Why Watertown, Frank Sinatra’s flopped masterpiece, is still a top album

Frank Sinatra (1915-1998) around 1970.Picture Getty

In March 1970, the then 44-year-old Frank Sinatra released an album, water village, which would go down in history as his biggest commercial flop. For the first time, a record of him did not reach the album’s top 100 on the US Billboard. The critics were not thrilled either. A disillusioned Sinatra would retire after this flop for a ‘sabbatical’ lasting more than two years.

In the meantime, water village considered a masterpiece. For example, in the book just published Let’s do it: Pop’s birth† In this story of the pre-rock and roll pop era, British music journalist Bob Stanley devotes several pages to Sinatra. water village he calls it ‘the best album of his career’, and Stanley notes that Sinatra withdrew in 1971, disappointed by the poor sales.

He came back, but his studio work would never have the effect it had in the 1950s and 1960s, with albums such as Songs for Swingin ‘Lovers (1956), Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely (1958) and September in my years (1965). Also the documentary Sinatra: All or nothing (2015), published by HBO in honor of Sinatra’s 100th birthday, makes it clear that the flop of water village (about which nothing significant is said) was a turning point in his career. He would keep releasing records and a song like New York, New York became an incredible success in 1980. But the real spirit you hear on his classic Capitol album from the fifties was gone forever after 1970.

Frank Sinatra around 1970. Image Getty

Frank Sinatra around 1970.Picture Getty

‘Unlikely, like Quincy Jones and all the other top musicians on a record like LA Is My Lady (1984) could make such a smooth a dragon ‘, says the Dutch singer, composer and Sinatra enthusiast Berend Dubbe. In his wall-filled record cabinet with LPs, the collection of Sinatra albums fills half a meter. We are here to celebrate the album water village is out again. An event that does justice to the album’s growing reputation, which Dubbe (60) did not even know existed until he bought it somewhere in the United States in 1995 for a few dollars at a thrift store.

Dubbe, who released several albums as Bauer, had never encountered the record in Dutch trash cans and only learned about the album’s details later. What immediately struck him was that there was no portrait of Sinatra on the gray, sepia-toned cover.

And then there was more. water village turned out to be a real concept album. Already in the 1950s, Sinatra had created a furore with thematically arranged records with songs about being in love and loneliness. But the ten songs on water village tell a chronological story of a man who is left with his two sons in the small village of Watertown, where his wife has left him. Each song is a letter to her. He will never post letters, but keeps them in a drawer. In the penultimate issue, she says, she seems to give the impression of returning, but in the final The train this vain hope turns out. The man does not see her get off and sees the train depart without her again: ‘And I know for a fact that I will recognize your face’, are Sinatra’s last sung words.

A gripping story, delivered by two gentlemen that Sinatra actually had no experience with. They were asked by Frankie Valli, from the then popular pop group The Four Seasons, with whom Sinatra was friends. It came with producer Bob Gaudio, who in turn turned to the rather unknown singer-songwriter Jake Holmes. Sinatra liked their idea of ​​a concept album and had been able to live with lonely men plagued by broken love for decades.

What the footage of water village what made them unique was not so much that Gaudio wanted to push the songs more in the pop direction by using guitar and electric bass in the orchestra. It was unique The voice not that, as usual during the recording, he sat down in the middle of the orchestra to sing his parts live with them, but that the orchestral parts were first recorded in New York and Sinatra later sang the songs in Los Angeles. This way of working with overdubs was new to him and would remain a stand-alone exception.

Dubbe: ‘That he liked that way of working and did not say:’ Are you crazy, I do not work like that, who do you think I am? I’m Frank Sinatra ‘, surprises me.’

