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Frank Sinatra: A Voice on Air 1935-1955

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As the oft-told story goes, Frank Sinatra’s career was ignited in June 1939 when bandleader Harry James’ wife happened to tune in to a live feed from the Rustic Cabin in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., and alerted her husband to the then-24-year-old featured singer. Before long that voice would be ubiquitous on radio. Indeed, though the young Sinatra sang in movies, sold millions of records and played endless club and concert-hall dates, radio forged his primary connection to the public.

The four-disc A Voice on Air, released late last year to coincide with Sinatra’s much-ballyhooed centennial, assembles 107 radio tracks spanning two decades. Totaling five hours and 20 minutes and presented chronologically, the set blends selections from Sinatra-hosted shows with guest appearances on other hit series.

Two tracks predate his discovery by James: first, Sinatra’s official airwaves debut as one of the Hoboken Four, singing “Shine” on the influential Major Bowes Amateur Hour in 1935; then, a curious clip from 1937, introduced by Fred Allen, featuring an instrumental treatment of “Exactly Like You,” purportedly “conducted” by Sinatra. Thereafter follows a single track with the James band and six with his subsequent boss, Tommy Dorsey, including an interview with neophyte songwriter Ruth Lowe that preludes Sinatra’s earliest signature hit, Lowe’s “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and a two-song slice of NBC’s Spanish-language Carnaval de Broadway.

The bulk focuses on Sinatra’s solo stardom, from his departure from the Dorsey band in 1942 through the early days of his mid-1950s resurgence, aptly cited by The Atlantic as “the most spectacular second act in American cultural history.” As such, this set provides a priceless audio portrait of his progression from angel-voiced heartthrob to world-on-a-string swinger. Plenty of Sinatra hits are showcased, but so are more than three dozen songs he never recorded commercially, ranging from pop and show tunes to such durable standards as “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” “On a Slow Boat to China” and “Haunted Heart.” At various points Sinatra is also winningly partnered with Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mercer, Doris Day, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Durante and, most delightfully, the Slim Gaillard Trio (on their quirky smash “Cement Mixer”). Unlike many radio transfers, the remastered sound is, with few exceptions, superb.

The quasi-companion Lost & Found: The Radio Years, produced (and sold exclusively) by the Smithsonian Institution in partnership with Sony Music, offers more of the same, with no duplications. All from the 1940s, the 26 tracks include another dozen that Sinatra never properly recorded-a trio of Porgy and Bess selections, “If This Isn’t Love” and the massive Nat Cole hit “Ballerina” among them-plus a sparkling “I Found a New Baby” with Cole’s trio.

Originally Published