- 12 Dec 19
To celebrate what would have been his 104th birthday, we're revisiting our reflections on Frank Sinatra's remarkable life and legacy, originally published after his death in 1998.
Singer, raconteur, actor, director, stand-up comedian, paragon of style; none of these labels can fully do Frank Sinatra justice. By all accounts a loyal friend and an absolute scourge of an enemy, the singer's politics were sometimes questionable, alleged mob connections followed him around for half his life (the teen-idol singer in Coppola's The Godfather was allegedly based on Sinatra), and he was no stranger to fistfights with journalists, and indeed, bandmates. A saint? No. The greatest singer of the century? No contest.
Sinatra suffered a fatal heart attack on the night of Thursday May 14th at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He had suffered a previous heart attack in January 1997; indeed, his health had been poor for some time. Sinatra last appeared on stage in 1995 and had been in and out of hospital since March 1994.
The funeral was a private affair: in his casket was a bottle of Jack Daniels, a pack of Camels, a Zippo lighter, and a handful of ten-cent coins (he never went anywhere without change for the payphone, a habit that stemmed from the time of his son Frank Jr.'s kidnapping in 1964).
Sinatra was, like Fast Eddie Felton in Scorsese's The Color Of Money, "a student of human moves". He made the songs live because he lived the songs. The ultimate interpreter, he virtually invented method-singing, the ability to make people believe that the voice they heard had a colourful past all its own (but not always a bright future).
Frank's influence was colossal, not just on the post-war crooners, or even jazz giants such as Count Basie and Miles Davis, but also on the rock musicians he once termed "cretinous goons". You can hear his voice resonate through recordings such as The Doors' 'The Crystal Ship', Iggy Pop's 'China Girl', Tom Waits' Closing Time, you can feel his impact on artists as disparate as Elvis Presley, Bono, Scott Walker, Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and latter-day crooners like Harry Connick Junior and kd lang. He became the yardstick by which all other singers would be measured.
Sinatra was born in 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, the son of Italian immigrants (his mother was a backstreet abortionist and his father a semi-pro boxer). Young Frank resisted following in his father's footsteps, opting instead to enter the only other business to rival boxing in terms of corruption - music. He had his first hit 'All Or Nothing At All' in 1940 with trumpeter Harry James, before joining the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra.
The almost skeletal, fragile-looking singer gradually became the Orchestra's main attraction, and after six months he left to go solo. Speaking to The Chicago Tribune writer Howard Reich in 1990, Sinatra admitted that he learned some vital lessons from Dorsey. "Sitting on the stage between my numbers, I studied Tommy and realised he took very small, subtle breaths out of the side of his mouth," the singer recalled. "It was a revelation, and over time I was able to do the same thing Tommy did with the trombone to sneak air into my phrasing."
Sinatra also swam laps in hotel pools to build up his lung capacity, increasing his ability to lengthen musical phrases. Indeed, from the earliest days of his career, Frank was determined to find his own sound. Bing Crosby was king of the crooners at the time, but the young pretender was after something else, something more emotionally potent, more dramatically powerful. He was greatly enamoured by the female torch singers of the '20s and '30s, particularly Billie Holiday; the naturalism of her phrasing and her empathy with a lyric.
Along with this, he developed the legato (long-lined) approach, a seductive vocal style that, when married to songs by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael, had bobbysoxers shivering throughout the country. Even now, after many generations of screamagers, it's hard for us to fully imagine the impact Sinatra had on the audiences of the wartime era.
Reporting on Frank's run of performances at New York's Paramount Theatre in November 1944, New Republic reporter Bruce Bliven described instances of mass hysteria, of young girls threatening to kill themselves or run away from home if they weren't allowed to hear The Voice. Bliven wrote of devotees waiting in line for tickets for days, some attending over 50 consecutive performances. He related tales of teenagers wearing bandages on their arms for weeks where Frank had touched them, of thousands of 12-16 year-olds, all squealing, screaming, swooning and generally going crazy over this skinny Italian guy. Sinatra himself needed police protection: his home was constantly invaded by lovesick teenyboppers, his mail ran to thousands of letters a day, and the hotels he stayed in would find their switchboards jammed with calls from frazzled fillies.
