Categories
From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Tax Evaders

The Voice has learned that Henry Kissinger, Frank Sinatra, Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Trump, and other celebrities were involved in a sales tax evasion scam that result­ed in the indictment last year of an exclu­sive Fifth Avenue jeweler and two of its executives.

Danaos Ltd., which operates the Bul­gari jewelry store in the Hotel Pierre, was charged in the indictment with failing to collect sales tax on more than $1.5 mil­lion in transactions. The indictment al­leges that Bulgari and two of its officials, Nicola Bulgari and Richard Storm, used the “empty box” scam to illegally allow customers to avoid paying New York State sales tax. Customers with out-of-­state addresses would have their pur­chases recorded as being mailed or deliv­ered to them in order to avoid paying sales tax. However, the indictment charged, customers would leave Bulgari with their jewelry, while store employees would mail an empty box, or one contain­ing a piece of costume jewelry, to the out­-of-state address.

The Danaos indictment refers to 101 separate transactions, ranging from $240 to $130,000 per item, on which the scheme was employed. While Attorney General Robert Abrams, who is prosecut­ing the Bulgari case, has refused to re­lease customer names, the Voice has in­terviewed two former Bulgari employees who took part in the scam and compiled a partial list of these customers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

Both former employees detailed how Bulgari security personnel would package worthless chokers and mail them to customers and how, at Christmastime, they would prebox dozens of chokers to be prepared for the holiday tax evasion rush. The employees also noted that se­curity officials would designate the bogus shipments by marking an asterisk next to the transaction in the company’s regis­tered mail logbook. Bulgari employees, investigators discovered, often put only enough postage for an empty box on packages supposedly containing items ranging in weight from a few ounces to several pounds.

During the period audited by state investigators — December 1980 to March 1983 — Bulgari customers involved in the empty box scam included:

  • Henry Kissinger, who made two pur­chases, totaling about $20,000, on which he did not pay sales tax. His lawyer, Ar­thur Liman, does not dispute this, but claims that Bulgari “should have charged him the tax, but they didn’t. It’s their fault.” Liman said that Kissinger’s assis­tant, Chris Vick, was subpoenaed to tes­tify before the grand jury, but that Kis­singer himself was not called. While Liman denied that empty boxes were sent to two Washington, D.C., addresses, a former Bulgari employee told the Voice that he delivered the boxes to the post office.
  • Frank Sinatra had jewelry delivered, on at least three occasions, to his Waldorf Towers suite, where an aide would sign for it. Empty boxes were mailed to casi­nos in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, ac­cording to a former Bulgari employee, who estimated Sinatra’s purchases at about $30,000.
  • Mary Tyler Moore purchased about $20,000 in jewelry during the audited pe­riod and had it delivered to her West Side home. The empty boxes were sent to a business associate in New Jersey. Jack­ie Becher, Moore’s publicist, said the ac­tress was busy rehearsing a new play and would have no comment.
  • Donald Trump, according to the for­mer employees, made at least two pur­chases at the store — a necklace for $50,000 and a second purchase of about $15,000. On the smaller purchase, an empty box was sent to the Connecticut home of Trump’s former attorney Roy Cohn. Trump’s spokesman, Howard Ru­benstein, said that the developer denied using the empty box scheme and that his purchases at Bulgari “were bona fide transactions.”[related_posts post_id_1=”397777” /]
  • Takeover specialist Ronald Perel­man, who last week made a $40 million profit on a stock sale, was one of the store’s biggest customers, and often bene­fited from the scam. A Bulgari employee would deliver Perelman’s jewels to the East 63rd Street headquarters of MacAn­drews & Forbes, his company. Bulgari’s business records made it appear that the jewelry was actually mailed to a Philadel­phia address. On one occasion, store re­cords were doctored to make it appear that a Bulgari car drove to Philadelphia to deliver an item to Perelman. Ruben­stein, Perelman’s spokesman, said that the businessman contends “he made no such purchases and did not appear before the grand jury.”
  • Adnan Khashoggi, the billionaire Saudi Arabian arms dealer, made two purchases totaling more than $200,000 worth of silver items and had them deliv­ered by courier to his Olympic Towers residence. The empty boxes were sent to Geneva. Khashoggi is reported to be the world’s richest man; the empty box scheme saved him about $17,000.
  • C. Z. Guest, who writes a weekly gar­dening column for the Post and is a sta­ple on New York’s social scene, allowed various friends to use her Florida estate as a dumping ground for empty boxes. Guest, herself one of Bulgari’s biggest customers, refused to answer Voice questions.
  • Television producer Mark Goodson used a Fair Lawn, New Jersey, address for his empty boxes. A spokesman for Goodson said be was subpoenaed to tes­tify before the grand jury, but never did. Goodson’s lawyer, Roy Blakeman, did not return Voice calls.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717345″ /]

Though many customers, in effect, conspired with Bulgari to evade sales tax, Abrams has contended that since it is a retailer’s obligation to collect sales tax, they are the only ones who can be suc­cessfully prosecuted. Later this week, Storm and Bulgari will appear before Judge Harold Rothwax where a plea agreement may be announced. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sinatra at 80: Pal Frank

In the course of working on a cabaret show commemorat­ing Lorenz Hart’s 100th birthday, I returned with trepida­tion to the 195 7 Columbia film of Pal Joey, with Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Kim Novak. It was just as lame as I remembered, if not worse. But Sinatra was much better than I had recalled — in fact, everyone else seemed lifeless and pale in comparison, as if traumatized by his infamous on-set be­havior.

Sinatra was born to play Joey. In the stage version, Joey is a nightclub hoofer. He had to be — Gene Kelly originated the role. But a nightclub singer is a lot more sensible, and who better to fit that sleazy bill than Frank Sinatra? I always felt MGM was the wrong studio for him. It was too re­spectable, conventional, decorous, and pol­ished for Frank’s street-fighter approach to performance. He looks strained in the movies in which he was teamed with the more experienced Kelly, playing a young innocent from the boroughs. (Give me a break!) It didn’t read for a minute, al­though he wasn’t a complete stiff, like some fellow crooners (Perry Como, Dick Haymes, Johnnie Ray). Still, put Frank at Harry Cohn’s studio and you’ve got a meet­ing of minds — no camouflage here, no hypocrisy. They’re both such crumbs.

Cohn had bought the screen rights to Pal Joey back in 1944, as a vehicle for Kel­ly and Rita Hayworth, the team that had just scored big for Cohn in Cover Girl. But MGM wanted too much money for an­other loan out of Kelly, and the project was shelved for 13 years, by which time Frank was bigger than Gene and poor Rita had to play the older woman rather than the in­genue for which she was once intended. The whole show — script and lyrics (thank you, Sammy Cahn, for nothing) — was strangely bowdlerized. Vera Simpson, the Hayworth part, was made a wealthy wid­ow and former burlesque stripper instead of a married society dame. On the other hand, Kim Novak’s ingenue became a naïve chorus girl (is there such an animal? I mean outside Hollywood backstage musicals?) instead of a naïve stenographer, so she could wear revealing outfits.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

The film’s opening is deceiving. You think the picture might be fun. A siren blares over the Columbia logo, and the first shot tracks a police car racing to catch a train. Two cops have Frank/Joey in tow, and one of them tells him, “You entertain­ers are all alike. You think you own every dame in town.” (Well, don’t they? Didn’t Frank?) They hurl him onto the train as it pulls out of the station and the credits come up. Wow.

The locale has been moved from gritty Chicago to pretty San Francisco, the first no­ticeable mistake. Already the story has been softened, though Frank always looks great on location. Maybe because he wasn’t a true movie star, he never looked quite natural on a set — his small frame shrinking in the hot­house atmosphere of a soundstage. But put him in a raincoat and trademark fedora and have him walk the streets of metro­politan America, and he comes alive on screen. His cockiness and swag­ger make sense on a street.

The minute he steps into the Barbary Coast Club, however, we are too obviously on a Los Ange­les set, and his star wattage goes way down as we get the first real taste of Joey Evans: weasely, low-rent opportunist. As fascinating as this kind of character is and despite the movie’s mellowing of him, Frank can’t make him lovable, can’t share his humanity with the audience. Except when he sings. He has no trouble captur­ing Joey’s unsavory qualities. Nobody laughs at his jokes (according to Shirley MacLaine, no one laughs at Sinatra’s either, though he keeps cracking them, which sort of earns our admiration), and he treats every woman as an object of scorn or sex­ual gratification. In fact, the only warmth Joey ever displays is toward his dog, Snuffy.

