The making of “It was a very good year”

June 24, 2015 • 8:30 am

This famous song was written in 1961 by Ervin Drake. It was first recorded by Bob Shane, an original member of the Kingston Trio (one of my childhood favorites), but really made famous by Frank Sinatra’s 1965 recording, which nabbed a Grammy the next year. The arrangement was by Gordon Jenkins, not Sinatra’s most famous arranger, Nelson Riddle. I normally wouldn’t post this song, but Matthew Cobb called this wonderful video to my attention, which shows the actual 1965 recording session. As Matthew wrote me:

This was mentioned on Radio 4 the other day —Sinatra recording It Was A Very Good Year in a single take. Amazing video of a gorgeous song.

A single take, and look how informal the recording looks! Sinatra just comes in and tosses it off, with a row of people behind him and the orchestra, conducted by someone I don’t know, in front. This shows that recording gimmicks, overdubs, and the like—or even multiple takes—aren’t necessary for a masterpiece, at least when Old Blue Eyes was recording. As one commenter on YouTube noted:

Sinatra preferred a studio audience watching his singing.  Two quite distinctive things about his singing were his breath control and his quite distinct pronunciation of each syllable of every word separately. Listen and hear.

Matthew added:

Great quote from Sinatra at the end of the recording – asks for the time, and was surprised when he’s told it’s 4’12” – “That’s longer than the first act of Hamlet!”

We’ve heard this song so often that perhaps we’ve forgotten how great it really is, and how masterful an artist Sinatra was—able to pull something like this off in one go.



69 thoughts on “The making of “It was a very good year”

  1. Not really a fan of big band style music(is that the right terminology?), although I’m also pretty ignorant of it too. But this song is different – I actually first heard it on a Simpsons episode(“when I was seventeen / I drank some very good beer / I drank some very good beer that I’d purchased / with a fake ID / my name was Brian McGee…” etc.) and even though it was obviously jokily included in the ep. that deep, dark melody just hit me. Luscious.

    1. As someone who lives in the birth place of Glenn Miller, it’s hard to call that Sinatra song – big band. By 1965 big band was long gone as the popular stuff on radio and although Sinatra started out with the big bands he did not stay long.

      1. No, this song certainly doesn’t represent big band music, which is why I said it was different. My point was that Sinatra’s overall repertoire did.

    2. Ha, I also think I first came across this song through the Simpsons. Great version, and it directed me to the original.

      1. I actually prefer Homer’s version…something about the little string flurries and other saccharine production touches in the Sinatra version that seem unnecessarily decorative. The melody is monumental – it doesn’t need all those gaudy fairy lights. Dan Castellanata’s voice is pretty good too IIRC, although perhaps not quite up there with Sinatra’s;)

        1. Homer’s rendition of the Camelot (?) song “If Ever I Would Leave You” is great, too – to add to comments about Castellanata’s voice.

      1. Count Basie certainly played and recorded a lot of big-band music over the years, especially in his first few decades. But the Basie I love best was the smaller, pared-down ensembles — the combos and the classic sextet stuff. They involve a whole different kind of swing.

        Basie recorded several sides in collaboration with Sinatra in the Fifties and Sixties.

  2. WHAT? NO AUTOTUNE?! This cat would never make it in music today!

    in all seriousness, I must admit I never liked Sinatra, being into classic rock, heavy metal, punk, etc. until I fell head over heels in love with a young woman I worked with (the feeling wasn’t mutual, comme toujours) and lucked upon someone throwing out a crate of records (as one did in the 90’s and early 2000’s) that contained the album Come Fly With Me. Now I understand what all the fuss was about.

  3. He was simply unparalleled as a singer. My own fave is ‘All The Way’ or anything from his album with Jobim. Elvis Costello has said that the best musical couplet ever written is ‘…Use your mentality, wake up to reality’ and no one delivered it better than Frank. Also, and I’m not sure if it’s been posted here before, Sinatra gave a revealing interview to Playboy in 1963 in which he spoke about his essential non-belief in God. Worth a read…

    1. Thanks for remembering that. I recall that interview very well and it stirred up a little dust back then. Frank did not wait for the Pope to make his decisions and he was disgusted with racism as well.

      1. If you like Jobim, and haven’t already heard this, I highly recommend Eliane Elias Plays Jobim

        I bought this on a recommendation from the Musical Heritage Society nearly 25 years ago and it quickly became one of my favorite albums. I especially like the couple of tracks that she sings on.

          1. Sorry. Don’t Ever Go Away and . . .

            Looking at the track listing that may be the only one. I’d swear that on my copy, an MHS release, that there are 2 songs that she sings on. My memory might be confused with her similarly titled album Eliane Elias Sings Jobim.

    2. My favorite Sinatra recording of a Jobim tune — and my favorite Sinatra song overall at the moment — is “Wave.”

      It’s unlike anything any American songwriter would have written. And Sinatra hits that crazy low note on the second syllable of “to-gether” in the chorus — AFAIK, the lowest note he ever recorded, lower than anything I thought he had in the pliable baritone of his.

