“A friend is never an imposition.” —Frank Sinatra
The time was the early 1950s. The place was Hollywood, and the world
was that of the recording studio.
If you were on Frank’s good side, you could not ask for a better
friend. And if the opposite were the case, you could not ask for a
worse enemy. At least that is what they used to say. Fortunately for my
family, the former was always true.
I was born in 1944 and my sibling, Fred, in 1947. By the time we
arrived on the scene, Frank already knew my parents well. My father,
Felix Slatkin, was the concertmaster of the orchestra at Twentieth
Century Fox, and my mother, Eleanor Aller, was the principal cellist at
Warner Brothers, the first female to occupy a leading chair in any of
the 11 studio orchestras.
Sinatra was intensely curious about the world of classical music. While
recording for Columbia Records in New York, he had even conducted an
album of compositions by Alec Wilder. This pretty much dispels the idea
that he could not read music. Perhaps he was not proficient at grasping
a full score, but there was no question that he understood the basics
of music notation.
Frank Sinatra moved to Hollywood permanently upon leaving Columbia
Records in 1952 following an ugly rift with the company. He signed a
six-year contract with rival Capitol Records, which had enticed the
crooner with its star-studded roster of talent and the promise of more
artistic freedom. With Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Benny Goodman and
George Shearing on the label, among others, Sinatra would have many
opportunities for musical collaboration. But first, he had to reinvent
No more bow ties and bobbysoxers—Sinatra aimed to keep his adoring fans
while also building a new base of admirers more attuned to listening
rather than dancing. At Capitol, he would be working with the absolute
best in the recording field, from producers and engineers, to arrangers
and musicians. Notably, this was around the same time that West Coast
jazz was starting to move over into the popular music culture. As
Charles L. Granata observed in Sessions with Sinatra, “Capitol was
everything a record label strove to be: chic, cool, artsy, hip. … Soon,
Sinatra would discover that going there was the single greatest move of
The switch from big band singer to a jazz-tinged vocalist was not easy.
At first, Sinatra wanted to stay with his primary arranger, Axel
Stordahl, and there were some attempts at singles on the new label.
When it was clear that this combination was not working as well as he
hoped, the young Nelson Riddle came on board. It was a dream match. My
parents were around for this changing of the guard, and since Frank
relied on their opinions, they were among the first to tell him that
this was the direction in which to go.
My parents had signed with Capitol back in 1947 as members of the
Hollywood String Quartet, together with violinist Paul Shure and
violist Paul Robyn. Their decision to include “Hollywood” in their name
stemmed from the fact that each was a leading musician on the movie
soundstages. At the time, they were severely criticized for choosing
that moniker over, for example, “Los Angeles String Quartet.” However,
my father maintained that it was essential to have the motion picture
world thought of as an equal to the so-called “serious,” high-art
The group relied almost entirely on its recorded product, as studio
life prevented touring. They visited San Francisco regularly and gave
concerts in various venues in L.A. Some took place on Sunday afternoons
at the art museum. I have been able to track down a couple of
transcription discs from those broadcasts, but so far, the majority
By 1952, the quartet was recognized as one of the finest ensembles of
its type in the world. Their recordings of both familiar and
lesser-known compositions were uniformly met with the highest plaudits.
It was only natural that Sinatra would want the Hollywood String
Quartet for virtually all his recording projects with Capitol.
Even before the first Capitol sessions took place, Sinatra would come
to our home to listen to the famed foursome. My brother and I were
still quite young, and at a break in the rehearsal, Uncle Frank, as we
came to call him, would take the two of us up the stairs, tuck us into
bed, and sing us to sleep. Lullabies from “The Voice” are among my most
cherished childhood memories.
Along with my parents, virtually every great studio musician
participated in Sinatra’s Capitol sessions. The legends who played on
these recordings included flutist Arthur Gleghorn, clarinetist Mitchell
Lurie, French hornist Vince DeRosa, and trumpeters Shorty Rogers and
Manny Klein. Foremost among the luminaries who graced the studios was
the pianist Bill Miller, who worked with Frank for more than 50 years.
He was a frequent visitor to the house when Nelson and my dad were
collaborating on the charts.
Sinatra’s first album for Capitol was entitled Songs for Young Lovers.
This recording and its follow-up, Swing Easy, utilized relatively small
orchestral forces. Each member of the Hollywood String Quartet was
featured, along with saxes and a few other wind instruments. It was
during these early days in the relationship that we started to visit
Sinatra in his home as well as on the road. He had a beautiful house
off Coldwater Canyon Road where he hosted celebrities from various
parts of the show biz world. I met Danny Kaye, Robert Mitchum, Lauren
Bacall and so many others. But I was just a kid, and even though I knew
who these people were, it was too early for me to idolize them. They
were just folks who happened to be around.
