Sinatra remastered: Time for truth in show biz

January 06, 1994|By William Safire

THE technicians have found a way to bring back the musical past. Memorable performances have been "digitally remastered" and sound better than they ever did before.

I buy the compact discs of Peggy Lee, Dick Haymes, Rosemary Clooney, dub them to a tape -- it's legal -- and play "Sunny Side of the Street," "I Surrender, Dear," "Come On-a My House" while driving to work in my vehicular cocoon. It knocks me out to hear Buddy Clark singing "When I go to sleep, I never count sheep, I count all the charms about Linda."

These popular performances bring on a rush of nostalgia, admittedly a sloppy sentiment, but it does my soul good to stir memories of sitting in the 107th Street studio of WNBT when the producer Alan Handley, my brother Len, and piano player Johnny Andrews pioneered musical television with young Dinah Shore.

That's how '90s technology has delivered for me. The new CD sound of Frank Sinatra "in the wee small hours" of the '60s is richer, clearer and more moving than it ever was in mere hi-fi. His greatest singing moments have been recaptured and literally recreated, making it possible for those who enjoyed "the Voice" long ago to marvel at today's far truer reproduction of the bounce and delight in "I've Got the World on a String."

Then modern technology doublecrossed me. Sinatra produced a new album of the old songs, called "Duets," supposedly sung together with such stars as Liza Minnelli and Julio Iglesias. Much as I despise Sinatra's bridgework between entertainment, casinos, and crime, I have always admired his artistry, and therefore bought the CD.

It's a disaster; his voice is shot. Not all the vocal technique and tricks of recording enhancement and propping-up by other voices can make him sound other than the pitiful straining of an old man pretending to be the singer he is no longer. Unlike Garbo and Dietrich, who refused to be photographed in their later years lest it spoil the public's memory of their beauty, Sinatra greedily diminishes his reputation.

Worse, and more to my point today, the "duets" are a series of artistic frauds. The singers never sang together, never interacted. Sinatra wheezed out his soundtrack, and later the others -- by telephone -- laid down their counterfeit counterpoint, much as Natalie Cole created her macabre "duet" a few years ago with her dead father's "Unforgettable."

The question raised is this: When a performer's voice and image can not only be edited, echoed, refined, spliced, corrected, and enhanced -- but can be transported and combined with others not physically present -- what is a performance? In our lust for technical brilliance, are we losing the integrity of individual talent?

Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz were not above fixing a wrong note or two in recordings of their piano recitals; but then Glenn Gould carried that to an extreme of fitting together bits of tape into a mosaic he improperly called a performance.

In the same way, politicians have speechwriters to polish their prose; actors get face lifts; TV newscasters wear makeup and employ dazzling graphics; even pundits have copy editors who save them from embarrassments (and one of us has to study up on fused participles). But this acknowledged outside help is not in the same league with the onrushing multimedia concoction of a mass of talents and electronic techniques masquerading as an artistic entity.

Isn't it time for truth-in-showbiz? Shouldn't an audience demand some idea of how much is human and how much is electronically enhanced before it is asked to suspend disbelief? If we accept a star manufactured by an audio-graphic mixmaster, we make a muddle of individual talent and a mockery of artistic genius.

Enough of additives, plasticity, virtual venality; give me organic entertainment. I want to see Liza Minnelli alone on stage or Karen Akers in cabaret, even if that individual performance is presented on a small screen. It's OK if they sweat, or forget a lyric, or hit a sour note. That's the kind of art that life follows.

And that's why I play the tape of the CD of the authentic, '60s Sinatra on the stereo of my 1969 Cougar convertible on the way to work. It makes me feel so young.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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