Concept Albums by Frank Sinatra, Paul Williams, Richard Harris and Carole King: Of Love and Heartache

Concept albums are tough to pull off. Think Sgt. Pepper, Tommy, Quadrophenia, Animals, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Tales from Topographic Oceans, Thick as a Brick, The Wall, et. al. There might be an integrated story, instrumental segues, musical motifs and epic feel to the production. Or, the songs might conceptually linked by content that fits like emotional jigsaw pieces.

Watertown by Frank Sinatra

Someday Man by Paul Williams

Here, My Dear by Marvin Gaye

A Tramp Shining by Richard Harris

Tapestry by Carole King

Here are five albums that to varying degrees meet the definition of a concept album; for me, each of these albums has an emotional spine that link each song. Watertown and Here, My Dear, were conceived and composed as a series of songs that tell a specific story; the other three were crafted around the singer.

I chose these albums, or rather they chose me, because they are from the same period and have deeply personal themes. What they tell are stories from the heart. They are aching, richly emotional, the highs and lows. Some have lush orchestral accompaniments, others sparse instrumentation.

Years before, Frank Sinatra released several albums that spoke of heartache, regret, the richness of love, and reflections of the relationship. In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and September of My Years (1965) are timeless, but are generationally different. Watertown serves up a more vulnerable and singularly-focused tapestry, and better fit for this blog.

From the 1970s, I could easily pull Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush, James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Jim Croce’s You Don’t Mess Around with Jim, and others that had lovely relationship songs, but also contained gaps and a song or two that are unrelated to the theme.

Watertown is a curiosity by Frank Sinatra, hardly a safe musical choice at this stage of his long career. As I stated earlier, this album was written as a story, each song portraying an event in the story of a husband’s loss of his wife to another man.

Written by Bob Gaudio and Jake Holmes, and produced by Gaudio, the material finds Sinatra singing about a much younger man watching his wife leave him and their sons for another man.

Read my review of this album:

“Watertown” – 3:36
“Goodbye (She Quietly Says)” – 3:06
“For a While” – 3:09
“Michael & Peter” – 5:10
“I Would Be in Love (Anyway)” – 2:31

“Elizabeth” – 3:38
“What a Funny Girl (You Used to Be)” – 3:00
“What’s Now Is Now” – 4:04
“She Says” – 1:51
“The Train” – 3:26

Someday Man (1970) is one incredible album. Paul Williams co-wrote the songs with Roger Nichols, who produced. Credit belongs to arrangers Perry Botkin, Jr., Artie Butler Bob Thompson, Chad Stuart and Nichols who added string and horn flourishes without making it sound like Perry Como. Top session musicians like Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Joe Osborne, Mike Deasy and Larry Knechtel delivered great performances. There is a lushness, an achingly beautiful soundscape behind these songs that evoke the music of Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Bowen, Al De Lory, Jerry Fuller, Jimmy Webb, Herb Alpert, Chips Moman and Snuff Garrett.

Much is written about Williams’ thin and limited singing voice as a performer, and yes, his voice pales next to Karen Carpenter or Barbra Streisand, but he does a great job here.

Williams’ lyrics match the greatness of the music. The subject matter concerns the frailty of relationships, the romance and disappointment, and wondering what it’s all about. When I first listened to this album I thought I was hearing the cast album from a 1960s Broadway show, one of those daring social statements about a man searching for meaning in life.

The order of the songs is great for each side, although thematically is a bit out of sequence. The flow of the music almost segues into the next song. The entire album clocks in at about 28 minutes, which is a lot of music and emotion in such a short time. No matter, it’s a frenzied musical ride, like a rollercoaster of a young relationship.

Williams was just a young songwriter and this was his debut album. The song, “Someday Man,” has been recorded by the Monkees the prior year. It’s amazing the depth of experience Williams could write about.

Side one

“Someday Man”
“So Many People”
“She’s Too Good to Me”
“Mornin’ I’ll Be Movin’ On”

Side two

“To Put Up with You”
“Do You Really Have a Heart?”
“I Know You”
“Roan Pony”

Here, My Dear (1978) is better-known as Marvin Gaye’s divorce album from Berry Gordy’s sister. The terms of the divorce agreement gave her the bulk of the royalties from his next album, which became Here, My Dear.

Gaye did his best work, in my opinion, in the decade of the 1970s, his music became deeper, more complex and focused on more serious subject matter.

