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Sleepers in the Sinatra Canon Posted - Sep 23, 2018
Frank Sinatra was not easily defeated, not by critics, not by a case of tired vocal chords, and not by slumping record sales. What follows are reviews of four overlooked albums that attest not to his art but to his perseverance.


Even on a bad day, Frank Sinatra shines. This is a lovely LP, somewhere between the autumnal feel of "The Turning Point" and the lush romanticism of "The Concert Sinatra.” All three albums were recorded within the same year and feature some of Sinatra's best ballad work. Yes, Sinatra's voice was a bit tired from touring Europe when he entered a London studio to record "Great Songs," but the tired vocal chords add rather than detract from the melancholy mood of the songs, particularly with "Now is the Hour" and "Garden in the Rain." As always, Sinatra's delivers the goods, plumbing the emotional depths of each song and making it vibrant and alive. The key is the gorgeous string arrangements. Arranger Robert Farnon, who arranged the music for "Great Songs," was a big fan of Axel Stordahl, Sinatra's arranger from the Columbia years. In some ways, Farnon surpasses him, with string writing that is positively heavenly. As the liner notes attest, Sinatra and Farnon constituted a mutual admiration society. Among my favorites cuts are "The Very Thought of You" (one of Sinatra's rare attempts at covering a Nat Cole song), "If I Had You" and "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”


Leave it to Frank Sinatra, to hire a 100-piece orchestra for a concert for a half-dozen close friends, and perform a set devoted exclusively to the grandly romantic show tunes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Rodgers and Hart. In fact the intended audience was the record-buying public, who somehow missed this great album when it arrived in record stores in the Fall of 1962, an album that was arranged and conducted by incomparable Nelson Riddle, and performed by the cream of Hollywood's high-brow musicians, most of whom were on sabbatical from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. You want Broadway songs that uplift and inspire? This album is loaded: "I Have Dreamed," "My Heart Stood Still," "Lost in the Stars," "Ol' Man River," "You'll Never Walk Along," "This Nearly Was Mine." Grandiloquent is the word for it.


The album is entitled “A Man Alone”—not “Sinatra Sings Rod McKuen.” There is a difference. The key to appreciating the singular specialness of Frank Sinatra is that when a song means something to him—when he makes a connection with the words on some personal level—the song becomes his own. That’s why Sinatraphiles—and I am one—are so devoted to his music. When Sinatra is given lyrics that matter to him, no one can match him. That’s why this album is special—Sinatra was into the lyrics. Rod McKuen supplied the words, but Sinatra gave them meaning. In the end, the vision is Sinatra’s alone.

About the words—not everyone loved Rod McKuen’s poetry and music, it just seemed that way back in the ‘60s when this album was made. Obviously, Sinatra was moved by McKuen’s poetry on some fundamental level. The two met at a party. One thing led to another and Frank asked the "paperback poet" to write the lyrics for an entire album devoted to being single and alone. As always, Sinatra rehearsed at home with pianist Bill Miller–to take possession of the mood the words evoked. "The prince of pop charts," Don Costa, supplied arrangements suitable to the mood, and the album was recorded in three sessions. Not everyone knew what to make of it. The music was decidedly low wattage, and some of the lyrics were spoken. Ring-a-ding-ding it was not. Nor was it the suicide music of “No One Cares” and “Where Are You.” The music was deeply intimate and personal. The man singing was alone but not lonely. If his heart was broken, he was over it. He was wistful about lost loves as opposed to brooding over them. “A Man Alone” is unique in the Sinatra canon. That said, record sales were dismal in the U.S. but overseas the English people loved it. Today, “A Man Alone” is earning a grudging respect among Sinatraphiles and finding a place at last on the shelf with, among other recordings, “A Swingin’ Affair,” “Only the Lonely,” and “September of My Years.”

(4) WATERTOWN (1969)

“Watertown” was a pivotal moment in Frank Sinatra’s long career. The former boy singer of the Tommy Dorsey Band, the one-time heartthrob who left the girls swooning in the aisles at the Paramount Theater in New York City, the creator of the concept album, the former 30-something swinger and Rat Pack leader, the multi-media business mogul, and now, in the late-1960s, aging superstar, was struggling to come to grips with the growing youth market. In 1969, he spent most of the year in a Hollywood recording studio searching for something—anything—that would connect with the kids. Why he was so obsessed is a mystery. He had nothing more to prove. He was super-rich, owned a third of Warner-Reprise Records, was still very much a hot property in the movie industry, and yet here he was looking for a hit record, and making yet another “important” album, but most of all, as a singer, being relevant again. Sinatra liked to say he was a saloon singer, only he didn’t play saloons; there was no money in it. He was a pop singer who played to sell-out crowds in huge arenas like Madison Square Garden. More than that, he was an artist, with an artist’s temperament—impatient, demanding, never satisfied, forever wondering why others didn’t hear what he heard, feel what he felt, see what he saw. It wasn’t easy being Frank Sinatra. But in 1969 none of his former success mattered, and his artistic temperament cried out for something new.

