Though Frank Sinatra’s music has been thoroughly documented, A Voice in Time: 1939-1952 focuses on the seeds of his stardom. Producers Didier Deutsch and Charles Granata, already veteran compilers of the Voice boxed sets, chart Sinatra’s growth into and (quickly) out of the big bands and subsequent ascent from uber-American idol to international icon. Four discs, arranged chronologically and thematically, cull material from several labels (Columbia, Brunswick, Bluebird, and Victor; thank you, corporate mergers), as well as unreleased radio air checks and alternate takes. The result is a thorough yet concise document of Sinatra’s rise.
The first disc, “The Big Band Years: 1939-1942,” covers his brief membership in Harry James’s group and his substantial tenure with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. Though the helium-voiced Sinatra sounds positively green on this sentimental journey, the disc performs the insufferable logistical nightmare of collecting inter-label material. The second disc, “Teen Idol: 1943-1952,” explores Sinatra’s explosion into marquee-idol territory. Mostly collaborations with arranger/conductor Axel Stordahl, the material stems from popcorn fare, such as It Happened in Brooklyn and The Gang’s All Here, and radio shows. In spite of the high potential for gimmicks in such B-context, the material is among Sinatra’s highlights. He covers songs that he would become forever associated with, such as “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” and “Dancing in the Dark.” Additionally, now in his late twenties, his voice is more robust and capable of coloring more remarkably. The third disc is dedicated to “The Great American Songbook (1943-1947),” which includes some of Sinatra’s best-known material, as alluded above. Several of the boxed set’s most illuminating previously unreleased material is heard here, including radio air checks of “As Time Goes By” and “It Had to Be You,” as well as a gentle alternate take of “All the Things You Are.”
The final disc, “The Sound of Things to Come (1947-1952),” provides the most musicological cocktail chatter. It hypothesizes that the seeds of his eventual transition at Capitol Records in the mid-’50s to macho swinger were laid during his final years at Columbia. The theory bares consideration when listening to the blustery “The Birth of the Blues,” where Sinatra comes out swinging (in the fisticuffs senses) with a noticeably more aggressive tone and swaggering rhythm that would characterize his pending renaissance. However, the pitch is not entirely sound, because Sinatra’s past sensitivity and sentimental crooning are still in full effect on early-’50s material, like “Love Me” and “April in Paris.” That said, the disc is also the most adventurous of the set. It showcases Sinatra leapfrogging styles and material that are asynchronous with the pop-lite tastes of then Columbia honcho Mitch Miller — call it his two-year middle-finger notice.
Overall, the box achieves its goal of mapping this formative part of Sinatra’s career. The song selection is sensible and sure to please both longtime fans and even casual pop listeners. The quality of the newly released performances is on par with the rest of his well-circulated material. The sound, especially on the first two discs, is noticeably tinny, but the producers make clear the historicity of the recordings (all master sources were monophonic and all were on long-outdated formats, though some of Alan Lomax’s remastered field recordings sound arguably better than Sinatra’s Brunswick sides). As the tenth anniversary of Sinatra’s passing looms, A Voice in Time offers a timely recollection.