Snuffy!

Anyway, here he is on stage: “This next song is dedicated to all the saloon keepers who have blown their liquor li­cense — “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was.'” Nobody laughs. Then he starts to sing — ­with just a piano, rubato. He looks askance at the mirrored ball, moves around the stage marking his territory and getting a feel for the club. Once again, Frank Sinatra comes alive, graceful, supernal. Every movement is measured: he closes his eyes, throws back his head, and though his singing voice is an extension of his speak­ing voice, now it has conviction. Now, somehow, he’s suddenly a decent human being. When the song kicks into tempo, that spirit is still there; he doesn’t sacrifice his sincerity to swing. Even the looks he gives the dub owner and band can’t detract from the song. He’s hired.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720741″ /]

We next hear him sing at a charity ball at Vera Simpson’s sumptuous Nob Hill mansion. Joey wears a red dinner jacket, just a member of the band sitting on the side, waiting for his cue. He gets up, shrugs his right shoulder, adjusts the microphone, and sings “There’s a Small Hotel” in a so­ciety dance-band arrangement that can’t di­minish the pure magnetism of the moment. In a way, it’s easier to examine his extraor­dinary technique when it’s set off by a con­ventional background, gleaming as a dia­mond would in a plain metal box.

Frank was 42 when he made Pal Joey, maybe a bit too old for the part, but his age made the character’s hollow, lonely life that much more pathetic. While singing, he’s al­ways checking out the “mice” — his quaint reference for desirable women. He sees Ri­ta Hayworth on the dance floor and sings directly to her. He’s composed, confident, and unfortunately appealing. He has her number. In fact, Rita (who is undermined throughout the picture by unflattering mid-range shots and make-up so inept Cohn might have slathered it on himself) even allows him to humiliate her into doing a bump-and-grind. He pulls the same trick with Kim Novak. “I got plans for that doll. Ring-a-ding plans. This little mouse takes a special kind of baiting.”

“You’re wasting your time. She ain’t goin’ for it,” the club owner fires back.

“They all do.”

He walks on stage and sings “I Could Write a Book” — pulling Kim from the wings to sing the last chorus with him. Works every time. Though at first resistant, she finally caves in and loves it. With any oth­er singer, the seduction might be less than convincing — a threadbare musical-come­dy device. But because it’s Frank, the scene is believable and lethal. She’s doomed.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727236″ /]

Yet the “piece of resistant” as Joey puts it, is “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and it’s no ac­cident that this was the hit of the movie. The song was interpolated from another show, Babes in Arms, nearly 20 years earli­er, and in 1939 the word tramp had a dif­ferent connotation than in the repressive 1950s: a Bohemian vagabond — as Hart’s lyric makes dear — rather than a slut. The song was conceived to be sung by a woman (Mitzi Green introduced it with much suc­cess) as an ode to her own independence. But Frank knew what he was doing; he had already recorded the number for an album, but delayed its release so that it would have greater impact in the film.

Rita Hayworth comes to the Barbary Coast Club and asks Joey for a song. The chairs have already been placed on the ta­bles and the band has retired to the kitchen, but this is rich Mrs. Simpson, so they all hop to their marks. Frank starts singing at the piano and the first time Rita hears the word tramp, directed right at her, she flinches. This is seduction through insult. Frank stands up, shoves the piano away with his foot, exhaling cigarette smoke — a gesture ripe for parody, though he carries it off with such command that you don’t really mind how incredibly stupid it is.

He and the song are fantastic, the lat­ter completely transformed to serve his pur­pose, a stroke of genius. Rita calls him “Beauty,” and his songful seduction is in­deed a thing of beauty — cold and glittering and perfect. He has passed the test. And what’s his reward? He gets to follow Rita Hayworth out of the club carrying her wrap. Who says it isn’t a matriarchal soci­ety? After that flawlessly realized and forceful scene, the film slides down one of San Francisco’s steeper hills. Still, in that in­delible moment, Rita Hayworth’s reaction is ours. She illuminates why a strong, in­dependent woman has put up with so much bad behavior. This crumb could sing — beatifically. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sinatra at 80: A Frank Top 10

I. I’LL NEVER SMILE AGAIN
Frank Sinatra’s first great record was “All or Nothing At All,” but “I’ll Never Smile Again,” a 1940 Tommy Dorsey disc, was his first hit, and offers the earliest evidence of Young Blue Eyes synthesizing his influences: the lyric-driven, storytelling approach of Bing Crosby, the intimacy and vulnerability of Billie Holiday, and ultralegato timing of Dorsey. The song was written by Ruth Lowe, a pianist in Ina Rae Hutton’s all-girl band, and its success undoubtedly reflected her state of mind at the time. As Sinatra recalled, “It was a sad commentary because [Lowe] had a brand new husband, a Canadian flyer, who got killed in the early part of World War II.” She presented the song to Dorsey, who let his rival Glenn Miller make the first (unsatisfactory) record, before trying it himself. Arrangers Freddie Stulce and Axel Stordahl used just the rhythm section, Dorsey’s trombone, and the Pied Pipers; Sinatra suggested that pianist Joe Bushkin switch to celesta. As Jo Stafford, the most famous of the Pipers, remembers, “It was very tough to hold the pitch, because there was so little background from the band.” They required two sessions to get it right, but “I’ll Never Smile Again” became the sig­nature song of the Sinatra-Dorsey collabo­ration, and Sinatra would reprise its combi­nation of achingly slow tempo and supertight multivoice harmony throughout the decade and at least as late as the 1954 “Don’t Change Your Mind About Me.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

2. NIGHT AND DAY
Cole Porter’s 1932 song proved the most constant and diverse of all Sinatra career mantras. Apart from using it as the open­ing theme for many seasons on radio, he has sung “Night and Day” in every conceivable fashion, resulting in six officially released versions. Sinatra first recorded it early in 1942 at his first solo session, which predicted the development of his mature ballad style. While the original Bluebird version maintained the vestiges of a dance tempo, later ’40s recording of the Stordahl chart gradually slowed the piece down into a concert feature. In 1956, with Nelson Riddle, he reconceived “Night and Day” in a post–”I’ve Got You Under My Skin” style for A Swingin’ Affair, yet that uptempo version is only marginally faster than the ’42 ballad treatment. Sinatra then reworked the Riddle chart, once for sextet and once as a concerto grosso that alternates between Red Norvo’s Quintet and full orchestra. Over the years Sinatra came up with at least four other ver­sions — Latin with flute and bongos, lush with strings, mano a mano  with guitarist Al Viola, and, regrettably, a disco-style sin­gle. No singer has possessed a song more completely than Sinatra does “Night and Day.”

3. I FALL IN LOVE TOO EASILY
Just as Ellington tailored tunes for his great instrumental voices, the songwriting team of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne and orchestrator Axel Stordahl helped Sinatra mastermind a brilliant stream of ballad performances in the mid ’40s. Where pre-Sina­tra pop vocal arrangements tended to be strictly off-the-rack, every element of the Cahn-Styne-Stordahl-Sinatra performances is precisely cut to fit the singer’s jib. On “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” the team deploys the deep-lung singing style that Sinatra had inherited from Dorsey — even the longing title is too much for most pop singers to address in a single breath. In moving beyond the dance-band sound of his apprenticeship, Sinatra and company so understate the rhythm that the pulse is suggested rather than stated. Cahn’s lyrics played a vital function in stabbing the overall Sinatra character of ’40s radio and film — the supersensitive young swain blown about by winds of emotion beyond his control. The recording has the “quiet” ending device he used long in­to the Riddle years.