However, like all teen phenomena, it couldn't last. By the end of the 1940s, the singer's fortunes were on the wane. Public tastes were veering away from Sinatra's refined style toward more base material, and he refused to record the drivel foisted upon him by Columbia's A...R department. His record sales slipped, he was having voice problems, and was dropped by both the record label and his film company, MGM. "At 38 years old, I was a has-been," he said of this period. "Sitting by a phone that wouldn't ring. Finding out fast how tough it is to borrow money when you're all washed up."
The only label to offer Sinatra a contract during those doldrum days was Capitol. In 1953 they gave him a small advance and an initial one-year contract. The result was one of the finest commercial and artistic marriages in the history of popular music.
To begin with, Frank's signing with Capitol coincided with the advent of the long-playing record. The improvements in sound and recording technology, not to mention the expanded playing time, were right up his alley; indeed, he was one of the first artists outside the classical and jazz field to capitalise on the potential of the album. In May of '53 he began recording a set entitled Songs For Young Lovers, which he hoped would replicate the atmosphere of one of his club sets.
The resulting 10" was a watershed: smouldering, swinging, jazzy, and intense. Over the next seven years, Sinatra, together with collaborators such as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and Axel Stordahl, would release album after album of innovative, passionate recordings, elevating popular music into an artform. They also invented what would become known as the "concept" album, a series of songs based around a unifying theme.
This was Frank's Midas period: he recorded heart-stopping performances of spellbinding torch songs like 'Three Coins In The Fountain', 'Night And Day' or 'Someone To Watch Over Me', as well as scoring dozens of stylish, witty hits with tracks like 'I've Got You Under My Skin', 'Fly Me To the Moon' and 'Chicago'. One could write pages composed entirely of song titles from this era and consider it pure poetry.
But if one performance were to encapsulate Sinatra's genius, it would be Arlen and Mercer's 'One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)'. For a start, the song itself is a masterpiece (and one Bono drew heavily on for his own excellent 'One Shot Of Happy (Two Shots Of Sad)', a tune he badly wanted Frank to record, but Sinatra's delivery elevates it to the status of dark theatre. Watching live footage of him from any era, as he plays the embittered, drink-sick ex-lover spitting, "I could tell you a lot/But it's not/In a gentleman's code" into the bartender's ear, one feels the hairs on the back of the neck stiffen.
Of course, his magic wasn't just confined to music. Running parallel to the recordings and live shows were the films, 25 years of them. And although Sinatra's screen career was peppered with haphazard performances and bad choices of roles, there are more than a few films which testify to his considerable talent: Suddenly (1954), Johnny Concho (1955), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), an Oscar-winning Best Supporting role as Private Maggio in From Here To Eternity (1953), and Otto Preminger's The Man With The Golden Arm (1956), featuring his astounding portrayal of a heroin addict. In the words of film critic David Thompson: "He glamourised the fatalistic outsider; he made his own anger intriguing; and in the late '50s, especially, he was one of our darkest male icons."
Even off-duty, Sinatra was compelling: a sarky, cigarette-smoking, whiskey-drinking, hell-raising, sharp-dressed swinger holding court at some Las Vegas den, often as not with his rat pack buddies Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Junior. And although he kept on touring when long past the peak of his vocal powers, Frank remained a consummate pro, frequently recapturing the spark of yesteryear.
Behind the image of a tough guy with a tender heart was a complicated and charismatic individual, one who once admitted: "Being an 18-carat manic depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an acute capacity for sadness as well as elation." Frank Sinatra never did things by halves. He was a force of nature.