After his breakup from Ava Gardner, an emotionally raw Frank Sinatra recorded his third concept album and his first long-player, a melancholy, introspective collection of ballads arranged by Nelson Riddle called In the Wee Small Hours, named after the album's most devastating song, and one that would forever be closely identified with Sinatra. Skipping the song's introduction, Sinatra allows a warm string section to swell and ebb before easing his way into the lyric: "In the wee small hours of the morning/When the whole wide world is fast asleep/You lie awake and think about the girl/And never ever think of counting sheep/When your lonely heart has learned its lesson/You'd be hers if only she would call/In the wee small hours of the morning/That's the time you miss her most of all." Without the introduction, that is the song's entire lyric: an economy of words that says all there is to be said. And as the first song on the record, it lays out the groundwork for the rest of the songs. Here was a bruised and battered Sinatra, his mellifluous voice seasoned, almost tattered, worn and wizened; that which does not kill you...etc. And for all his vulnerability on display on the song, Sinatra does indeed seem stronger for it all; he has loved, lost, and survived, and is moving on, but not before recording this reflective song and this collection of material as blue as its sleeve. This was a song that launched one of pop music's most famous albums, a record that signaled a new level of artistry and maturity from Sinatra as a jazz singer and as a man who was going through life's troubles along with his audience, growing and struggling along with him.
"In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" was written by the famous songwriting team of Bob Hilliard and David Mann, who together also penned such standards as "Jealous Eyes" and individually are responsible for "The Coffee Song," "Our Day Will Come," and "There, I've Said It Again." According to an anecdote printed on the Tunesmiths website (/http://nfo.net/.CAL/index.html#CALTOP), Mann and song-plugger Redd Evans spotted Sinatra walking down Broadway in New York. They beseeched him to listen to this new song, "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning." According to the story, "Sinatra listened and calmly locked the door and said, 'Fellas, this is my kinda song....'" Sinatra's voice sounds completely dry and free of reverb or other adornment that might interfere with the emotional delivery. Riddle's arrangement is spare, with the strings forming a quietly lush pad over a skeletal rhythm section. On I Just Dropped By to Say Hello (1963), the impossibly rich-voiced jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman found a way to make the song sound as lonely as Sinatra's, restoring the introduction -- though as a bridge. His version is even more sparse than Sinatra's, employing a traditional early-'60s small jazz combo, with Kenny Burrell on guitar, Elvin Jones on drums, Milt Hinton on bass, and pianist Hank Jones. The song also enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in the late '90s thanks to Carly Simon's unremarkable and oddly out-of-pitch version on the enormous Sleepless in Seattle soundtrack. For an excellent instrumental jazz recording of the song, check out tenor player Ben Webster with Oscar Peterson on the 1959 Ben Webster Meets Oscar Peterson, where the pianist quotes other moments from Sinatra's album.