The review is right on the mark: “The result is a two-disc-long confessional on the deterioration of their marriage; starting from the opening notes of the title track, Gaye viciously cuts with every lyric deeper into an explanation of why the relationship died the way it did. Gaye uses the album, right down to its packaging, to exorcise his personal demons with subtle visual digs and less-than-subtle lyrical attacks.”

Here, My Dear is not a desperate or hate-filled work. There is a profound sense of loss and sadness, but also a feeling of appreciation for what was. Gaye sings about moving on and recognizing the potential for growth.

There aren’t hit singles on the album, what you get are four sides of R&B and mellow jazz grooves, something Gaye excelled at during this decade. The loveliest part of this record are Gaye’s vocals, they are rich and silky, he harmonizes with himself – he is the funk version of The Beach Boys. It’s more vocals than the music that convey Gaye’s emotional journey.

Side one
“Here, My Dear” – 2:48
“I Met a Little Girl” – 4:58
“When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” – 6:11
“Anger” (Delta Ashby, Gaye, Ed Townsend) – 3:58

Side two
“Is That Enough” – 7:42
“Everybody Needs Love” (Ed Townsend, Gaye) – 5:41
“Time to Get It Together” – 3:51

Side three
“Sparrow” (Ed Townsend, Gaye) – 6:06
“Anna’s Song” – 5:49
“When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You” (Instrumental) – 5:59

Side four
“A Funky Space Reincarnation” – 8:12
“You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You” – 5:27
“Falling in Love Again” – 4:36
“When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You (Reprise)” – 0:40

A Shining Tramp was written and produced by Jimmy Webb, who made two albums with actor Richard Harris. The classic “MacArthur Park” gets all the attention as a piece of 1960s pop culture extravaganza, but the entire album is exceptional. Webb made his name as a writer and arranger, less so as a performer. His singing voice is slightly better than Harris’s, so he usually put his music in the hands of solid performers, among them Art Garfunkel, The 5th Dimension, Glen Campbell. Harris was a special project and the 32-minute A Shining Tramp is pure pop delight.

“Prelude” 0:24

“Didn’t We?” 2:24

“Interlude #1” 0:29

“Paper Chase” 2:15

“Interlude #2” 0:31

“Name of My Sorrow” 3:21

“Interlude #3” 0:27

“Lovers Such as I” 3:36

“In the Final Hours” 2:45

“MacArthur Park” 7:20

“Dancing Girl” 2:06

“Interlude #4” 0:19

“If You Must Leave My Life” 3:18

“A Tramp Shining” 2:22

Tapestry, released in 1972, was the highest selling album of its time. Carole King’s second album, a collection of tunes she wrote or co-wrote. Not a true concept, but the songs seem destined to belong together, like a ….tapestry. Sorry, it had to be said.

These are amazing, heartfelt songs. Poignant and soulful, bare emotion; almost a confessional from the heart. King has a vocal style that wrings every nuance from her songs. This is an underproduced album, which fits the songs perfectly; it is both warm and stark. Producer Lou Adler kept out of the way, allowing King and her small group of musicians to build the songs around her piano and soulful voice.

Maybe the best album of the singer-songwriter era, it’s certainly a classic and must be absorbed in its entirety. King wrote most of the songs herself and collaborated on the others. Not all of the songs were written specifically for this album, but most were. The older ones fit the album like puzzle pieces.

Side 1

“I Feel the Earth Move” – 3:00
“So Far Away” – 3:55
“It’s Too Late” (lyrics by Toni Stern) – 3:54
“Home Again” – 2:29
“Beautiful” – 3:08
“Way Over Yonder” – 4:49

Side two

“You’ve Got a Friend” – 5:09
“Where You Lead” (King, Stern) – 3:20
“Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” (Gerry Goffin, King) – 4:13
“Smackwater Jack” (Goffin, King) – 3:42
“Tapestry” – 3:15
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” (Goffin, King, Jerry Wexler) – 3:59

One thought on “Concept Albums by Frank Sinatra, Paul Williams, Richard Harris and Carole King: Of Love and Heartache

  1. “Tapestry” is the only album in your post I know very well. Carole King is one of my favorite artists, and this record is her masterpiece. It also happens to be one of the very first music records I heard and came to love, based on the beautiful music and Carole’s singing, long before I started studying English in school!

    Liked by 1 person

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