My 50 Favorite Albums from the Golden Age of Capitol Records (Part 2 of 3)
From Frank Sinatra to the Beatles, Capitol stood at the forefront of creative popular music for two amazing decades
This is my favorite rags-to-riches story in 20th century music.
Capitol Records started out as a tiny indie label, hatched over lunch during World War II. But in the 1950s and 1960s, Capitol shook up everything in commercial music, getting my vote as the most innovative record label in the world.
Nobody had a better track record in popular music during a twenty year period And then it collapsed. I’ll tell the whole story at some future point, but right now I’m just sharing my favorite records.
Below I continue my survey of the 50 greatest albums from Capitol Records during its glory years. In this installment, I start with Frank Sinatra (1956) and end up with the Beach Boys (1962)—a remarkable six-year run.
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My 50 Favorite Albums from Capitol Records, 1950-1968 (Part 2 of 3)
By Ted Gioia
Frank Sinatra: Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! (1956)
During the course of the 1950s, Frank Sinatra developed a hipper, more carefree sensibility—with less late night staggering and more Las Vegas swaggering. Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! defines this new ‘leader of the Rat Pack’ persona, with no brooding ballads allowed. Nelson Riddle, age 44 and at the peak of his abilities, returns as maestro, establishing himself as the ideal arranger for this brand of sassy-pants swing.
Stan Kenton: Cuban Fire! (1956)
Stan Kenton had already released Latin jazz hits, going back to “The Peanut Vendor,” recorded with Machito in 1947. But nine years later, Kenton plunged into Afro-Cuban music with brio—hiring composer/arranger Johnny Richards to create a full-length suite.
Don’t get fooled by the name, Richards was born as Juan Manuel Cascales, and didn’t arrive in the US until age seven. Both Richards and Kenton liked things big and brassy, and that’s what they delivered here—giving a shock to album buyers who assumed Capitol only released sophisticated pop suitable for their next dinner party.
But this burning disc was a crossover hit, reaching the top twenty of the Billboard album chart. Even today, Cuban Fire! belongs on any short list of definitive Afro-Cuban big band records.
Peggy Lee: The Man I Love (1957)
Who was the female rival to Frank Sinatra? You might say Ella or Sarah or Lady Day. But in the mid-1950s, most pop music fans would point to Peggy Lee. And if you doubt it, check out The Man I Love from 1957, which is so similar to Frank’s fiefdom that Lee ought to have been charged a franchising fee.
But instead of rivalry, Sinatra opts to step in as conductor, and give his imprimatur to a classic session. Nelson Riddle contributes his trademark pop arrangements, and the song choices draw on the same heavyweights (Gerswhin, Kern, Berlin) that Sinatra showcased. Yet Lee infuses everything with a gentle melancholy that is all her own. Even the happy songs here sound wistful.
Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (1957)
These historic tracks were recorded in 1949 and 1950, and some were reissued as a 10 inch album named Classics in Jazz in 1954. But, finally, in 1957, some marketing whiz at Capitol packaged Davis’s instrumental tracks for the label as the Birth of the Cool. That’s quite a boast, but actually an apt descriptor, because the musicians here (Gerry Mulligan, John Lewis, Lee Konitz, etc.) established the so-called cool school in jazz during the decade.
By 1957, Miles Davis was a star at Columbia Records, and reuniting with Birth of the Cool arranger Gil Evans. Capitol missed out on all this, and played a very modest role in the related West Coast jazz movement that flourished outside the doors of it office. But these tracks laid the foundation and stand out as arguably the first major turning point for an artist who subsequently reinvented his sound and style on several subsequent occasions.
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