“Luck Be a Lady”
Composed by Frank Loesser; arranged by Billy May.
Recorded by Frank Sinatra for Reprise on July 25, 1963 in Los Angeles.
Frank Sinatra, singing; with Billy May, directing the orchestra (approximate personnel): Conrad Gozzo, first trumpet; Rubin “Zeke” Zarchy, Walter “Pete” Candoli, Clarence “Shorty” Sherock, trumpets; Austin “Bud” Brisbois, high trumpet; Dick Nash, first trombone; Francis “Joe” Howard, Milt Bernhart, tenor trombones; George Roberts, bass trombone; Vince De Rosa and Dick Perissi, French horns; Arthur “Skeets” Herfurt, Harry Klee, alto saxophones; Plas Johnson and William “Buddy” Colette, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Bill Miller, piano; Al Viola, guitar; Joe Comfort, bass; Irv Cottler, drums; Emilio J. Radocchia (Emil Richards), bongos; Veryle Brilhart, harp. In addition, there was a string section consisting of about a fifteen instruments.
By the early 1960s, Frank Sinatra had collaborated on a number of successful projects with master swing arranger Billy May, including the Capitol LPs Come Fly with Me, Come Dance with Me, and Come Swing with Me. As 1963 began, Sinatra, by then well-established as the chairman of the board of Reprise Records, which he owned, was pursuing a number of recording projects there. Sinatra reveled in the freedom of in essence being his own producer at Reprise. (At right: Sinatra with Billy May – late 1950s. Sinatra greatly enjoyed working with May: he respected Billy’s musical ability, and loved his wacky sense of humor.)
Sinatra had been one of the first recording artists to make use of the “concept album,” which was made possible by the arrival in the record industry in the early 1950s of the long-playing (LP) record, which could hold as much as 23 minutes of music on each side of a 12-inch vinyl disk. The “concept album” in essence would be premised on a theme, and that theme would be carried through each song included on the long-playing disk. Very often, to ensure stylistic continuity, one arranger was used to make the arrangements for all of the songs on the album. Sinatra was allowed the freedom at Capitol Records, for whom he recorded from 1953 to 1961, to make many concept albums. These included the now legendary In the Wee Small Hours Capitol LP from 1955, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle. Many others followed, including the three mentioned above.
When Sinatra took his talents to Reprise Records in 1961, he continued making concept albums. In addition, he made other kinds of albums, at an astonishing pace. Sinatra produced no less than eleven LP albums in the years 1961 and 1962, which marked his transition from Capitol to Reprise. Eight of these albums were produced at Reprise. Sinatra was like a kid in a candy store.
It seems that by the mid-1960s, Sinatra was recording many different tunes at Reprise that did not necessarily have any common theme. He would simply record what he wanted to record, when he wanted to record it, and then assemble albums, usually centered around a theme, from those recordings later. My Kind of Broadway, which was released in November of 1965, is a collection of songs from various Broadway musicals, pieced together from various recording sessions over the previous four years. The album features songs from nine arrangers and composers, the most ever on a single Sinatra album. While the title of the album is My Kind of Broadway, both of the Gershwin songs on the album, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” were written by George and Ira Gershwin for Hollywood films (Shall We Dance and Damsel in Distress respectively), not for Broadway musicals.
The song “Luck Be a Lady,” which is on the My Kind of Broadway LP, was written by Frank Loesser for the 1950 Broadway musical Guys and Dolls. Sinatra had a personal connection with that song: he did not sing it in the Hollywood film version of Guys and Dolls, made in 1955, in which he starred, incongruously, with Marlon Brando. Brando sang it and did a good, though hardly great job of it.(1) To say that Sinatra and Brando did not get along when making that film would be an understatement. Sinatra, who could carry a grudge, would eventually show the world how “Luck Be a Lady” should be sung.
The Broadway musical Guys and Dolls was conceived by producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin as an adaptation of various of Damon Runyon’s short stories. Those stories, written in the 1920s and 1930s, concerned gangsters, gamblers, and other denizens of the New York City underworld. Runyon was known for the unique dialect he employed in his stories, contrasting, usually for comedic effect, highly formal language with slang. Frank Loesser, who had spent most of his previous career as a lyricist for Hollywood movie musicals, was tapped to compose both the music and and lyrics for the production. George S. Kaufman was hired as director. When the first version of the show’s book (script) written by Jo Swerling was deemed unacceptable by the producers, Feuer and Martin contracted with radio comedy writer Abe Burrows to rewrite it. Burrows’s script was deemed acceptable, and both Swerling and Burrows received credit for writing the script.
