Behind the Song: Frank Sinatra, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)”

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There is a view, still bandied about by the misguided, of pre-rock songwriting as something quaint and genteel, a stubbornly lingering notion that songwriters then were more interested in the craft of welding lyrics to melody than plumbing the depths of human emotion. “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” has plenty of craft, but it’s also frank, profound and harrowing. Still, it’s possible that those qualities might have remained dormant had not the right singer come along to embody them.

The song was written by Harold Arlen (music) and Johnny Mercer (lyrics), with Mercer allegedly inspired by his “torch” for Judy Garland, thirteen years his younger and someone with whom he would carry on a longstanding extramarital affair. It originally appeared in 1943 as part of a relatively forgotten Fred Astaire musical, but was longing for the performer who could inhabit the narrator telling his troubles to a bartender right before closing time.

Those “wee, small hours of the morning” were always the domain of Frank Sinatra, so it’s no surprise that he found the song intriguing. He first took a whack at it in 1947, but it wasn’t until 11 years later, on his downcast concept album Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely, that he truly claimed it from all other comers (although Bette Midler gained temporary ownership with her performance for Johnny Carson’s farewell show.) With pianist Bill Miller tinkling away the memories and Nelson Riddle providing the string arrangement to break his fall, Sinatra propped himself up against the bar and gave a performance for the ages. As he remembered, “The atmosphere in that studio was exactly like a club. Dave (Cavanaugh of Capitol Records) said, ‘Roll ’em,’ there was one take, and that was that. The only time I’ve known it to happen like that.”

“One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” brilliantly hides all the particulars about the relationship that we know is the cause for the narrator’s drinking and bargaining. Instead it plays out as a one-sided conversation, yet one where we can tell Joe the bartender’s reactions by the tone of the lyrics and Sinatra’s subtle inflections.

Joe is benevolent when the drinker confesses, “We’re drinking, my friend, to the end of a brief episode.” He’s reluctantly obliging when asked to tune the jukebox to something “easy and sad.” And he stands fast and firm when it’s understood “I could tell you a lot but you’ve got to be true to your code.”

The bridge makes a sudden melodic turn, as if the narrator believes he has an important point to make. The hackneyed rhyme of “know it” and “poet” betrays the fact that the broken-hearted fool at the bar is starting to feel the effects of his alcohol. But he snaps out of it to reveal what he’s really trying to do, a futile attempt to small-talk his way out of a sadness too intense to bear: “And when I’m gloomy, won’t you listen to me/Until it’s talked away.”

In the final verse, the narrator realizes that his time in the bar is running out, which means that the reality he’s been trying to avoid is creeping ever nearer. Sinatra’s voice soars out of any hints of inebriation for a moment of vulnerable lucidity when he sings, “But this torch that I found it’s gotta be drowned or it soon might explode.” Then, one last repeat of that eternal toast to lost causes: “So make it for one for my baby and one more for the road.” Sinatra’s improvisation at the end, repeating over and over how long the road ahead for his character will prove to be, is one final dagger.

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