I’ve been listening to a couple of finger-snapping ditties lately, both of which get the blood flowing in the mornings. One is “The Street Where You Live” as rendered by Dean Martin. The other is Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Ol’ MacDonald.” And, man, do they swing.

Both of them benefit from arrangements by the great Nelson Riddle, a musician who knew how to support a singer without getting in the way, and a man who was adept at using a big band like a finely tuned motor to propel a song inexorably along its swingin’ course.

Let’s start with Dean. Ol’ Red eyes had a talent of not appearing to try, like it was all an effortless lark, nothing worth getting flustered about. Baby, I Just Don’t Care is the title of a Robert Mitchum biography but it pretty much sums up Dean Martin, too. Which is why his recorded output never came close to matching Sinatra’s.

But on a 1960 album titled This Time I’m Swingin’! he came close. Supposedly it was Sinatra who talked him into using Riddle on the album (the only Martin/Riddle collaboration of which I’m aware) and the arrangements make all the difference. I bought the CD as a combo with another album called Pretty Baby and there’s just no comparison. I can’t listen to Pretty Baby, which suffers from sappy arrangements and dated 1950’s-vintage backup singers. This Time I’m Swingin’! lives up to its title.

My favorite cut is “The Street Where You Live,” a song from My Fair Lady. It’s a jaunty outing that bounces along like a swinging stroll down the sidewalk. Riddle even has a little stumble into the introduction, as though the song trips on a loose musical cobblestone. The arrangement makes “Street” into an irresistible finger snapper, with Dino rising to the occasion with a relaxed but confident vocal that makes it sound like this time he’s trying.

But here’s the irony. From what I understand, This Time I’m Swingin’! tanked in the marketplace. Dean later had his biggest hit with a song he recorded for the album, “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You,” but he used a different arrangement. I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Sinatra also  had an affinity for My Fair Lady and liked to do “I’m Getting Married in the Morning” in his live shows. I have a set from Las Vegas where he finishes the song and tells the audience, “That’s from the production Mary Poppins is a Junkie.” That line that always cracks me up. I assume it’s a reference to the fact that Julie Andrews first played My Fair Lady’s earthy Eliza Doolittle on stage before achieving screen fame as the squeaky clean flying nanny.

I’ve heard Sinatra described as a frustrated stand-up comic. He could be funny but overall it’s a good thing he stuck to singing. Sinatra the comedian was a little lead footed, not that you could tell based on the hearty guffaws coming from the sycophants at the front tables.

One thing successful comedy and swingin’ singin’ both require is good timing. Frank’s comedic timing may have been off, but he sure could swing. Take “Ol’ MacDonald,” which certainly has the potential to be a cringe-worthy addition to the Sinatra canon. Because, you see, Ol’ MacDonald had a farm (E-I-E-I-O), but on this farm there was a chick, and I think you know what kind of chick Frank’s singing about here. It’s the kind with “curves everywhere.”

What saves the song, though, is the Riddle arrangement. It starts quietly with some tinkling piano but with each verse a little more of the band joins in, as though the musicians were wandering onto the stage one by one and picking up their instruments to join in the fun. Harry “Sweets” Edison starts wailing on his trumpet, the horns and saxes push and push, the drums kick in some nice fills, and, E-I-E-I-O, it becomes one swingin’ farm. Frank could be singing in Sanskrit for all the lyrics matter.

It swings like a barn door. E-I-E-I-ding-ding.

Advertisements