When it comes to recording Christmas music, one of the best was Frank Sinatra. He really knew how to put the ring-a-ding-ding into the ho-ho-ho- holidays with his own sense of style. But not all of his ideas hit gold. After recording two great Christmas collections, “Christmas Songs by Sinatra” in 1948 and “A Jolly Christmas” in 1957, at the end of the 60’s Sinatra was back in the studio ready to spread yuletide cheer once again, but this time he was bringing the whole family. Alongside his three children, Nancy, Frank Jr. and Tina, Sinatra unleashed “The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas” on the record buying public in 1968. While I’ll admit it’s a guilty pleasure in my home (I find it wonderfully irresistible to listen to), when it came to Sinatra standards, compared to his other Christmas albums this one just doesn’t hold up. Self-indulgent, boring and shamelessly overproduced, the album is an unfortunate dud and, as a fan of the entire Sinatra family, it’s not nearly as good as I wish it’d be.. But, in its own way, it really reflected exactly where Sinatra was at in his life at the end of the 1960’s – lost and struggling to be relevant.
Now perhaps this isn’t a totally fair assessment of the album. The album has two major highlights. “Whatever Happened to Christmas’ is a thoughtful and reflective song, which is essentially a torch song which falls in-line with Sinatra’s performances of “A Man Alone” or “September of my Years.” Meanwhile, Sinatra rerecorded “A Christmas Waltz,” which appeared first on his 1957 Christmas album, but the new version became the definitive recording which is most known today. But the rest of the album was nothing more than a murky and often dull attempt by Sinatra to stay in the public mind while riding on the coattails of his much hipper children..
The 1960’s was a turbulent time for Sinatra, and by the end of the decade he was undergoing his own midlife crisis and struggling to stay in the game. At the beginning of the decade, Sinatra was at his biggest and most coolest point of his career. He was swinging in Vegas with the Rat Pack, putting out hit movies like “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Ocean’s 11” and was campaigning for JFK. He was dismissive of Elvis and the early rock scene, thinking it was a fad and that rock would never topple his brand of music from the charts. But by 1964, when the Beatles hit big, the writing was on the wall. Rock n’ roll was here to stay, and Sinatra’s smooth sounds were a throwback as soon as he pressed it on vinyl. Through the decade there were some triumphs, like the release of “Strangers in the Night” in 1966, But as the decade raged on there was an increase in unfortunate moments when Sinatra tried the “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy and recorded ill fated covers of hit pop songs where his dissatisfaction could be heard in the recordings. He sounds like he’s gagging on his own vocal cords in a cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown” and his take on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” is a true low point in his career. Meanwhile, he jumped into a ridiculous marriage with Mia Farrow, who he couldn’t have had less in common with (she was 21, he was 50), which made both headlines and fodder for comedians (pal Dean Martin once was quoted as saying “I have bottles of scotch older than Mia). Sinatra was still a legend in his own time, but by the end of the 60’s, the record buyers generating the big money in sales just weren’t hanging on to his star power. He was becoming irrelevant.
But that didn’t stop Sinatra from still having a lot of power in the recording industry, which he held over the record buyers via his own label, Reprise Records. A subdivision of Capitol, Sinatra was able to use the best of Capitol’s resources to make albums his way. At first the label was utilized by friends of his – Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr, Keely Smith, Buddy Greco, Trini Lopez – but eventually he opened it up to acts such as The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, The Pentangle, Donna Loren, Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, T Rex, Sonny and Cher, Tiny Tim and Warren Zevon. But of course, when you’re calling the shots, that means nepotism goes a long way. One of Sinatra’s first pop groups to be signed was Dino, Desi and Billy, and then he hit even bigger when his oldest daughter, Nancy, had a monster hit with “These Boots Are Made for Walking” in 1966.
By the end of the 60’s, Nancy Sinatra was having a much bigger career than her own father. She had a string of singles hit the top of the Billboard charts, was appearing in movies and was a go-go era sex symbol. But, no matter what one wants to say about Sinatra, he was famously a devoted father and a big part of Nancy’s success was Frank making sure she had the best writers, producers, musicians and everything else Capitol could offer her. In fact, Sinatra’s final number one hit on the Billboard chart would be 1967’s “Something Stupid,” which was a wildly inappropriate, but well-crafted, duet with Nancy, which obviously hit number one due to his daughter’s popularity (Sinatra would never appear in Billboard’s top ten in America again, although his 1993 duet of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with Bono peaked at the #4 spot on Billboard’s UK charts).
