Frank Sinatra: 1915–1998
By Gary Giddins
Nobody was shocked to learn of Frank Sinatra’s death at 82 — everyone was surprised he lingered as long as he did. Yet his leaving inevitably focuses attention on a shared history. High arts never unite us as intimately as popular ones, and Sinatra’s absence is unmooring on several levels, least of which is the mourning for a great artist, since he was no longer productive. We’re mourning the symbol of his generation, a guy who counts for far more in the patrimony of the baby-boomers who now control the media than Saul Bellow or Arthur Miller, who were born in the same year. He roamed in the gloaming of our mutuality for nearly 60 years, from 1939, when he recorded “All or Nothing at All” with Harry James, until last Thursday. His legend outstripped, as legends will, the details of its making. He was one of those outsized figures who so perfectly embody the experiences and outlook of his time and place as to become a vessel for dreams and herald of the future.
The generation he personified and transformed was the one that fought the “good war” and spooned to Der Bingle; bought the first TVs to watch boxing and Milton Berle in drag; wore snap-brims and wide ties and cotton handkerchiefs that peaked from breast pockets like heraldic crests; smoked guiltlessly; drank mixed holdovers from Prohibition (often made with rye); laughed at Bob Hope and ogled Rita Hayworth; thought movie musicals were an immortal idiom; gambled in Vegas to rub shoulders with wiseguys; put their kids through colleges they never would have dreamed of attending themselves; trusted in God and let cholesterol take care of itself; and quaked in horror at rock and roll — in short, the generation that spawned the ’60s the way day precedes night (or is it vice versa?). Ladies and gentlemen, Big Daddy has left the building.
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There was not much difference — you could look it up — between media coverage of Sinatra’s passing last week and that of Bing Crosby 21 years ago, when his brood ran the media. But there is a big difference in the DNA of their fables. Crosby’s was based on being the nicest guy in town; when posthumous rumors suggested he was something less than saintly, his historical standing took a nosedive. But Sinatra was a famous dickhead — we already assume the worst, no matter what posterity reveals, and we don’t give a damn. A richer testimony to his contemporaneity cannot be imagined. His danger level is part of what makes him attractive; he played the troubadour with as much bravado as François Villon. Still, to everyone born after Hiroshima, Sinatra remains always slightly alien, no matter how much we love his music — he recalls a style as antiquated as terms like “bachelor,” “divorcée,” “illegitimate child.” The revival of ’50s lounge drivel is no more than a lunatic kitsch trip and Sinatra’s artistry will outlive it — but not his style, which will be interred with his body in Palm Springs. If you don’t believe it, buy a tri-cornered hat and call yourself a revolutionary.
The music is another story, or more precisely another two stories, for early and later Sinatra are as distinct as early and later Billie Holiday. Where she went from flaming youth to clouded vulnerablity, he went the other way. Indeed, the jet-age Sinatra who makes us soar, and whom we dreamily emulate, could hardly be more different from the bony wartime crooner who clawed his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band to lay siege to the Paramount — the eager balladeer, his greased and wavy hair a mark of his defenseless youth. Not that his seemingly unaffected voice wasn’t recognized instantly as the magical instrument it was — intimate, earnest, and pretty; romantic and woebegone. It ached, but stoically. It swung, but reflectively. It caressed, and gently. Even the male factor — the pure baritone edge that shaped his every phrase — was equivocal. With men overseas and their women unattended, Sinatra allowed himself a measure of musical androgyny that underscored his identification with the women. The swooning girls his press agent hired astutely pegged Sinatra as a singer whose sexuality, in those years, stopped one step short of carnality — what can you do in a faint?
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The androgyny grew more pronounced as the bow-tied beanpole, his face as quizzical and angular as a marionette’s, learned to emote his ballads with daring operatic drama and design. “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” one of several Sinatra classics by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, typifies his ability to combine genders as he brings bel canto to pop. Cahn’s lyric is characteristically simple:
I fall in love too easily.