My mother told a story about one evening at the Sinatra home: “Frank
was an unbelievable host. We were having dinner at his home, and he had
a gallery of paintings facing the dining room table—it was like a
hallway. And I looked up and said, ‘Oh my God—that clown is absolutely
incredible!’ I went bananas over this painting, which he had created
himself. When we left, it was in my car—he gave it to me!”
Throughout the mid-Fifties, we also had occasion to visit him in Palm
Springs and Las Vegas. It was in the former location while roaming
around his house that I discovered some photos of the nude Marilyn
Monroe. There was even a deck of cards with the then-forbidden pictures
on the non-playing side. I also remember sitting out by the pool one
time and falling asleep. When I woke up, my back was the color of a
well-boiled lobster, and I was in agony. Frank called a doctor, and
with a few applications of some sort of salve, I recovered from the
worst sunburn of my life.
In Vegas, we stayed at the Desert Inn. This was the hotel and
entertainment center of Sin City in the early days, only the fifth
resort to exist at that time. Sinatra had made his debut there in 1951,
and the Slatkins were thereafter invited anytime we wanted to visit. In
those days, they allowed kids into the casinos, but we could not
gamble. It didn’t matter. Uncle Frank let us play the slots anyway.
My brother and I loved hanging out by the pool. Since my parents
usually stayed up with Frank and his buddies well into the wee hours of
the morning, Fred and I went to breakfast by ourselves and then spent
the rest of the day swimming. Messages to guests were delivered via a
public address system, and once in a while we would hear, “Leonard and
Freddie Slatkin, please go to Mr. Sinatra’s Suite.” Perhaps this was to
prevent another case of sunstroke.
By the time Sinatra started recording on the Capitol label, the company
had moved its facilities to the studios of KHJ, a radio station located
on Melrose Avenue. Frank and my parents were consulted as to the
acoustical properties of this location, and everyone agreed that it was
well-suited for a wide variety of genres and styles. This is probably
what accounted for the particularly excellent sound on the Sinatra
recordings of the early Fifties. Across the street from the studio was
Nicodell’s bar and restaurant, as well as Lucey’s, where the musicians
and producers would go after evening sessions.
Frank relied on the playbacks as a way to really understand the whole
process of recording. He would go into the booth after a first take,
usually with his front-stand musicians, listen intently, and then go
back into the studio to give instructions. On one infamous occasion, he
asked my mother what she thought of that first take. Her reply, in
front of everyone: “It sounded like shit!”
Capitol Records was expanding its worldwide reach and found that the
office space on Melrose was too limited to accommodate the number of
people being added to the staff. In 1954, plans developed to have a new
building, the Capitol Tower, erected right off the most famous
intersection in L.A., Hollywood and Vine. In addition to providing a
work environment for its employees, the new facility would also house
three recording studios suitable for almost all of its artists, with
the exception of large orchestras.
By the time the structure was complete, Sinatra had become the prime
draw for Capitol, and the Hollywood String Quartet was the label’s most
influential group in the classical field. Surprisingly, the first album
recorded in the new building featured Frank and my parents, but not in
the usual way. Sinatra did not sing a note of music. Rather, with a
great deal of coaching from my father, who was accustomed to leading
the orchestra from the concertmaster chair, Frank was featured in the
role of conductor.
Tone Poems of Color was an orchestral album for which various composers
submitted works based on the hues of the rainbow. Although an
intriguing idea and concept, the fan base was not much interested in
this, and sales were not strong. However, some of the pieces had real
merit, and it might be worthwhile to revisit some of the colors.
At the time, Capitol Tower was touted as the tallest and roundest
structure in Los Angeles. My dad used to try to convince me that the
shape was supposed to represent one of those turntables that included a
record changer. You would stack vinyls on a stick in the middle of the
machine, and when the tonearm retracted, the next song or album would
fall neatly onto the previously played disc. Theoretically, you could
then listen to several hours of music without having to leave your
According to my father, every hour one of the floors of the Capitol
Tower would magically move horizontally, allowing the stories above to
drop down one level. The bottom floor would elevate to the top of the
building and then glide into place, waiting for its next turn. I would
walk the three miles and stand on the corner to wait for this event.
