Leonard Slatkin: 20 albums that changed my life

Leonard Slatkin: 20 albums that changed my life


norman lebrecht

May 10, 2020

Tim Page asked. He got more than we expected.

  1. The Robe, Alfred Newman

This was the first LP I ever owned. Alfred Newman signed it, as I had been to the scoring sessions. It is still in my collection.

  1. Riders in the Sky, Vaughn Monroe

This was my favorite record during the Slatkin cowboy years. I would not go to bed until my parents put it on. There was a country music DJ in LA called the Squeakin’ Deacon who used to play three songs for kids at the top of his show.

  1. Tubby the Tuba featuring Danny Kaye

Here is Number 3 in my all-time kid hit parade. Danny Kaye was possibly, along with Sammy Davis Jr., the most talented person I have ever met. He could do anything and did not read music. This recording was another that I must have worn out.

  1. Songs for Young Lovers, Frank Sinatra

This album is tied to the relationship my family had with Frank Sinatra. When he left Columbia to go to Capitol in 1953, my mom and dad became his go-to first cellist and concertmaster. This was the first album they made with him, at the old KHJ studios, before the tower went up.

  1. The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce

In 1959, during my first year of high school, this album was released. At the time, Lenny Bruce was not quite the controversial figure he would soon become. My friends and I loved the album because it referenced jazz, used Yiddish, and made fun of almost all religions. Of course, we could not listen to it when our parents were home. Now it seems tame, but things have changed a lot.

  1. Time Out, The Dave Brubeck Quartet

Jazz was always a big part of my life. I used to go to Shelly’s Manne-Hole, illegally, from the time I was 14. When this album came out in 1959, it changed the way many of us thought about the rhythmic structure of any jazz standard. Imagine my surprise when I found out that Brubeck was in the Army with my father. Dave got caught growing weed behind the barracks, but the commanding officer looked the other way.

  1. Secret Love, Doris Day

When I was a kid, with the likes of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and so many other show biz luminaries popping up at the house, none compared to Doris Day. I was sure that she was singing “Secret Love” to me. A few years ago, a Happy Birthday autographed photo of her, from her home address, arrived at my office in Detroit. It now has a special place in my studio at home. We had a bit of correspondence, but she was already quite ill. I wonder if she knew that Rock Hudson was gay.

  1. Tone Poems of Color, Frank Sinatra

My next choice is the very first record made in the Capitol Tower. It was Sinatra, but he did not sing. This was his second try at conducting, and he studied all the scores with my dad. Although not proficient in score reading, Frank knew enough to get through it. At that time, the studios had not put in the sound panels in the basement, but still, the idea was interesting, and a couple of the charts are very good. I kind of wish I had been there, but you can’t have everything.

  1. Surf City, Jan & Dean

Okay, everybody loved the Beach Boys, but then there were these two other guys. “Surf City” was actually co-written with Brian Wilson. My dad produced a couple of their tunes.

  1. Walton: Quartet in A Minor / Villa-Lobos: Quartet No. 6 in E Major, The Hollywood String Quartet

This is the first album made by the Hollywood String Quartet. It was released in 1947. You will notice that each member is listed on the cover, something very rare. Although the liner notes are excellent, there is no mention of the production team. Most people remember standard rep from their childhood. My first musical memory is the Villa-Lobos. This was also the only work the quartet recorded twice. The second time was in stereo in the Capitol Tower. They hated the sound.

  1. The United States of America, Stan Freberg

Next up is a man who mostly recorded singles. Stan Freberg was easily the most important satirist on disc. He made irreverent fun of everything commercial, and I wore out all those 45s. The album I selected is remarkable for its off-beat musical references. During the Yankee Doodle parody, the flutist starts jamming, and his sidekick says, “You’ve influenced me a lot, Bix.”

  1. West Side Story original cast recording, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim

In 1957, my parents took my brother and me to New York. My first-ever Broadway show was West Side Story, in its first-season run. When we got home, I went to Wallach’s Music City, the largest record store in LA, and bought the cast album. The movie version did not appeal to me much, and we shall see what Spielberg does with it. But Carol Lawrence and Larry Kert were amazing.

