Ring-A-Ding Ding With New Bells and Whistles: A Sinatra Classic Gets a Much-Needed Upgrade

Serious collectors of Frank Sinatra -- the ones who buy the endless CD compilations with one rare track, the under-the-counter bootlegs, the import LPs with different artwork -- are a notoriously tough bunch. They're happy to shell out the bucks for music they've already bought half a dozen times, but heaven help the reissue producers, liner note writers, and (especially) the Sinatra estate if someone screws up.

And someone always screws up something, no matter how small. For example, take Sinatra-Jobim: The Complete Reprise Recordings, released last year, which received complaints about a single note of one song sounding different from the originally released version. The historical record has been altered, cried more than one faithful fan. And then there was the 37 CD box set of every album Sinatra recorded for Reprise Records between 1960 and '84. Except, it wasn't. Where was 12 Songs Of Christmas? Where were the Reprise Repertory Theater albums? Why only studio albums and not live albums as well? (And keep in mind, the vast majority of the people asking these questions were people who already owned the music multiple times over.) To add insult to injury, two pages of the booklet were reprinted twice and two pages were missing. J'accuse!

Like I said, someone always screws up something. And being a serious Sinatra collector myself (I prefer to be called a completist, others prefer "nerd"), I'm usually one of the louder voices in the chorus of kvetchers. Which is why Concord Music's new remastered version of Ring-A-Ding Ding!, Sinatra's first album for Reprise -- the label he founded in 1960 -- has left me completely flabbergasted. If there's the smallest thing wrong with this CD, I have yet to find it.

Serious Sinatraphiles need to buy Ring-A-Ding Ding! again, no matter how many times they've bought it before. Why? A 50-year-old screwup that's dogged every release of the album, from first-pressing vinyl to umpteenth CD reissue, has finally been fixed. When Sinatra left Capitol Records to strike out on his own with Reprise, he left a team of people who knew how to make a record sound great, from the engineers in the recording studio to the folks who pressed the vinyl. Compare Ring-A-Ding Ding!, recorded in December 1960, to Sinatra's Swingin' Session, recorded for Capitol a few months earlier, and there's no comparison. Swingin' Session sounds crisp, punchy, vibrant. Ring sounds blurred, echoey, muddy.

As it turns out, the original tapes sound gorgeous -- bootleg buyers found this out several years ago, when unedited session material made the rounds. So we can deduce that, back in 1960, someone involved in mixing down the original three-track tapes did something wrong. Weirdly enough, the problem wasn't addressed at the time. And weirder still, it was never addressed for the next nine presidential administrations. But for the first time ever, you can hear Ring-A-Ding Ding! as it should have been heard all along, in a clean, dry mix that sounds a million times better than every previous version. Now, it's like Frankie's crooning while standing right next to you instead of a football field away. I can imagine anal-retentive die-hards complaining that, by removing the aural gunk, the historical record has been altered. To which I say, there's a half-century's worth of badly mixed LPs, cassettes and CDs already out there. Have at 'em.

If for some reason you're still not sold, check out the second of the CD's two bonus tracks, "Have You Met Miss Jones?" If you know your Frank, you know that he attempted this song for Ring-A-Ding Ding! but never completed it, or even gave it much more than a perfunctory run-through. (He wound up recording it several months later, for a different album with a different arrangement.) And if you know your Sinatra estate, you know that they're pretty reluctant to let anything out that Frank himself wouldn't want to be heard -- never mind that it's a totally subjective judgment call, or that a few tons of unreleased studio and live material have circulated among collectors for decades.

So it's a certifiable Big Deal that 10 minutes of the "Miss Jones" session, botched notes, imperfect phrasing, studio banter and all, is being released to the public. Has there been a collective change of heart among the gatekeepers to the vaults? Did they spy the bottom of the barrel and panic? Did they, heaven forbid, actually listen to the obsessives who buy this stuff? Whatever the reason, it's a welcome one. For casual fans, "Have You Met Miss Jones" will be mildly interesting. But for anyone with a serious interest in 20th century popular music, hearing Sinatra work out a song in the studio, in real time, is like seeing Olivier rehearse Shakespeare, or watching Picasso map out a painting.

The little things are all done right on this CD, from the fine liner notes by Frank Sinatra, Jr. ("What? No notes by Stan Cornyn?" I hear the kvetchers cry) to the reproduction of the ultra-rare alternate album cover, originally used only for the reel-to-reel tape (reel-to-reel being the audiophile's format of choice back during the Kennedy administration).

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention -- mixes and bonus tracks and liner notes and other geeky pleasures aside, Ring-A-Ding Ding! is a really, really good record. Sinatra was at cruising altitude at this point in his career, and he had a lot invested, both emotionally and financially, in making this album a winner. Arranger Johnny Mandel, working with Sinatra for the only time in their long careers, turns in some bold, witty and swinging charts, and The Voice sings the hell out of 'em. There's not a dud in the bunch, but the title track and "You And The Night And The Music" are two particular standouts. While it may not rank in the top echelon of Sinatra masterpieces, I'd put it just a notch below -- which still makes it better than 99.9% of any pop vocal recordings you've ever heard.

And complainers, fear not -- another Sinatra reissue is due out in September. They can't possibly get two in a row perfect... can they?