When I got home and said that nothing happened, my dad would come up
with some excuse, such as, “The mechanism wasn’t working today,” or,
“You probably did not have the right time on your watch.”
Eventually, I figured it out, but I was just a gullible kid.
The tower, although a resounding architectural achievement, was not
well received as far as its acoustics were concerned. No one could hear
each other, balances were off, and the sound was dry. Teams were
brought in to try to alleviate the problems, which they accomplished by
placing cement echo chambers 30 feet underground. This made the music
more vibrant and reverberant. They are still in place to this day, as
is Studio B, the room where Sinatra recorded all his songs.
The first album that Sinatra recorded as a vocalist in the new studios
would prove to be one of the best, and most controversial, of his
career. Close to You came about as a result of the friendship between
Sinatra and the Slatkins. Following the success of his introspective
concept album In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, Frank asked Nelson
Riddle to arrange songs that would feature him and the Hollywood String
Quartet. With solid footing in several musical worlds, the
“classically” oriented group would now be featured front and center
Intense meetings with Frank, my father and Riddle took place at our
home, occupying many hours of the day. Although Sinatra initially
wanted the members of the quartet to be the only instrumentalists, my
father persuaded him to add the occasional woodwind and harp, just so
there would be more variety throughout the 12 songs. Putting the record
together was a painstaking process, but the resulting album was
critically praised. Unfortunately, it came at a time when Sinatra’s
most significant successes were with more upbeat discs. Sales were
among the lowest of all the recordings he made with Capitol.
Despite that, time has been very good to this recording. Regarded by
many as an example of Sinatra and Riddle at the height of their
careers, the album has acquired a cult status. Although the original
record had 12 tracks, three unreleased songs from the recording
sessions were subsequently issued on CD. One of them, “There’s a Flaw
in my Flue,” is a double-entendre-filled lyric that almost got by the
big wigs at the company. It was intended as a send-up of the
bureaucracy that can sometimes infect the recording industry.
What was it about Sinatra’s singing that made it so special? Of course,
we all recognize his voice, whether from the early years or those of
his twilight. For me, it comes down to three attributes. The first is
intonation, that rare ability to sing in tune all of the time. Next is
his incredible attention to what the words meant. And finally, there is
a quality that is a little hard to describe. From around the 16th
century, composers began using bar lines to delineate the time
signatures of any given piece. Most musicians try to place the first
note of a phrase exactly where the bar line occurs. With Sinatra, there
is a sense, at least in the ballads, that time stands still. The
vertical line does not exist, and he might place a note either before
or after its notated position in the music.
The best example I can cite is found in this video. It doesn’t matter
if you are an opera fanatic, jazz buff or blues lover, this is how a
song is supposed to be delivered.
The times were changing by 1957. Stereo technology was becoming all the
rage, altering the way people listened as recorded sound began to more
closely reproduce the experience of hearing live music. Moreover, the
British recording company EMI had purchased the classical division of
Capitol, the McCarthy hearings had taken their toll on the studios, and
Frank had started to work with different arrangers. Despite all this,
the two families, the Sinatras and the Slatkins, remained close.
However, the Hollywood String Quartet, which had made its reputation
primarily through recording, found itself at a crossroads. The record
company’s new owners needed to make decisions on several fronts. An
outstanding quartet based in London, the Amadeus, was on the EMI label.
Although undoubtedly important from a musical standpoint, it made no
sense for the management in England to have two quartets on the same
label. They chose the British ensemble to represent the recorded output
of the company, dropping the West Coast contingent.
Without a home from which to distribute their product, the Hollywood
String Quartet folded two years later. What made this somewhat tragic
is that the foursome had recently made an incredibly successful trip to
the Edinburgh Festival, performing the late quartets of Beethoven. It
was their only trip to Europe, and their concerts received an
overwhelmingly positive reception from audiences and critics alike. The
group was on the international stage at that point, and it could have
been a lucrative time for them and an opportunity to exercise more
control over their schedules.
The reason for this was that after the Red Scare had subsided somewhat,
the studio system collapsed. No longer were musicians contracted by a
single film or television aggregate, and the industry was entirely open
for freelancers. My parents could have picked and chosen when and where
to work. But the truth was that instead of the film companies employing
almost 500 musicians, now they would only be utilizing the services of
about 200 players who would run from one studio to another.
In 1958, following the release of the Hollywood Quartet’s recording of
the late Beethoven Quartets on Capitol, which was advertised with the
tagline “as performed at the Edinburgh Festival,” the ensemble won a
Grammy during the very first year of the award’s existence. But it was
too late. The die had been cast and, realizing that they still
identified with a Hollywood era that was coming to an end, they decided
it was time to pack up and seek new ground.