4. I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN
The Sinatra of the ’50s is associated chiefly with a hard-swinging style, although he had actually sung fast tempos since his Harry James tenure. More than simply singing fast, what Sinatra achieved with Nelson Riddle on Capitol Records was a renais­sance of the great swing band tradition, refitted with a harmonic sophistication our of early-20th-century classical music. The Sinatra-Riddle swing albums are rarely up­roariously fast, mining instead what the singer described as a highly danceable, Sy Oliver-inspired “heartbeat” tempo. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Songs for Swingin’ Lovers (1956) is faster than most, giving Sinatra and Riddle the opportunity to build from tender whispers to orgasmic screams. These are expressed not only by Sinatra himself but by trombonist Milt Bernhart, who, atop a polyrhythmic pattern inspired by Kenton-arranger Bill Russo’s “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” emerges from the ensemble as Sinatra’s instrumental alter ego. His solo has a raw, atavistic energy partly because he hadn’t realized he was expected to improvise on the song’s bridge and so he ignored the chord changes Sinatra renders with transfiguring passion and excitement for an incomparable climax. (See Milt Bernhardt’s story for more details)

[related_posts post_id_1=”720744″ /]

5. WITH EVERY BREATH I TAKE
“The wonderful thing about Nelson and Frank,” arranger Billy Byers commented re­cently, “was they were so strong in the com­mercial department that they could turn around and make a really artistic album, like the one with the string quartet, which sold about five records.” That album, Close to You, derives from a unique subsection of the Sinatra idiom. While Sinatra alternat­ed between uptempo swingers and heart-wrenching torchers in the ’50s, he and Riddle also explored the kind of optimistic love songs the singer had done so well with Stordahl. Sinatra’s preferred vehicle when traversing this beat was a double quartet chamber group (not unlike the one Max Roach leads today) — tour strings plus four rhythm, with rotating soloists. Sinatra in­troduced the format in his first-ever album, 1945’s The Voice, and brought it to a boil with the 1956 Close to You. “With Every Breath I Take,” a song introduced in a Bing Crosby film, is a flawless Sinatra performance; as the title coincidentally infers, every breath, every vocal gesture, every phrase is exactly where it ought to be — not a microscopic nuance is out of place.

6. ONE FOR MY BABY
The darker Sinatra-Riddle albums maintain a sense of epic tragedy (developed earlier with Stordahl and later with Gordan Jenkins) tempered with raw intimacy. Sinatra refers to his heavier ballads as “saloon song,” yet in the most celebrated of those songs, he mixes in more parts from symphony hall than the corner pub to produce a downer of a cocktail. Indeed, Only the Lonely (1958), the album on which “One for My Baby” was released, combines harmonic textures inspired by Ravel with a rhythmic sensibility informed by Lester Young. It’s the high point of several thousand Sinatra concerts, also signifies the most famous collaboration of Sinatra and Bill Miller, his pianist since 1951. As percussionist Emile Richards opines, “There’s no one who plays saloon piano like Bill docs on ‘One for My Baby’ He’s really the boss of that.” Not merely an accompanist but a featured actor in this Mercer-Arlen music noir, Miller’s subtle keyboard established the barroom rise-en-scene. Sinatra communicates such overwhelming pain partly because his mood contrasts so strikingly with Miller’s spare deadpan background. What does the cocktail pianist care about the drunk unburdening himself to the bartender? Paradoxically, Miller supports Sinatra while sounding as through he were ignoring him. In 1993, Sinatra and Miller rerecorded “Baby” in a harrowingly moving performance, making that long, long road seem more traveled than ever.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720741″ /]

7. MOONLIGHT ON THE GANGES
As Sinatra once observed, “Billy May almost always uses the extra percussion, like vibraphones, xylophones, bells and chimes and all that jazz.” Where Riddle excelled at saloon-like tunes, May — an arranger for Charlie Barnet and Glenn Miller — helped Sinatra make merrier melodies. Over the course of three similarly titled albums for Capitol (Come Fly/ Dance/Swing With Me), the two perfected their approach and then brought it to a boil with the 1961 Sinatra Swings (a/k/a Swing Along With Me), recorded for the Chairman’s own label, Reprise. This album improves upon all the key strengths of its predecessors: the three­-chorus, spectacular “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You” amplifies the hyperswing of “Come Dance With Me”; the travel selections, “Granada” and “Moonlight on the Ganges” restore the blend of whimsical humor and irresistible rhythm that made Come Fly With Me a classic. On “Ganges,” which Sinatra gleaned from Tommy Dorsey, May creates a shimmer­ing seventh veil of strings around the most imposing percussion section this side of Sun Ra.

8. IT WAS A VERY GOOD YEAR
Raymond Chandler once wrote, “All us tough guys are hopeless sentimentalists at heart.” Most musicians admired Gordon Jenkins’s successes as a songwriter, but many found his string-heavy orchestrations a trifle old hat compared to Riddle and May. Yet even cynical Bill Miller admits, “Frank has an old-fashioned side, and Gor­don Jenkins represents that. As a singer, he doesn’t hear the harmonies the way we would. He hears those high-swinging strings that were Gordon’s gimmick.” Although Jenkins scored some great saloon songs for Sinatra, his gorgeously grandiose textures were often marshaled for material a lot simpler than, say, Lorenz Hart. A 1961 hit for the Kingston Trio, “Very Good Year” depicts life as a succession of vintage wines and rendezvous with ever more cosmopolitan dames. Sina­tra and Jenkins inflate this repetitious faux-­folkie feature into a piece of performance art with a power that suggests a grand aria. Structurally, it consists of four parallel choruses, each a discrete reminiscence. Be­tween these episodes, Jenkins reprises a wailing string-and-oboe passage that moves between minor and major keys and grows increasingly severe with each seg­ment, ultimately sobbing and throbbing in a searing finish.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727236″ /]

9. COME RAIN OR COME SHINE
This 1961 Sinatra & Strings arrangement (an earlier Stordahl treatment was issued on V-Disc) has proven to be not only the most durable of many orchestrations by Don Costa, but in recent years has emerged as the most powerful vehicle of Mr. Very Old Blue Eyes in concert. Composer Arlen provides a perfect bridge between Sinatra and the blues: the singer evokes a gospel feeling even in a song that uses predominantly major chord and a bridge, which Sinatra really tears his teeth into. In ’61 Sinatra could hardly get as earthy as Ray Charles, whose version his alludes to in the use of solo wind players in the intro. But by the ’90s, with much of Sinatra’s chops and his ability to sustain notes gone with the wind, he puts more and more em­phasis on this tune as a vehicle to express his earthier side. While Sinatra is as tender and loving as ever, a blues-tinged under­current of aggression runs through the song today.

10. SUMMER WIND
“Strangers in the Night” was Sinatra’s biggest selling single of the ’60s, but the singer and his audience prefer his and Nel­son Riddle’s last great collaboration, “Summer Wind.” Johnny Mercer adapted a German song, composed by Henry May­er, providing an English lyric that Perry Como first rendered in a dull country rendi­tion in 1965. The lyric describes a strong breeze that blows across Italy from North Africa, signaling the end of summer. Sinatra plays the unrequited lover, while the or­chestra and a Hammond organ share the role of the wind. Riddle has constructed a characteristically catchy hook to represent the elements, first wafting gently, then wailing in counterpoint to the singer. As Sinatra’s emotions mount, the wind lifts the music ever upward with the help of two modulations (D-flat to E-flat to F), into a hurricane crescendo, before drifting away as tenderly and cruelly as it entered. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sinatra at 80: Practice Makes Posterity

In recent years, more people have asked me about my trombone solo on Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” than just about anything else I did in music, which is gratifying because for many years no one knew who played it. One writer even credited it to Juan Tizol. The performance is, in a way, derived from a record that Bill Russo wrote for Stan Kenton, “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West,” a refer­ence to the longitudinal location of Havana, Cuba, that had a montuno section for trombone. Actually, that record was in turn indebted to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Cubana Be/Cubana Bop,” which Gillespie wrote with George Russell. That was the first instance of a mon­tuno in big band jazz. But then Russo wrote his piece — not a copy, but a piece with that flavor, done very well, with a very good Frank Rosolino trombone solo. It’s one of Stan’s best records really.

