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Frank Sinatra and musicians in studio during recording session at CBS.
Frank Sinatra and musicians in a studio during a recording session at CBS.W. Eugene Smith—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Frank Sinatra and musicians in studio during recording session at CBS.
Patrice Munsel, tea thermos handy, curls up and beats time to herself in aria from Fledermaus.
Gregor Piatigorsky unhappily listens to a movement being played back.
Rudolf Serkin, his hair bristling, listens with deep absorption to his Beethoven Emperor Concerto..
Marian Anderson listens doubtfully to her Brahams Alto Rhapsody. But orchestra applauded her.
Eyes closed and their faces mask-like in deep reverie, Helen Traubel (left) and Herta Glaz (right) sit in recording booth with sound engineers listening to their duet from Tristan.
The face of genius is here preoccupied with the correct time—a necessity for a man of Stravinsky's precise schedules.
Comedian and opera star, Jimmy Durante and Helen Traubel, join in A Real Piano Player. Jimmy was serious during his duet with a high-brow artist.
Composer Marc Blitzstein with conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein studying score of a Blitzstein work during a recording session.
Leopold Stokowsky smokes a cigarette and listens during a recording session.
Pearl Bailey in a CBS recording session.
Artur Rodzinski seems dejectd as he hears playback of Franck's D-Minor Symphony, which he had just let. But when it ended he said, "Fine! I like it."
Jazz musician Mary Lou Williams, music in front of her, listening to playback of recording she has just made.
Clarinetist Benny Goodman smokes a cigarette while listening in a CBS recording session.
Dorothy Kirsten glamour girl of the Met, records Puccini arias after first removing all her rings and bracelets, which might jingle and spoil recording.
Candid studies of Recording Artists.
Frank Sinatra and musicians in studio during recording session at CBS.
Shirtsleeved Isaac Stern plays Tchaikovsky concerto with Alexander Hilsberg.
Eleanor Streber drinking water during a CBS recording session.
Frank Sinatra and musicians in a studio during a recording session at CBS.
W. Eugene Smith—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Behind the Scenes With the 20th Century's Biggest Recording Artists

Feb 11, 2016

Recording technology has come a long way since the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences began doling out gilded gramophones to musicians in 1959. Popular music today is replete with layered tracks, auto-tuned vocals and electronically-generated sounds that can fill in for instruments played live. But several years before the first Grammys were awarded, the famed LIFE photographer W. Eugene Smith took his camera into the studios where the most respected musicians of the day sought to achieve perfection through technologically simpler means.

When Smith photographed Frank Sinatra, Marian Anderson, Igor Stravinsky and Benny Goodman at the RCA and Columbia studios in 1951, he captured quiet moments of self-evaluation. Knowing that the public would judge their recordings for years to come, LIFE explained, “they listen with feelings of despair, approval or plain exhaustion to the playbacks of their own music.”

Smith’s portraits offer a rare look at the exacting artist in the most exacting moment—the one in which she decides to do one more take, with gusto, to inch that much closer to brilliance.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

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