I fall in love too fast.
I fall in love too terribly hard
For love to ever last.
How is one to approach the title phrase? Is it rueful, knowing, complaining, ironic, diffident? Sinatra sings it like a frightened doe, but without a trace of sentimentality. He makes the lyric deep, an expression of the singer’s dramatic plight. We’re in act 3, scene 2. Queen Ava, having thrown the Prince’s betrothed (actually his daughter in disguise) from a castle turret, has hied to the barbarian king. Alone in his chamber, Prince Frank learns the terrible news and turns to his loyal jester, Dinoletto. “E strano,” he sighs, and sings, “I fall in love too easily.” The first two lines are small-voiced and quiet, but in an early example of Sinatra’s skillful technique, the third vents an unwavering, plaintive authority that glides upward along one unbroken breath, followed by a rest that heightens the poignancy of the final five words. For Sinatra, the words define the music and the music defines the words — so simple, so obvious, so why can’t everyone do it?
What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang “Try a Little Tenderness,” Sinatra wasn’t merely a wise young man advising the world’s husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world’s brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings “Ol’ Man River.”
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He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. “A voice like Sinatra’s comes along once in a lifetime,” he often said. “Why did it have to be my lifetime?” But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings — the heights he could still scale (“I’m a Fool To Want You,” “The Birth of the Blues”) vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn’t help.
And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn’t — toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he’s got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke — he’s Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he’s leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he’s poised to sing ”Love for Sale.” The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ”Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.
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By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain — an accidental virtue of his pitch problems — and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of “Pennies From Heaven” with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred — it’s a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.
He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn’t do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra’s career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.
By Tom Carson
RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. “For God’s sake, Ronnie,” Nancy must be prompting him right now, “the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.” But between the two — and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank’s true competition — there’s no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It’s like the way World War II didn’t really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn’t so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn’t been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.
If future historians don’t come to grips with Sinatra’s bizarre status as a primary color in the postwar U.S. palette, they’ll never make sense of the canvas. What’s been mostly ignored in the obits is how even in his dotage Sinatra remained white America’s last completely satisfying definition of masculine style — to somewhat disconcerting effect, let me add, since its underlying values had been debunked by feminism and Mario Puzo a quarter century before his death. Yet however much Frank the swinger’s double standards tarnish Frank the singer’s standards, no comparably compelling image of male conduct has emerged to replace it. Aside from fitting right in at the fin de siècle garage sale, guyville’s chronic outbreaks of wistfulness about the Rat Pack — whose latest installment went into overdrive last Friday — testifies to the lack of alternative models that even most women, as pop fans if not politicos or human beings, have found palatable in the long run. Remember when Ms. was waggling Alan Alda at us like a remonstrating finger? So much for that.
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Although a taste for coarseness sometimes denotes sophistication — Billy Wilder comes to mind — Sinatra was the flip side, revering sophistication as only a coarse man could. That would make him just another case study in horse-headed upward mobility if it weren’t that, unlike most aspirants, he wasn’t intimidated by prevailing definitions of sophistication; his version of classiness strikes a peculiarly native chord because it’s an invented classiness, without a pedigree. One reason he did as much as Levittown to shape the mores of America’s postwar middle class is that they’d never been middle class before. It took a peasant to teach the midcentury’s new bourgeoisie how to comport themselves as aristocrats. So long as we’re stuck with class systems, America’s incoherent version is better than the coherent kind.
The voice didn’t hurt, of course. Over the weekend, I called my mom to offer half-joking condolences; like the ones about Nixon, our running gags about Sinatra date back to my college years. She laughed, and told me she was reading in her garden with a stack of his CDs for background music. “That sounds like a nice way to spend a Saturday,” I said. “It is,” she said, holding up her phone to the speakers. “Listen.”
