- The Washington Times - Friday, May 23, 2003

It was nearly a decade ago that U2’s frontman Bono presented Frank Sinatra with a Grammy Legend award. “Rock-‘n’-roll people love Frank Sinatra,” Bono announced, “because Frank Sinatra has got what we want — swagger and attitude.” It took a few more years for aging rock ‘n’ rollers to realize that Mr. Sinatra had something else, something a bit more important than the cocktail-quaffing, the ring-a-ding-ding, the way he wears his hat.

He had songs worth singing.

In the last couple of years, aging rockers have lined up to try their hands at the great American songbook. ‘70s rock icon Rod Stewart has released an album of “standards,” as such classic songs are known. Folk-rock songstress Joni Mitchell put out a record of classic American songs in 2000 with a fine studio orchestra and guest turns by jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter.

After his early success as a blue-eyed soul singer fizzled out in the mid-‘90s, Curtis Stigers (who performed last night at the Kennedy Center’s K.C. Jazz Club) switched gears and reinvented himself as a jazz singer. Barry Manilow has tried on the Sinatra tux for size. Steve Tyrell — a longtime R&B; producer for Atlantic Records — fancies himself a jazz singer, too, these days. And now Boz Scaggs, best known for such smoothly soulful pop hits as “Lowdown” and “Look What You’ve Done to Me,” has joined the parade with an album of standards titled, “But Beautiful.”

While it has gained steam lately, the phenomenon is not entirely new. Between 1983 and 1986, Linda Ronstadt turned out three albums with Nelson Riddle, the arranger famous for creating the lush yet swinging orchestral sound so essential to such Sinatra discs as “Songs for Swinging Lovers” and “The Wee Small Hours.” After Mr. Riddle died, she moved on, dabbling in her ancestral mariachi, Cajun music, operatic style, and country-rock, as the spirit moved her. Miss Ronstadt has yet to deliver a collection of Albanian wedding songs.

The recent trend got going in earnest when bad-boy British pop star Robbie Williams took a break from hip-hop grooves and Euro-pop melodies to front a big band. The 2001 album, “Swing When You’re Winning,” was a pastiche of Rat Pack tropes — a rowdy celebration of the “swagger and attitude” that Bono so admired in Mr. Sinatra. The record was a monster hit in England. “Swing When You’re Winning” sold more than 5 million copies and was EMI’s biggest selling record in 2001. The success of the record helped Mr. Williams land a — get this — $125 million contract for his next four albums at EMI. Yet, for all the commercial success of his swing shtick, Robbie Williams isn’t sticking with it. His newly released “Escapology” takes him solidly back into the realm of modern pop.

Boz Scaggs, by contrast, gives every reason to believe that his embrace of the songbook is more than just a fling: The subtitle of his album is “Standards, Volume I.” Believe it or not, this is a good thing. Mr. Scaggs displays real musicianship on the record, not only in his own vocal performances, but in his choice of band mates. He has surrounded himself with a first-rate jazz rhythm section, but, interestingly, not an all-star crew. Mr. Scaggs had the refreshing confidence to pick musicians based on how they play together, not on how their names would play on the CD cover.

Singers such as Mr. Scaggs and Curtis Stigers may not have great voices, but their singing does have appealing character. While Mr. Sinatra’s presence on record was comparable to Cary Grant’s on the big screen — powerful, refined, and instantly riveting — these rockers have second-banana, character-actor voices: Entertaining and distinctive, yes, but the range is limited.

Indeed, vocal range is a real stumbling block. Take the song “What’s New,” which opens the new Scaggs disc. The middle section of the tune — what musicians call the “bridge” or the “release” — finds the song’s melody reaching to a singer’s upper register. In the great Sinatra performance on the disc “Only the Lonely,” Mr. Sinatra opens up on the bridge, full-throated, delivering a soaring emotional wallop. When Boz Scaggs gets to the bridge in his rendition of “What’s New,” he bails out with a timid falsetto.

As for a few of the other rock-‘n’-roll refugees, some Cole Porter lyrics are apropos: “Is it in marble, or is it in clay? Is it a new Rolls-Royce, or just a used Chevrolet?” In the case of Rod Stewart, we’re talking about a Chevy after way too many miles of bad road. Steve Tyrell’s singing might be described as Joe Cocker channeling Bing Crosby.

The most distinctive characteristic of these rockers’ voices is damage — they display all the rough edges that come from a lifetime of hard use and vocal abuse. These singers’ rough edges are uniformly presented as a virtue, like the patina on a well-worn antique. Rod Stewart bragged of late that recent surgery to remove nodes from his vocal chords lowered his voice and made him a better singer of standards.

In the contrasting case of Mr. Scaggs, however, the weathered voice is appealing. When singing songs that capture the wear and tear of life, an aged-in-wood voice is ever so much more satisfying than, for example, the glib and unfermented sound of overhyped and underaged crooner Peter Cincotti.

Francis Davis wrote in the Atlantic several years ago that singing rock/pop tunes never quite worked for Mr. Sinatra, for the simple reason that the songs didn’t swing. Swing is that not-quite-definable quality of relaxed energy that is at the heart of jazz. Mr. Sinatra had so internalized a sense of swing that trying to perform without it was impossible for him. The reverse is true for the new crossover artists: Swinging, for them, is like speaking a foreign language. It can be done, of course, but unaccented fluency takes more work than most of them have put into it.

To say that these singers of standards are not credible jazz singers is not to dismiss their work. Rather, it is to suggest that one doesn’t have to be a jazz singer at all to tackle American popular songs.

The best example of standards performed by a singer outside the jazz tradition remains Willie Nelson’s classic 1978 album, “Stardust.” Mr. Nelson knows something about good songwriting, having made his name in Nashville penning such estimable tunes as the Patsy Cline hit “Crazy.” (“Crazy” is one of the few pop songs of the ‘60s to be adopted by jazz musicians as a standard.) He also happily acknowledges that his lazy-beat vocal style owes much to Mr. Sinatra and the other jazz singers he grew up listening to on the radio.

It should be no surprise that Mr. Nelson was drawn to songs from the great American songbook, but it is important to note that he didn’t try to make himself over in Mr. Sinatra’s image by luxuriating in strings or hiring the best jazz rhythm section of the day. Instead, he performed the songs with his own band and in his own way. The gentle country treatments he gave the songs bring out the heartland in them (especially the tunes by Hoosier Hoagy Carmichael, “Stardust” and “Georgia on My Mind”). By performing them in his own style, Mr. Nelson was able to mine undiscovered gold previously buried in these songs.

Pop and rock artists should look to Mr. Nelson’s example as a model. In his recent book, “Stardust Melodies,” critic Will Friedwald made a compelling case that the defining characteristic of American popular-song standards is that they are robust enough to withstand a dizzying variety of interpretations. As the songs are endlessly reinvented, they take on rich lives far beyond the composers’ wildest original imaginings.

When rockers pretend to be jazz singers — even if the end product is pretty good — they aren’t doing the music — or themselves — justice. They need to make the songs their own, imprinting their standards records with their own styles and sensibilities.

And why shouldn’t they? After all, there’s nothing wrong with a Boz Scaggs record.

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