When Frankie Vali of the Four Seasons suggested Sinatra work with the Four Season's songwriting team, Sinatra accepted without reservation. Recorded in July 1969, “Watertown” was the result. It was unlike anything Sinatra had ever done before. It was a series of connected stories told in song about a marriage breakup and the effect it was having on the children and on the husband/father. It wasn’t ring-a-ding-ding, but it was real, personal, as emotionally touching as any saloon album, and played to Sinatra's art as master story teller. The orchestral arrangements–at once retro and modern–were the perfect counterpoint to Sinatra, as the wounded, wizened, world-weary story-teller. The album was well-recorded and the deluxe record jacket appropriate to what was a concept album. Sinatra was proud of the album. Yet, of all the records he made at Reprise, it was by far his worst selling, with a reported 35,000 units moved. Not nearly enough to pay the studio musicians. It was also Sinatra’s last complete album before his retirement. In 1971, he decided he would be happier on a Palm Springs golf course than in the fruitless pursuit of yet another hit record. When the CD age arrived, "Watertown" was the last Sinatra album to go digital. “Watertown” is Sinatra’s lost album—misunderstood, unappreciated, neglected.

That is not the end of the story, however. In recent years, critics and buyers alike have rediscovered “Watertown” and decided it’s not so bad after all. In fact, with repeated listening, it’s actually quite good, better in fact than a number of albums Sinatra recorded in the three or four years before and after his 1971 retirement. In I998, a week after Sinatra’s death, Entertainment Weekly rated Sinatra’s entire discography, from 1939 through the Duets albums of ‘90s. The writer, jazz critic Will Friedwald, placed “Watertown” squarely in the middle of Sinatra’s 100 album discography—at number 50—ahead of “My Way,” “Softly As I Leave You,” “That’s Life,” “Ol’Blue Eyes is Back,” “L.A. Is My Lady,” “Some Nice Things I’ve Missed,” “The World We Knew,” “Cycles” and the two “Duets” albums. Throw in scores of favorable reviews on and “Watertown” is lost no more.

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The Great Divide—Roe v. Wade
Posted - Sep 16, 2018
Has there ever been a more divisive Supreme Court decision than Roe v. Wade? Brown v. Board of Education was controversial in its day, but did not divide the country in any meaningful or lasting way. More recently, Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, while controversial, has stirred up none of the dissension of Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade has divided the nation unlike any Supreme Court decision since possibly Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). Roe v. Wade has pushed the extreme elements in both political parties to the point where in Congress compromise decisions have become increasingly rare, where opponents across the aisle are seen not only as wrong but very wrong and possibly evil.

Roe v. Wade is among the many Court decisions discussed in “The Most Democratic Branch: How the Courts Serve America,” by Jeffrey Rosen, a professor of law at The George Washington University Law School. In some ways, it’s the only case, as the author cites Roe v. Wade again and again as among the worst examples of judicial unilateralism, in which the court acted out of step with the executive and legislative branches of government and, crucially, the American people. Many court watchers and legal analysts, including liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, would agree. Justice Ginsberg has repeatedly spoken out about the need to find a balance between advancing constitutional values and respecting the democratic process, and for criticizing Roe v. Wade for having moved too far too fast. If that’s true, who should make the call on the abortion issue? According to the author, the decision should be made by the states, or more pointedly, by the state legislative branches. More about that in a moment.

First, are the courts the most democratic branch of government? For the most part they are, says Rosen, when they "reflect and enforce the constitutional views" of the American people. “Paradoxically, the courts, often derided as the least democratic branch of government, have maintained their legitimacy over time when they have been more rather than less democratic in their constitutional views.” They get into trouble when they unilaterally try to strike down laws in the name of a constitutional principle that is being actively and intensely contested by a majority of the American people, says the author. He cites Roe v. Wade and Bush v. Gore as two striking examples. Rosen’s book is a cautionary tale about the chaos that may result if judges forget they are as accountable to the American people, as much so as elected officials, as, for example, the executive and legislative branches of government. Rosen recommends judicial restraint (as opposed to judicial activism) as the solution. It’s a time-honored approach that has enjoyed widespread support among liberals and conservatives but is increasingly out a fashion, he says. “This tradition, famously associated with judges like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Felix Frankfurter, and Learned Hand, holds that courts should play an extremely modest role in American democracy.” Put another way, judges should confine themselves to gentle nudges rather dramatic shoves.

