Sinatra, Frank (1915-1998)

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Sinatra, Frank (1915-1998)

Frank Sinatra was, by most accounts, the greatest entertainer of his time, known to his legions of fans as "The Voice" of the twentieth century. But his life intersected with worlds beyond show business—with politics, both left and right, with the underworld, and with the celebrity culture of postwar America. An exceedingly complex man, Sinatra articulated in his songs the romantic dreams and existential longings of his generation. His music and life had a Shakespearean "ages of man" arc—from the callow youth of "I Fall in Love Too Easily" to the world-weary maturity of "In the Wee Small Hours" and, ultimately, to the triumphant patriarch of "My Way." But above everything, Sinatra will be remembered, in the words of Pete Hamill, as "a genuine artist, and his work will endure as long as men and women can hear, and ponder, and feel."

During a career that spanned more than 60 years, Sinatra exploited the technology of the century to define and transform his public persona. He received major breaks in his early career when he was heard over the radio by bandleaders seeking a vocalist. During the 1940s his voice seemed to caress the microphone in concert, and Sinatra created a sexual awakening, some say mass hypnotism, among adolescent girls. More than anyone else during the 1950s, he conceived the long-playing record as a vehicle of personal expression for a mature artist. His 60 movies yielded a multitude of Sinatras to contemplate: the joyous song-and-dance man of Anchors Aweigh and On the Town ; the brooding, doomed loner of From Here to Eternity and The Manchurian Candidate ; and the suave hipster of Pal Joey and Ocean's 11. Sinatra's final project, Duets, produced by recording wizard Phil Ramone in the early 1990s, utilized digital fiber optics to create electronic pairings with a new generation of performers and resulted in one of his best-selling albums of all time.

Sinatra's upbringing reflected the immigrant world of urban America. He was born in rough-and-tumble Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 12, 1915. The only child of a hard-working Sicilian household, Sinatra had big dreams to cross the Hudson River and discover his fortune in New York City. He dabbled in sportswriting and engineering before finding his calling at a Bing Crosby concert in the mid-1930s. Determined to become a singer, he polished his act at church suppers and firemen's socials. In September 1935 he and several local musicians made their radio debut as the Hoboken Four on Major Bowes' Original Amateur Hour. Bowes took a liking to the boys, and they began to tour with one of his traveling companies. After immediate success proved elusive, Sinatra went solo.

The ambitious Sinatra did everything he could to nurture his talent. He appeared on local radio with little compensation to attract any type of attention. He undertook voice lessons, which he would continue throughout his career. And, most importantly, he sang publicly, notably at the Rustic Cabin, a small North Jersey roadhouse. His persistence achieved what every singer of his era desired, a featured vocalist spot in a big band. Harry James, a former trumpeter for Benny Goodman, heard Sinatra broadcast from the Cabin and signed him to his first contract in June 1939. James's new orchestra spotlighted the confident Sinatra, especially on "All or Nothing at All," one of the first big band recordings to feature a vocalist from start to finish.

After six months, Sinatra was lured away by a more prominent bandleader, Tommy Dorsey. Inspired by Dorsey's trombone playing, Sinatra crafted a distinctive singing style, gliding from note to note without a semblance of breath. Sinatra's apprenticeship with the band lasted three years, and his recordings of "I'll Never Smile Again," "I'll Be Seeing You," and "This Love of Mine" established the boy vocalist as a star in his own right. Sinatra's ascent anticipated the dominance of the singer in postwar popular music.

Beginning in late 1942 Sinatra took control of his destiny, the first of many such moves throughout his mature years. After rancorous negotiations, Sinatra left Dorsey, leading the way for featured vocalists to make it as soloists. His debut performance at the Paramount Theatre on the last day of 1942 created a riotous sensation as thousands of teenage girls, known as the bobbysoxers, swooned (a publicist's description that caught on) at the skinny crooner in a bowtie. Amateur psychologists debated this ardent popularity: did he signify wartime degeneracy or did he bring out the maternal instinct in adolescents? Whatever the reason, Sinatra became a regular on Your Hit Parade, network radio's most popular show on Saturday night.

Critics also analyzed the unique communication that Sinatra had with his audience. E. J. Kahn, in one of the first major articles on the Sinatra phenomenon, stated for The New Yorker that while singing Sinatra "stares with shattering intensity into the eyes of one trembling disciple after another." His intimacy with the microphone and personalization of the lyrics involved his listeners in a sexual experience. Sinatra learned how to transmit powerful emotions through his songs by studying the haunted textures of Billie Holiday. And in the best jazz tradition, he also liked to come up with innovative ways to treat musical phrases.