By this point, my father’s conducting career had taken off, especially
his series of recordings with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra.
With his time on the podium steadily increasing, he found a sympathetic
partner in Sinatra. While Nelson Riddle was on tour in 1958 with Nat
King Cole, another Capitol Artist, Frank and Riddle agreed that rather
than cancel the planned recording of Only the Lonely, it would be more
expedient to let Felix take over the conducting duties.
Although his musicianship was beyond reproach, Riddle had struggled a
bit with the first session prior to his trip, only producing one song,
whereas my dad and Frank managed to record seven songs in one long
session. That was a fantastic feat, and everyone knew it. Although
uncredited, my father was the de facto conductor of Nelson’s
arrangements on several Sinatra albums.
As the Fifties drew to a close, so too did the relationship of Sinatra
with Capitol Records. By this time, my parents were recording for
whichever company and artists they wished. Frank went into a
depression, and the end result was his decision to form his own record
He brought in new arrangers, collaborated with different
musicians—including Count Basie—and stole artists from his previous
label. The subsequent recordings included some singles with Felix, now
credited on the label of 45s.
My father continued to play and conduct for Sinatra, but there was
something more exciting on the horizon. Frank had offered him the
musical directorship of Reprise, which included the opportunity to
control both the artists and repertoire. Under any other circumstance,
this seemed like the logical progression of the Sinatra/Slatkin
relationship. However, another company, Liberty Records, headed by
another good friend of our family, Sy Waronker, offered Felix the same
position. My dad accepted the offer from Liberty because it included
more producing, arranging and conducting, plus the prospect of creating
his own orchestra. Frank understood and continued to utilize my dad’s
services when he was available. My mother always did the Sinatra
On January 19, 1961, Sinatra organized an all-star pre-inaugural gala
at the National Guard Armory, bringing in luminaries such as Laurence
Olivier, Harry Belafonte, Gene Kelly, Bette Davis, Leonard Bernstein
and many more to hail John F. Kennedy as the new president. Frank was
at the forefront of JFK’s supporters. That relationship would change
quickly, but for this one evening, Sinatra was in charge. He insisted
that my parents serve as concertmaster and first cellist for the event.
As a souvenir, everyone was given a sterling silver cigarette box.
Two years later, on February 8, 1963, my father unexpectedly died of a
heart attack. He was 47, and I was 19. Frank was one of the first
people to come to our house on Dunsmuir Avenue the following day to pay
his respects. Sinatra also delivered a eulogy at my dad’s memorial
service, which was attended by more than a thousand people. But the
family relationship did not end with my father’s death.
Shortly thereafter, Frank went back into the studio to record what many
consider to be his finest album for his own label, The Concert Sinatra.
He asked my mother to be the first cellist, and she said that she just
was not ready to get back to playing. Frank was insistent, telling her
that he would cancel the recording unless she agreed. Eventually
Eleanor gave in, and she credited this provocation as the reason she
returned to performing after the loss of my father.
Meanwhile, I too was mourning my father’s death and left my music
studies behind for a while. However, in 1964, I picked up where my dad
had left off and began to pursue a career in conducting, with studies
in Aspen and at the Juilliard School in New York. When I became the
assistant conductor in St. Louis in 1968, one of the first letters I
got was from Frank, offering to do a concert with me sometime.
Sadly, that never came to fruition, but we did stay in touch, at times
through my mother. When I made my London debut in 1974, Frank’s second
wife, the actress Ava Gardner, was at the Festival Hall concert with my
mom. They had become friends many years before, and although Ava may
not have shared her ex-husband’s passion for classical music, I had the
pleasure of spending many hours with her. Elegant to a fault, she was a
reminder of a time long past.
Frank Junior, Sinatra’s son, was also a singer and conductor. He had
studied with my dad, and we stayed in touch for a while as well. My mom
passed away in 1996, and of course, the elder Sinatra left us in 1998.
Nevertheless, the legacy of both families lives on through their
recordings. Their unbreakable friendship and consummate musicianship
are forever on display. Everyone can see, hear and read about them.
Being surrounded by the music of Sinatra and the Hollywood String
Quartet in my youth changed me forever. It was a time when genres were
deemed equal, as long as the artistry was there. Music brought the
Sinatras and the Slatkins together. Friendship kept them that way.
“If you knew the joy you
How my hungry heart would sing
If only we could be close to you.”
You,” lyrics by Al Hoffman
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