Now in retrospect, I don’t think the approach to the song was Nelson Riddle’s idea. We’re talking 40 years after the fact, but it occurred to me much much later that “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” a Frank Sinatra recording that went into a Latin type of a thing in the middle, with the trombones — first bass trombone, then another trombone — was in this tradition that began with Dizzy and was adapted in a fresh way for Kenton. And it was one of Sinatra’s first really important Capitol dates — there were other dates earlier, but this one took him to a whole differ­ent level. And, remember, it’s Capitol Records and Kenton was one of its biggest stars. So it occurred to me all these years later that the A&R people at Capitol were better acquainted with Kenton and his recent suc­cesses than they were with Frank Sinatra, who had returned from a floundering ca­reer only a few years before. And in plot­ting that particular number somebody, not Frank, suggested this approach. He prob­ably wasn’t too crazy about the idea, be­cause Nelson wrote it at the last minute and it wasn’t released as a single, only as part of the album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, which was drawn from about three record dates.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

I’d been on dates with Sinatra before. His first arranger at Capitol was supposed to be Billy May, but Billy had a band that went out on the road, and the dates were set and they couldn’t get Billy back, or he wasn’t available, or couldn’t be found — I don’t recall which. In order to do the dates, they brought in Nelson Riddle and that was Nelson’s first exposure to Sinatra, on­ly he didn’t get label credit — Billy May did on the singles “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “South of the Border.” Nobody at the time knew that Nelson had writ­ten them, because although he led the band, word got around that these were Billy’s charts and Nelson was sworn to secrecy. Later they were obliged to give him his chance, and by the time we did Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, everyone could see Sinatra and Riddle were a great team.

So for the “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” session, I walked in early. I always got to a record date well ahead to see what was coming so that I could get nice and nervous. Some peo­ple would say you’re out of your mind, but I just felt it was wiser. I’d relax a little more as time passed, but then I’d find myself at a session, turn page and see something very hard and, without any practice, it’s time to start playing it. The public doesn’t realize that the band gets there and within minutes will be recording the music for posterity. That’s the way it always happens. The on­ly time it didn’t happen that way was when you had bands on the road, Ellington, Glenn Miller, the swing bands; then the music was known because they had months on the job, at dances, to try things. But the way it’s done to this day is the studio play­ers walk in to do a movie and they will do that score before lunchtime. They have to be that good. Few people realize what that takes — they think they had a week to re­hearse and take it home.

Anyway, I arrive early and I see that the whole song is in G-flat, six flats, which wouldn’t bother the singer, but for an instru­mentalist it isn’t easy to come up with something graceful where there’s nothing written, just chord symbols and fills of some­thing in G-flat. So I’m looking at these symbols — ­just little chicken tracks with the name of the chord, G-flat. And I didn’t even realize until much much later that that part, that section was the bridge of the song, the part that goes, “I’d sacrifice any­thing, come what may, for the sake of having you near.” If I had even begun to know that; I would have had something planned, something related to the melody, who knows what. But I just didn’t know. And it does stay on one chord for quite a while anyway-the melody con­tinues in the same change. So we start and I kind of plotted out something that fit. I figured I was going to play it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727236″ /]

Well, until recently I didn’t know how many takes we made. I had lost track of the number, there were that many. But a young­ster called me a couple of weeks ago, a young man who is writing a discography on Sinatra and he called me for anecdotes. I told him I just remembered playing take af­ter take, and that I left the best stuff I ever played in the first half a dozen takes, when I was still fresh — I’m telling you, the fiddle players were applauding me at that point. And this youngster reminded me there were 22 takes! I had really kind of written it off, because pretty soon it wasn’t a matter of re­ally making history, but of getting through it, you’re so tired, Twenty-two. I think it was about the third number in the session, and I was also given all the lead parts to play. The other players in the trombone section really couldn’t have anyway, cause it was George Roberts on bass trombone; and Juan Tirol, which was a thrill for me because I’m an Ellington nut and there’s Juan Tirol sitting next to me, but Juan was not really a lead trombone player; and Jimmy Priddy, who was also a copyist for Nelson Riddle and had played lead with Glenn Miller. But these charts were not his bag, so he wasn’t going to play it; he would have walked out of the studio. It was up to me. And I’m a hero in those days, right? — still fresh from Kenton, still had road chops. Well, that passed quickly enough. Five years later, I didn’t have those chops — there is no way you can be a studio player and keep that kind of lip or endurance. It went and it went fast. Rarely did I get calls to play that way. The typical work I was doing was cues for television shows, where a very moderate level of excellence is re­quired, once in a blue moon something hard. And then I began to wor­ry about what I’d do if I had to play something re­ally challenging after 10 years of studio work.

That fear got to a lot of players, especially trumpet players, who then began to drink or worse. It’s the fear of being caught doing some­: thing you really can’t do anymore. On the road every night, you’re play­ing hard — it’s second na­ture. Studio work, sometimes you work five days and nights in a row and then nothing happens for five days or more. Of course, you made a lot of money. I was here at a very busy time. And it was good for young jazz players because Shorty Rogers helped to break the doors down. Shorty got a couple of pictures out of the clear blue sky. But before that nobody who played jazz was considered able to walk in and do a studio call. They were convinced you couldn’t read, or you wouldn’t show up, or you’d fall down drunk. In that sense, we were all trailblazers. So somehow I got through that solo, and now 40 years later people still want to talk about it. Incredible! ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sinatra at 80: Frank Swings

Add to the ever growing number of 12-step programs Accompa­nists Anonymous. AA, a semi­-fictional organization founded by some of New York’s finest jazz musicians, is dedi­cated to helping instrumentalists avoid the frustrations of accompanying singers. Many jazz musicians don’t like singers, and some will go to great lengths to avoid play­ing for them. Not without rea­son. Most singers haven’t taken the time to develop the skills required to communicate musical ideas, especially within the frame­ work of jazz. Frank Sinatra is a rare excep­tion. If you asked him, he probably wouldn’t refer to himself as a jazz musician, yet many jazz musicians credit him with having made tremendous contributions to this art form. His artistry encompasses much of what jazz musicians strive for.

Sinatra’s mastery lies in his ability to communicate the true meaning of a song in its complete form, the music and lyrics simultaneously, without sacrificing the im­portance of one for the other. His vocal quality, intonation, diction, phrasing, and sense of swing are integrated and balanced in a way that has brought us unequaled per­formances of American popular songs.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

Some of Sinatra’s most memorable recorded performances were made in the late 1950s and 1960s, a period during which he released recordings first for Capi­tol Records and later his own label, Reprise Records. By this time in his career he had cultivated and refined the skills that created the sound and style that defined him from the beginning.

Frank’s earliest recordings for Victor and Columbia are certainly pleasant. He always sang in tune and with a beautiful sound. But in those early years, Sinatra was in many ways underde­veloped. He definite­ly lacked the swing feel that would later become one of his trademarks. And in the early 1940s recordings with Tommy Dorsey, discerning listeners will notice how long he sus­tained notes and how much vibrato he used. Frequently, singers become overly fo­cused on the sound of their own voices. They seem to be listening to themselves singing instead of focusing on delivery of the music (cf., just about any Broadway cast album or cabaret record). As a result, they tend to make themselves more important than the song. Frank wasn’t en­tirely guilty of this. But occasionally, on his early records, one detects an unmistakable self-consciousness in the way he projects his voice. He was much more of a “crooner” in those days, at times even corny. But the feeling generated by the Dorsey rhythm section and the style of those orchestrations required him to ap­proach the vocal line as he did. And so even in these early record­ings we hear evidence of one of Sinatra’s most important attribut­es: He always maintains a strong musical relationship with his ac­companiment.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720741″ /]

The time spent with the Tommy Dorsey band allowed Sinatra to obtain and refine much of the technical and musical material that would later be part of his style and repertoire. (His later vocal per­formances are saturated with big band swing rhythms and jazz articulation and phrasing.) That kind of information can on­ly be acquired by observing instrumental­ists. Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with Sinatra in 1959 and 1960 dur­ing his tour with Red Norvo, recalls: ”Frank used to always tell us that he learned a lot while he was on the Dorsey band. Es­pecially about breathing. In those days the singers always sat up on the stage with the band during the instrumental numbers. Frank said he used to sit there and watch the way Dorsey’s back would fill up with air between phrases.”

In 1957 Sinatra released A Swingin’ Affair for Capitol, and from that point on listeners become aware of a change. The voice was deeper, richer, more resonant. He had become direct, us­ing less vibrato, not “singing” as much. By the mid 1960s, a new Frank Sinatra had completely emerged, his groove deeper than ever!