  1. Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould

This one is essential for every classical musician as well as others who love music. in 1956 Columbia released this recording, and it generated controversy and praise. No one had ever played Bach this way before. I heard his LA debut in that year at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, where he played the Variations. Coincidently, his very final recital, in 1964, was in the same auditorium. This is one of the most influential albums ever recorded and worth every minute.

  1. Jesus Christ Superstar, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

In 1970, I had a radio show in which I played anything I wanted to. One day, this album came to the station, and I put it on. Most people don’t remember that it was a recording before it was a show or movie. After listening, I started inquiring if it could be done in concert. We premiered the work live about five months later in St. Louis. The two shows sold out in hours. Many orchestra managers came to see it, and in some ways, my guest conducting career was launched that day.

  1. Switched-On Bach, Walter Carlos

This album changed so much for me and others. It was 1968, and electronics were bursting on the pop scene. The album crossed over and became one of the Top-10 best sellers that year. Walter became Wendy and continued to produce recordings like these. I did a concert with him soon after the release of this disc. It showed that music from long ago really could be reinvented without sabotaging its original message. Notice the “Quadrophonic” label at the top. That sure caught on.

  1. Brain Salad Surgery, Emerson, Lake &Palmer

When electronics started in earnest, Emerson, Lake & Palmer were leaders with this technology. Each member was a classically trained musician, and they always included something from the repertoire on their albums. This one, Brain Salad Surgery, has an amazing version of the neglected First Piano Concerto by Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera, here titled Toccata.

  1. Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Song Book

I worked with her twice. My mom and dad did the Gershwin sessions. She was a kind and generous lady—always elegant and sort of deferential.

  1. This Lusty Land!, “Tennessee” Ernie Ford

This is really a blast from the past. People only think of him with “Sixteen Tons,” but his silvery voice lent itself to all kinds of music. If I remember it correctly, he had a radio show on KXLA and referred to kids as his little pea pickers. I loved this album and played it constantly.

  1. Der Rosenkavalier, Richard Strauss (Herbert Von Karajan and the Philharmonia Orchestra)

This was the first recording of an opera I ever had. It was given to me by John Coveny, NY head of artist relations at EMI/Angel, which had bought Capitol. Two years later, in 1959, I was given a copy of the orchestral score by Dick Jones, his West Coast counterpart. Both men were the epitome of elegance and wit. And they worked with my parents all the time. Oh, the recording is still the best one of this particular work.

  1. Close to You, Frank Sinatra (Nelson Riddle • The Hollywood String Quartet)

And for the Grand Finale, I have to go back to Uncle Frank. This was all Sinatra’s idea, as he wanted to give cover credit to the Hollywood String Quartet musicians, and especially my mom and dad. Capitol balked at first, but Frank said he would walk away from the company unless they complied. It took eight months and five sessions to complete it. This was 1957, and after its initial run, the album lay dormant, the only one of Sinatra’s albums not to be released on CD until recently. Intimate, warm, and clearly one of the best ballad recordings ever made, it now has three additional tracks that did not appear on the LP. I was privileged to attend a couple of the sessions, with Voyle Gilmore producing.



  • Paul Randall says:

    Marvellous, what an interesting selection. It reminds me of Elvis’s favourite 78s which is also a mish-mash of lots of different stuff – Google it; I think there is also a Spotify playlist. Finally, surely the wonderful Doris Day knew all about Rock Hudson?

  • Brian viner says:

    You mention Doris Day if only she would of sung more jazz as opposed to to pop
    She had a great voice

    • Paul Randall says:

      Go on Brian, now is your chance to tell all the people here about the glorious Doris Day and André Previn ‘Duet’ album. I know you want to. (‘Duet’ as in Doris Day + the André Previn trio.)

    • fflambeau says:

      She was also a terrific actress.

  • Larry says:

    ALL great choices!! Bravo Maestro.

  • Rob says:

    You were fortunate to see Nelson working at Capitol. There’s very little video footage of him working at Studio A, if any.

  • Regarding No. 20, the CD remastering of “Close To You” wasn’t just recently released in CD form. I bought a CD remastering of the album in Germany in the late 80s, i.e. over 30 years ago. Perhaps Leonard doesn’t know about that production?!?

