It Was A Very Good Year was composed by Ervin Drake in 1961 and originally recorded by Bob Shane with the Kingston Trio. However, it was the version by Frank Sinatra which is best known, winning the Grammy Award for Best Male Vocal Performance in 1966.
I heard it again for the first time in years on a recent Sinatra documentary and it made quite an impact on me. What a lovely song, beautifully arranged and performed.
Here it is as remastered in 2008:
So what is it about this song which makes it stand out?
Musically, for me there is one stand-out feature. The verse starts with a D minor chord and progresses to Eb major. Once you know the song well you take it for granted but if you’re unfamiliar it hits you hard. Technically, it’s what’s called a Neapolitan chord – a major chord built on a flattened supertonic (2nd).
If you’re a musician, try it. If you’re in A minor, the Neapolitan would be Bb. If you’re in E minor, it would be F. Hum a melody and, chances are, you’ll have the start of something good.
There are lots of other niceties. The instrumental sections have a nice minor-major shift: Dm Am A7. Then the verse shifts key entirely from minor to major: Dm Eb Dm F Eb D C D.
The orchestral arrangement is full of interest. There are four verses and five instrumental sections but the arrangement is completely different with each iteration. Contrast this with most pop music of the last fifty years in which the arrangement remains pretty much the same throughout.
Another feature is the changes in tempo that occur, particularly the slowing at the end of each instrumental section to prepare for the following verse. Couple this with Sinatra’s immaculate phrasing – never obvious, hardly ever on the beat – and you have something so different from the click-track-driven fare that we take for granted with electronic music.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that this styling is better, just so very different from our current expectations. Surely there’s a lot to learn by borrowing from what came before rock and roll (or in this case, just as rock and roll was beginning to take over).