That groove is a big part of what distinguishes Sinatra from every­one else. At some point between the late ’50s and early ’60s, he realized that for vocalists the key to swinging lies more in where you stop the note than in where you start it. This bit of informa­tion is something many other singers simply haven’t learned. One way Sinatra discontin­ues the sound is through his use of dic­tion, especially conso­nant sounds. When a word ends with a con­sonant, the note that accompanies it can eas­ily be stopped. A sound that has a clear­ly defined ending has rhythmic value and therefore can be in­corporated into the groove of a song. In Sinatra’s case, this is usually a swing feel.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724239″ /]

Critics can object all they want to Frank replacing a the with a that in the lyric of a song. But those mannerisms can’t always be dismissed as tough guy stuff. Frank knows that a word with a defined stop, like that, swings more than a word that hangs in the air, like the. It func­tions as part of the rhythm, part of the swing groove. Many singers don’t swing because they sustain notes so long that they sabotage the rhythmic relationship between the vocal line and the music’s pulse. They don’t partake in the primary ingredient in music: rhythm.

Listen to “A Foggy Day,” from the 1961 Reprise album Ring-A-­Ding-Ding. The accompaniment in the first chorus is played in a broken­-two feeling by the rhythm section. Sinatra sings fluidly with a legato approach, and his voice is cush­ioned by the strings and saxo­phones, playing sustained notes. In the second chorus, the groove changes to a four feeling, as the strings are replaced with brass and long notes are sub­stituted with shorter ones. Accordingly, Frank shortens his notes and adjusts his rhythmic placement, fully participating in the newly established swinging groove. The rhythms he chooses are generally tra­ditional big band swing figures, and they are always calculatedly and confidently po­sitioned within the structure of the accompaniment.

The swing of Frank Sinatra is beauti­fully captured on the Reprise recordings where he’s featured with Count Basie’s band. Frank sings rhythmic figures in very much the same way that the band plays them. They have the same time-feel and produce a powerful sensation of swing. For that reason the Sinatra-Basie sessions, es­pecially It Might as Well Be Swing and Sinatra at the Sands, are among the fa­vorite recordings of jazz musicians. Saxo­phonist Bob Berg, known for his work with Chick Corea and Miles Davis as well as his own bands, is an avid fan: “To me, Frank Sinatra is the perfect singer, the Rolls­-Royce of singers. And you know, it’s really amazing how many jazz musicians love Sinatra. Miles really liked Frank. I remem­ber him telling me to check out the way Frank phrases.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”612104″ /]

Without question, phrasing is one of the most challenging aspects of vocal per­formance. We all phrase when we speak — ­spoken language has starting and stopping points, long and short sounds, antecedents and consequences, inflection, cadences, and natural places to breathe. These compo­nents also exist in music. Songs are con­structed by combining musical language (a series of organized sounds) with spoken language (a series of organized words). The key to Sinatra’s masterful phrasing is that he has a command of both languages and can speak them simultaneously. (No easy task, and one that can get especially com­plicated when the words and music were not written at the same time or suggest contrary intentions.) The truth is very few people can really do it. But Sinatra does it effortlessly, and with tremendous regard for the intentions of the composer and lyricist.

Sinatra’s bilingual abilities are exquis­itely demonstrated on the 1963 Reprise re­lease, The Concert Sinatra, a collection of eight beautifully performed compositions flawlessly orchestrated by Nelson Riddle. These recordings exemplify Sinatra’s mas­tery of the delicate balance between words and music, and demonstrate how, perhaps more than any other singer, he understands the ways they connect. The bulk of his recorded work is a catalogue of unsur­passed renditions of songs. His innate tal­ent and his cultivated skills are worthy of the highest admiration. His performances have educated generations of musicians, es­pecially jazz musicians. At a Carnegie Hall concert in the early 1980s, Micky Weisman, who was part of Sinatra’s management team, ran into Miles Davis in the cafe, and they had a conversation that confirmed Bob Berg’s recollection. “He was there with Cicely Tyson. We spoke for a while and I remember he told me, in that raspy voice of his, that he got a lot of his phrasing from listening to Frank’s records. He said he learned a lot from Sinatra.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”727236″ /]

For most musicians, nothing more need be said. In music, as in any art form, the exchange of ideas is fundamental. And though it hasn’t always been acknowledged or understood, Sinatra has made a sub­stantial contribution to the education of countless musicians. If Miles could learn from him, we all can. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Sinatra at 80: The Greatest Singer of Them All

The editor, in inviting me to contribute to this issue wrote, “One subject you might be able to shed light on is the perceived split between Sinatra the incomparable romantic singer and Sinatra the intemperate monster and his dubious associates?”

Younger people, who know little more about Sinatra the man than can be gained from the depictions of him by comedian Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live, would take him to be nothing but a rude, charmless bully. The fact is, Frank has al­ways had enormous charm. When he is ei­ther in a good mood or his right mind, de­pending on one’s perception, he is an endearingly likable fellow. He is, however, much more complex than Tony Bennett, who has always had the persona of a genial, smiling, carefree Italian peasant, rather like one of those happy monks in a rural monastery. Behaviorally, Sinatra is from a different planet altogether.

Although I have personally never done an anti-Sinatra joke, they have long been common in the comedy trade. One night, when Milton Berle was presiding over a star-studded dais, he introduced Sinatra and then said, “Frank, make yourself at home: Hit somebody.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

For years Shecky Green has done the following routine: “You can say what you want about Sinatra, but the man once saved my life. That’s right, he did. I was stand­ing out in front of Caesar’s Palace one night and three big tough guys began to kick the hell out of me. They were giving me a terri­ble beating, but finally Frank came up and said, ‘Okay, that’s enough.'”

Another line that made the rounds was, “I hear that the pope has been thinking of making Frank Sinatra a cardinal. Can you believe that? Actu­ally, it wouldn’t be a bad idea, ’cause then we’d only have to kiss his ring.”

But comedy is about tragedy and the reality behind all such jokes is truly sad. The deepest part of the tragedy, of course, is that Frank must have known, after all his fits of fury, that he had behaved abom­inably, and yet he was apparently unequal to the task of breaking out of such a destructive behavior pattern. Let the man who has nev­er had such a problem cast the first stone.

But if you do, be sure it doesn’t fall where Frank can pick it up.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725977″ /]

A fair-minded approach to the prob­lem posed by the editor will, I suspect, please neither Mr. Sinatra’s admirers nor his detractors, for the former will resent any negative criticism of him whatever, and the latter will be so critical of him on moral grounds that their evaluation of his profes­sional gift is likely to be seriously distorted.

The ancient observation about heroes and gods that are discovered to have feet of clay is, of course, relevant here. The fact is that all gods and all their human creatures have feet of clay. Indeed, many of us seem to consist almost entirely of clay. But whether we admire or loathe anything — a man, a political philosophy, a religion, a football team — we insist, consciously or not, on bringing our egos into the valua­tive process, as if our personal reputations stood or fell on the basis of the accuracy of our assessments, so poorly do we reason. We want life to be simple, when it is in fact hopelessly complex. We want our heroes to be totally heroic, even though that has nev­er happened. On the other side of the coin, we want the objects of our scorn to be per­ceived as totally evil, and that, too, not on­ly has never happened but is not even the­oretically possible.

It is a wonder we have any heroes or heroines left at all, given the modern news media’s tendency to emphasize scandal and gossip. So long as the neg­ative portrayals of public figures are sub­stantially accurate, a philosophical ra­tionale can be developed for the exposé mode of journalism, but it is hard to say where the public stands on this issue. On the one hand Americans, to judge by their newsstand purchases and television-viewing habits, have an appetite for ugliness so con­suming that it has much in common with the classical chemical addictions. On the oth­er hand, that same public sometimes carries its adulation of public figures to extremes that border on the idiotic. As regards Elvis Presley, for example, I was one of the first to recognize his talent and importantly further his career, but to stand in the hot sun for four hours waiting to get in to visit his for­mer living quarters, or to purchase some tasteless knickknack dignified by the word memorabilia — is comment really necessary?

[related_posts post_id_1=”725008″ /]

So — as regards Sinatra, are all the sto­ries about his lifelong association with the most notorious Mafia murderers and social savages, the stories about semi-psychotic rages, true? The answer to all such painful questions is, to some degree, yes.