    I treasure the album. The Nelson Riddle arrangements are exquisite, and the performances of the Hollywood String Quartet and Sinatra utterly refined. It came at the very high point of Sinatra’s abilities. For me, this album is the apotheosis of American popular culture. Or for that matter, any kind of American culture.

    • You are correct and I meant to say that it was the last of the Sinatra albums to appear on CD. All the others came on the market quite soon. The remastering included some songs that did not appear on the original LP. It is also interesting to note that some of the tracks were recorded in the Capitol Tower and others were at the old studios at KHJ. The sound chambers 30 feet below the studio at Capitol had not yet been installed. That was one reason the album took seven months to make.

      • Yes Addison says:

        Close to You is still a somewhat overlooked one. It’s hard to go wrong with Sinatra in the Capitol years (much like Ella on Verve). Everything is either great or near-great. He was at his mature peak, both vocally and as an interpreter, the material was first rate, and the arrangers in the rotation (Riddle, Jenkins, May, and for one album Axel Stordahl) all brought something special and distinctive. Just the best of everything.

        My own copy of Close to You came in the “Concepts” box issued in the 1990s, which also had Tone Poems of Color and the Christmas album.

  • Jeffrey Biegel says:

    Yes! The ‘Genius‘ Sammy Davis Jr, who could do it all, the enticingly beautiful voice of Doris Day, Carlos’s Switched on Bach, Frank Sinatra and Danny Kaye. As the song goes but in longer years, ‘It Was a Very Good Century’ for music.

  • Ruben Greenberg says:

    Maestro Slatkin: Could Frank Sinatra read music? Whether he could or not, he had a great ear and was very aware of arrangements and what his musicians were doing. He would always mention the names of the arrangers at his concerts and was very particular about the musicians he chose to work with (Harry Sweets Edison, Ray Brown, your parents…nothing but the best)

    • He could read music, but not a score. My dad taught him the rudiments of conducting for “Tone Poems of Color,” the first album made at the Capitol Tower. Sinatra had previously led some of the tracks for Columbia of music by Alec Wilder.

      • norman lebrecht says:

        It sounds like Koussevitsky conducting the Sacre, with all the barlines removed.

        • Rob says:

          Sinatra did a nice job of Nelson’s arrangements for the Peggy Lee album The Man I Love.

        • Koussevitsky learned his scores by having two pianists play them. We know he could read music as a bass player and he could also write, evidenced with his bass concerto. It is not really clear to me how proficient or not he was regarding actual score reading.

          • norman lebrecht says:

            According to Slonimsky, useless.

          • Rob says:

            Koussevitzky made a fine recording of the Roy Harris 3rd, which of course he premiered; a work Mr Slatkin has not recorded?

            Harris 3 , Vienna Philharmonic/ Slatkin, anyone?

          • Mick the Knife says:

            Bernstein with NY Phil is a great version of Harris’ 3rd recorded in the 80’s.

          • John Kelly says:

            I would love that and I am sure, when all “this” is over that Maestro Slatkin would love an invitation to go to Vienna! I heard the VPO give a really terrific Ives 2nd with Dudamel at Carnegie a while back. Talking to one of the members in the intermission I asked him how Dudamel persuaded them to play the piece (in the US no less….coals to Newcastle) – he replied that the orchestra chose the piece (apparently they usually pick what they play)……so the wonderful Harris might not be completely impossible!

          • Rob says:

            Interestingly, Mr Tilson Thomas has not performed/recorded the Harris 3. It was a party piece of Ormandy in Boston for a few years.

  • Jasper says:

    I would have thought that one pure C&W album (other than “Tennessee” Ernie Ford) would have made the list. Perhaps the incomparable Patsy Cline. After all, C&W is a truly American genre of music.


    • We have to be careful here. If you were in Tennessee the good folks there would be very upset if you added Western to their music. I grew up with the West Coast world of Spade Cooley, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Sadly, I did not learn much about the world of true country music until I was in my mid-thirties.

      • Brian says:

        I was about 10 when gene autry came to london he did not sing only rode his
        Horse and fired his pistol when i was boy these cowboys were legends
        I remember the show clearly.

      • Brian says:

        Stan kenton and buddy rich both detested country music.

