Here’s the last song from the 1950s in this series. And it’s to mark the birthday of Francis Albert Sinatra, born this day in 1915. Sinatra, as I’ve said, was a main musical figure for my parents but, other than a few tracks I really liked on Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits (1969), released on Reprise, I didn’t pay much attention to Ol’ Blue Eyes till much later. After the dude was dead, in fact (he died in 1998).
Which may be a way of saying that Sinatra, as a person, was just a bit too much to get into in the Seventies and Eighties. But it’s also a way of saying that I had to hit 40 myself before I had ears for his music. And the stuff of his I gravitated toward were the Capitol albums, including one of my faves, No One Cares (how could I resist a title like that?). And on that album, which was released in the year of my birth, we find a track of Sinatra’s that I actually got to like a lot c. 1982 when it showed up by chance on a tape my Philly friend Harvey laid on me. “Stormy Weather” is classic Sinatra to me—and the song dates originally from 1933, the childhood of my parents.
Today’s version of “Stormy Weather” graced a playlist of songs I made after my mom passed away in January of 2011. I needed some Sinatra on there because he was her favorite, and this song became sort of the mantra of that time of mourning. “Don’t know why / There’s no sun up in the sky / Stormy weather / Since my gal and I ain’t together / Keeps raining all the time.”
And even more: “Life is bare / Gloom and misery everywhere / Stormy weather / Just can’t get my poor old self together / Keeps raining all the time.” That was the feeling, and this was the song. And Sinatra supposedly referred to the album as a collection of suicide songs. Fair enough: “Can’t go on / Everything I had is gone,” but the song, with Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement, is so darkly beautiful, a little polished nugget of obsidian. And that bit about “If she stays away / That old rocking chair’s bound to get me.” What can I say? My mom loved rocking chairs and the chair itself is a figure for a brooding sojourn, lost to thought, unreachable.
So what is it about a song that it can be both a consolation and a provocation? And Sinatra’s voice is warm, but also deeper than it often is, sounding slowed down and leaden. It conveyed loss so well—and with that big, full voice prayer to “walk in that sun once more” that, for me in 2011, had nothing to do with recovering some changed love object, but everything to do with reclaiming one’s sense of possibility. When one’s parents are gone, the buffer between your generation and the end is gone, and that becomes surprisingly clear.
There’s almost a tidal sense to the strings in the song at certain points, feeling like an elemental tug—not just the “eternal note of sadness” that Matthew Arnold hears on Dover Beach, but a tug of the heartstrings themselves as they feel the ebbing of the tide. It’s going out and taking another spirit with it.
When she went away / The blues walked in and they met me. Recalling that meeting might not be the most fitting way of paying tribute to Sinatra’s memory, but it is for me. If I wanted to be truer to Sinatra, the man, and to my mother’s sense of him, I’d go with “My Way” (1969) which was one of his latter day songs that she loved as capturing her sense of Sinatra as larger than life and a one of a kind talent. Yet that seems so overdetermined, so much a part of Sinatra lore. “Stormy Weather” is delivered in such a ripe and fulsome fashion and makes me appreciate what the arrangers on the Capitol albums wrought. That was the height of Sinatra, to me, marking the world I was born into.