The beginning of the 1970s was a transitional time for Frank Sinatra. His film career was ending, his albums weren’t selling like they used to, the Rat Pack days were over, Vegas was still paying him large sums, but generally, the thrill was gone.
It was no secret that Sinatra hated rock and roll, but ownership of Reprise Records had made him a lot of dough from this loud, banal form of music. Sinatra was still the Chairman of the Board, but crooners like Sinatra were now viewed as old fashioned in the world of show business.
You might be thinking, didn’t Sinatra have a big hit with “Something Stupid,” a duet with his daughter Nancy, and the iconic “My Way,” written for him by Paul Anka? Yes, in deed. Somehow, those were not fulfilling or did not help that inner desire for something groundbreaking. “Something Stupid” was quite successful, but more of a novelty. “My Way” became Sinatra’s signature song, yet it was firmly in the style of his older music and drew him as someone at the end of their career as the parade had passed.
At 55, Sinatra was between marriages, and would “retire” at years end. Before he stepped away, he wanted to try something different. Watertown was a change of pace, a risk, and would become his lowest selling album to that point. The sessions were done in July-October, 1969.
Enter Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. Friends, it was Valli who suggested his bandmate Bob Gaudio (“Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,”) to Sinatra. Gaudio wrote much of the material for the Four Seasons and Valli’s solo career. Sinatra was game to try something contemporary, but not rock and roll. Gaudio and lyricist Jake Holmes wrote a collection of songs around the story of a man in Watertown, New York who is rebounding from his wife’s departure to New York City, to find a new, more exciting life, with other man. The kids are also left behind for the husband to raise and help them navigate the loss. She wanted something larger, a career, not just the simple, small town life. She was discovering herself and needed to see where it went.
To me, this sounds like a very downbeat and risky topic for a concept album, but Sinatra had been down this path before. He had recorded several albums of torchy, reflective songs including In the Wee Small Hours and September of My Years, both considered classics.
Unlike Sinatra’s usual style of recording live with the orchestra, Gaudio had already recorded the instrumental tracks, so Sinatra sang to the recorded music. Sinatra preferred the energy and interaction with the orchestra. Here, he was just the vocalist and had no sway over the recording of the instrumental performance. Gaudio also used a different musical arranger than one of Sinatra’s usual collaborators. The change was intentional by Gaudio to get a very different vibe, perhaps something that felt more contemporary.
Sinatra had received demos from Gaudio with rough vocals by other performers so Sinatra could have a starting point. The music was recorded in New York, with Sinatra providing scratch vocals. The overdubs and vocals were done in Los Angeles.
The album songs are divided into two parts. Part 1 is the wife’s leaving and the impact on the family.
“Watertown” It’s a slow-paced place to live. The vibe is a bit melancholy. From the start, this sounds different from his other 1960s music.
“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” She is leaving, there is no fight. They go through the motions of things as she gets ready to leave, and then does. She says goodbye in a coffee shop, awkward, just many things left unsaid.
“For a While” In the midst of his grief, a small moment where the hurt disappears. Then it sharply returns. Friends reach out to him, but he’s not ready yet.
“Michael & Peter” Their children, who are obviously struggling to understand why she deserted them. They are a product of each of them, with their qualities. He speaks of the boys growing and how she is missed.
“I Would Be in Love (Anyway)” He’s not mad at her, he’s understanding her need to find herself, a familiar theme in the era. He loves even if she left. One of the best songs on the album.
Part 2 is how the husband deals with his feelings and how her letter to him is received.
“Elizabeth” In his words, he describes her. He’s devastated, but he still sees her as always. A sad and lilting song, gentle but vibrant. The harp and reeds really add color to the arrangement.
“What a Funny Girl (You Used to Be)” Reflecting on their past, their long history. They were together since their youth when life was simpler.
“What’s Now Is Now” The riff developed and got wider without either of them knowing the significance. The undertone is that another man has entered the picture. He says that he can overlook this situation and make it work.
“She Says” A letter arrives from her, she says she is coming home. He is doubtful and afraid. The kids are too. Does he dare buy into the news?
“The Train” Is she really coming home on the train? Did he reach out to her? No and no. The tone is upbeat as he says that things have changed. In his mind she is coming back to him.
All of his feelings and recollections are his thoughts and letters never sent. Maybe he loves her so much that he’s letting her go. Perhaps he realizes that she will never be happy with that simple life anymore and either she will unhappily stay, or leave again.
There is one song, “Lady Day” was not part of the songs in the original release, but was recorded during the same sessions, but with Sinatra’s arranger, Don Costa. The song encapsulates the story threads and the uncertainty of the relationship. Sinatra would occasionally perform the song.
Sinatra is more pensive than I’ve heard. His character is in pain although is hopeful. There is sadness yet contrition in his voice. Sinatra has voiced these torch songs before and his audience believed him. Maybe it was losing Ava Gardner and the humiliation that he felt as Gardner galavanted with other men in the wake of their split that showed that even Sinatra lost at love.
The music is more Burt Bacharach than Nelson Riddle. It’s a more contemporary sound (electric guitars, thumping bass, keyboards, drum kits), but still features strings and horns. There is a bit more beat and giddy-up in the arrangements. You hear what you’ll be hearing in the next couple of years in adult contemporary music.
On first listen, this story felt a little cheesy. After a couple more spins, I fell under its spell. Sinatra recorded a number of contemporary pop tunes going forward, but didn’t completely step across the line. Those recordings did not have the edge and risk of these. Unfortunately, not many people noticed.