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Did Frank Sinatra Invent the Album?

Frank Sinatra on the set of his last film with Warner Bros. 'The Naked Runner', shot in London in 1967. © Allan Ballard

It’s a bold claim, saying that Frank Sinatra invented the album but that’s what’s being discussed in this video essay by music journalist, Noah Lefevre. Lefevre acknowledges that the music album was, of course, around before Sinatra showed up. But he makes the case for Sinatra inventing the music album as we know it today: as the prime artistic expression for the art form of popular music.

So, what album in particular does Lefevre give the accolade? It’s 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. It was Sinatra’s ninth studio album, one that Lefevre calls an “ode to loneliness”. And it was Sinatra’s first LP released as a 12”, one of the first by any artist, which being a longer format, Sinatra took as an opportunity to ponder the darker side of life, like depression and failure. It’s thought that his split from Ava Gardner inspired such introspection.

And Lefevre doesn’t make this claim in isolation. Tom Waits names it as not only one of his favourite albums but called it “the very first 'concept' album” too. Waits has also said of it, “The idea being you put this record on after dinner and by the last song you are exactly where you want to be. Sinatra said that he's certain most baby boomers were conceived with this as the soundtrack.”

Frank Sinatra in London in 1967. © Allan Ballard

It was a soundtrack that had an emotional depth and cohesion that was rare from albums at that time. And not only was the album a departure from what albums were like at the time, it was also a departure for Sinatra. Instead of making another record that collected together some “nice tracks” put together with the backing of a brass band, Sinatra wanted something that showed his vulnerability and dealt with the pain that life can throw your way. So that his music wasn’t just all songs for swinging lovers, but songs for departed lovers too.

The darker side of life is something Sinatra has spoken about being more than familiar with. In a 1963 interview with Playboy, he talks about getting an audience involved in his songs, saying that when he sings a song about the loss of love he gets an ache in his gut.

The interviewer responds by saying doesn’t any good lyricist “feel” a song. Sinatra responds with, “I don't' know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-karat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation. I know what the cat who wrote the song is trying to say. I've been there—and back.”

Frank Sinatra on the film set of the Sidney J. Furie film 'The Naked Runner' in 1967. © Allan Ballard

Not only did this album have a theme of broken love but, as the title suggest, it was set in the post-midnight hours, a liminal time and space that perfectly suited the reflective, ruminative nature of the songs and lyrics.

Along with the music and lyrics and themes and tone of the album, the artwork also needed to match the same emotional heights. Most album artwork of the time was quite simple, take a photo of the artist looking jolly, put them on a coloured background with some bold text, and you were done. Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours is instead a painting, featuring the artist looking sullen like something from a hard-boiled detective novel cover.  The blue hues also nod not only to the pre-sunrise setting of the songs, but also to the moodiness of the themes.

It’s an album that Lefevre calls, “Unapologetically pop but still also carries weight to it. It’s an artistic work where an icon lays himself bare, so that you can experience his work in the way you watch a great film or read a great novel.”

Check out the video below and check out more of Noah Lefevre’s videos on his YouTube page.

Rockarchive is delighted to be able to offer these Frank Sinatra images as limited edition photographic prints which you can buy here.

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