But should that lead us to deny Frank’s brilliance in a recording studio? Absolute­ly not. Does the fact that Mozart, as a hu­man being, would appear to have been something of a jerk entitle us to denigrate his music? Benny Goodman was cold and inconsiderate but is still the clarinet champ. Frank Sinatra in his prime was, to put the matter quite simply, the best popular singer of them all. His gift was just that, of course. The great practitioners, of any profession­al discipline, do not become so as a result of determination, long hours of practice, or any other such admirable application of conscious energy. The truth is much sim­pler but at the same time more perplexing. The great musicians, athletes, philosophers, scientists, scholars are great primarily be­cause of a genetic predisposition. Physicist­-mathematician Richard Feynman was not so brilliant because he practiced to be. He just was. Michael Jordan did not become the greatest basketball player of all time simply because as a youth he spent an extra few minutes on the practice courts after the other boys had gone home. He was supe­rior by nature. As for Sinatra, he may have imagined that his breath-control was a trick he learned from watching his early em­ployer, trombonist Tommy Dorsey, and in­deed the acquired knack had some practi­cal value for him. But does anyone seriously believe that if Mr. Dorsey had communi­cated the same information to 1000 singers, the other 999 would have achieved Sinatra’s eminence?

In the end, is it possible to fit the two large pieces of the Sinatra puzzle smoothly together? I think not. It’s easy enough to say that the moral idiots who actually ad­mire him for his vengefulness — the same types who spray ”Free Gotti” graffiti at New York construction sites — ought to be ashamed of themselves. The fact is that they never have been and never will be. But to let Frank’s weaknesses as a man af­fect our judgment of him as a singer is both dumb and unfair. Forget all that cliche disc-jockey dumbo-talk about the Chairman-­of-the-Board and Ol’ Blue Eyes. The man was still the greatest singer of them all.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727086″ /]

We might be tempted to think that the mark of a great artist is discernible in terms of his influence on other performers. But that is only a reliable general­ity, not a law. I happen to think that Erroll Garner was the great­est popular pianist of our century, and yet not a single other jazz pi­anist has seriously followed in his footsteps. Many of us occasional­ly show flashes of his two separate styles — the rhythmic or the ro­mantic — but we always seem to be doing an “impression” of him, just like, as actors, we might imper­sonate Jimmy Cagney, Richard Nixon, or Donald Duck. It is a fascinating though digressive question as to why none of us piano play­ers, even those with good-enough chops, ever dreamed of following Erroll out into that mysteriously beautiful part of the cre­ative universe he inhabited, whereas hun­dreds of jazz players have been influenced by Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Bud Pow­ell, Bill Evans, and other keyboard masters.

As for Sinatra, he was strongly influen­tial. To this day, in assorted lounges across the continent, one can hear young singers — and sometimes old ones — who are performing either loosely or directly in the Sinatra style. This is not unprecedented, of course. An earlier generation of baritone vocalists consciously imitated Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. In fact, one of them, Perry Como, became enormously popular by doing so. Once, when asked to explain his singing style, Perry was honest enough to say that he just tried to sing like Bing. If Sinatra was ever influenced by anyone, it never showed. He was his own man right from the first.

To think of him as just another cute Italian singer would be misleading: He has absolutely nothing of the old country in his voice. His sound is pure New Jersey Italian, which is another thing altogether. But what a marvelous sound, what a beautiful approach it was, for delivering those bril­liantly catchy or romantically endearing songs of the ’30s and ’40s.

[related_posts post_id_1=”699472″ /]

It is an interesting question as to how and why, in that portion of a journal’s pages usually set aside for analysis of the glorious art of jazz, Sinatra is properly considered a jazz vocal­ist. This will naturally have to be ex­plained, as it would not have to be in the cases of, say, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, and others whose abilities as practi­tioners of jazz have never been brought into question. But strictly speaking­ — a practice that isn’t particularly popu­lar — Frank never sang a note of jazz in his life. And yet there is some hard-to­-define sensibility — the word hipness comes to mind — that does not make us feel surprised when certain vocalists, over the past half century, while not­ — again strictly speaking — jazz perform­ers, nevertheless were welcome in clubs that specialized in booking jazz performers.

The point is that, despite our wish to think tidily about such matters, such an ideal simply cannot be achieved when the two important relevant components of our perception are (a) jazz and (b) popular singing. Was Billie Holliday a jazz singer? A case can be devel­oped for either a yes or no answer. And the same goes for Peggy Lee, David Allyn, Blos­som Dearie, Johnny Mercer, and a host of other singers, all of whom were marvelous and hip, even if they never changed a single note originally set into musical context by Gershwin, Carmichael, Ellington, Porter, Berlin, and the other giants of the Golden Age of American music.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724239″ /]

God, how we could use Frank now, in his prime, if if were possible to tinker with the great clock of time. I mean now, in an age when much of the theatrical profession is a matter of vulgarians entertaining barbarians; now, when you don’t know what the frig most rock singers are even saying, when even teenage rock addicts concede that they have to listen to an album 14 rimes before they can figure out what the lyrics on various tracks are. Now, in an age when popular singing chiefly involves white zombies stomping around the stage spastically, moving with an incredible lack of grace, wouldn’t it be thrilling to have Frank on camera, on stage, simply and clearly, without effort, enunciating the brilliant lyrics of Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Dorothy Fields? Just Frank, not lunging like a homeless derelict on speed, not wearing thrift-store castoffs, but just standing there in a tux singing “I Should Care” or the verse to “Star Dust.” Most such appealing fantasies are wistful because they have no hope of becoming reality. But this one in a sense can become real because we still have the man’s recordings. In other words, we still have Sinatra at his best.

And that — to put the matter very plainly — is better than any­body else’s best. ❖

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Frank Sinatra: The Last Crooner

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”723737″ /]

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?

[related_posts post_id_1=”720744″ /]

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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”720741″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720754″ /]

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.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

PRIMARY COLOR
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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718463″ /]

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.”

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

A PERFECT DAY
By Touré

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.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”724239″ /]

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.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

EITHER-AND
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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”613761″ /]

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.

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

1998_Village Voice package remembering Frank Sinatra

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater

Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater
Voice Jazz Special, June 20, 1995

Frank Sinatra will be 80 this year, on December 12, an event telegraphed by several commemorations, notably a three-concert salute at Carnegie Hall in July and a complete retrospective (24 CDs) of his Reprise recordings, scheduled for re­lease in the fall. Never before has the totality of his recorded work been so readily available. His complete Columbias and RCAs are boxed, the Capitol and Reprise albums have been reissued, as have various anthologies, and other performances of ambiguous legal standing — radio and TV broadcasts and the like. In recent years, Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets became his best­ selling album ever, his life was told in a miniseries, and he concluded what will probably be his last tour. He’s performed for several seasons with cue cards, and rumors of memory loss and mental confusion are rife; the nitwits behind the Grammy telecast felt sufficiently empowered to give him the hook, as though he were a Ted Mack contes­tant. Even his children are back in the news with cryptic messages — the for­mer conductor now singing to beat the band; the former “tomboy in lace” now flashing her 54-year-old pubes. Happy birthday!

Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octo­genarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Proba­bly nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally under­mines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and pro­motes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply sig­nify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future gener­ations, Sinatra is one entertainer who in­stilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physi­cal violence per se; though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more gen­eral sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan-on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes, of which Sinatra was Chairman of the Board, not to mention boss of bosses.

[related_posts post_id_1=”727086″ /]

You can hear that fear stick in the throat before erupting in overeager guffaws during his amazing 12-minute monologue on Sinatra at the Sands, a deeply embar­rassing attempt at humor, replete with Amos and Andy-isms in which Sammy is dismissed as a custodian (after seeing him on TV, “I sent him a wire, ‘No you can’t!'”), Dean is lampooned as a drunk, audience members are heckled, his father is belittled, and so it goes. One imagines Sinatra paying good money for the jokes (“I was so skin­ny, my eyes were single file”), determined to make them work. But it’s one of the peculiar characteristics of Sinatra that as an en­tertainer he can do anything — sing, act, dance — except be funny. In Tony Rome, he asks a pet owner, “You got a pussy that smiles?” and you squirm like a worm on a hook. Maybe he’s just too self-conscious. If you want to be funny, it’s usually a good idea to let the audience laugh at you before you ask it to laugh with you. Sinatra, how­ever much he may protest to the contrary, doesn’t want to be laughed at. Les Paul tells a story of the first time Sinatra sang a duet with Bing Crosby on radio; the younger man missed a low note that Crosby in­stantly collared, interpolating, “Is this what you were looking for, son?” The king of bobby socks was not amused.

