How Bossa Nova Brought Frank Sinatra to This Sunset Blvd. Studio
By Dr. Josh Kun
Professor and Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication
University of Southern California, Annenberg
Recording studios are more than just the places where songs and albums are made. They are musical instruments themselves, co-producers, co-composers. Their acoustics and their gear—their ceiling rafters and wall panels, their air space and insulation, their mixing consoles, equalizers, and vocal booths—leave distinctive footprints that determine how sounds are remembered once they circulate beyond their walls. Production credits usually say that albums are “recorded at” a studio, but they are really “recorded with” a studio, products of a human partnership with architecture and technology that is both precisely engineered and unpredictably magical.
United Western Recorders was the Los Angeles capital of studio magic. It was opened in 1957 at 6050 West Sunset Boulevard by audio engineering whiz and stereophonic recording pioneer Bill Putnam, and soon grew into a second building just down the street in the art moderne former home of the Cash is King supermarket and the Hollywood Casino burlesque hall. The expansive studio complex left its mark on a string of treasures that included the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Ray Charles’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreaminˈ.” Frank Sinatra was an early investor in the studio and recorded standards like “My Way” and “That’s Life” there, as well as the album that was arguably the crown jewel of United Western Recorders’ 1960s output: his historic collaboration with influential Brazilian composer, pianist, and guitarist Antônio Carlos Jobim.
On 1967’s Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim, United Western Recorders is an audible instrument. Its acoustics lay out a delicate blanket of hush beneath the strings, its room tone slides a cushion of stillness between the men’s voices—Jobim’s a naturally tender coo, Sinatra’s a rougher grain that he brilliantly scrubs smooth. “I haven’t sung so soft since I got the laryngitis,” Sinatra is caught saying on tape during the first night of recording. The album’s liner notes described the sessions as “the World Soft Championships,” in which it “seemed like the whole idea was to out-hush each other.”
Jobim had been on Sinatra’s radar for years. The co-writer of the viral hit “The Girl From Ipanema,” Jobim became a household name in the early 1960s after the song sparked a rapid-fire global love affair with Brazilian bossa nova and its quiet aesthetics of cool: grooves delicately kept by acoustic guitar and piano, syncopated vocals that barely rose above a whisper.
Plus, L.A. had already fallen hard for Brazilian music. In the 1940s, Carmen Miranda ruled Hollywood screens (she was the highest paid woman in the country in 1945), and in the ‘50s, Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida, often working alongside saxophonist Bud Shank, laced West Coast jazz with bossa nova in Sunset Strip nightclubs. The ‘60s brought bigger breakthroughs: Jobim’s “Girl from Ipanema” co-author João Gilberto appeared at the Hollywood Bowl on a “Modern Sounds” showcase that included Miles Davis and Nina Simone, and Sergio Mendes & Brasil ‘66 recorded the first in a string of hit records in the Sunset studios of the newly launched A&M records.
Francis Albert Sinatra & Antônio Carlos Jobim was the ultimate mixture of Brazilian music with the American pop and jazz mainstream. Featuring “The Girl From Ipanema” and other new arrangements of Jobim originals, the album also included deft bossa nova makeovers of staples already in Sinatra’s wheelhouse like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” and “Change Partners.” It landed on the Billboard charts, earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, and even sent the duo back into the studio in 1969 to record a sequel.
Among the songs on the follow-up album was “Wave,” which Jobim wrote while staying at the Sunset Marquis hotel. “Wave” began as an instrumental partly inspired by day trips to the beach, but Jobim soon wrote English lyrics that turned it into an aching love song, full of rising seas and waves that may never be caught. Sinatra sang it during their return to United Western Recorders, and it became something else—an ode to their artistic friendship.
“The fundamental loneliness goes,” Sinatra sang, “whenever two can dream a dream together.”
Originally published by The Iris, 01.21.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.