Loesser had already written much of the musical score to correspond with the Swerling version of the book. Burrows later recalled:
Frank Loesser’s fourteen songs were all great, but the [new book] had to be written so that the story would lead into each of them. Later on, the critics spoke of the show as ‘integrated’. The word integration usually means that the composer has written songs that follow the story line gracefully. Well, we accomplished that, but did it in reverse.(2)
Guys and Dolls debuted on Broadway on November 24, 1950 and was very successful. It was inevitable that it would also be produced as a Hollywood feature film. In that film, which was produced by Samuel Goldwyn, Marlon Brando played the role of Sky Masterson, and Sinatra played Nathan Detroit.
By the time Sinatra got around to recording “Luck Be a Lady” in 1963, he had become something of a king in Hollywood. In the years just before, he had made a number of best-selling record albums with both Capitol Records, and Reprise; starred in a number of high-profile Hollywood films; been the organizer of the President John F. Kennedy inaugural entertainment; and appeared at venues across the country and overseas for top money before sold-out audiences. The crooning, understated Sinatra of the 1940s had evolved into the ultimate swinger in the 1950s, and by the 1960s, the swing had evolved further into swagger. This performance, which brings Billy May’s brilliant, colorful and above all swinging arrangement vividly to life, captures the swaggering Sinatra as well as any recording he ever made.
In order to set the stage for the rollicking, romping main choruses of “Luck Be a Lady,” Sinatra and May decided to first present the song’s lengthy (it lasts more than a minute) verse in a rather delicate way: Frank’s out-of-tempo singing is, for the most part, swathed in soft strings. The upward ensemble rips that May included along the way are both a contrast to Sinatra’s floating singing, and a humorous harbinger of what is to come. Of course, Sinatra, a master of stagecraft, loved dramatically “setting-up” the main melody of a song with a verse that hints at what the song proper is about, and teases the audience in the process.
When the orchestra comes in on the introduction to the song’s first chorus, it is blasting, atop drummer Irv Cottler’s rocking back-beats. Particularly interesting in this sequence is the way Billy May uses the French horns – they sound like elephants trumpeting in a distant jungle.
The first chorus presents Sinatra aggressively setting forth the main melody and lyric backed by muscular brass and reeds, and Emil Richards’s insistent bongo beat. May uses register most effectively in the first two passes of the melody: the reeds are played in their verile lower register, and are answered by the bold trombones; then the trumpets in a higher register, are added to the ensemble sonic mix, as a contrast between these segments of melody. Sinatra’s long-time guitarist, Al Viola, is heard to advantage in this sequence, swinging away. (Above left: Sinatra and Irv Cottler – late 1970s.)
The bridge (secondary melody) brings back the strings to caress Sinatra’s voice. A most memorable line in the lyric appears at the end of the bridge: “…a lady doesn’t wander all over the room, …and blow on some other guy’s dice.”
The next chorus has Sinatra and May turning the heat up a bit. The robust saxophones and trombones are still underlining Sinatra’s singing, but now the trumpets are also heard, playing a melodically serpentine and rhythmically interesting counterline, while building intensity. Sinatra then lays out while all of the wind instruments blast through their turn at the melody, the climax coming with Bud Brisbois’s screeching high-note trumpet. (Above right Sinatra and May in a recording studio. The musicians who worked with them worked hard, but enjoyed it. Sinatra kept them very busy – making Sinatra recordings was a cottage industry in itself.)
Sinatra returns with another tract of the main melody, but this time he is accompanied by strings. For the first half of this segment, May repeats the floating strings background he used in the previous bridge. But in the second half, he brings the in trumpets playing with a rolling rhythm – another effective and exciting contrast.
The secondary melody follows. Once again May uses the strings as a contrast, but this time drummer Cottler plays quietly. But the other rhythm instruments keep the swing bubbling.
The final chorus presents Sinatra swaggering, the entire orchestra swinging intensely, and all involved slowly building dynamically to the big finish, and sly coda, a tip of the musical hat by Billy May to Count Basie’s famous “April in Paris” recording.
For sheer joyful exuberance, this recording is hard to beat.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Her is a link to Marlon Brando singing “Luck Be a Lady” in the 1955 film Guys and Dolls: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BmEwtWBte84
(2) The information regarding the 1950 production of Guys and Dolls on Broadway that appears in this post is derived from the Wikipedia post on that production.
Here are links to other recordings by Sinatra:
It’s worth noting that this particular track first appeared on the album Guys and Dolls in the four album series The Reprise Repertory Theatre, helmed by Sinatra which gave him the chance to record albums of show scores in the company of pals such as Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney, The Hi Los etc. deciding on ‘casting’ and therefore as you say in your excellent post, correcting the miscasting of Brando in delivering such a showstopper.