A PERFECT DAY
ONE NIGHT years ago, a woman I’d long wanted was finally coming over and I put on a Sinatra album. When she heard it she laughed so hard she went out of the mood. That was the end of her, and the end of playing Frank for company. For women there were Marvin, Barry, Prince. Frank was for the best nights — the alone ones. I had discovered him in Wall Street, when Charlie Sheen was just beginning to conquer Michael Douglas and Daryl Hannah and for one moment everything was as it should have been. In the background Frank sang, “Flyyyyy me to the moon/Let me plaaaay among the stars” — and I understood immediately. This was the sound of insurmountable confidence and cosmic rightness. I never knew whether Nancy was Frank’s wife or his daughter, or who Bobby was and why his socks mattered, or what Woody Allen’s wife’s mother had to do with any of it. I knew only that Frank had the sound of a man who would never lose. Could never. A man I could turn to long after midnight on Sunday, when I was all alone, the lights dimmed, steeling for another week of battle, and ask, What happens in the end, Frank? How does it all work out? And no matter how great the evidence to the contrary, he could convince me, “The best is yet to come/And babe, won’t it be fine.”
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Last Friday, the last day of the 20th century, I got into a cab, one of those roomy new minivan ones. It was the hottest day of the year, and the cab was perfectly air-conditioned — the cooled air grazed your skin like on Sunday afternoons in the Hamptons. But we got stuck in traffic by Union Square Park. I rolled down the window and looked out at two very young girls, maybe seven years old. They had been roller-blading circles around the park and were sweaty and worn out. One wanted to stop, but the other begged for one more go. “All right,” the first girl replied brightly to her little bestpal, “this is the last one.” She paused and then added, without a speck of doubt on her soul, “the best one.” She said it with an unquestioning certainty that if they so decided, then life would play out that way, in the best possible way. And everything could be as it should be. As Frank would’ve wanted. And in that moment I thought that between these two little New Yorkers and this cab and this beautiful day, Frank’s Homegoing Day, that maybe New York could be the greatest city in the world and could live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra. But now I think maybe, somehow, someday, life itself will be just right and as it should be, and life will live up to being sung about by Frank Sinatra.
By Robert Christgau
HEY, FOLKS — Frank Sinatra and rock and roll aren’t mutually exclusive. Not that Mr. My Way could sing the music he once adjudged “a rancid-smelling aphrodisiac,” as with typical elasticity of principle he eventually tried to. (Remember “The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won’t OK the way you do your thing/Ding ding ding”? How could you forget?) And not that his Northern, urban, assimilationist style had any rock and roll in it. But it wasn’t as antithetical as Rudy Vallee’s, Nelson Eddy’s, Mario Lanza’s, John Raitt’s, Eddie Fisher’s, or, shit, Tony Bennett’s. Like innovators from William Wordsworth to Chuck Berry, Sinatra was driven to intensify formal language by making it more speechlike. Magically, within severe standards of pitch, timbre, and enunciation, his singing is every bit as colloquial as Bob Dylan’s, Carole King’s, or Rakim’s — probably more so.
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Pop is a cornucopia and a continuum. Either way, most of the music I adore is rock and roll. But not all of it. And none of it excludes any of the rest. So when a savvy young critic praises Sinatra for delivering her from punk’s canon of authenticity, I feel sad. When a broadly experienced older critic uses Sinatra’s genius to bewail the impersonality of contemporary pop, I pray my arteries hold up. Either-or is for Sidney Zion. I want the world and I want it now.
Many claim they don’t identify with Frank Sinatra — they just bask in his artistry. But that’s not how singing works. Sinatra the man’s gruesome amalgam of confidence and insecurity was configured in his so-called pitch problems — the way every line he sings seems to waver slightly as he holds it firmly in the grip of his technical command. More than anything else, it was the ambivalence built into his certainty that made him the century’s quintessential voice for so many of us. And it was the intelligence built into his body that made him just right for any rock and roller with a grain of sensibility.