When Nelson Riddle, the renowned arranger and conductor, first heard Sinatra sing, he described his voice as sounding like that of a “muted violin.” Indeed, his voice was thin, reedy, and lacked resonance and vocal thrust. But as Sinatra began to sing with—and compete with—Nelson Riddle’s thick and lush orchestrations, his voice underwent significant changes. It was during this period (1950s-60s) that he developed his characteristically colorful and resonant tonal quality. His voice also gained in power and drive. If we listen to Jerry Livingston, Carl Lampl, and Al Hoffman’s Close To You, which Sinatra recorded in 1943, for example, and compare his voice to how it sounded in Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s I’ve Got The World On A String, which was recorded ten years later in 1953, you will hear the beginning of this fascinating transformation. His voice continued to deepen and strengthen substantially during the 1950s, until it attained its signature, golden tone in the early 60s. Listen to his version on Edmund Goulding and Mack Gordon’s Mam’ selle, which he recorded in 1960 to hear his fully formed baritone tonal quality—glowing with the multicolored timbre of a full-bodied cello. It’s hard to believe that this voice and the one from the 1940s could have emanated from the same throat.
Of course, it’s not unusual for a singer’s voice to evolve somewhat over the course of a lifetime. In Sinatra’s case, however, not only did the tonal quality of his voice undergo a radical deepening, the manner in which he sang also changed—from a nasalized, upward, and forward-produced sound, to one that seemed to move back and down his throat when he sang. What was the cause of his startling vocal makeover? To me it seems clear that, to a considerable extent, his voice and vocal technique changed in response to the new vocal demands of Riddle’s music.