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Timeless voices

New CD collections feature Sinatra, Haggard, Holiday and Harris.

December 11, 2007|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

"Before Elvis and the Beatles, one man set the stage," boasts the cover sticker on a new boxed set devoted to Frank Sinatra's big-band and teen-idol years before he made all the swingin' Capitol and Reprise recordings for which he is best known today. While the phrase somewhat overstates Sinatra's place in pop (it was Bing Crosby, after all, who set the stage for Sinatra), "Frank Sinatra -- A Voice in Time 1939-1952" focuses on the early recordings, mostly on Columbia Records, that helped make Sinatra the most celebrated teen sensation in pop until Presley and the Beatles.

Ultimately, however, "A Voice in Time" is more than simply a return to those teen-idol years. By tracing Sinatra's pre-Capitol days, it's an invaluable look at the evolution of Sinatra's exquisite vocal style. The four-disc set is joined in a list of holiday CD gift recommendations by three other boxed sets devoted to great singers -- Billie Holiday, Merle Haggard and Emmylou Harris -- as well a marvelous sampler of modern British rock and more. Prices represent a canvas of website retailers.

Frank Sinatra

"Frank Sinatra -- A Voice in Time 1939-1952"

(Columbia/RCA Victor/Legacy, approximately $36)

This handsomely designed package traces Sinatra from his big-band days with Harry James (the No. 1 single "All or Nothing At All") through the early solo career that set the bobby-soxers' hearts on fire to the restless days that led to his full blossoming on Capitol and Reprise.

Even though such songs as "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" are associated with his post-Columbia days, Sinatra actually first recorded several of his signature tunes while on Columbia. The set includes nearly a dozen previously unreleased radio performances.

Merle Haggard

"Hag: The Studio Recordings 1969-1976"

(Bear Family import, $120)

When you add his vocal and his songwriting gifts, the 70-year-old Bakersfield native may well be the most talented single figure ever in country music -- and he's still delivering the goods. Though there are dozens of "best of" packages on Haggard, Bear Family's trilogy of boxed sets is the definitive view. "Untamed Hawk: The Early Recordings of Merle Haggard," a five-disc collection released in 1995, contains Haggard's Capitol recordings through 1968.

This six-disc collection continues the story with more than 150 additional tracks from his Capitol days, including 18 No. 1 country singles. Among them: the spirited "Workin' Man Blues" (which was saluted in Bob Dylan's "Modern Times" album) and the eloquent "If We Make It Through December" as well as his most famous commentaries, "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me."

True to Bear Family's high standards, the set includes a lavish 140-page hardcover book that features an insightful look at Haggard's work, particularly the social commentary, by roots-country guitarist Deke Dickerson. Though Haggard now often treats "Okie" -- with its anti-left-wing/hippie views -- as a joke, it accurately reflected his viewpoint when he wrote it.

About his change of heart, Haggard says in the liner notes: "I was dumb as a rock, you know, I thought that the government told us the truth . . . ." The final set from Richard Weize's German label, including Haggard's live and instrumental recordings among other things, is due early next year.

Billie Holiday

"Lady Day: The Master Takes and Singles"

(Columbia/Legacy, $35)

Along with Crosby, Holiday was a massive influence on Sinatra, and you can hear why in almost every vocal line in this four-disc set. Where Crosby showed Sinatra how to make a song seem warm and appealing, Holiday demonstrated the value of character and personalized phrasing.

There is a quality to her eloquent approach that is both seductive and elusive. In the liner notes, jazz critic and author Gary Giddins tries to explain her haunting appeal: "How many Billie Holidays are there and which do you prefer? Elated or dour, funny or truculent, sweet or sour, our Lady of Sorrows or 52nd Street's Queen. . . ." These 80 tracks are drawn from the 10-disc "Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia (1933-1944)" album that was released in 2001 and won a Grammy for the year's best historical album.

Emmylou Harris

"Songbird: Rare Tracks & Forgotten Gems" (Rhino, $50)

If you've already got the 1996 three-disc Harris boxed set titled "Portraits" (also on Rhino), you may think you have all you need of my choice for the most evocative female singer ever in country music. Lots of women have been praised as having angelic voices, but no one deserves it more than Harris. Plus, her feel for material stretches far beyond country to include tunes by such varied writers as John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Steve Earle.

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