Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Great Moments in Liner Note Writing: Sinatra's "Softly, As I Leave You "

Stan Cornyn had a big career with Warner Bros. Records. He was also one of the great liner note writers of all time. Now mostly I don't expect too much from the liner notes, and in these days days of CD, and its evil sibling MP3, I don't expect anything at all. But every now and then you come across a liner note that captures something special in its writing. Both in its style and the way it has captured an image of the musical artist embedded on the vinyl within. This is what Stan Cornyn wrote about Sinatra on the back of "Softly, As I Leave You".

"He walks into a recording session about half an hour after the orchestra has begun running down the songs. He looks smart, what your mother used to call 'natty'. His wide-banded hat is tipped back, one inch off straight flat. He doesn't come in with a fanfare. He's there though. He strolls through the studio obstacle course, the mike booms, the cable spaghetti, the music stands. Softly and with a grin he greets the musicians who've been working his sessions for years. "Hi ya, Sweets." "Evenin', Sunshine."

An "in" crowd of semi-invited guests sits against one wall, silent, their eyes on him as he moves across the studio floor. Watching him and waiting for their own personal grin.

He steps up into the singer's booth, a window behind him, a scrubbed up ashtray at his right hand. He gets behind the music stand; it has his name engraved on it. He takes a second to shuffle through the music, his piano player standing close by, in case. He shoots his cuffs, three-quarters of an inch. He came here to sing. He speaks straight into his mike, with a casual smile, deliberately easing the tension that surrounds his sessions.

"Everybody straight?"

From the other end of the room, from the soundproof control booth comes an anonymous, amplified, well-behaved voice: "Any time you're ready."

He hears that metallic voice from that booth again. "G, One Thousand Four Hundred and Sixty-Seven, Take One." Fifteen yards away, the arranger stands before his orchestra, arms up and out, waiting. A trumpeteer tucks a mute between his knees. A dropped mute means a blown take. A possible explosion. This is no time for nerves. This is pro time. The room is silent, the first moment it's been quiet enough to hear the fluorescent lights. The vacuum of silence is in everyone's ears.

His hands stuff into his pants pockets. His knees bend half an inch, like a tennis pro waiting for his opponent's best serve. He studies the microphone - friend or enemy? He fiddles with it, moving maybe a quarter of an inch closer. He balances on the balls of his feet, his eyes feeling their way through the already memorized poetry before him.

The arranger sets the tempo: "One...two, One...two...three..."

The drummer is the key. He seems too loud, but nobody says anything. Drummers are always loud at his dates. He wants it that way, a hangover from the dance band days a couple of decades back. Brass, reeds, rhythm, strings, chorus, all of them ticking off the bars to their next entrance.

The action is up at the solo mike. He leans into the words with deceptively casual grace. Like a high jumper when he's loping down the gravel path to the point of no return.

He sings. The words come out wise, and sure. The girl in the crowd, the one against the wall, forgets to wonder if he's noticed her. he's singing now. Everyone feels the groove of the rhythm. Thirty right feet silently tapping. The groove is there.

He is happening to a song.

Two minutes and forty seconds later. The studio waits for the ring of the last cymbal to die out. Morgue quiet. The fluorescent lights again.

He looks over the top of the music stand. For the first time he has a Lucky going. he leans into the mike with the boyish pride of a kid who's just made his first bike ride around the block no hands.

"Any questions?"

From the booth: "No questions."


He drags on the Lucky, matter of factly. He steps out from behind the mike and moves to the conductor. The room unbends. The sideline semi-pros chatter softly, feeling proud as if they'd all just cleared the bar at six feet. The women sit up straighter. No matter what he says next, they'll all laugh. He always has a funny throw away when the first tune's in the can.

It looks easy."

I tip my hat to Mr Cornyn. It's an exceptional piece of writing. It transports you into that studio with Sinatra, as if you were sitting right next to Stan and seeing and hearing and judging everything as he did. It's also a character study of sorts. Sinatra cool, but perhaps a little edgy, and a touch arrogant too.

You can read more about Stan Cornyn at Wikipedia.

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