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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.”

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. ❖

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BANJO MAN

It’s not unusual for an established comedian to deeply love a niche strain of music: Woody Allen’s traditional NOLA jazz clarinet, Steve Allen’s classical scores, Jack Benny’s dry violin, Dave Chappelle’s not-so-acerbic piano. And they tend to preserve these esoteric musical preferences by rigidly separating their musical lives from their stage presences; you’d far exceed your drink minimum before any of the above cracked a joke with their instrument in tow. Which makes Steve Martin the outsider in this multifaceted group: The brilliant actor, comedian, author, and all-around walking New Yorker billboard performs bluegrass banjo with genuine skill, and also pauses between songs to crack one-liners and share droll “That’s showbiz” vignettes. Such is the agreeable, seamless world he shares; his set at the Bonnaroo Festival with North Carolina’s acoustic Steep Canyon Rangers (his collaborators on March’s Rare Bird Alert) was truly delightful and an educational intro to the world of their finger-picked fare. And, yes, he plays “King Tut.”

Mon., March 14, 8 p.m., 2011

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Before There Was ‘Saturday Night Live’

It’s a lost art—the short comedy talkie, produced by the hundreds during Hollywood’s so-called golden age as nothing more than bonus gifts for audiences still schooled on the packed, bang-for-your-buck vaudeville experience. The definition of skit comedy for several generations, shorts like those written by and starring Robert Benchley seeded the soil for Steve Allen, Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python, and Saturday Night Live. Of course, as epitomized by this selection, the jokes are subtler, the rhythms are more relaxed, and the topics, however fresh then, have been recycled into plasticized oblivion. Which hardly sullies the charm and seductive intimacy of Benchley himself, who during the 1930s and early 1940s perfected a thoroughly modern persona: the flabby middle-aged mensch who’s presented to us as an authority figure but who is actually a hapless, desperate fool. Of the 14 films, The Trouble With Husbands (1940) established Benchley’s lecture-with-illustration dynamic and is still a deadpan beauty, initiating an unending flash flood of domestic-strife stand-up routines since; Crime Control (1941) is an increasingly surreal PSA about dangerous objects, which more or less peaks with Benchley pulling out a revolver and shooting his errant slippers. Benchley’s peerlessly smooth delivery of caught-up-short public speaking remains his trump card—crinkling up feebly at his own puns, talking himself out onto a redundant limb—but he’s also one of the most convincing handlers of comic dialogue Hollywood ever had. These Paramount shorts weren’t meant to be seen en masse, so they do have a number of odd cumulative effects, not the least of which is a bolero of melancholic mourning: Dead in 1945 from a cerebral hemorrhage, Benchley was a sad alcoholic who never fulfilled his own literary ambitions, and watching the shorts with, at least, Alan Rudolph’s underrated Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle in mind can be deeply affecting. Also included: two early talkies from 1928 that Benchley did for Fox, including The Treasurer’s Report, and a few shorts starring the crashingly unamusing Alexander Woollcott and Donald Ogden Stewart.

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Just Jack

In Mexico City Blues, “Chorus 113,” Jack Kerouac wrote, “Got up and dressed up and went out & got laid. Then died and got buried in a coffin in the grave.” Amid this hectic itinerary, Kerouac also granted numerous interviews. In No Great Society, the collaborative ensemble Elevator Repair Service seizes on two of Kerouac’s televised talks: a bilious and bibulous appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in 1968 and a piano-accompanied lark on the Steve Allen Plymouth Show. In both re-creations, Susie Sokol—attired in a girlish plaid skirt and fitted blazer—plays Kerouac.

The spotlight on Kerouac continues an enduring ERS interest in American writers (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, the James brothers—William and Henry, not Jesse and Frank) and comedians (Andy Kaufman, the Marx Brothers). Kerouac isn’t known as a comic, but on the Buckley show, even draped in an inebriated haze, he betrays a spiny, unpredictable wit. When the fatuous artist-activist Ed Sanders muses that he may indulge in a political action in which he would “run naked through the streets smeared in strawberry preserves,” Kerouac deadpans, “Maybe I could lick you.” Later, he advises Buckley that the Vietnam conflict is a plot perpetrated by the North and South Vietnamese to get more jeeps into the country. “They’re not very good plotters,” Buckley objects. “But they get a lot of jeeps,” answers Kerouac.

Sokol, a sharp-featured, matchstick-legged gamine, bears little resemblance to the Beat icon, nor does she attempt it. Rather, with the aid of choreographer Katherine Profeta and director John Collins, she uses Kerouac’s mumbles and interjections to create a verbal-physical score of tics, twitches, starts, and gulps. It’s a remarkable effort—graceful in its glamorousness, purposefully awkward in the best ERS tradition—but never quite lifts the show out of the enforced flatness of the interview format. The Buckley section is enlivened by Vin Knight’s portrayal of sociologist Lewis Yablonsky and Scott Shepherd’s fright-wigged take on Sanders. Seersucker-clad Ben Williams makes an extraordinary Buckley—leaning back in his chair at precarious angles and speaking with a drawl so forceful it threatens to choke him. His bespectacled Allen is nearly as engaging.

Collins and his designers unsettle the action with unexpected light cues and an anxious soundscape. But it’s only in the final moments, when the company breaks wide the chat-show setup and performs a jerking, stomping, rapturous, mostly seated dance to the Slim Gaillard tune “Flat Foot Floogie” that No Great Society really surprises and delights. ERS might take Gaillard’s words to heart—as they’ve often done in the past: “Whenever your cares are chronic,/Just tell the world, “go hang,”/You’ll find a greater tonic,/If you go on swingin’ with the gang!”