Small mistakes

This is not Dubbe’s only surprise, as it turns out when we read the new CD version water village go hear. Already in the first song, the title song, it is felt that the orchestra makes small mistakes immediately. The drummer is sitting next to him, and ‘the pianist is very much behind’, Dubbe hears. ‘But how fortunate that the whole thing has not been set up with the computer as it would now be. And Frank probably thought too: well, I’m singing out of here. ‘

Dubbe thinks it’s beautiful, the flutes come from the right in an orchestra filled with winds and wood. “I really like flutes playing the melody with strings or pianos,” he says. Only, how strange: the high strings (violins) do not come as they should, from the left and the low ones (cello, bass) from the right, but vice versa. ‘No, it’s not because of my own preferences’, he concludes when the second song starts, Goodbye (she says quietly)

When Dubbe was asked six years ago to participate in the integrated implementation of water village by a group of Dutch musicians, including Yorick van Norden, Reyer Zwart, Anne Soldaat and Hermine Deurloo, he sang this song during performances at De Parade. ‘Still the most beautiful on the record’, he concludes, about the sad farewell song. “Sinatra really gives everything here in terms of emotion. He comes in so big. You just know when you sing such a song, people are always with you, just as powerful as he brings. And that vocal is bone dry, there is no reverberation on them. ‘

Dubbe is delighted several times as he listens. ‘The piano that is being pushed all the way to the right’, he exclaims along the way Michael and Peter, one of the highlights – not only on the album, but perhaps also throughout Sinatra’s oeuvre. Listen to the feeling the singer puts in lines that describe how the sons look like their runaway mother.


But did she run away? Is she not dead? It is an interpretation that has been increasingly used in recent years water villagelovers defended, and who also amuse Dubbe. After all, is it not unthinkable for a mother to run away from home and leave her two sons with her ex? And is it not strange that her mother helps the man as much as possible in the household, as we say Michael and Peter to understand?

There are several small things in the texts that support this interpretation, only Holmes, the author, insists that it is a woman who ran away from the boredom. The new explanation in the CD booklet also leaves no room for doubt. It’s a shame, says Dubbe, that the booklet does not give a definitive answer as to who is playing which game. Who plays such excellent bass throughout the album? And the Hammond organ and the harpsichord, the Dubbe in The train Now you really notice: who is playing it? Wikipedia does not answer all questions either.

Too bad because water village seems to gain only in expressiveness after more than fifty years. Okay, a few cosmetic flaws then. The children’s song in She says should have gone out. ‘Children’s voices in pop songs, you should not do that, research has shown. Like bagpipes and opera-speaking voices, it scares the listeners away. ‘ Also fade-out at the end of For a while does not work where you turn off the volume at the lock off The train actually works well.

Lady Day

Previous CD versions of water village (1970) contains, like the new edition, as a bonus number the song Lady Day† Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes composed it after the other songs on the album as they mastered it. It does not fit into it water citystory, but Sinatra liked the song about Billie Holiday so much that he wanted to record it anyway. It was the only song by Gaudio and Holmes that he would also sing live.

water village is an album of beautiful music where Sinatra seems to provide everything vocally. He moves as on his best, most acclaimed and just as sad albums as Nobody cares (1959) and Sinatra sings for Only the Lonely† But why did the public not want it then?

Dubbe does not have a clear answer to that either. The album actually fit well into a trend that had started a few years earlier: orchestral pop music or baroque pop. Singing with an orchestra behind it was common. Scott Walker, Mel Tormé and Andy Williams did it, and so did Dubbe’s much-admired Richard Harris (who played the original hit version of Jimmy Webb-written MacArthur Park, of which Dubbe has now collected 95 versions). He’s taking Harris’ album The yard continued forever (1968) out of the closet. †water village It’s not that far from here acoustically. But the hip pop audience just wanted nothing to do with Sinatra in 1970. And his own fans probably thought it was too gloomy. Such an ascetic cover, and not a nice one (waving his fingers) bada-badam-sound. ‘

But he notes, “water village is a timeless album by Sinatra at its very best ‘. Failed in the ambition to connect with a new audience, but timelessly.

Frank Sinatra, Watertown (Deluxe Edition)† Reprise / Universal.

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