There are probably no entertainers of the 20th Century who have had as much written about them as Frank Sinatra. Countless newspaper and magazine articles from the 1940s to the present day, books by anyone and everyone over decades – right now there are over a hundred books on Sinatra being offered at Amazon.com; some good, some bad, some superficial, very few well written and introspective. But, it’s interesting to see how many people have an opinion about Frank Sinatra.
To understand why Ol’ Blue Eyes is considered the greatest exponent of the American Popular Song, it’s necessary to consider the things that shaped him, giving him the ability to use the finest natural popular voice of the 20th Century that he was blessed with, and hone it into the expressive and impressive instrument that it became.
Sinatra was mercurial, there is no doubt. He had an explosive, controlling personality, undoubtedly influenced by his mother Dolly, and partly because of a strange admiration for the Italian mobsters and their deadly no-nonsense style of getting things done, letting no one stand in their way.
And, then there were the women, a list of whom might well equal a good-size city phone book. But, here was a kid who grew up in a lower-class Hoboken Italian ghetto, and suddenly, within a couple of years of being plucked off the streets by trumpeter/bandleader Harry James, finds himself becoming more popular than his new bandleader boss Tommy Dorsey. With his developing vocal style attracting girls who began flocking and swooning, he found opportunities for sex which certainly overwhelmed him.
I’ve always felt that the Sinatra in films, on television, and even in public, was not the real Sinatra – that we were seeing a character he had created. It was almost as if he was afraid to let people see who he really was, so he hid behind a fictitious tough guy persona. That he was vulnerable there is no question, and I believe he thought people would think he was weak if they witnessed his vulnerability. For the image that Sinatra wanted to show to the world that would never do. But there was one facet of his life where he let his guard down completely, and here he couldn’t hide it, because it was the core of his being. It was his voice, his singing, and his music.
In 1986 an entertainment writer for the Chicago Tribune named Larry Kart wrote a very perspective article on Sinatra. Here’s an interesting paragraph:
‘It is surprising that so few attempts have been made to examine the components of Sinatra’s vocal art, for that is the bedrock upon which his image as a larger-than-life-size celebrity rests.’
First you have to realize that the very sound and timbre of his voice, something he was born with, was unusually both distinctive and compelling, but it had to be shaped. He learned a lot in his three years with the Dorsey band by watching and listening to Tommy Dorsey play his trombone. He studied Dorsey’s breathing and phrasing, incorporating this into his vocalizing. Unlike most of the band singers of the era, Sinatra knew he had to develop a stage presence if he wanted to stand out from the band and its leader. He began to focus on the dancers who often stopped dancing and came close to the bandstand to listen when he did his songs – mostly young adult females. He began to sing directly to them, pinning them with his blue eyes as he caressed the words. As he got better, the crowds at the bandstand became larger and larger, so he carefully built on it, and everyone began to notice, even Dorsey and the band. On one radio broadcast the announcer was bantering with Dorsey and asked, ‘Has Frank taken over the band yet?’
This led to his solo career in 1943, taking Dorsey’s arranger Axel Stordahl with him, hiring a sharp press agent named George Evans, signing with Columbia Records. The result? The bobbysox craze erupted around Sinatra, largely constructed by George Evans. ‘Sinatramania’ was an unheard of phenomenon for an entertainer, and wouldn’t be repeated until the craze around Elvis Presley. Sinatra became the first modern superstar.
But, as it has been said, the pop market will always be fickle, and youngsters of each generation want their own idols, regardless of how inferior the product might be.
There are inklings that Sinatra was preparing for a change in style from the bobbysox crooner. He hated the songs that Columbia’s new A&R man Mitch Miller was trying to force on him, ‘to keep pace with the times.’ The lowest point was surely a recorded duet called ‘Mama Will Bark’ with a busty blonde named Dagmar who couldn’t sing at all but simply spoke the words in a monotone.
But, listen to one of the last songs he recorded with Columbia on June 3, 1952 – ‘The Birth of the Blues’ in a spectacular arrangement by Heinie Beau, and also, on September 17, 1952, the very last recording with Columbia, the prophetic ‘Why Try to Change Me Now’ conducted by Canadian, Percy Faith. Faith was credited with the arrangement, but it sounds suspiciously like an Axel Stordahl chart to me. Two songs, then, a swinger and a ballad, and both of them would sound right at home with the mature Sinatra on Capitol Records. (Both are on YouTube.)
And, this is where you realize that Sinatra had reached the peak of his vocal abilities. In these Capitol recordings with Nelson Riddle and occasionally Billy May, the voice was perfection. Sinatra didn’t just sing the words, he interpreted them with the clearest diction and expression that an actor reading poetry might. He knew where to lean on a word, where to back off and ghost, where to bend the vocal around the word, and where to reach deep inside himself to embrace a phrase with an emotion he had felt somewhere in his life, whether touching, sad or exuberant. Listening takes your breath away.
Singers are products of their own generations. Bing Crosby was young Sinatra’s idol, but Bing sang the songs of his generation and in the style that suited them – and him. Crosby had a lovely, warm, folksy voice, and he sang songs that suited this particular style and delivery. Nine years older than Sinatra, he was the right singer for his time period, but was good enough to keep a following into the 1950s. He could never have attempted to sing some of Sinatra’s greatest renditions – ‘I’m a Fool to Want You,’ for example. ‘Pistol Packin’ Mama,’ and ‘Shoo Fly Pie’ and ‘Apple Pan Dowdy’ or ‘Swingin’ on a Star’ were his forte, and Crosby was smart enough to know it and stick with it.
But, Sinatra carried much of Crosby’s relaxed ease to a new level, somewhere it had never gone before, and never will again. You see, Sinatra was the iconic vocalist of his generation, and that generation experienced the zenith of sophistication in popular music, which, sadly, has gone downhill ever since. Sinatra lived the words he sang because they were from his own particular time and experience, and he reached deep into his soul to express them in music. No one can go back there and live in that time, and while there are many who try to imitate or copy Sinatra, and even steal his arrangements, they’ll never have the two things that make it real – Sinatra’s voice – and a life in the time that produced the magic.
It’s remarkable that the two greatest natural voices of the 20th Century, each in a completely different style, have never been approached with the same outstanding quality by anyone, and they never will. Those voices belonged to Frank Sinatra and Mario Lanza, both of Italian descent.
As music producer and writer Richard Havers has written: ‘No matter how many contests and competitions there are, there will never be anyone who can really compete with – The Voice.’
I should know – I tried.