Sinatra strove to completely identify with the music in the recording studio. He teamed up with Dorsey arranger Alex Stordahl to produce introspective ballads for Columbia Records throughout the 1940s. Stordahl's lush strings complemented the soulful rapture of Sinatra's baritone. Between 1943 and 1946 he had 17 top singles, including his first Columbia recording, the tender "Close to You" and more upbeat "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in the Week)," which had special meaning for women whose lovers were away fighting in Europe.

Sinatra made his first movie appearances as a Dorsey vocalist in Las Vegas Nights (1941) and Ships Ahoy (1942). The hysteria surrounding Sinatra's personal appearances in the early 1940s led to a contract with MGM in 1944. Gene Kelly became his mentor and teacher, and he was groomed for energetic, splashy musicals. He starred as a nerdy, shy sailor in Anchors Aweigh (1944); a show business-crazed New Yorker in It Happened in Brooklyn (1947); and a baseball playing, tap dancing vaudevillian in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) with Kelly. But Sinatra quickly outgrew this manufactured image of cheerfulness and frivolity.

Since his boyhood, Sinatra was immersed in Democratic politics. His mother was a party ward organizer and her only child became a crusader for racial tolerance. Sinatra and his Hoboken sweetheart Nancy named their son Franklin after President Roosevelt for whom the singer had campaigned vigorously. In 1945 Sinatra had received a special Oscar for the short The House I Live In, an outspoken attack on religious and ethnic bigotry. But in the late 1940s, when the political mood of cold-war America was shifting rightward, Sinatra was lambasted as a communist sympathizer and fellow traveler as well as criticized for his trip to Havana to meet syndicate boss Lucky Luciano. Questions about his connection to the underworld, especially as the quintessential nightclub and Las Vegas performer, bedeviled the Italian-American entertainer the rest of his career, begetting a nasty feud with the press over personal privacy.

By 1950, Sinatra's public and personal worlds had collapsed. As America began celebrating economic prosperity and organizational conformity, Sinatra's record sales slumped and MGM dropped him from their galaxy of stars. His private indiscretions had become fodder for the gossip columns, and the singer was scandalized for a tumultuous affair with movie goddess Ava Gardner, which disinte-grated his marriage. Sinatra also failed to conquer the new medium of the home, television, in the early 1950s as his first series was widely assailed by the critics. The city girls, who had idolized "The Swoon" during the war years, were now busy raising families in the suburbs; Sinatra appeared to be a relic.

Sinatra's comeback, receiving a 1954 Oscar for his portrayal of the downtrodden Maggio in From Here to Eternity, has been the stuff of legend. What was more remarkable was the entire transformation of the Sinatra persona. No longer would he be the sensitive balladeer who spoke directly into a woman's heart. Now, he was a man's man, the one who hoped for swinging times, but was often left anguished at the bar alone. His image in the movies was toughened. He played a psychopathic presidential assassin in Suddenly (1954), an agonized heroin addict in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and a disillusioned writer in Some Came Running (1958). He also brought a maturity to his musical roles: as the cynical reporter in High Society (1956), performing a rousing "Well Did You Evah?" with his inspiration, Bing Crosby, and as the ultimate heel in Pal Joey (1957), taking such delight in his crucial number, "The Lady Is a Tramp."

In 1953 Sinatra signed with Capitol Records and, collaborating with arranger/conductor Nelson Riddle, would orchestrate an entirely new sound for his mature self. They pioneered the concept album, which in a suite of songs looked at one aspect of adult love. Riddle, a former trombonist, brought a pulsating rhythm to the records, helping to define Sinatra's new swinging style. Sinatra adapted a variety of roles to articulate a deeper understanding of romance: the bold sensualist in Song for Swingin' Lovers (1956); the tender, intimate companion of Close to You ; and the gloomy, introspective loner in Only the Lonely (1958). Sinatra also hooked up with arrangers Gordon Jenkins and Billy May to explore other masks: the intense and tortured romantic (Jenkins's Where are You? And No One Cares) and the raucous swinger (May's Come Fly Me and Come Dance with Me !). In the studio, Sinatra incarnated each role; he was the ultimate "method" singer.

From 1953 to 1962 Sinatra recorded 17 albums for Capitol and exploited the dramatic possibilities of the long-playing twelve-inch disc. Sinatra was at his powers as an interpretative artist and these recordings constitute a treasury of American popular song. Many songs were carefully selected from the golden age of the Broadway musical, and Sinatra's readings plumb the emotional depths of the lyrics. A majority of his meticulously-rehearsed versions are considered definitive, including "I've Got a Crush on You" (George and Ira Gershwin); "I've Got You Under My Skin" (Cole Porter); "One for My Baby" (Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer); and "I Wish I Were in Love Again (Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart). Sinatra always paid tribute to the songwriting art by announcing in concert the name of the composer before each song. During the Capitol years Sinatra also returned to the charts with singles produced for quick recognition and consumption, most notably "Learnin' the Blues," "All the Way," and "Witchcraft." By the end of the 1950s, Sinatra was again America's most prominent performer.

