To the casual fan, it sure sounds as if Bob Dylan stepped out of his comfort zone with his new album “Shadows in the Night,” a 10-song collection of both popular and somewhat obscure songs recorded by Frank Sinatra.
But the legendary 73-year-old “American Troubadour” — whose songs have inspired social change, fueled protest movements and influenced people since the 1960s — doesn’t understand all the fuss.
He’s been in awe of Ol’ Blue Eyes ever since he was a kid growing up in Minnesota during the tail end of the Big Band era.
“Early on, before rock ’n’ roll, I listened to Big Band music: Harry James, Russ Columbo, Glenn Miller. (And) singers like Jo Stafford, Kay Starr, Dick Haymes. Anything that came over the radio and music played by bands in hotels that our parents could dance to,” he says in a fascinating, 9,000-word interview in the most unlikely publication you’d expect to find a Dylan interview.
Instead of turning to an obvious entertainment media outlet, Dylan took the story of his new album to a demographically perfect and potentially target-rich place where he knew he’d reach many fans: the 22 million readers of America’s largest-circulation magazine published by AARP.
It’s been nearly 40 years since fellow songwriter Willie Nelson first gave Dylan the idea of doing his own take on American standards. In 1978, the country music legend released “Stardust,” one of the first contemporary albums with material culled from the Great American Songbook.
“Stardust” hit the top of the country music chart and crossed over to reach No. 30 on the Billboard 200 album list.
“So I went to see Walter Yetnikoff. He was the president of Columbia Records. I told him I wanted to make a record of standards, like Willie’s record,” Dylan recalls. “What he said was, ‘You can go ahead and make that record, but we won’t pay for it, and we won’t release it. But go ahead and make it if you want to.’”
In retrospect, Dylan said Yentikoff was probably right in turning down the project. Although Dylan had already established himself as a major force in the music world, he says it was too early in his career to tackle that kind of album.
He’ll launch his spring tour 9 p.m. Friday in Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa’s Event Center. It’s difficult to predict a setlist, but in past appearances, he has mixed material from his latest album with many of his classics.
Unlike other contemporary pop and rock artists who have recorded albums of great American songs with complex arrangements performed by 30-piece orchestras — Dylan mentions Rod Stewart’s albums of standards in particular — Dylan recorded “Shadows” with mostly five musicians, the same number of players behind him on any live stage.
In fact, he thinks all the musicians supporting Stewart’s albums were overkill. Dylan wasn’t very impressed with the end products, either.
“(The) records were disappointing,” he says. “Rod’s a great singer. He’s got a great voice, but there’s no point to put a 30-piece orchestra behind him. I’m not going to knock anybody’s right to make a living but you can always tell if somebody’s heart and soul is into something, and I didn’t think Rod was into it in that way. It sounds like so many records where the vocals are overdubbed and these kind of songs don’t come off well if you use modern recording techniques.”
Dylan went back to basics when recording “Shadows.”
“The (recording) engineer had his own equipment left over from bygone days, and he brought all that in,” Dylan says.
He and his band rehearsed the tunes last year between gigs during a European concert tour, performing them on an empty stage with no microphones so they could play them at the right volume.
“By the time we went in to make this record, it was almost like we’d done it already,” he adds. “I could only record these songs one way, and that was live on the (studio) floor with a very small number of mics. No headphones, no overdubs, no vocal booth, no separate tracking. I know it’s the old-fashioned way, but to me it’s the only way that would have worked for songs like this.”
Dylan, who’s now a great-grandfather, doesn’t hide his admiration for Sinatra, considered by many the most iconic entertainer of the 20th century. But you won’t find Sinatra staples such as “New York, New York” or “My Way” or saloon songs such as “One for the Road” or “Angel Eyes” on Dylan’s album.
Instead, he initially picked 30 songs from the Sinatra catalog, then whittled it down to 10. Perhaps his favorite is the lead-off track “I’m a Fool to Want You,” one of the few songs actually written by Sinatra, who, it’s believed, penned the tearjerker for his one great love, Ava Gardner, to whom he was married for six years during the 1950s.
Dylan does a masterful job with the song, probably because he’s experienced the same emotions about which Sinatra wrote and sang.
“I know that song. I can sing that song,” he explains. “I’ve felt every word in that song. I mean, I know that song. It’s like I wrote it.”
In fact, he says that song is easier for him to sing than a tune such as “Queen Jane Approximately,” a song from his 1965 album “Highway 61 Revisited.”
“At one time that wouldn’t have been so. But now it is ... ‘Queen Jane’ might be a little bit outdated,” he says. “But (‘I’m a Fool’) is not outdated. It has to do with human emotion, which is a constant thing. There’s nothing contrived in these songs. There’s not one false word in any of them. They’re eternal, lyrically and musically.”
Sinatra, he says, is the pinnacle of success to which all singers should aspire.
“That’s the mountain you have to climb even if you only get part of the way there,” he says. “And it’s hard to find a song he did not do. He’d be the guy you got to check with.”
If Sinatra, who died in 1998, were alive today, how would he react to Dylan covering his material?
“I think first of all he’d be amazed I did these songs with a five-piece band,” he says. “I think he’d be proud in a certain way.”
At this point in his career, having shaped musical and social culture with songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They are A-Changin’,” recording poses little artistic or commercial risk for Dylan. “There’s nothing risky about making records,” he says.
He’s still not ready to be mentioned in the same breath as Sinatra, however.
“Comparing me with Frank Sinatra? You must be joking. To be mentioned in the same breath as him must be some sort of high compliment. As far as touching him goes, nobody touches him. Not me or anyone else.”