse, such as, “The mechanism wasn’t working today,” or, “You probably did not have the right time on your watch.”

Eventually, I figured it out, but I was just a gullible kid.

The tower, although a resounding architectural achievement, was not well received as far as its acoustics were concerned. No one could hear each other, balances were off, and the sound was dry. Teams were brought in to try to alleviate the problems, which they accomplished by placing cement echo chambers 30 feet underground. This made the music more vibrant and reverberant. They are still in place to this day, as is Studio B, the room where Sinatra recorded all his songs.

The first album that Sinatra recorded as a vocalist in the new studios would prove to be one of the best, and most controversial, of his career. Close to You came about as a result of the friendship between Sinatra and the Slatkins. Following the success of his introspective concept album In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Frank asked Nelson Riddle to arrange songs that would feature him and the Hollywood String Quartet. With solid footing in several musical worlds, the “classically” oriented group would now be featured front and center with Sinatra.

Intense meetings with Frank, my father and Riddle took place at our home, occupying many hours of the day. Although Sinatra initially wanted the members of the quartet to be the only instrumentalists, my father persuaded him to add the occasional woodwind and harp, just so there would be more variety throughout the 12 songs. Putting the record together was a painstaking process, but the resulting album was critically praised. Unfortunately, it came at a time when Sinatra’s most significant successes were with more upbeat discs. Sales were among the lowest of all the recordings he made with Capitol.

Despite that, time has been very good to this recording. Regarded by many as an example of Sinatra and Riddle at the height of their careers, the album has acquired a cult status. Although the original record had 12 tracks, three unreleased songs from the recording sessions were subsequently issued on CD. One of them, “There’s a Flaw in my Flue,” is a double-entendre-filled lyric that almost got by the big wigs at the company. It was intended as a send-up of the bureaucracy that can sometimes infect the recording industry.

What was it about Sinatra’s singing that made it so special? Of course, we all recognize his voice, whether from the early years or those of his twilight. For me, it comes down to three attributes. The first is intonation, that rare ability to sing in tune all of the time. Next is his incredible attention to what the words meant. And finally, there is a quality that is a little hard to describe. From around the 16th century, composers began using bar lines to delineate the time signatures of any given piece. Most musicians try to place the first note of a phrase exactly where the bar line occurs. With Sinatra, there is a sense, at least in the ballads, that time stands still. The vertical line does not exist, and he might place a note either before or after its notated position in the music.

The best example I can cite is found in this video. It doesn’t matter if you are an opera fanatic, jazz buff or blues lover, this is how a song is supposed to be delivered.

The times were changing by 1957. Stereo technology was becoming all the rage, altering the way people listened as recorded sound began to more closely reproduce the experience of hearing live music. Moreover, the British recording company EMI had purchased the classical division of Capitol, the McCarthy hearings had taken their toll on the studios, and Frank had started to work with different arrangers. Despite all this, the two families, the Sinatras and the Slatkins, remained close.

However, the Hollywood String Quartet, which had made its reputation primarily through recording, found itself at a crossroads. The record company’s new owners needed to make decisions on several fronts. An outstanding quartet based in London, the Amadeus, was on the EMI label. Although undoubtedly important from a musical standpoint, it made no sense for the management in England to have two quartets on the same label. They chose the British ensemble to represent the recorded output of the company, dropping the West Coast contingent.

Without a home from which to distribute their product, the Hollywood String Quartet folded two years later. What made this somewhat tragic is that the foursome had recently made an incredibly successful trip to the Edinburgh Festival, performing the late quartets of Beethoven. It was their only trip to Europe, and their concerts received an overwhelmingly positive reception from audiences and critics alike. The group was on the international stage at that point, and it could have been a lucrative time for them and an opportunity to exercise more control over their schedules.

The reason for this was that after the Red Scare had subsided somewhat, the studio system collapsed. No longer were musicians contracted by a single film or television aggregate, and the industry was entirely open for freelancers. My parents could have picked and chosen when and where to work. But the truth was that instead of the film companies employing almost 500 musicians, now they would only be utilizing the services of about 200 players who would run from one studio to another.

In 1958, following the release of the Hollywood Quartet’s recording of the late Beethoven Quartets on Capitol, which was advertised with the tagline “as performed at the Edinburgh Festival,” the ensemble won a Grammy during the very first year of the award’s existence. But it was too late. The die had been cast and, realizing that they still identified with a Hollywood era that was coming to an end, they decided it was time to pack up and seek new ground.