In the early 1960s Sinatra reconfigured his identity once again. He formed his own record company, Reprise, the first major artist-owned label in music history. (He sold the company to Warner Brothers in 1963, retaining a one-third interest.) He became the embodiment of a middle-aged swinging playboy with the release of Ring-a-Ding Ding! (1960) and Swing Along with Me (1961). He surrounded himself with hard-drinking and high-living friends, called by the press the Rat Pack, whose members included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop. The Rats, nicknamed The Summit by the leader, were headquartered in Las Vegas, where Sinatra was established as the premier performer and an owner of the Sands Hotel. Reveling in tuxedo until daybreak, they were, and for some will always be, the epitome of cool.

Sinatra with his pals promulgated a hedonistic philosophy of swagger and style. An outgrowth of Humphrey Bogart's inner circle, they campaigned for the equally fun-loving John F. Kennedy in 1960, with Sinatra supervising the inaugural gala. The Pack made lighthearted slapdash movies, including Ocean's 11 (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). With the assassination of President Kennedy, who publicly snubbed Sinatra in 1962 because of his mob associations, and the emergence of The Beatles, the Rat Pack seemed tired and out-of-touch by the middle of the decade. And once again, Sinatra reinvented himself.

During his 50th year in 1965, Sinatra contemplated his life and profession. He released September of My Years, one of his most personal works, a touching musical reflection on the joys and anguishes of his younger years. Sinatra also compiled and narrated a retrospective album, A Man and His Music, which surveyed his career in 31 songs. Both projects received the Grammy Award for album of the year, anointing Sinatra as elder statesman of the industry. Personally, Sinatra was still frisky, marrying actress Mia Farrow, 30 years his junior.

A Man and His Music also inspired a television special, which marked Sinatra's triumphant return to the medium. His two previous weekly series had fizzled, both succumbing to Sinatra's unwillingness to rehearse outside the recording studio. His most noteworthy performances had been one-time only engagements: as the stage manager in a musical adaptation of Our Town (which yielded the hit single "Love and Marriage") and as host of a "Welcome Home, Elvis" extravaganza, in which the two former teen idols joined for an incomparable duet. The 1965 special was acclaimed "the television musical of the season," receiving an Emmy Award for outstanding program. Sinatra continued to produce and star in television specials, almost on an annual basis, making sure he remained a force in contemporary music.

During the 1950s Sinatra dismissed rock and roll as music "sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons." By the late 1960s Sinatra had accommodated many diverse sounds in his repertoire. Adapting to changing fashions, he recorded songs composed by Jimmy Webb, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, and George Harrison. One of his most advantageous collaborations was with the Brazilian samba stylist, Antonio Carlos Jobim. Sinatra discovered unexpected pleasures in the soft and delicate rhythms of the bossa nova. This embrace of a new beat also provided several popular hits, including "Strangers in the Night," winner of the Grammy Award as record of the year; "That's Life," Sinatra at his bluesiest; and "Something Stupid," a duet with his eldest daughter Nancy. In 1969 he adapted a French ballad, "Mon Habitude," with English lyrics by Paul Anka, and crafted one of his signature songs, "My Way."

Tired of the investigations into his private life, Sinatra announced his retirement from show business in June 1971. He made yet another comeback two years later with the album and TV special, Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, engendering another show business moniker. He was most frequently nicknamed The Chairman of the Board, referring to his pervasive presence in all aspects of the entertainment industry. Although his professional life slowed down, especially after his marriage to Barbara Marx in 1976, Sinatra still made artistic waves. He delivered a classic reading of Stephen Sondheim's innovative "Send in the Clowns," a staple of his concerts during the 1970s. In 1980 he released his most ambitious undertaking, Trilogy: Past, Present & Future, three discs that showed off both the swinging and serious facets of his artistry. Sinatra recorded for Trilogy yet another defining song, "Theme from New York, New York," which became a showstopper in performance. In movies, he was most comfortable as a hard-boiled, aging sleuth, a role he began in The Detective (1968) and further explored in the television movie Contract on Cherry Street (1977) and his final starring theatrical role in The First Deadly Sin (1980). In 1987 The Manchurian Candidate, featuring Sinatra's most complex role as a brainwashed soldier, was re-released, twenty-six years after its premiere. There was a renewed appreciation for Sinatra's acting skills, especially in challenging material.

