Arguably the greatest crooner of them all, Frank Sinatra would have been 100 this year. Jack Watkins pays tribute to an American icon.
He was variously dubbed Ole’ Blue Eyes, the Chairman of the Board, the Sultan of Swoon, the Lean Lark, and the Moonlight Swoonatra, but the moniker which suited him best was, quite simply, The Voice. He caused legions of bobbysoxers to swoon throughout the 1940s, before turning himself into a movie star and winning an Oscar. He survived the onslaught of Elvis Presley and rock music – which he roundly detested – to become the classiest exponent of adult pop in the 1960s. Finally, he wound up as the unofficial keeper of the Great American Songbook, still packing them in, during the late 1990s. Right now, the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra is being celebrated with a major exhibition at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts, after which it goes on a tour of various venues in the States. Lucky Americans – but then, they always knew they had something special in Mr Sinatra.
pic: David Sutton © Frank Sinatra Enterprises, LLC
In the early ’80s, I’d hear my older Yank relations – all of them Frank fans – talking about how the feisty crooner, by then approaching 70, was gradually learning to laugh off his inability to sustain the notes like he once did. Our Frank was not an easy man, and his standards were high. He demanded the best from his musicians, but most of all from himself, both in concert and in the recording booth. Getting older wasn’t proving easy, and he bitterly resented every fluffed note, each sign of fallibility. Around this time, he collaborated with Quincy Jones and an orchestra which included the likes of Lionel Hampton, George Benson and the Brecker Brothers, on a new album LA is My Lady, released in 1984. Listening to the album was a painful experience, not because his singing was especially bad, but because the passing of the years seemed so apparent.
Distance lends perspective, however, and in writing this piece I put the LP back on the turntable for the first time in over fifteen years. What a masterpiece! Like Rembrandt in his later years, finding new fecundity. I’d rather listen to Sinatra at 95, croaking like a frog, than any amount of Robbie Williams and the other lightweight copyists whose performances fade to nothing in his long shadow.
Sinatra’s music still lives because he eschewed gimmickry. Somewhat ironically, his centenary has come along at the same time as the 80th anniversary of the birth of Elvis (currently celebrated by an exhibition at the O2 which, typically for a country which still thinks that music started with The Beatles, focuses on the The King’s Graceland excesses, rather than the revolutionary impact he had on 1950’s popular music). Presley’s creativity as a musician was confined to quite a short period in the mid to late 50s (his Sun/early RCA years), but Sinatra offered quality listening through fifty years of his records.
Yet like Presley, he’d come up the hard way. Born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in December 1915 of parents of Italian origin, Francis Albert was a bit of a hoodlum in his youth. Showing little appetite for formal education, he had a series of ordinary jobs after leaving school at sixteen, which included working as a riveter in a shipyard. He moonlighted as a nightclub singer, and sometimes as a singing waiter, and was twenty-three before he got a major break. As luck had it though, from then on he was to work with a series of jazz greats, firstly the trumpeter Harry James, who’d just left Benny Goodman’s orchestra, and then joining the Tommy Dorsey orchestra, as a member of the Pied Pipers vocal group.
“H-mm, kinda thin” was the reaction of fellow singer Jo Stafford as he strolled up to the mike. His vocal approach, when effective ways of singing into a microphone were still being forged, was quickly noticed. Sinatra’s lyrical phrasing was reportedly modelled on those of Dorsey’s trombone. It meant that each line contained a surprise, where other singers just sang ‘straight’. But though he looked like a weedy little runt, he had self-assurance, too. It was this confidence, rather than good looks, that created the special aura he carried on stage. “He was a skinny kid with big ears,” recalled Dorsey. “And yet what he did to women was something awful.”
The bobbysoxer years ran from 1943 to 1948, by which time he was also appearing in films. He co-starred with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945), and was in a sailor suit once more in the ravishingly stylish On The Town (1948),one of the most joyous films ever made. By the 1950s, he was taking on more serious parts, such as in From Here to Eternity (1953) for which he won an Oscar, even if he still seemed unconvincing next to Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift, and, best of all, as a drug addict in The Man with the Golden Arm (1956).
It’s still the music from this time, however, which offers us the best of Sinatra, for, just as sales of his records had gone into a slump, he emerged as the earliest exponent of the long playing record as a themed concept, rather than as a slung-together package of previously released hits. Anyone interested in the history of popular music is sure to own a slew of the albums Sinatra made for the Capitol label with arrangers such as Nelson Riddle and Billy May and Axel Stordahl (and, ideally, own them in the vinyl pressings, as the sleeves are objects of delight in themselves). The likes of Swing Easy!, Songs For Swingin’ Lovers!, Come Fly With Me, Come Dance With Me, Nice’n’ Easy, Sinatra’s Swingin’ Session and Point of No Return are all recommended. In The Wee Small Hours, recorded when the singer was deeply depressed by the breakdown of his marriage to Ava Gardner, and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely are darker in tone, but many consider the former his best work; Sinatra himself regarded the Only the Lonely album as his favourite among his recordings, and Riddle also thought it was the best vocal album he’d personally been involved with arranging.
Such music makes you willing to overlook Sinatra’s well-documented human flaws, his Mafia associations, and the silly, self-serving vanity of his Rat Pack collaborations with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis jnr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford. Even in that period, we have the compensation of the better of the Reprise songs (Luck Be A Lady, Strangers in the Night, Summer Wind, That’s Life), emanating from the company he’d set up as a result of his split with Capitol Records.
Remaining a gripping live performer into the late 1990s, he died aged 82, in 1998, suffering from creeping dementia and a host of other health issues. It was remarkable that he’d lasted so long. A lifetime in showbiz exposes you to situations the rest of us can barely imagine, but he’d never lost his commitment to the music, its proper recording and presentation. He was one of the first big stars to emerge, peak and then mature during the golden age of record-making and, as such, his career is a window on a period of history now passing from view. For that reason, we can’t possibly see his like again.
‘Sinatra: An American Icon’ tells the story of Sinatra’s personal life and performing career, with items from his personal collection, rare footage, private photos and correspondence.
Runs at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts until 4 September, then travels to the Grammy Museum, Los Angeles and other US destinations. Optima Magazine would like to thank NYPL for the provision of photographs for this feature.
See www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/sinatra-american-icon for more information.