      1. That’s a sweet tune. Reminds me of Waters Of March which I think is one of the loveliest tunes there is.

        1. I love “Waters of March,” too. There are so many great covers of it around. It’s on my list of songs I want played at my wake — though I’m in no rush to have it played there. 🙂

      2. OK that’s mental. Even though it must surely be his most famous song I genuinely had no idea Jobim wrote that too! Thank you very much Ken – I got a little chill down my spine finding that out.

        I like to find an interesting musical path that I can merrily wander down. I’ll have to listen to more of this guy’s stuff.

  4. ‘This shows that recording gimmicks, overdubs, and the like—or even multiple takes—aren’t necessary for a masterpiece. . . .’

    Those tricks, including autotune, are necessary for mediocre singers and bands to sound halfway decent and their records loud. Even very good producers today (e.g. T-bone Burnett), go for loud over subtle–so the tune can be heard in an automobile or, in the worst instance, in a club.

    1. That is certainly true, no arguments there. But there are uses for all of those tricks that allow an artist to do things that are not possible to do “live” regardless of the skill and talent of the artist.

      Though the trend these days does seem to be to use those tricks to over-polish songs into monotonically monotonously bright, souless little baubles of perfection of some sort.

      Live music is my favorite though. I’ve been to many concerts of well known musical artists that were just awful sounding. Much better to listen to the studio recordings. More rarely I’ve been to some concerts where the artist sounded surprisingly good.

      Vocals seem to definitely be the most likely weakness. More often than not the instruments sound OK, but the vocals not so much.

      1. Some of my favourite bands and artists have pretty ropey voices. Neil Young, Jason Pierce(Spiritualized), Wayne Coyne(Flaming Lips). Thom Yorke has an unusual, slightly whiney voice which can sound heavenly nevertheless. Vocals don’t seem to matter so much in rock and roll/folk/blues/psychedelia/punk etc. Dylan’s voice doesn’t seem to have overall bothered his fans, even when he was doing his Groucho Marx impersonation on Nashville Skyline.

        In fact post punk there’s almost been a slight condescension towards good singers, which is a bit daft. I think it’s part of the whole rejection of the mid 70s prog rock trend towards technical proficiency, maybe influenced by the earlier rejection of things like technical skill and the dread word ‘crafsmanship’ that occurred in the art world.

        1. Oh yeah. Classical training isn’t always necessary or even desirable. Definitely is something to be said for rawness. One of the things about current pop that I find aesthetically unpleasing is the overly polished and disinfected vocals. It often seems that their goal is to remove any interesting qualities from the vocals.

          1. I’ve never liked that pristine, smooth, characterless voice that’s dominated pop, ever since Whitney I suppose. She at least had a technically extraordinary voice even if it was draped around insipid music. Same with Mariah Carey and the rest. TBH I found it quite hard to appreciate their vocal proficiency because it was both slightly featureless and the music was so bloody awful. Has Mariah Carey ever sung an interesting song? Or Whitney? Or the Canadian Titanic woman who-shall-not-be-named? At least Lady Gaga, Shakira, even Nicki Minaj, have the occasional brilliant song in their repertoire, amid all the formulaic stuff. Producers in the hip-hop/r ‘n’ b area are also a lot more inventive and creative than they were in the 80s and 90s. Timbaland, Pharrell – those two are geniuses. So I think pop in the narrow sense of the word is more interesting than it was when Mariah and Whitney were dominant. Beyonce would be the equivalent of those two today and her back catalogue is significantly more interesting IMO. I guess I don’t really mind autotune that much.

            BTW I don’t know if you’ve heard it, but just to demonstrate that no musical technology is entirely bad as long as there are creative people around, you might want to have a listen to Bon Iver’s Woods, which is an a cappella, autotuned ballad that he wrote a while back.

    1. I’ll not forget the time a friend played me Frank’s “Only the Lonely” (from the album of the same name).

      Turn the volume up on a good sound system for the complete effect.

      I generally don’t go in for lush ballads, but when Frank sings ’em, you can’t resist.

      I’ll also never forgive the person who took a badge (button?) from above my office door that had been reproduced in a New Yorker article (wish I could find out which one it was so I could get another one). It had a picture of Frank and the caption above was “It’s Sinatra’s World” with the caption below “We just live in it.”

        1. He was on the Daily Show last night and it was mentioned that he is touring later this year. He will be performing with area orchestras.

          Baltimore Symphony Orchestra: Seth MacFarlane
          Meyerhoff Symphony Hall – Baltimore, MD
          Jul 18, 2015
          08:00 PM Seth Macfarlane
          The Mann Center For The Performing Arts – Philadelphia, PA
          Jul 24, 2015
          Cincinnati Pops Orchestra: Seth MacFarlane
          PNC Pavilion At The Riverbend Music Center – Cincinnati, OH
          Aug 21, 2015
          08:00 PM Ravinia Festival Orchestra: Seth MacFarlane
          Ravinia Pavilion – Highland Park, IL
          Sep 18, 2015
          08:00 PM Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: Seth MacFarlane
          Atlanta Symphony Hall – Atlanta, GA

          1. A Daily Show which also featured Jon Stewart donning hat and coat and pretending to leave the show, to the tune of…

  5. Excellent post on the greatest American singer of the first half of the 20th century.
    But I think Professor Ceiling Cat meant to write “masterly” rather than “masterful”!