Like many in his generation, Sinatra's politics drifted rightward as he got older. Becoming an ardent Republican during the Vietnam era (though still a registered Democrat), he campaigned aggressively for Ronald Reagan in 1980. Victorious again, as twenty years before, he produced the presidential inaugural gala. He was appointed to the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities as well as was awarded the Kennedy Center Honor for Lifetime Achievement (1983) and Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian recognition (1985). He still received millions of dollars for concert performances around the world, including a controversial appearance in Sun City, South Africa.

Sinatra's personal life was always riddled with contradictions. His generosity to friends was legendary as was his vicious feuds with targeted members of the press. Back in 1947, he publicly attacked one of his critics, Lee Mortimer, and was ordered to pay a substantial fine. Although his friendship with Chicago mobster Sam Giancana cost him a gambling license in the 1960s, he still associated with the underworld throughout his career, including a 1975 infamous photograph backstage at the Westchester Premier Theater with Mafia boss Carlo Gambino and Jimmy "the Weasel" Frantianno. Many unauthorized biographies focussed on these unsavory aspects of Sinatra's volatile temperament, most significantly the bestselling His Way (1986), by Kitty Kelley. Even the 1992 authorized miniseries Sinatra, produced by youngest daughter Tina, did not shy away from controversies, portraying Sinatra's relationship with Giancana (played by Rod Steiger).

Sinatra remained a permanent fixture and influence on the American popular culture landscape even in his twilight years. Although his 1988 reunion tour with Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin dissipated when Dino lost interest, the Rat Pack were embraced as the arbiters of hip by the twentysomething generation in the 1990s. At the age of 77, Sinatra made another recording comeback as his Duets album unexpectedly sold several million copies. Although his partners were not in the same studio and electronically overdubbed, Sinatra was heard singing with stars from other musical fields, including international personalities Julio Iglesias and Charles Aznavour; from the jazz and soul front, Aretha Franklin, Luther Vandross, and Anita Baker; and from his own genre, Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett. Rocker Bono of U2, another "duetist," grandiloquently presented Sinatra with the 1994 Grammy Legend Award, enshrining him as "the Big Bang of Pop." Sinatra's 80th-birthday special also featured a wide array of celebrants, including rappers Salt-N-Pepa and rock superstars Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Sinatra himself toured rigorously well into his 70s, before giving his last concert in February 1995.

Sinatra's death on May 14, 1998 eclipsed one of television's most heavily promoted events, the final episode of Seinfeld. Every corner of news, from print to cyberspace, was awash in memorial tributes. As David Hadju of Entertainment Weekly pointed out: "No American since JFK (the Sinatra of Presidents) seemed to have received such a grand media memorial, effusive in its praise of his talent and celebratory in its recollection of his life."

The one quality that Sinatra strove for in his nearly 1,300 commercially available recordings and his many different incarnations was honesty. Each song was the personal expression of a deeply felt moment. There was no separating the incomparable singer from the intimate experience of the lyric. Like many other supremely gifted artists, his life did not always live up to the ideals of his art. But, as New York Times critic John Rockwell noted, "no singer of our time has better invested the widest range of emotion in his music than Frank Sinatra."

—Ron Simon

Further Reading:

Douglas-Home, Robin. Sinatra. New York, Grosset & Dunlap,1962.

Friedwald, Will. Sinatra! The Song Is You. New York, DaCapo Press, 1997.

Kelley, Kitty. His Way. New York, Bantam, 1986.

Hamill, Pete. Why Sinatra Matters. Boston, Little Brown and Company, 1998.

Kahn, E. J. The Voice: The Story of an American Phenomenon. New York, Harper & Brothers, 1947.

Lahr, John. Sinatra: The Artist and the Man. New York, Random House, 1997.

Levy, Shawn. Rat Pack Confidential. New York, Doubleday, 1998.

Lonstein, Albert, and Vito Marino. The Revised Complete Sinatra. Privately published, 1981.

O'Brien, Ed, and Scott Sayers. Sinatra: The Man and His Music. Austin, TSD Press, 1992.

Petkov, Steven, and Leonard Mustazza, eds. The Frank Sinatra Reader. New York, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Rockwell, John. Sinatra: An American Classic. New York, Rolling Stone Press, 1984.

Shaw, Arnold. Sinatra: Twentieth-Century Romantic. New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Sinatra, Nancy. Frank Sinatra, My Father. New York, Pocket Books, 1985.

Sinatra, Nancy. Frank Sinatra: An American Legend. Santa Monica, General Publishing Group, 1995.

Taraborrelli, J. Randy. Sinatra: Behind the Legend. Secaucus, Carol Publishing, 1997.

Wilson, Earl. Sinatra: An Unauthorized Biography. New York, Macmillan, 1976.

Vare, Ethlie Ann, ed. Legend: Frank Sinatra and the American Dream. New York, Boulevard Books, 1995.

Zehme, Bill. The Way You Wear Your Hat. New York, Haper Collins, 1997.