  • V.Lind says:

    I loved Surf City when I was a kid.

  • Larry says:

    Maestro Slatkin: Do you know the album Sammy Davis made with Buddy Rich, recorded live at The Sands in Vegas around ’66, which is when Buddy started his band. Great stuff!!

  • Edgar Self says:

    Just two of thoe are aso in my collection. Now let’s see some ther such lists. Norman, there’s an idea for a series. If Karajan won”t tell you how many Furtwaengler records he owned, or vice-versa,, then ask the posters here.

    Pogorelich said hearing Glenn Gould’s records as a student in Russia changed the way he thought about the piano. A friend on request once played a Caruso record of a Tosti song three times for Jussi Bjoerling, who then recorded it himself,– That’s probbly happened more times than we know. .

  • Tom Sudholt says:

    I’m not surprised by the wide range and eclecticism of Leonard’s choices – nor his great anecdotes that accompany each album – but I was taken aback and delighted at his inclusion of “Switched on Bach”.
    That was the album that propelled yours truly into a lifelong passion for classical music after my teacher played it for us in grade school music class. I was never the same afterward and it still knocks me flat with its brilliance, audacity and imagination 47 years after first hearing it. I still program selections from it in our on-air mix.
    Leonard’s quip about quadraphonic sound – sadly correct – reminds me that Wendy Carlos from “SOB” on, initially mixed and mastered everything in 4 channel sound. I would love to hear those restored to a current day hi rez audio format. Perhaps she will do that yet?
    Carlos is a brilliant individual and her website is both fascinating…and kind of mind-blowing. wendycarlos.com

    Thanks for the memories Leonard and Norman!

    Tom Sudholt
    Classic 107.3 FM
    St.Louis, MO

  • Michael Turner (conductor) says:

    Such an interesting list from Leonard Slatkin. I would share this thought with him.

    First, as a family we had a 7 inch 45rpm disc with Danny Kaye narrating Tubby the Tuba on one side and The Little Fiddle on the other. The latter was something that I have loved now for over 50 years and my children love it too.

    Second, the first LP that my parents bought me was called Orchestral Fireworks. It was on Music for Pleasure and featured a fantastically diverse programme played by the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra conducted by Felix Slatkin. My parents choice of this disc, I believe, instilled in my love of a wide repertoire that often diverts from the so-called standard repertoire. It would have been very easy to have bought me a disc of a ‘great’ piece from the repertoire – Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Schubert etc. However, as I believe still now, hooking people on so-called classical music often needs to be done via a much wider repertoire from which the ‘greats’ can then be explored ‘in safety’.

  • Sean says:

    What a wonderful selection! Quite a few ring very pleasant bells.

  • Ned Keane says:

    How fantastic! What a lovely read.

    Mr Slatkin, I’m impressed you included ELP. Did you hear Keith Emerson’s own piano concerto? Had some good bits and just needed a bit of editing I thought.

  • disralowitz says:


    Since you mentioned “Riders In the Sky” how about the 2 Telarc albums “Happy Trails” & “Round Up” now that’s sheer unadulterated fun!

    Since you mentioned the “moog,” did you ever hear “Everything You Always Wanted to Hear on the Moog?” Never release as a cd but available on youtube. Great fun!

    I have a large library, over 2,000, many of them by you! (how could I not?) I want to thank you for all the joy you have given me over “our many years together!”


    David I

  • Zwischenaktmusik says:

    Bravo, maestro. An eclectic, interesting, helpful list. Can you or NL let us know the source for Tim Page’s article in which your list appeared or did it first appear here, on SD? Many thanks.

  • fflambeau says:

    “Danny Kaye was possibly, along with Sammy Davis Jr., the most talented person I have ever met.”

    His talents come through so well on whatever medium he used. An amazing person. He just makes me feel happy. His zaniness is infectious.

    Was he really human? Like Mozart, a talent we are unlikely to ever see again. Ever.

  • M2N2K says:

    As a classical musician, I was always a little bit embarrassed by my admiration for such musical achievements as Brubeck’s TimeOut, ELP’s BSS, ALW’s JCS. Thank you Maestro for making me feel better by including them on your list. And of course I also thank you for many memorable experiences of making music together with you.