As part of the newly remastered version of Frank Sinatra‘s Watertown, one-half of the writing team behind the album, Bob Gaudio, has written extensive liner notes. We’re presenting just an excerpt of his thoughts on how the album came to be.
I was a fan of Frank’s – who wasn’t? But in the 1950s, rock and roll was my world. I did play some jazz and classical early on, so Frank’s music and his passion for it were contagious. I first met Frank in Las Vegas and, as you might expect for a twenty-six-year-old songwriter, caution was always on my mind. I hung out for a few weeks and went to see Frank’s shows. One time I remember vividly was being invited to Sinatra’s suite for a party, a superstar birthday for a superstar, and when I walked in, I was greeted by three larger-than-life dudes: Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, and Burt Lancaster. How’s that for a party!
Somewhere along the line Frank bought into doing ‘Watertown.’ It was specifically written for him; Jake [Holmes] and I tried to picture some place he hadn’t been musically or lyrically. That, for us, was the story of someone whose wife left him, and he was bringing up the kids in a small town.
I am not sure how long it took to write, but Jake and I locked ourselves in at my place in Montclair, NJ. It was about a year or more by the time we finished writing the songs, did the demos, and the sessions took place. Obviously, once the reality set in, I was pretty stunned. Frank fell in love with the project even though it wasn’t commercial; we all knew it wasn’t just one chart song after another.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I heard from Sarge Weiss, who was handling Frank’s music and was a really sweet guy, that they just intended it to be, “Well, send me some songs, kid.” I was under the impression that, of course being a young kid, having a lot of hits and thinking I was who the hell I was, “Well, I’m writing an album for Frank…how cool?” When Sarge called me and said, “Guess what? Frank wants to do the whole thing,” I thought, well, of course he does. So, you know when you’re young, you’re cocky.
Frank gave me free reign, but keep in mind the demos were sequenced and story informative. That might be why Frank chose to do them all. I remember Sarge Weiss calling to say that Frank wanted to do them all in that order and keep it simple. So, as the demos were simple and haunting, it became a simple and haunting Watertown – reaching down into a man’s soul and feeling his pain and still finding hope. No one has what I’ll call “sophisticated empathy” like Frank did. He speaks lyrics while singing a melody and Jake’s lyrics were wonderful. The whole idea of it being letters that he had written to her and never sent – the concept for the album came out of that.
Jake and I worked very well together. To come up with something in six weeks and be happy is rare, but that was exactly what happened. I don’t even think we took a walk from morning till night until we passed out. My house was a comfortable place, but still and all, you do like to see a bird or two once in a while. It was a creative prison.
We recorded the first session in New York and Frank sang live with the orchestra – mostly for inspiration. As I remember, overdubbing was decided before the actual sessions. I asked Frank to overdub so we had more control over the sessions even though I knew he was more comfortable recording with the orchestra. Overdubbing gave him the luxury of not worrying about how in charge he would be with unfamiliar songs and knowing the songs inside-out as he did with standards. We were all very pleased with how it eventually sounded and turned out, including Frank.
I went out to Los Angeles and did the overdub vocals with him. One major recollection: I spent fifteen frightful minutes contemplating how to tell Frank he was pitchy in one place, but finally decided the aftermath of not telling him would be worse. With the studio talkback engaged I said, “Frank, we have a little pitch problem on the bridge.” He responded, “Sharp or flat?” I said, “Sharp.” “Long as it’s not flat,” he said, “let’s fix it.” And so, I lived another day.