Now his son, Frank Jr., had also gotten into the recording industry, having cut records as early as 1965, but didn’t see the same success as his sister. He had a fairly good, inoffensive voice, but basically just sang his father’s hand me downs. He was too square for the 60’s kids, but it seemed to work for him. Eventually Frank Jr. stayed in the music industry eventually becoming am important part of his father’s management team.
So, with Nancy at the height of her popularity, and Frank Jr. gung-ho to get in the studio, it was a no brainer that they’d do a Christmas album all together. But there was one Sinatra kid who didn’t sing – Tina. Ah, the world sometimes forgets about youngest Sinatra sister Tina. 19 years old when the Sinatra Family Christmas album was recorded, Tina was never a singer, and never wanted to be. She stayed right out of the recording studio, and at one time pursued acting, although she even abandoned that after a while as well. She eventually became the business genius behind her father’s affairs, and still manages the Sinatra estate and licensing today. But, the only time Tina ever stepped into a studio and tried to take a stab at singing was for the Christmas album, and she had one solo song – a super poppy go at “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Now I gotta be honest, but this is, without a doubt, my very favorite track on “The Sinatra Family Wishes You a Merry Christmas.” Tina’s voice is okay. She’s not terrible at all. I mean, she’s no Karen Carpenter, but she’s not The Shaggs either. But what makes it fantastic is that the over production of the track is just incredible to the point of being ridiculous. It’s like Sinatra took every single resource that Capitol Records could offer and stuffed it in that three-minute track to ensure that Tina sounded great.
I don’t know how Sinatra got Tina to do the recording, but I’d like to imagine that it went something kind of like this.
(Note – the following is an imaginary tale made up by Sam Tweedle, with apologies to the Sinatra Family whom I adore. Please don’t sue me).
Scene: May 1967, The Capitol Records Building, Hollywood California. It’s a beautiful day in sunny Los Angeles and Frank Sinatra sits behind his desk in his large, luxurious office.
Voice from Intercom: Mr. Sinatra. You’re daughter Tina is here.
Frank Sinatra: Thanks Dorothy. Send her in.
Tina enters the office looking pensive.
Tina Sinatra: Hi Dad.
Frank: Hey there Angel Face. Did you get the memo that I sent over with the plans to the Holiday album? It’s going to be great. Nancy and Frank Jr. are on board, and it’s going to be a big hit. We’re going to have a great time!
Tina: Yeah, it sounds great Dad, but I’m just not sure.
Frank: Not sure about what, baby?
Tina: Well, you know I’m not a singer.
Frank: You’re not a singer? What do you mean you’re not a singer?
Tina: Well, I just don’t sing.
Frank: You listen to me. I’ve been in this business a long time, and if I say you’re a singer, then trust me, everyone else is going to say you’re a singer. You hear me?
Tina: Well, I don’t know if I want to do this. I mean, I can sing background on a couple of tracks, I guess, but I don’t want to do my own song. Why can’t you just get Nancy and Frankie to do it.
Frank: Look. You wanna wreck Christmas? I mean, if you feel that way, why don’t you go spend Christmas at Crosby’s house. I don’t care how many god-damned copies of “White Christmas” he’s sold, his kids don’t even want to spend Christmas at his house.
Tina: But Dad….
Frank: Look. Tina. It’s all good. I got this thing covered. It’s going to be great. We’ll have Lee Hazelwood in the studio. We’ll have Billy Strange on it. We’ll get the Wrecking Crew and the Ron Hicklin Singers on it. We’ll have the Hullaballoo dancers flip flopping and shim shamming and doing the frug, whatever the hell that is, through the recording studio, and we’ll give it a real modern rewrite. What’s that thing all you kids say now?
Tina: Uh, groovy?
Frank: No. The other thing.
Frank: No…. that thing that Martin and Rowan coined. “Hit me in the gut” or “bash me in the kneecaps.”
Tina: Oh. Sock it to me?
Frank: Yeah. “Sock it to me, Santa.” That’s it. Yeah. (Hitting intercom button) Dorothy! Call Mia and tell her I’m gonna be late for dinner, and get me Hugo Monternegro on the phone! We got a record to make!