But there is another side of Sinatra, where parody doesn’t intrude, where he is in fact emblematic of sage maturity, where his interpretations of verses of varying qual­ity are evened out by a semblance of expe­rience that promises and often delivers rap­port, understanding, perhaps wisdom. That’s the Sinatra of our dreams. In song, the voice is honed with craftsmanship so knowing it doesn’t have to call attention to itself. Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping fur air as Sinatra effortlessly plots a 16-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to no­tice anything but the absolute dra­matic rightness of his decision. For this is a Sinatra who is above all else a great story­teller: in Ellington’s memorable phrase, “the ultimate in theater.” In the spell of his artistry, we forget the moral ambiguity as­sociated with a Gambino poster boy; and we know — even if he doesn’t — that the stalwart liberal of “The House I Live In” is the true Frank, not the disappointed favor-seeker who abandoned progressive politics for the Palm Springs militia.

Sinatra’s street-tough persona is irresistibly softened by an artistic control that is innovative, physical, and hard-won. The voice — or The Voice; as it was once known — is transformed, its extraordinary clarity and directness sharpened for ex­pressive purpose, so that even the old Hoboken inflections achieve eloquence. Although the vocal deliveries of most pop baritones (Crosby, Arm­strong, Astaire, Cole, Ecks­tine) follow readily from their speech patterns and timbres, the cynical diction of Sinatra’s Jilly’s-barfly mode contra­venes the beauty of his timbre; and not just in crass monologues. Yet when he steps into a song, the manners of a punk are instantly aban­doned for those of an alluring troubadour — almost as if the offstage Frank were chagrined by a perceived unmanliness regarding his profession. His pronunciations differ: he sings a short, English a, but he speaks a flat, nasal one. As Gene Kelly made movie dancing seem athletically heterosexual, Sinatra makes singing a manly art, but a compli­cated one — aggressive, physical, seductive, sexual, vulnerable, sadistic, masochistic, dis­turbing. It’s always difficult to reconcile the man who sings “Night and Day” on Sina­tra & Strings, to choose one of a thousand examples, with the concert performer who demeans women reporters as whores of the press, to choose one of dozens.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724239″ /]

Yet Sinatra is a superb actor. On a con­ventional level, he brought to ’50s cinema a wiry kind of naturalism that is most cred­ible when he plays small men, loners: Mag­gio, an assassin, a junkie, a cop. When he’s teamed up with another man or a woman, he loses stature. He was far more authen­tic as Nathan Detroit than Brando was as Sky Masterson, but as the prole in High Society, he was outclassed by Crosby (who, significantly, considered his duet with Sinatra, “Well, Did You Evah?” his fa­vorite movie scene). Sinatra’s real genius as an actor, however, has little to do with the movies, and is defined by the character he created in concert, on records and record jackets, and on TV. To look, at early photographs of the scrawny crooner who finagled his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band and laid siege at the Paramount is to be astounded at how little he had to work with — beyond The Voice. Skinny to the point of gaunt, he had a homely, lined face with a wide mouth and small obsidian eyes. His management could hire women to swoon as he crooned, but they couldn’t convince anyone he was Gable. So the original image that was sold to the fan mags and eventually Hollywood was of an innocent, more often than not in a sailor suit, in need of a mother.

It’s of interest to recall that Sinatra was born the same year as Billie Holiday, whose influence he has often acknowledged. Yet Holiday, who began recording at 18, is largely associated with the 1930s, while Sinatra, who didn’t record until he joined with Harry James — at 23, in 1939 (the epochal “All or Nothing at All”) — is a figure of the war years. Most of the male stars of that period were either older favorites, who couldn’t be drafted, or younger and often suspiciously undrafted men who in effect filled in for performers who went overseas. Sinatra was the first singer in a decade to challenge Crosby’s hegemony, but even he was vulnerable to the post-war reaction against a generation of makeshift stars. Re­turning soldiers were none too sure they wanted their wives swooning for anyone, and as late as 1949 Sinatra was still trying to get by with moonlit ballads (notwithstanding “Bop! Goes My Heart”), bow ties, and a sheepish grin. Soon he was begging for work — selling cutlery on television; playing dumb and dumber in movies with Jane Russell, an actress known mainly for her bra size, and on record with a TV celeb named Dagmar who was famous exclu­sively for her bra size. Boobs are forever (right, Nancy?), but Frank Sinatra wasn’t. Bobby-soxers were no longer swooning; they weren’t even wearing bobby socks. Be­sides, he was said to be a comsymp, which didn’t play as well in the early ’50s as it did a few years earlier or later.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717766″ /]

And that’s when Sinatra created the role of the century. He completely reinvented himself: parted his hair, put on some weight, changed his music. His famous performance in From Here to Eternity cer­tainly helped, reestablishing him as a commanding personality and restoring his vul­nerability — toughs reportedly threatened Ernest Borgnine for knifing him in the movie. But Frank couldn’t sustain a career as a likable Italian-American wiseass who gets killed every time out. So in Suddenly, he took the Borgnine role, playing an as­sassin and in Young at Heart, he took his turn as John Garfield. As a singer, he had to remake himself as a killer as well, a tran­sition presumably made easier by an ago­nizing marriage to Ava Gardner. The voice soon shook with sorrow, self-pity, and re­solve. He began to swing; indeed, he invented a new style of swing, an optimistic four-beat volley that in its way was as re­moved from the fussier rhythms of the ’30s as the contemporaneous developments in r&b. With Nelson Riddle and Billy May writing arrangements, he dressed basic big band instrumentation in the finery of flutes, strings, and harp. Some detractors dis­missed his rhythm as a “businessman’s bounce,” but the more assured Sinatra became, the wickeder that bounce. Rhythmic integrity is one reason his recordings of the ’50s and ’60s have survived as classics.

He now had everything but a person­al style. The attitude and outfit he needed was close by in the person of his friend Jim­my Van Heusen, the brilliant songwriter, who, until late in life, was a bachelor with the most envied little black book in town. He was beloved of Hollywood madams, one of the most prominent of whom is said to have bought him an airplane (he was a li­censed pilot) as a token of appreciation. Van Heusen was the kind of guy who kept an icebox on his porch empty except for rows of martini glasses and a pitcher to fill them. He was tall and hugely charming, not especially handsome, but catnip to women, and effortlessly stylish. Born Chester Babcock (Bob Hope adopted the name for movie roles), he took his nom de plume from the shirt manufacturer famous for ads that fea­tured one-eyed male models. He favored fedoras with wide bands and liked to sling his jacket or raincoat over his left shoulder.

If Van Heusen hadn’t lived, Sinatra would have had to invent him. Onstage and on album jackets, he played the part to perfection. The new Sinatra of the affluent generation was nothing like the beanpole crooner of the Paramount. He was riveting and sure, the embodiment of good times, the keeper of old songs that somehow no longer seemed quaint or sentimental when he sang them (consider the provenance of “It Happened in Monterey” in his hands a rigorous swinger, but previously a waltz warbled by the Brox Sisters, one of whom — coincidentally — would eventual­ly rob Jimmy Van Heusen of his bachelor­-hood). Above all, he was adult. He sang to adults. He had turned himself into an em­bodiment of all those returning servicemen who were redefining American society and business. He was their troubadour, just as Elvis was that of their children. He said to them: this is what we look like, this is how we sing, this is how we treat our women and are treated by them, this is how to re­lax, and this is how we age. Sinatra’s transformation was complete: he was hand­some, charming, at times quite dazzling.

[related_posts post_id_1=”725008″ /]

Not until the mid 1960s, when he was in his early fifties, did he attempt to elicit the good opinion of his audience’s kids, with two arguable exceptions: “High Hopes,” from Capra’s unholy film, A Hole in the Head, was an attempt to reach tod­dlers the way Crosby had with “Swinging on a Star”; getting Elvis to make his first post-Army appearance with him on TV was a patronizing if savvy bow to the Nielsens. Teenagers in the ’50s were often resentful of as well as bored by Sinatra, and as adults they are often surprised to realize that his peak years coincide with Presley’s. He wasn’t singing to them. He sang of supreme assurance, and teenagers are confident of little. He celebrated love the second time around when most teenagers are lucky to gave gotten there once. He idealized the comforts of booze. He sang about sex in the voice of someone who had been there — a lot. Teenagers are — or were — more comfortable with Doc Pomus laments and Norman Mailer essays.

