Sunday, 12 December is the hundredth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth in Hoboken, New Jersey. Chairman of the Board and ole Blue Eyes – the names he was often called - has left an indelible mark on American culture as J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes the measure of the man and his work.
Saturday, 12 December, marks the hundredth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth to first generation Italian immigrants in America. His hometown of Hoboken, New Jersey, a small industrial city just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, has been organising special commemorative events, new biographies have been rolling off the presses, and there have been special tribute concerts across the United States. And there will probably be mass performances of My Way and Strangers in the Night, along with all those other enduring favourites from “The Great American Songbook” – songs Sinatra had made his own over the years.
Almost certainly, too, there will be some serious karaoke competitions in Japan of some of Sinatra’s most iconic songs. By way of explanation, in a land famed for its supposed mass conformity, delivering a truly killer version of My Way after a few drinks to relax those inhibitions has been an obligatory ritual in every karaoke bar, in every town in Japan, for every company man and faceless bureaucrat for many decades.
Frank Sinatra: Strangers in the night
Early in Sinatra’s musical career, he became a heartthrob for teenaged girls who flocked to his performances, swooned and shouted “Frankie!” at him on stage. That musical career took off at the height of the swing era with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands. Sinatra himself downplayed his success with his teenaged fans, explaining he felt that when they heard him singing they were really thinking of the boys and men they loved who were continents away, fighting in World War II. With his growing success, by 1946, Columbia Records had issued his first album, The Voice of Frank Sinatra.
In the early 1950s, he underwent a nearly fatal career-ender when he virtually lost his voice. But, following an Oscar-winning success as a supporting actor portraying a sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor, in the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity, he had crafted a new, more intimate, yet more powerful still vocal style. His vocal rebuild increasingly capitalised on the masterful arrangements and conducting of Nelson Riddle, designed especially to showcase Sinatra’s voice. This re-launch propelled “ole Blue Eyes” into the stratosphere of the American popular music pantheon – and created an enduring fan base around the world.
Critic Harold Meyerson, in writing of Sinatra’s musical growth has written, “His annus mirabilis was also 1953 — the year he turned in an Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity, but also, more importantly, the year he moved from Columbia to Capitol Records, where he found better microphones and a brilliant arranger, Nelson Riddle. But the Sinatra who came to Capitol was no longer the youthful crooner of the Tommy Dorsey and Columbia years. He’d loved and lost Ava Gardner, lost his teenage fan base, even briefly lost his voice. He’d been shattered — and, somehow, strengthened.
“The time for smooth ballads was over, finished. Sinatra now sang of loss and exultation, of deep, often primitive emotion (he had plenty of that, right on the surface) informed by experience, style and judgment (he had even more of those). The very first number he recorded with Riddle was Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s I’ve Got the World on a String, sung with a new mixture of authority and controlled abandon, elongating the soft consonants (nobody stretched the letter ‘N’ like Sinatra), swinging the delivery with a paradoxical loose precision. ‘I’m back!’ Sinatra exulted when the session ended. Was he ever.”
Along the way, as a social phenomenon, Sinatra created the first real “crew” in Hollywood, “The Brat Pack”, that brought together a gaggle of other talented singers, actors and comedians and that created the template for celebrity bad boy behaviour that always seemed to involve copious amounts of alcohol, beautiful young women other than their current wives, fast driving, gambling, as well as the occasional bar room brawl with others – particularly journalists. Along the way, Sinatra married four times and had various other rather public affairs.
Of course, Sinatra was much more than just a singer and a celebrity brawler. His films contributed significantly to his popularity. These included his Academy Award supporting actor role as Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity, a starring role in The Man with the Golden Arm, and the title character in Von Ryan’s Express. Moreover, he garnered critical acclaim for his performance in the original film version of The Manchurian Candidate. Beyond serious drama, he starred in successful cinematic musicals such as On the Town, Guys and Dolls, High Society, and Pal Joey. Towards the end of his film career he became associated with playing idiosyncratic detectives, such as the title character in Tony Rome, where of course he got the bad guys and the girl. But there was television in his career too. There was The Frank Sinatra Show as well as numerous TV appearances throughout the 1950s and 60s.
And if all of this was not enough for one life, he became a friend of presidents like John F Kennedy (whom he campaigned for in 1960, along with other campaign appearances for Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan in their presidential campaigns), as well as various Mafia dons – doing what he wanted, as he always did, his way.
At the intersection of all these facets of his life, there was his struggle to get the Hollywood moguls to cast him in the film, From Here to Eternity, the movie that brought him an Oscar. A lightly fictionalised version of this tale was memorably recounted in Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather, and the movie Francis Ford Coppola made from that story.
While Sinatra never actually formally learned how to read music, he had a natural understanding of music as an art form, and he gained such mastery over the meaning of the lyrics that the listener always felt the singer was telling a musical story, rather than just beautifully singing a song. He was perfectly placed to draw upon the contents of the Great American Songbook, just as it was the good luck of the composers whose works were within it — Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer, and so many others — that Sinatra came along to call forth the magic in that music.
Frank Sinatra: My Way (New York, 1974)
Sinatra was a musical perfectionist in his work, just as he was renowned for his impeccable dress sense and near-obsession with cleanliness. He was also a heavy smoker of Camel cigarettes, and an avid consumer of Jack Daniels – both of which are reputed to have been laid to rest with him in his casket. In his recordings, unlike so many other singers, then and now, Sinatra always insisted on recording live with his band. His recordings sold in massive quantities, and by the time Sinatra passed away, he had sold more than 150 million records. The Sinatra musical style remains a powerful magnet for many performers as they have tried to emulate it, right up to the present day.
Political commentator George Will, a writer more usually feared for an acerbic wit used in dissecting politicians he disliked, wrote of Sinatra on the occasion of this anniversary, “Sinatra was many things, some of them — libertine, bully, gangster groupie — regrettable. But he unquestionably was the greatest singer of American songs…. With Sinatra, tune out the public personality and listen to his music as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan and Oscar Peterson did. They all, according to the culture critic Terry Teachout, named Sinatra their most admired singer.”
He was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. And just by the way, he picked up eleven Grammys, including the Grammy Trustees Award, the Grammy Legend Award and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Following his death, American music critic Robert Christgau called him “the greatest singer of the 20th century”.
For this writer, although there are so many choices, My Way, with lyrics by Paul Anka and music by Claude François and Jacques Revaux, have always seemed to be the perfect summation of Sinatra, the man, his life and his musical career:
And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I’ll say it clear,
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.
I’ve lived a life that’s full. Regrets, I’ve had a few; I planned each charted course; Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried. To think I did all that; For what is a man, what has he got? Yes, it was my way. DM
I’ve traveled each and every highway;
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
But then again, too few to mention.
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.
Each careful step along the byway,
And more, much more than this,
I did it my way.
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall;
And did it my way.
I’ve had my fill; my share of losing.
And now, as tears subside,
I find it all so amusing.
And may I say – not in a shy way,
“Oh no, oh no not me,
I did it my way”.
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels;
And not the words of one who kneels.
The record shows I took the blows –
And did it my way!
Regrets, I’ve had a few;
I planned each charted course;
Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried.
To think I did all that;
For what is a man, what has he got?
Yes, it was my way. DM
Photo of young Frank Sinatra by Reuters.