    1. From online dictionary:


      2. performed or performing very skillfully.
      “a masterful assessment of the difficulties”

      synonyms: expert, adept, clever, masterly, skillful, skilled, adroit, proficient, deft, dexterous, accomplished, polished, consummate”

      I believe PCC knew what he was doing. 😉 Perhaps it varies geographically–to my ear, “masterful” sounds better than “masterly.”

      1. Ah, but you’re quoting from the Oxford Dictionary’s second definition of “masterful.” The first is:

        1. Powerful and able to control others:
        “behind the lace and ruffles was a masterful woman”

        Whereas “masterly” is solely defined as:

        Performed or performing in a very skillful and accomplished way:
        “his masterly account of rural France”

        Granted, this distinction has been eroded by misuse, and many now use “masterful” in place of “masterly,” so the battle is close to being lost. But I think the distinction is worth preserving, especially since it enriches the tools at the writer’s disposal (and I know PCC is a careful writer).

  6. Apologies if this comes through twice.

    Who knew The Family Guy guy (which I’ve never seen) could sing like this??

  7. Recording engineer here…

    He was certainly a fine musician, but he didn’t necessarily knock this off in one take — it was recorded onto tape and we could certainly edit the best bits of different takes together back then. And it might not be the first take — it could be the 20th for all we know! I notice he was really out of tune on the word “village” at :52 — does anybody know if this was corrected on the album release?

    Here’s a longer version of the same session — the video quality is poor but it’s worth watching because there’s a bit of the rehearsal, also Frank does some voiceover commentary, and it’s narrated by Walter Cronkite(!):

  8. Sinatra has a wonderful ease about his singing that’s fun to watch. I like how he plays off the interjections of the clarinet in the year 35 verse.

  9. Now to spoil all your erudite comments – I’m still under the lingering influence of Jesus & Mo.

    When I was a teenager this always provoked someone to tell the joke, “What do you do with 365 used condoms?”
    “Roll them into the shape of a tyre and call them a Goodyear.”

    1. I love “Summer Wind,” too. I always liked it a lot, but it won me over forever when it was used over the opening credits in “The Pope of Greenwich Village.” (It’s used in the trailer here, too.)

      That’s an underappreciated movie — in which, in a field of great supporting performances (Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts are pretty good as the leads, too), Geraldine Page steals the film (in something less than 15 minutes of screen time) as the dead cop’s mother. Some of my affection for the story is a residual effect of having read the Vincent Patrick novel — a downtown cult classic — at an impressionable age. (Hell, I’m still at an impressionable age when it comes to stuff like that.)

  10. Great bit of musical history. But, please, give a little credit for the first-take success to the arranger, the conductor and the musicians! Sinatra certainly developed into an outstanding crooner. Too bad he was such a bum. I too was (am) a big fan of the Kingston Trio, including Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and Dave Guard.

  11. I agree this recording session has a “tossed off” feel to it, but Sinatra had the reputation of being a perfectionist in the recording studio — as opposed to on the movie set, especially during the filming of the “Rat Pack” movies, where he was known to announce to the director after a take or two that he and the guys were knocking off the rest of the day to have a schvitz down at the clubhouse.

    I like some of Sinatra’s 1960s recordings on his Reprise label — and especially like “It Was a Very Good Year” — but could do without the decadent “dooby-dooby-do” stuff. I much prefer his 1950s Capitol sessions, especially the mid-decade “Songs for Young Lovers” and “In the Wee Small Hours” and “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” recordings.

    As for Sinatra the person/persona/personality, I’ve long felt — as I’ve long felt with Elvis — an odd, ambivalent attraction/repulsion dynamic. I deeply respect what he did for Joe Louis, his loyalty to friends, his liberalism from the Forties to the Sixties (including his recording of the then-cutting-edge antiracist elegy “The House I Live In”), but there’s plenty of repugnant shit there, too, including his nasty political turn to the Right in the Seventies and Eighties. (WTF was up with whatever weird thing he had going on with Nancy Reagan, anyway?)

    1. My favorite Sinatra anecdote (which I heard from a pit boss, who swore he got it directly from the parking attendant involved) is this:

      One Vegas morning around sunrise, Sinatra strolls out of the casino at The Sands and hands his ticket to the parking valet. The kid pulls up in Frank’s shiny red Cadillac convertible. Before he gets in, Frank asks the kid, “What’s the biggest tip you ever got?”

      “A hundred dollars, sir.”

      Sinatra pulls a roll out of his pocket, peals off two C-notes, and stuffs them into the carhop’s hand. He climbs in the Caddy, closes the door, and puts the car in gear. Before pulling away, he looks over at the kid and asks:

      “By the way, who duked you the hundred bucks?”

      “Why you did, Mister Sinatra, just last week.”

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