'All or Nothing at All'

Frank Sinatra at the piano. i i

hide captionFrank Sinatra at the piano.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Frank Sinatra at the piano.

Frank Sinatra at the piano.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1939, a young and relatively unknown New Jersey band singer named Frank Sinatra recorded a new song called "All or Nothing at All." The record initially flopped, selling fewer than 8,000 copies. But "All or Nothing at All" would endure, and in retrospect, music critics see the 1939 recording of the song as an early milestone, not just in Sinatra's career, but in American popular music as a whole.

Jim Zarroli reports on a recording that helped change people's conception of what a singer could do with a song and what his relationship with a band should be.

In 1939, a young and relatively unknown New Jersey band singer named Frank Sinatra recorded a new song called "All or Nothing at All." The record initially flopped, selling fewer than 8,000 copies. But "All or Nothing at All" would endure, and in retrospect, music critics see the 1939 recording of the song as an early milestone, not just in Sinatra's career, but in American popular music as a whole.

Jim Zarroli reports on a recording that helped change people's conception of what a singer could do with a song and what his relationship with a band should be.

It's one of the ironies of Frank Sinatra's career that he owed his first big hit, "All or Nothing at All," to a musicians' strike. What happened was this: in the late '30s a music publisher approached songwriter Jack Lawrence with a request. Could he write lyrics for a new melody composed by Arthur Altman. Lawrence listened to the song and eagerly agreed.

"It had some wonderful key changes, and it had a big, broad melody and a nice range. I knew it would be a wonderful song for singers, and I was intrigued and I kept working away at it and I finally came up with this title, 'All or Nothing at All.'"

Soon, three separate recordings of the song were made, one by Freddy Martin, one by Jimmy Dorsey and one by the Harry James Orchestra featuring James' band singer, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was just 23, and his voice had the tenderness and freshness of a singer who had not quite come into his own. But he had an innate genius for how a song should sound and a distinctly personal style.

To everyone's disappointment, none of the three versions of "All or Nothing at All" was a success, and the song was forgotten. But by 1943, Sinatra had become a sensation, his appearances at New York's Paramount Theatre famously drawing tens of thousands of shrieking bobby-soxers. And Columbia, which had signed him, was desperate to capitalize on his popularity by releasing new records. But, says Jack Lawrence, there was a problem.

"The musicians' union had gone out on strike, and they couldn't make any recordings with any live musicians. So they tried everything. They tried with harmonica backgrounds and a cappella and the combs with tissue paper on them. Nothing worked."

Then Columbia learned about the little-known Sinatra version of "All or Nothing at All," recorded four years earlier, and decided to re-release it. The first time the song was released, the label had read `The Harry James Orchestra with vocals by Frank Sinatra.' The second time it read, `Frank Sinatra accompanied by the Harry James Orchestra.'

Columbia's decision to re-release the song would prove to be shrewd, says musicologist Jonathan Schwartz.

"Out came a real Sinatra record with an orchestra, and a familiar sound—Harry James' trumpet brought back and thrust right into the darker days of the Second World War, and the darkened melody might have been very attractive at Christmastime in 1943. Can you imagine a darker Christmas than 1943?"

"All or Nothing at All" was an instant success, selling more than a million copies, and it rose to number two on the pop charts. Jack Lawrence says the song touched Sinatra's young fans in a way they found irresistible.

"It's a very simple story. It's a lover who's saying `half a love never appealed to me. If you can't give it all to me, I don't want it. I can't accept less.' And I think with Frank, at the moment, when these kids were just dying to get into his arms, for him to be saying, `All or nothing at all, give me all of your love or give me nothing,' you know, I think that hit a very emotional thing."

But with the song, critics also began to take notice of Sinatra. Jonathan Schwartz says "All or Nothing at All" had an interesting melody that allowed Sinatra to demonstrate his vocal dexterity.

"Basically, the arrangement is so gigantic, it's such a cathedral work of rhythmic popular music, and Sinatra's voice is allowed to go to its strengths, which is everywhere."

But it was Sinatra's new style of singing that captivated audiences. Howard Reich, arts critic of the Chicago Tribune, says until Sinatra came along, American popular music still had a European, quasioperatic sound, typified by Bing Crosby. With "All or Nothing at All," Sinatra transcended that.

"He was not singing this tune exactly as the note values were written. If you listen closely, he's singing this song as if he's telling these words to somebody. He's not following the notes on paper, he's phrasing words as you speak, toward the end, when he says, `I would be caught in the undertow, and so you see, I've got to say no.'"

"He says, `I've gotta say no,' not `I've got to say no,'" Mr. Wright says. "And you could not notate that rhythm that he's doing there. It's too subtle. A musical notation is not that specific. He is singing it exactly as he would say it, `I've gotta say no.' And that was radical. That was something new. And that was uniquely his."

"All or Nothing at All" would also leave another lasting imprint on pop music. Before it came out, Wright says, band leaders were stars and singers were subordinate to the band. But "All or Nothing at All" was Sinatra's song.

"That song is a kind of revolution in music, because the singer's going first. You hear a few bars of orchestral introduction, and then it's Sinatra. And then after Sinatra goes through a verse, then the orchestra comes in and then Sinatra sums it all up. Everything's been turned around. It used to be the orchestra, the band would go first, and he has turned that about. And that's a radical move right there."

"All or Nothing at All" would become one of Sinatra's signature songs. He recorded a Nelson Riddle arrangement during the 1960s, and even did a disco version a decade later. In time the lyrics would seem to speak to the Sinatra legend. Like "My Way," "All or Nothing at All" was a song about a lonely romantic who couldn't, or wouldn't, compromise his dreams.

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