Rosen argues that Roe v. Wade is a case where the Court should have nudged gently but instead they shoved dramatically. “(Roe v. Wade) represents one of the few times in the Court’s history that it has unilaterally leaped ahead of a national consensus about liberty and equality to impose a complicated reform not yet accepted by a majority of the public.” At the time of the decision, nearly a third of the states had liberalized their abortion laws, but thirty states still had laws on their books forbidding abortion except to save the life of the mother. And nationwide public opinion when Roe was decided appeared to support reform but not complete repeal of abortion restrictions. At the time, the efforts of reformers were focused on state legislatures, which the Roe decision stopped.

No one can be sure how quickly abortion laws would have been liberalized across the country. Rosen suggests that the reform movement would have achieved this if allowed to continue. In fact, more than half the country since 1973 has consistently opposed restrictions on abortion during the first three months of pregnancy. Moreover, this national majority in favor of the right to choose abortion during the first trimester remained largely unchanged for nearly two decades after Roe.

The response to Roe created a series of conservative interest groups who sought the appointment of Supreme Court justices who would reverse Roe. Yet, public opinion has not changed in the interim. The national majority still remains in favor of the right to choose during the first trimester. Which brings us back to where the issue should have been addressed in the first place—by the legislature.

Most Americans are moderates and tend to be more liberal than the pro-life base, says Rosen. Should Roe v. Wade be overturned, which is not out of the question, it’s likely moderation would return to American politics. The abortion question would then be a decision for state legislatures and ultimately for Congress to make, and would reflect the political makeup of all the country, rather than the extreme elements of either political party. Being pro-life or pro-choice would not carry as much weight. Under such a scenario, “judicial nominations could go back to normal at last,” says Rosen. It’s refreshing to think so.

Rosen’s book makes a strong case for judicial restraint that challenges proponents of both liberal and conservative judicial activism. As one critic put it: "Rosen's is a theory of adjudication for grown-ups: those at once concerned to limit judicial power and impatient with shrill doctrinal prescriptions for doing so." Amen.

Music from the frozen north–the music of Jean Sibelius
Posted - Sep 13, 2018
Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) is a twentieth-century composer who does not fit easily into a niche. Though he lived until mid-century, he is not in the "New Music" category of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Bartok, and Hindemith. His symphony No. 2 in D is a prime example. It's a well-crafted hybrid that's equal parts 19th-century romanticism and equal parts 20th-century New Music. It's grandly bold and breathtaking, with highly-charged sweeping melodies, and remains one of his most popular works. With Edvard Grieg, Sibelius is the only well-known composer from the frozen northern island nations of Europe, where the winter days are short, gloomy and bitterly cold. His later symphonies, no. 4 in particular, sound as bleak and harsh as the Finnish winter. By comparison, his second symphony is positively sunny (sounding very much like something Tchaikovsky would compose). What's interesting about Sibelius is that he lived until 1959, but did not compose another piece of music after 1928, which means for nearly 30 years a truly gifted composer did not compose. The world is the poorer for it.

Sibelius was highly opinionated, and something of rebel. Of the piano he wrote: "I dislike the piano. It is an unsatisfactory, ungrateful instrument, an instrument for which only one composer, Chopin, has succeeded in writing perfectly, and of which only two others, Debussy and Schumann, have had an intimate understanding."

Sibelius wrote one world-class violin concerto, no operas, seven edgy symphonies, various chamber pieces, one orchestral suite and several colorful tone poems. Among his most beloved tunes are the shorter works, all tone poems, specifically, "Finlandia," "Swan of Tuonela," "Tapiola," and "Valse Triste." Among his popular chamber works, there's "String Quartet in D minor" and "String Quartet in A minor."

On the list of great composers, Sibelius ranks 28th.

