Why No One Will Ever Equal Frank Sinatra

by Audiophilia on October 18, 2013 · 14 comments

in Audiophiles and Musicians, Jazz Recordings, Misc

Harry Currie/ 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.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

admin 10.18.13 at 11:06 am

…and you were close my brilliant friend!

Cheers, a

Rob 10.18.13 at 6:41 pm

I will never understand what the heck is this infatuation with Frank Sinatra. I am a “baby-boomer”. I was raised on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals, The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin, Jimmy Hendrix, Janis Joplin, King Crimson and Talking Heads (among others). By the time I was 25-30, I was listening to blues and jazz. By now, I expanded my musical preferences to classical and traditional world music.

I’ve always hated not only “The Voice” but - most of all - his style and interpretation. To me, he was a premier example of most boring, uninspired and unimaginative use of melodies and words I could think of.

admin 10.18.13 at 6:46 pm

Rob:

I feel sorry for you. I truly do.

Cheers, a

Harry 10.18.13 at 9:50 pm

Rob, you remind me of a song: ‘How Insensitive.’

Ron 10.18.13 at 11:15 pm

Rob:

I grew up listening to all the same stuff as you.
I later branched out into Jazz, Blues, and Folk music among others.
Now I find that pure talent no matter what instrument or style of music just amazes me and Frank had it in spades.

Rob 10.19.13 at 10:53 am

As I was writing my original post, I did realize that it will be “a stick in the wasps’ nest”… ;)

I just must say to you all: do not pity me. I am perfectly happy listening to other talents. Just not this “talent”. I’d rather listen to Harry Connick Jr., if I had an inclination to listen to this kind of music at all, that is (well, that is an exaggeration, of course, but I had to make my point, somehow).

One example - so that you don’t think I am a total loss. I’ve always hated opera - to the point where my ears were virtually bleeding and my teeth were starting to rot. Until I heard Cecilia Bartolli. THAT is a talent… Now, I am starting to open up to other opera performers. Before that, there were other talents that opened my ears to all kinds of music that’s been strange to me at the time: Artur Rubinstein, David Oistrakh, even David Chesky.

So long, Sinatrafiles…

Rob 10.19.13 at 11:03 am

P.S. The spelling of “Sinatrafiles” is intentional, but not intended to offend anybody.

Jim Tavegia 10.19.13 at 3:54 pm

I have been a huge Andy Williams fan my whole life, but it wasn’t until I started getting in Sinatra music that I really began to get what he was all about. Yesw, he changed styles probably about 3 times, but they were all for a reason. Most singers go through some change during the course of their careers, if they have one.

I think that Frank is the leader of the pack and all others are distance seconds. The one that comes closest is Tony Bennett. It was never about the greatest range, the use of effects like the Aphex Aural Exciter which I’ve always disliked on Williams recordings, it was about what a singer can do to make a song their own, and no one could touch Frank in that regard.

I am glad that the likes of Michael Buble’ has come along to keep the style of music alive and I really enjoy Diana Krall’s music, but no one has come along to pour their heart into a song like Frank. I’m sure his life had a lot to do with it.

Now it seems like it is all about knowing 4 chords and playing them all and a lot of monotony and shock treatment. I’m glad I’ve kept all my vinyl as there is not much new worth worrying about…once in a while, but not often enough. No one will match the career Sinatra had.

admin 10.19.13 at 3:59 pm

Four?! Achy Breaky Heart had two, Eb and Ab lol ;)

Cheers, a

marvin fox 10.20.13 at 6:10 pm

Frank Sinatra when he died part of me died also. he was a legend and will never be forgotten in his music and style he had. Rob you are really sad to see this about Frank. i pity you.

admin 10.20.13 at 6:20 pm

Harry Connick Jr.

‘I play like Monk and sing like Frank’.

Okee dokee

George Graves 10.20.13 at 8:55 pm

Nobody could wrap his voice around a lyric like Frank Sinatra. He used to say that he was just a saloon singer. Well, maybe so, but he was the best one there ever was. Having said that, I know a lot of otherwise musically astute people who never liked Frankie, and while I’m inclined to find that somewhat difficult to fathom, I have to keep in mind that there’s no accounting for personal taste. He didn’t have the greatest voice (Crosby’s was better and so was Como’s - as long as we’re talking “crooners”) but he was a great singer nonetheless because he understood what the lyrics meant and how to get the most out of them. The others were pleasant to listen to, a nice male singing voice is a wonderful thing. But what one does with that is the most important thing. Frankie was on top for 60 years because he did more with his voice than other of his ilk, like it or not.

michaelhigh 11.03.13 at 10:10 am

The epicenter of my tastes lie in the mid-70’s, and I have boldly moved up in time (post-1990-to present modern alternative) and back (Sinatra and Elvis, as icons of American music). It’s all good.

Harry 11.18.13 at 9:03 am

Harry:

I stumbled across this quote by Billy Wilder a couple of weeks ago. The late Billy Wilder is regarded as one of the most brilliant and versatile filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden age. Wilder is one of only five people to have won Academy Awards as producer, director, and writer for the same film (The Apartment). Among the 65 films he either wrote, directed or produced, or a combination of all three, were classics like The Bishop’s Wife, Ocean’s Eleven, Casino Royale, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like It Hot. Here is what he said about Frank Sinatra.

“Frank Sinatra is beyond talent. It’s some sort of magnetism that goes in higher revolutions than that of anybody else in the whole of show business. There’s a certain electricity permeating the air. It’s like Mack the Knife was in town and the action is starting.”

Billy Wilder

Harry:

I was at Madison Square Gardens for The Main Event, and long before Frank came on stage it felt as though there was static electricity crackling in the air in anticipation. What an experience that was.

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