“One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” — Frank Sinatra

Creating the right atmosphere for a song is much harder than you might think. It’s so much more than just writing a nice tune…important though that is too.

Songwriters, producers and arrangers who can instantly conjure up the feelings which place a listener right in the middle of the story as it’s being told are rare animals.

And one of the best examples of that rarest of musical skills is “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” by Frank Sinatra

I’m a big Sinatra fan and this, for me, is the best song he ever recorded.

Yet “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” isn’t the sort of song most people would instantly associate with Frank Sinatra nowadays.

It’s rarely heard on the radio or in performance any more. It’s musically and temperamentally a million miles away from Sinatra’s more popular songs like “The Lady is a Tramp” or “Come Fly With Me”…although I adore both of them too.

“One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” wasn’t even written for Frank Sinatra although, as it turned out, there was probably no song which captured his mood and his feelings better than this one.

Fred Astaire was the first major artist to perform the song, in a musical called “The Sky’s The Limit” back in 1943.

Sinatra himself recorded “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” a number of times over the years, but his rendition on the 1958 album “Only The Lonely” is often seen as the definitive version.

“Only The Lonely” wasn’t strictly Sinatra’s comeback from the artistic wilderness. Most observers would say that had happened a couple of years earlier when he won an Oscar for his role in “From Here to Eternity”.

But all Sinatra’s performances on the “Only The Lonely” album drew heavily on the many years of being down on his luck, personally and professionally, during the time after he’d stopped being the bobbysoxer’s favourite but before he won his Oscar.

In many ways, “Only The Lonely” is the closest we get to understanding the complex personality of one of the greatest singers of the 20th Century.

The record-buying public clearly thought Frank Sinatra’s artistic detour into a collection of raw, intimate and deeply vulnerable songs was something special. “Only The Lonely” spent 120 weeks on Billboard’s album chart, all told, peaking at number 1 and is still regarded as one of Frank Sinatra’s…and indeed popular music’s…definitive works.

Not all of that is down to Sinatra, although his performances are fantastic. The album is chock-full of songs from the pre-eminent songwriters of the day…Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and many others.

Harold Arlen wrote the music for “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” and Johnny Mercer was on lyric-writing duty…both every bit as much members of mid-1950s songwriting royalty as all the album’s other contributors.

Johnny Mercer was responsible for other great songs such as “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (also written in partnership with Harold Arlen) and one of my all-time favourite songs, “Moon River”.

Harold Arlen was no slouch either, although probably less well-known today than Johnny Mercer. His list of credits includes “Get Happy”, “That Old Black Magic”, “Stormy Weather” and many others.

Harold Arlen was also responsible…along with lyric writer Yip Harburg…for a very famous Oscar-winning song which was declared as the best film song ever written by the American Film Institute. The Recording Industry Association of America voted it their number one song of the 20th Century as well.

It is a song so instantly recognisable that all I need to do is mention the girl in the red shoes, dancing down the yellow brick road and you’ll already be thinking of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (technically called “Over The Rainbow”, although nobody seems to call it that any more…).

So, Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen deserved their place alongside the greatest songwriters the world has ever known on Frank Sinatra’s “Only The Lonely” album.

And they brought all their skills, experience and songwriting nous to “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)”.

Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen stripped everything right back…before that expression became an X Factor cliché…so that the vocal was accompanied only by a far-off piano, which is joined by the merest hint of a saxophone toward the end.

The entire song is carried by Sinatra’s world-weary voice. We hear his side of a conversation with the solitary bartender who’s about to close up for the night in a near-empty, slightly down-at-heel bar somewhere in the wee small hours.

It’s quarter to three
There’s no-one in the place, ‘cept you and me
So set ’em up, Joe
I gotta little story I think you outta know

The arrangements on “Only The Lonely” were by the peerless Nelson Riddle, but he really earns his money on “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”.

Nelson Riddle was one of the best arrangers and producers who ever lived and a great favourite of mine. But his skill on this track is resisting the temptation to bring in a full orchestra or a swinging big band. Instead he made the entire performance about the vocal.

We hear a careworn voice which has spent too much time of late, it would appear, with only whiskey and cigarettes for company. It’s a voice that’s tired of life. A voice that’s lost everything its owner might once have hoped for.

Somehow the production gives us an immensely real sonic experience. If you’ve ever sat in a bar by yourself at 3am with only the bartender to talk to about some hoped-for relationship that never worked out, you’ll know it sounds exactly like today’s record.

We’re drinking my friend
To the end of a brief episode
So make it one for my baby
And one more for the road

Everything about “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”…music, lyrics, production, arrangement, performance and just about any other dimension you can think of…is exceptional.

The video I’ve linked to below is taken from a TV performance and I think it’s spoilt a little by the audience applause at the start. Their applause demonstrates that wherever else Sinatra is, he certainly isn’t on his own in a bar at 3am… but he delivers it “in character” and it’s a pretty good performance, all-in-all.

This version is also slightly more up-tempo than the original and the accompaniment, although still relatively restrained, is more prominent than the original studio recording.

The version linked to on Spotify, however, is from the “Only The Lonely” album, so that gives you a more complete idea of just how good a song this is.

Please enjoy this utterly mesmerising song. From Johnny Mercer to Harold Arlen to Nelson Riddle to Ol’ Blue Eyes himself…you’ll have to go a long way to find a more exceptional range of talents than the talents which came together for “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”…

If you’ve read this far, thank you for your time and attention. I know you could have spent your time doing something else, so I’m very grateful that you’ve spent it in the company of one of my favourite songs.

The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find today’s track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/3u7jQn9a8xrplb4wqFQIZL

Without words, it’s just a nice tune. Add words — now you’ve got a song. And songs can change your world. I write about some that changed mine.

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