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Season 1
Putting On the Tail Fins (1950s–1960s)

Episode 1 focuses on the 1950s and 1960s, when the Great American Songbook competed with new forms like rock ’n’ roll, and rhythm & blues. As Feinstein crisscrosses the country performing with big bands, symphony orchestras and jazz combos, viewers learn how iconic singers like Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney kept the Songbook alive by reinventing pop standards of the 1930s and 1940s.

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The Art of the Arranger

Copyright Hudson West Productions

When Michael Feinstein and conductor/arranger/producer Bill Elliott decided to make a new recording of songs associated with Frank Sinatra, the last thing they wanted to do was a “tribute” album attempting to imitate Sinatra’s inimitable sound. “I wanted to try and recreate a certain kind of swing style,” Feinstein explains, “that would reflect him, but not copy him.”

Arranger Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra during their Capitol Records collaboration

Arranger Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra during their Capitol Records collaboration.
source: Nelson Riddle Collection, U of Arizona School of Music

Sinatra was an artist who kept reinventing himself throughout his long career, evolving from a boyish crooning balladeer in the 1940s to a tougher, cooler, sophisticated adult in the 1950s and ’60s. The key to that transformation was Sinatra’s move to Capitol Records in 1953, where he was paired with the young arranger Nelson Riddle. Riddle’s punchy, brassy, but always tasteful re-imaginings of standards from the 1930s and ’40s is described by arranger Bill Elliott as “putting on the tailfins.” Riddle’s orchestrations were big, shiny, and modern–perfectly suited to Frank Sinatra’s new fedora and trenchcoat image.

So, for The Sinatra Project, Feinstein and Elliott said “what if?” What if Begin the Beguine—which Sinatra recorded in the ’40s with Axel Stordahl but never with Nelson Riddle—were arranged as if Sinatra and Riddle would have done it in the ’50s, with the same signature licks that Riddle put in other Cole Porter-Sinatra classics like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Night and Day?” What if songs Sinatra had recorded in the ’40s and never returned to were arranged for Feinstein in the ’50s style of Riddle and Sinatra’s other favorite Capitol arranger Billy May? Thus was born a Grammy-nominated CD.

The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, circa 1924

The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, circa 1924, was so popular that Whiteman created “ghost bands” to represent the franchise on the road.
source: Photofest

As arranger, Bill Elliott’s job was to “channel Nelson Riddle” and imagine how he might have done the job 60 years ago, working with pencil and paper and a studio orchestra of top flight musicians who had all come up in the big band era. Fortunately, Elliott is an historian as well as an orchestrator, and knows exactly how bands were configured in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and how to accurately reproduce the sound of any era, from a Jazz Age dance band, with its emphasis on reeds and strings, to the brass-laden array Nelson Riddle and Billy May commanded at Capitol Records.

For Feinstein’s and Elliott’s next adventure, it’s rumored they’re going to continue their exploration of Sinatra’s repertoire, setting their sites on the Rat Pack era. Viva Las Vegas!
by Amber Edwards

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