Without argument, Frank Sinatra is the most iconic American singer of the 20th century. This whopping five-disc set issued by Reprise attempts to define Sinatra by performing in the place that seemingly defined him. It contains 61 never-before-issued performances of the singer in concert appearances in New York from the mid-'50s through to 1990. It also includes a DVD of a performance at Carnegie Hall, taped in 1980 with 16 more performances, for a total of 77 tracks.
Disc one features radio broadcasts. Its first four cuts are taken from his appearance at the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra's 20th anniversary gig, broadcast from Manhattan Center in 1955. The selections are all ballads, with the capper being "This Love of Mine." The rest of the disc is from another radio program, recorded at the United Nations in 1963 with Skitch Henderson on piano. It includes not only his sung performances of some of his biggest hits from the '50s, but one of his legendary monologues. The sound on this disc is the most compromised of all. Disc two is comprised of an excellent performance at Carnegie Hall, with Bill Miller conducting the orchestra, and Sinatra's great quartet. This is where we get performances of "My Way," "Send in the Clowns," and "Bad Bad Leroy Brown." Disc three also comes from 1974; recorded at Madison Square Garden, it contains the same core band but also includes Woody Herman & the Thundering Herd. The set list is very close to that of disc two, but this is the most satisfying CD in the set. The final CD showcases two excerpts from concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1984, and from Radio City Music Hall in 1990. Interestingly, in the final show, the orchestra is conducted by Frank Sinatra, Jr.. Finally, the DVD is a complete 1980 show from Carnegie Hall, Sinatra's voice still in fine shape and electrifying. The concert looks and sounds like a career retrospective -- from the '50s on, anyway -- but in place of the ubiquitous "My Way," we get the closing theme "New York, New York." Also included in this longbox formatted set, a 44-page booklet featuring recollections by Frank Jr. Nat Hentoff, Tony Bennett, Yogi Berra,,Twyla Tharp, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin (who claims he wanted to cast Sinatra in the lead role in Dirty Harry but was turned down!), and others. It is filled with rare photographs as well.
The real question, given the overall uneven sound quality of this collection, and the fact that so much live material of Sinatra's exists already -- most of it produced for release with his blessing and up to his own standards of quality. Some of the tunes here clearly miss, and all of disc four does: why it is even included in this collection since Sinatra's voice is certainly in decline, a lot of the sound is iffy as well. The DVD is arguably the best thing overall in the box, because the connection between performer and audience comes across brilliantly; it could have been -- and should have been -- issued all by itself. Only the hardest core Sinatra fan will really and truly be pleased with this set. For the rest of us, it's ultimately a letdown. One wonders why a performer who was so iconic -- and, for the majority of his career so exacting in the way he pushed himself to excel, need be represented with anything this uneven. No matter how well-intentioned, this effort falls considerably short of the mark.