Today marks Frank Sinatra's 100th Birthday. I mentioned The Chairman of the Board earlier this year in a post about Billie Holiday's centennial; she was a vocalist Frank idolized, one who hit it big shortly before Sinatra did. Frank's impact on modern culture is incalculable. I'm not going to try to provide a biography. His life was too rich to capture in a blog entry, no matter how long and detailed.
I would like to touch on a few ways Frank has had an impact on me though. It's funny, but when Sinatra produced annual television specials in the Sixties and I got to watch him for the first time, he was unrecognizable to me. You see, I grew up on Warner Brothers cartoons from the 30s through the 50s. The Frank Sinatra depicted in those cartoons was a pencil-thin crooner who made all the girls swoon. He was in competition with a Bing Crosby look-a-like. Did I mention he was a rooster? The cartoon was "Swooner Crooner" from 1944, at the height of the first phase of Frank's career, when he turned bobby-soxers limp with adoration. Here is a clip:
Naturally, the Frank I started watching in the 60s was now firmly in middle age, though as fit and as virile as ever. My parents never listened to Sinatra, preferring the song stylings of the innocuous Andy Williams and the ineffably bland Perry Como. Yeesh! What a revelation when I got to listen to and see the real master. As someone who followed rock music during its glory years--the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, etc.--imagine my surprise when I felt compelled to buy 45 rpm records performed by Frank Sinatra--someone from my parents' generation! Go figure. But Frank's 60s' hits, such as "It Was a Very Good Year" or "That's Life" were infectious. When I went off to college, my roommate Donny used to put on Frank's greatest hits album every Saturday morning and I would wake up to "Summer Wind".
After I left college I engulfed myself in the entire discography. While I admire the big band era, I was never much of a fan of Frank in the 40s. It was the Frank of the 1950s that blew me away first. The Frank whose heart was put through the wood chipper by the sultry Ava Gardner. The Frank who made "torch songs" so personal that you just knew you were better off than he was. Whether it was a saloon song like "One for My Baby" or the legendary heartbreaker "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning", nobody transmuted pain into compelling stories like Frank. In many ways, "Wee Small Hours" was one of the first concept albums, with virtually all the songs tinged with heartbreak and loneliness. There isn't enough alcohol!
In the 50s, the arrangements by bandleader Nelson Riddle complemented Frank's vocals to such a degree that it was as if they had suffered together. Later band directors like Gordon Jenkins or Don Costa were too lush and too brassy respectively. But Riddle was near perfect.
Below : two links to these wonderful, iconic vocals.
I had plenty of opportunities to go see the kid from Hoboken over the years, but I never did. He was not quite the same singer in the 70s and 80s and I didn't want to have to see him lower a note to reach it or read the lyrics off a teleprompter. I would love to have seen him in the early 60s though, playing the Sands in Vegas with the Count Basie Orchestra backing him up. Now that would have been something! I could write at length about Frank's bullying tactics, possible mob connections, film career highlights, interactions with the Kennedys, antics with the Rat Pack, etc., but that's something you can look up on your own. Better yet, check out Alex Gibney's centennial tribute to Frank for HBO. It's a two-part documentary that's spectacular. The footage he found was extraordinary. If you subscribe to HBO, it's On Demand at: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/sinatra-all-or-nothing-at-all
If you want to read about Frank, the best place to go is Esquire. In 1966, New Journalist Gay Talese penned a profile of Sinatra that is generally regarded as the best magazine story ever written. "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" is not the best story ever written because there is no best...but it's clearly in the running. Talese, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and others created a new kind of personal journalistic style in the 60s,and this story was the paragon. Check it out at: http://www.watertownology.com/cold/http://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a638/esq1003-oct-sinatra-rev/
Ultimately, though, it's about sitting down and listening to the songs. The impeccable phrasing. You never know where he's going with the next note. The clean lines--because he taught himself breath control to a degree that is unparalleled. The confidence. More than anything...the confidence. Here are a couple of songs to check out. Enjoy.