By this point, my father’s conducting career had taken off, especially his series of recordings with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra. With his time on the podium steadily increasing, he found a sympathetic partner in Sinatra. While Nelson Riddle was on tour in 1958 with Nat King Cole, another Capitol Artist, Frank and Riddle agreed that rather than cancel the planned recording of Only the Lonely, it would be more expedient to let Felix take over the conducting duties.

Although his musicianship was beyond reproach, Riddle had struggled a bit with the first session prior to his trip, only producing one song, whereas my dad and Frank managed to record seven songs in one long session. That was a fantastic feat, and everyone knew it. Although uncredited, my father was the de facto conductor of Nelson’s arrangements on several Sinatra albums.

As the Fifties drew to a close, so too did the relationship of Sinatra with Capitol Records. By this time, my parents were recording for whichever company and artists they wished. Frank went into a depression, and the end result was his decision to form his own record company, Reprise.

He brought in new arrangers, collaborated with different musicians—including Count Basie—and stole artists from his previous label. The subsequent recordings included some singles with Felix, now credited on the label of 45s.

My father continued to play and conduct for Sinatra, but there was something more exciting on the horizon. Frank had offered him the musical directorship of Reprise, which included the opportunity to control both the artists and repertoire. Under any other circumstance, this seemed like the logical progression of the Sinatra/Slatkin relationship. However, another company, Liberty Records, headed by another good friend of our family, Sy Waronker, offered Felix the same position. My dad accepted the offer from Liberty because it included more producing, arranging and conducting, plus the prospect of creating his own orchestra. Frank understood and continued to utilize my dad’s services when he was available. My mother always did the Sinatra sessions.

On January 19, 1961, Sinatra organized an all-star pre-inaugural gala at the National Guard Armory, bringing in luminaries such as Laurence Olivier, Harry Belafonte, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Leonard Bernstein and many more to hail John F. Kennedy as the new president. Frank was at the forefront of JFK’s supporters. That relationship would change quickly, but for this one evening, Sinatra was in charge. He insisted that my parents serve as concertmaster and first cellist for the event. As a souvenir, everyone was given a sterling silver cigarette box.

Two years later, on February 8, 1963, my father unexpectedly died of a heart attack. He was 47, and I was 19. Frank was one of the first people to come to our house on Dunsmuir Avenue the following day to pay his respects. Sinatra also delivered a eulogy at my dad’s memorial service, which was attended by more than a thousand people. But the family relationship did not end with my father’s death.

Shortly thereafter, Frank went back into the studio to record what many consider to be his finest album for his own label, The Concert Sinatra. He asked my mother to be the first cellist, and she said that she just was not ready to get back to playing. Frank was insistent, telling her that he would cancel the recording unless she agreed. Eventually Eleanor gave in, and she credited this provocation as the reason she returned to performing after the loss of my father.

Meanwhile, I too was mourning my father’s death and left my music studies behind for a while. However, in 1964, I picked up where my dad had left off and began to pursue a career in conducting, with studies in Aspen and at the Juilliard School in New York. When I became the assistant conductor in St. Louis in 1968, one of the first letters I got was from Frank, offering to do a concert with me sometime.

Sadly, that never came to fruition, but we did stay in touch, at times through my mother. When I made my London debut in 1974, Frank’s second wife, the actress Ava Gardner, was at the Festival Hall concert with my mom. They had become friends many years before, and although Ava may not have shared her ex-husband’s passion for classical music, I had the pleasure of spending many hours with her. Elegant to a fault, she was a reminder of a time long past.

Frank Junior, Sinatra’s son, was also a singer and conductor. He had studied with my dad, and we stayed in touch for a while as well. My mom passed away in 1996, and of course, the elder Sinatra left us in 1998.

Nevertheless, the legacy of both families lives on through their recordings. Their unbreakable friendship and consummate musicianship are forever on display. Everyone can see, hear and read about them. Being surrounded by the music of Sinatra and the Hollywood String Quartet in my youth changed me forever. It was a time when genres were deemed equal, as long as the artistry was there. Music brought the Sinatras and the Slatkins together. Friendship kept them that way.

“If you knew the joy you bring
How my hungry heart would sing
If only we could be close to you.”

 —“Close to You,” lyrics by Al Hoffman