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Rights of the Accused–Miranda v. Arizona
Posted - Sep 09, 2018
Ernesto Miranda, a laborer in Phoenix, was arrested on charges of kidnapping and rape in March 1963. The overzealous police department had the goods on him, more than enough evidence to put him in prison for a good long time. Only they wanted more. They wanted an air-tight case. They wanted a signed confession. In getting it they deprived Miranda of his constitutional rights as a citizen of the United States. They questioned him for two hours without an attorney present and made him sign a statement that he confessed to the crime under his "own free will, with no threats, coercion, or promise of immunity, and with full knowledge of (his) legal rights, understanding any statement (he made) may be used against (him)." The trial that followed was open and shut, concluded in a single day, with the jury returning a guilty verdict within mere minutes.

If not for a wave of liberal crusaders pressing to reform the nation's criminal justice system, Miranda's story would have ended there. But his conviction, along with three other similar cases, caught the attention of the Supreme Court, which in Gideon v. Wainwright (1963) and Escobedo v. Illinois (1964), had established the accused person's right to counsel in state cases under the Sixth Amendment. Now the Court sought to weigh the nature of the accused person's rights while in custody and whether they must be explicitly advised of them.

That's the background of "Miranda v. Arizona: Rights of the Accused" by Gail Blasser Riley. It's listed as a young-adult book, but it doesn't read like one. The basic issue is as simple as it is profound–who looks after the rights of the little guy, the dispossessed, the vulnerable, the minority who happens to find himself caught up in the United States criminal justice system? Miranda was shanghaied, so to speak, even if he was guilty of the crime. Luckily for him – and us – the Supreme Court heard his case and reversed the lower court's decision, and the reading of the Miranda Rights have become a part of police interrogation. Miranda was retried in the 1963 rape charge and, without his confession being entered into evidence, was found guilty and sentenced to 20 to 30 years in prison.

Justice Walter Schaefer of Illinois has advanced “the relation of the United States to the rest of the world” as one argument for national standards of criminal procedure. “The quality of a nation’s civilization can be largely measured by the method it uses in the enforcement of its criminal law. Who speaks for the little guy? The Supreme Court which is in a strategic position to give voice to national ideals.”

For decades, the judiciary had struggled with the problem of how to regulate the inherently coercive environment of police detention. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover formed the Wickersham Commission to study how law enforcement was being applied. The commission found in its 1931 report that the "third degree–that is the use of physical brutality, and other forms of cruelty, to obtain confessions or admissions–is widespread." Five years later, in "Brown v. Mississippi," the Court ruled that confession induced by torture violated the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In that case, three black men in Mississippi were convicted almost entirely due to confessions obtained after brutal police whippings. "The rack and torture chamber may not be substituted for the witness stand," Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes wrote for the Court's unanimous majority.

By the 1960s, it was clear that more work was needed. A 1961 study by the Commission on Civil Rights reported "evidence is found which indicates that some policemen still resort to physical force to obtain confessions," finding claims of the third degree being used to elicit admissions of guilt.

It was in that context that the high court sought to lay down strict guidelines for what was, as Chief Justice Earl Warren put it, the "inherently intimidating . . . police dominated-atmosphere" that too often violated suspect's rights as law-enforcement officers sought to obtain confessions. Underpinned by the Fifth Amendment's right against self-incrimination, Miranda and its associated cases offered the Supreme Court the opportunity to outline in great specificity what officers must say and do when interviewing a suspect if they hope to use the resulting information against the person.

"Unless a proper limitation upon custodial interrogation is achieved–such as these decisions will advance–there can be no assurance that practices of this nature will be eradicated in the foreseeable future," the Chief Justice wrote.

Drafting the script that remains essentially unchanged today, Warren ruled that those in custody must be "clearly informed" of their right to remain silent; that their statements could be used against them in court; and of their right to an attorney appointed them if they could not afford one. Interrogation had to cease if those interviewed decided at any point to invoke their right to silence or an attorney. Most tellingly, Warren added that fulfilling those requirements would be a prerequisite to the admissibility of statements at trial.

The Court had thus rewritten police handbooks nationwide, and for that the 5-4 decision had its critics. Not least among them was Associate Justice Byron White, generally seen as representing the liberal wing of the Court, who argued that the decision was a dramatic expansion of the Fifth Amendment's protections, alleging that the majority's new standards for interrogation would discourage all confessions, while criminals who would otherwise incriminate themselves would be back on the streets. Yet despite some outcry and the subsequent explosion of urban crimes, Miranda's legacy has held strong.

In the 2000 case "Dickerson v. U.S." the federal government argued that the Miranda decision was merely a ruling of judicial procedure rather than a right guaranteed under the Constitution. But the high court disagreed, upholding the now-sacrosanct decision as a statement of constitutional law by a strong 7-2 majority. "Miranda has become imbedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the court's majority.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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