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Why Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back--and How Capitol Got Him : Pop music: Frank Sinatra's album of duets due Nov. 2 will be the first of three recordings under the singer's new pact with the label, his home base in the '50s.

September 29, 1993|CHUCK PHILIPS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Frank Sinatra describes his first album in nine years as "an absolute kick."

The collection of duets has stirred up considerable industry interest both because of its talent lineup and because the album marks the singer's return to Capitol Records, where he did much of his most prized work some 35 years ago.

"The duet idea has been dancin' around in my head for some time now," Sinatra said this week. "It's just a concept I thought would work. We had a great team and . . . it was a lot of fun."

Titled "Duets," the album--which is due in stores Nov. 2--features Sinatra singing more than a dozen of his signature tunes with U2's Bono, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Anita Baker, Gloria Estefan, Liza Minnelli, Carly Simon, Charles Aznavour, Julio Iglesias and saxophonist Kenny G.

Sinatra's return to Capitol--which he left in the early '60s to form his own label, Reprise, in association with Warner Bros.--signals the resurrection of a six-decade recording career, which has languished since his Reprise contract reportedly lapsed in the late '80s.

Shrouded in secrecy for months, the Sinatra project took on top-priority status shortly after New York's Charles Koppelman ascended to chief executive officer of EMI Music Group North America, parent company of Capitol.

"I saw re-signing Frank as a real challenge for Capitol and one of the first things I wanted to accomplish in my new role at EMI," Koppelman said. "This album means a hell of a lot to me--not just from the point of view of a guy who is running this company, but also as a fan."

The concept for the collection was born about 15 months ago when Don Rubin, executive vice president of artists and repertoire at EMI, and veteran producer Phil Ramone suggested to Koppelman that EMI consider financing the project.

A list of potential vocal partners was submitted to Sinatra's manager Eliot Weisman in December and the entertainer gave the project the green light in February. Weisman credits Koppelman's enthusiasm and commitment as instrumental in persuading Sinatra to enter the studio on June 28.

The 77-year-old Chairman of the Board recorded his vocals live for the new collection with a 54-piece orchestra in Capitol Records' legendary Studio A, the same room where he began recording a string of Capitol hits almost four decades ago.

Sinatra's first two recording sessions for "Duets" were unproductive, but the veteran singer apparently kicked in during the third session, laying down more than 20 tracks in less than seven hours.

"Once Mr. S got going, nothing could stop him," Weisman recalled. "He was like Joe DiMaggio chasing down a fly ball. Like Secretariat running the final stretch. Like the seventh game in the World Series. I mean there wasn't a dry eye in the orchestra. It was chilling."

None of Sinatra's 13 duet partners, however, were able to record their performances live with him in the studio. Scheduling conflicts prevented all participants except Streisand, Vandross and Kenny G from even visiting Los Angeles during the making of the album.

Indeed, several artists literally phoned in their performances courtesy of a new fiber-optic technology called EDNET, which allows music to be recorded anywhere in the world and transmitted live via telephone lines. Other digital technologies were employed to fuse Sinatra's performance with Bono (recorded in Dublin) and Minnelli (in Brazil) plus the rest of the cast, who contributed parts recorded at a variety of studios across the United States.

"Duets" is the first of three albums under a new pact signed Sunday by Sinatra and Capitol. Unlike other recent superstar deals, Sinatra's agreement boasts no multimillion-dollar cash advances, but contains a blue-chip royalty rate that sources said will provide the singer with "substantial back-end" payments if the records succeed.

Sinatra's return to the label heralds a shift in focus for Capitol's new chief executive Gary Gersh, whose success with alternative rock acts such as Blind Melon and Radiohead has helped restore the label's credibility in the youth market.

Since May, Gersh and other key executives at Capitol, EMI and CEMA, the firm's distribution arm, have met regularly with Sinatra's representatives, devoting hundreds of hours to daily marketing strategy sessions.

Capitol is so confident about "Duets" that the company is about to ship to retailers some 700,000 units (nearly the same as the shipments for Streisand's recent "Back to Broadway" album and Janet Jackson's "janet.") and the label is preparing to press thousands of copies of a gold-disc version, which will sell at twice the average CD price.

Koppelman believes the album's eclectic appeal could generate sales rivaling Whitney Houston's "Bodyguard" soundtrack album--which has sold nearly 10 million units in the United States since its release last fall. Industry analysts are optimistic that "Duets" will deliver strong sales figures throughout the Christmas season, but few echo Koppelman's enthusiasm. Most see the album selling in the range of the "Back to Broadway" album, which has sold about 1.5 million copies since its July release.

Plans for a follow-up album are already in the works. Nearly a dozen artists have already expressed interest and Sinatra is scheduled to take a break from his 27-date fall tour to record new tracks with an orchestra in two weeks. Recordings from Sinatra's early singing career will also be showcased on a 12-CD boxed set due out Oct. 5 on Columbia's Legacy line.

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