In the course of redefining adult pas­times, he frequently made himself a candi­date for derision, along with those dopey adults who followed him to Vegas, actual­ly wanting to be part of the clan that gave us Ocean’s 11. He compensated for his hair-trigger temper with exaggerated hilarity. Occasionally, the grand performance was shaky, the meta-adult seemingly un­-moored. The smart Sinatra of the songs be­came unglued by the aroma of real politi­cal power. If he pimped for JFK, he gave better than he got. He was more himself in “the house I live in” than the Oval Office he allegedly schtupped in. The end of the beautiful fantasy of the affluent generation was embodied in rat pack insipidity a good two years before Dealey Plaza. Francis Al­bert Sinatra’s contributions to the American language:

“Sheesh!”

“Ring-a-ding-ding!”

“Clyde.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”718692″ /]

Forget his pop hits of the ’60s. His image was no longer tenable. He seemed somehow to deserve a daughter who sang like Nancy Sinatra. So in 1971, it didn’t mean all that much when he walked away; retirement at 56. But a few years later, he was back, preceded by a press campaign that saluted him as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” a so­briquet not earned with affection but bought from a publicity firm. At first, the comeback didn’t promise much. He was ensnared in his usual press feuds and was out of voice and overweight when he hit the Uris Theater (with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie), looking sullen and sounding defensive. The children of the ’50s took their shots. The idiot jazz critic in The Village Voice wrote, “I have never found his interpretations of popular songs more sub­stantial than those of most pop singers, who are usually content to hit the right notes and enunciate the lyrics, however moronic … Sinatra’s records are more catalytic than absorbing. For Sinatra is a great craftsman but not an artist.”

But Sinatra’s audience was changing, and so consequently was his standing. As his original audience pushed 60, he was at long last discovered by its children, who, no longer acne-scarred or bell-bottomed, finally understood what those songs were about. Lost love, one for the road? — hey, let me get this round. Now his champions were younger than Frank Jr., and they didn’t treat him with the casual admiration/contempt due a contem­porary, but with the awe reserved for a living … well, legend. His movie days were finished, and for a while nobody wanted to record him, and Garry Trudeau reminded everyone who needed reminding what a scumbag he could be. But Trilogy was a huge success, and so were his concerts, which now drew bi­-generational crowds. He em­bodied a major life lesson: Never dismiss an artist just because he plays golf with Spiro Agnew. And yes, an artist he was, not a craftsman. Like Garbo or Chaplin, he looms over the cultural life of the century, defying analysis, because every generation has to figure him out from scratch.

[related_posts post_id_1=”726210″ /]

And where do you be­gin? The list might change with the weather. But you wouldn’t want to miss his aching rueful lament, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” or ”Time After Time,” or “I Fall in Love Too Easily”; or the ecstatic duet with Louis Armstrong on “Birth of the Blues” (The Edsel Show, 1957); or the Metronome All-Stars’ “Sweet Lorraine.” Or the two studio albums with Basie, especially the first with its ingeniously embellished “Pennies From Heaven” (an inevitable ri­poste to those who insist Sinatra can’t sing jazz). Or the prolonged inspiration of Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Close to You, Come Fly With Me, Come Swing With Me, I Remember Tommy (with its improbably fast “I’ll Be Seeing You”), Moonlight Sinatra, Sinatra & Strings, and All Alone. Or ”Let’s Fall in Love,” “I Have Dreamed,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,”‘ and “I Had the Craziest Dream?” Or “Thanks for the Memory” from She Shot Me Down, his last great album. Or the neglected and deli­ciously dilatory Francis A. and Edward K.

Did I miss many of your favorites?  Mine too: I forgot the Dorseys and Only the Lonely and A Swingin’ Affair and a dozen others. It’s a vast legacy. The Sinatra achievement is not least a guide to modern orchestration — a how-to concerning the adaptation of old pop to postbop consciousness. And Sinatra, no less than his great arrangers — Riddle, May, Johnny Mandel, Sy Oliver, Don Costa, Neal Hefts, Quincy Jones, Gordon Jenkins, and the rest — knew all about reclamation projects. A peerless interpreter of our best lyricists, Sinatra is expected to demonstrate unexpected depths in the work of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Burke, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. But the real test of his transformative powers are those songs beyond redemption, an area in which his ability is at one with Armstrong, Crosby, Holiday, and very few others. Who else would sing “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” previous­ly the subject of burlesques by Fats Waller and Laurel and Hardy (in Blotto), but in Sinatra’s hands a joyous, straight-faced romp? Sinatra’s imperviousness to the song’s clumsiness is symptomatic. The generosity he hasn’t always been able to sum­mon in life is the very marrow of his gift to music. ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

He Died Two Decades Ago, but Ol’ Blue Eyes Still Resonates

Frank Sinatra (1915–1998) has been part of America’s soundtrack for almost eighty years, having released his first single, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” in 1939, when he was the vocalist for the Harry James Orchestra. America’s other crooner of the century, Bing Crosby (1903–1977), pithily summed up Ol’ Blue Eyes’s pipes: “Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime — but why did it have to be my lifetime?”

It was always thus, and Sinatra continues to draw new fans, sometimes ones that are almost as bigger than life as he was: Aaron Judge hit a home run in game 2 of the 2018 American League Division Series, and after the Yankees closed out the victory the colossal right fielder strode past the Red Sox clubhouse with a boombox blaring Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”

In 1995 Sinatra turned eighty, and to mark the occasion the Voice’s inimitable jazz explicator Gary Giddins edited a twenty-page special on the Chairman of the Board. In a sidebar, Giddins lays out the stellar qualifications of the contributors he gathered to pay tribute to the musical legend, noting that most of them “earn all or part of their livelihoods as musicians. Steve Allen, who last wrote for the Voice in the early ’60s, is a man of parts who virtually invented the TV talk show and used the medium to introduce numerous musicians, from Bud Powell and Art Tatum to Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.” Indeed, Allen’s contribution doesn’t mince headlines, titled as it is “The Greatest Singer of Them All.” The former TV host is a little less direct about the vocalist’s personal shortcomings: “So — as regards Sinatra, are all the stories about his lifelong association with the most notorious Mafia murderers and social savages, the stories about semipsychotic rages, true? The answer to all such painful questions is, to some degree, yes.”

Giddins also gives a shout-out to Mary Cleere Haran as “the finest cabaret singer of her generation, and possibly the wittiest ever.” Haran (1952–2011) certainly could turn a phrase, whether on the stage or the page. Reviewing Frank’s turn as the lead in the 1957 film Pal Joey, Haran writes, “Sinatra was born to play Joey. In the stage version, Joey is a nightclub hoofer. He had to be — Gene Kelly originated the role. But a nightclub singer is a lot more sensible, and who better to fit that sleazy bill than Frank Sinatra? I always felt MGM was the wrong studio for him. It was too respectable, conventional, decorous, and polished for Frank’s street-fighter approach to performance.”

In his own piece, Giddins explores the boss of bosses’ emeritus standing: “Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octogenarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Probably nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally undermines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and promotes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply signify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future generations, Sinatra is one entertainer who instilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physical violence per se, though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more general sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan–on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes.”

Here we present the entire twenty-page supplement, chockablock with still more witty contributions — Sinatra’s Top 10 songs, tales of trombone solos and seriously swinging jazz — as well as ads from the period, all testament to the enduring fascination we still have for the self-taught balladeer from Hoboken, New Jersey.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Datebook Events FILM ARCHIVES TV ARCHIVES VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Eric Comstock & Barbara Fasano

They’re calling this show “Rat Pack Poet: Songs of Sammy Cahn” and in putting it together are forming a natty pack of their own. In addition to their song-knowledgeable married selves, Comstock and Fasano are including the suave, probing Jeff Harnar and expert bassist Boots Maleson. For his part, Oscar winner Cahn was quite tight with Frank Sinatra et al and just couldn’t stop turning out pulse-quickening standards one after another. Those reprised here will be as hip as they ever were.

Tue., Dec. 17, 7 p.m., 2013