In talking to members of his band, you soon learn that Dylan is always making changes and surprising even the people who perform with him. The late Mick Ronson, guitarist for Dylan for some time, told me in our conversation that it was not unlike Dylan to want to make changes to the songs for the set they were about to perform on stage-without even any practice. It was hard to keep up with him because he always wanted to do things differently and was following a vision in his head. That vision was often way ahead of not only the band, but other performers, critics and fans.
But why would he do an album of Frank Sinatra songs? Well, Bob does what Bob wants to do. Somehow, it most always works. Going back in his musical history you will find what many thought were totally crazy changes. Just when he was established as the leader in folk music, he went electric. Then he went country, followed by gospel. Somehow they all worked in some way.
In the making of perhaps the best song of the entire rock music history, “Like a Rolling Stone”, Bob had this idea in his head of a sound that he wanted. In the middle of the recording session, he asked for an organ player. There were none present. Al Kooper happened to be in the building at the time looking for session work as a guitarist. When the call went out for an organ player, Kooper said I can play a little organ. They brought him in the studio to hear what he could do. The producer, Tom Wilson, heard a little of the playing and was ready to dismiss Al. Dylan stepped in and said that sound was exactly what he was searching for and Kooper was hired. Once again Dylan was right and a great song was made perfect by some very simple organ work.
But, what is original about re-doing Sinatra songs? OK, they aren’t really Sinatra songs (he only co-wrote one), but more like great American songs written by the likes of Berlin, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Mercer. It has already been done by some rockers (most successfully by Rod Stewart) so what makes this so ground breaking?
Unlike the other attempts at re-doing these great American song book classics, Dylan has taken a totally different approach. No one is going to ever confuse the new SHADOWS IN THE NIGHT with anything Sinatra or other rockers did. While Dylan’s voice hasn’t sounded better in the last two decades, he is far from being a crooner in the same league with the smooth Sinatra approach. Instead of attempting to “croon” the songs with the same kind of lush arrangements as the originals, Dylan sings his heart out in his own style. While Sinatra’s singing was perfect and flowing. It was almost too good for some of the feelings that were in the lines of the song. Sinatra lovers will certainly disagree, but his versions often were too mechanical. It often sounded like he didn’t really feel the passion behind the music. It was like he was just going through the motions.
That certainly is not the case with the Dylan re-makes. Passion abounds! Gone are the big arrangements with lush violins. They have been replaced by one of the very best back up bands in all of rock and roll. The simple, but heartfelt arrangements are the perfect environment for Bob as he struggles to hit the right notes and never does. Still, you feel them. Somehow, he has made these classic songs sound like HE wrote them.
It may take more than one listen to this CD, but you will eventually come away with a feeling that Bob Dylan has done it to us again. Dylan doing Sinatra is no laughing matter.