December 12, 1915 – May 14, 1998
He loved, he brawled, he had style, he had guts, he could even
act. And, oh yeah, he defined American pop
By BRUCE HANDY for Time Magazine
Sinatra has received far too many tributes already. Even before
his death last month there was the 80th-birthday hoopla of 2 1/2
years ago, followed by the flock of recently published books
circling, vulture-like, in clear anticipation of his passing. At
this point any recounting of his accomplishments — his
unassailable greatness as a singer, his somewhat more assailable
greatness as an actor, his impeccable taste as a curator of the
great American songbook, his ancillary talents as both
philanthropist and thug, his status as a totem of mid-century
masculinity — inevitably takes on a dutiful, ritualistic air. So
what better way to breathe a little life into the process than
with an insult?
"George Steinbrenner with a voice" was the epithet coined by a
colleague of mine — born in the baby boom's dead centre, it
should be noted — who objects to the bad-hair Republican bluster
of Sinatra's later years, his belting out of all those anthems
of middle-aged self-assertion. He did it his way. He can make it
anywhere. He picks himself up and gets back in the race — that's
life, or Sinatra's blowhard version of it anyway. It is the
artfully projected world view of a casino entertainer, a
glorified greeter, whose job it was to make old guys with bum
tickers and second wives feel good about themselves. On one
hand, my colleague's view of Sinatra as scourge of baby boomers
— the anti-Judy Collins, if you will — is a crude caricature of
a complex artist, as reductive as any neo-swinger's fetishistic
prattling about the man's way with a pocket handkerchief. On the
other hand, it is a caricature I too used to believe in.
Should anyone even care what people like my colleague and me
think of Sinatra? My own higher notions about music were
incubated while listening to Jethro Tull albums (whoa — a
flute!). Sinatra's body of work, meanwhile, stretches back to
the 1930s and is nothing less than "the final statement on
pre-rock pop," as Will Friedwald, the invaluable Sinatra
scholar, recently wrote of the Songs for Swingin' Lovers! album,
released in 1956 and generally considered Sinatra's finest LP.
"Something radically different just had to come next," Friedwald
continues, "because nothing in the realm of Tin Pan Alley could
top this bravura celebration of grown-up love." You can't sum up
Sinatra's achievement more succinctly than that.
But he had nearly 40 years of performing left ahead of him in
1956; more than two-thirds of his professional life was spent in
the rock era, much of it reacting to rhythms and attitudes he
found alien. "The most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of
expression it has been my displeasure to hear," Sinatra wrote of
rock 'n' roll at the time of Elvis Presley's pre-eminence, no
doubt hoping to turn back the Mongols.
It didn't quite work, and in efforts to maintain his commercial
viability, Sinatra would eventually record Presley's hit Love Me
Tender as well as works by Paul Simon (Mrs. Robinson), George
Harrison (Something) and Joni Mitchell (Both Sides Now). The
results were often awkward — this is the Sinatra people like me
used to make fun of. But listen with more knowing ears: when
Sinatra sings "You stick around, Jack, it might show" on
Something, you get the feeling not that he's hoking it up
Vegas-style so much as he's rooting around for rhythmic
complexity in a beautiful if simple song; he's a muscle car
idling on a leafy suburban cul-de-sac.
Sinatra — this is both his gift and, on occasion, his downfall —
is always Sinatra. Beyond his technical prowess as a
jazz-influenced pop singer, building on the innovations of Louis
Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, there is the sheer
force of conviction, feeling, the weight of personal history in
his voice. In this, only Holiday is his rival — perhaps even his
better. Both exemplify what people in my generation like to
flatter ourselves is unique to rock 'n' roll and its offshoots:
the immediacy, the idiosyncrasy, the genuineness of expression.
Sinatra is the century's musical equipoise, the pivot between
the carefully crafted pop of its beginning and the looser,
fiercer sounds of its end.
These are not original observations; people who had the fortune
to grow up with Sinatra already knew. I first caught on when,
while listening to a Sinatra greatest-hits album I had bought
for a girlfriend as an ironic courtship gesture--I was young, it
was the '80s — the song Strangers in the Night caught my ear.
It's an admittedly queer place to start amid the glories of the
Sinatra canon, a chintzy little hit from 1966 with a dopey
pop-rock arrangement; the singer himself gives it the brush-off
with his famous dooby-dooby-doo coda during the fade-out. But
not everyone can start with What Is This Thing Called Love?, and
even here Sinatra manages to invest the ticky-tacky lyrics —
"Strangers in the night/ Exchanging glances/ Wondering in the
night/ What were the chances" — with a palpable yearning that
transcends, maybe even exalts its surroundings. I was hooked.
This, really, is my point: masterpieces — like Songs for Swingin'
Lovers! — are easy to love. They are what we remember artists
for, but they aren't always as illuminating, or as cherishable,
as the failures and throwaways. More often than not, even
Sinatra's crud speaks his virtues. You can't ask much more of a
performer than that.
Francis Albert Sinatra (born 1915) may have been the most
popular singer in American history, in a career that spanned
from the 1930s into the 1990s.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on
December 12, 1915. He was the only child of Martin and Natalie
"Dolly" Sinatra. He lived in a predominantly Italian-American
working class neighbourhood. As a student at Demarest High
School, he became popular by exhibiting the traits he would
carry with him throughout his lifetime - those of a generous but
Early in his life Sinatra knew he wanted to become a singer. His
influences were Rudy Vallee and his idol, Bing Crosby. After
dropping out of high school he began to sing at obscure clubs.
He got his first big break with Major Bowes and his "Amateur
Hour" in 1935, singing in a group called the Hoboken Four.
Sinatra, by preference, continued to sing in various New Jersey
nightclubs, hoping to attract the attention of the bandleaders
who led America into the "Swing Era" on the many hundreds of
radio stations that were popping up all over the country.
From the Rustic Cabin Club in Alpine, New Jersey, Sinatra got
his first radio play in 1939 on station WNEW in New York City.
He then signed with his first bandleader, Harry James, for $75
per week. That same year he married his longtime sweetheart,
Nancy Barbato. They would eventually have three children.
After seven months with Harry James, Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey
and his orchestra, causing his career to skyrocket. Dorsey's
orchestra was one of the most popular in the land and remained
so with Sinatra singing, from 1940 through 1942. During that
time he performed with the band in his first two movies - Las
Vegas Nights (1941) and Ship Ahoy (1942). He began his solo
career at the end of 1942 and continued his meteoric rise.
As the leading American singer through the war era, he
epitomized the evolution of American music with its blends of
music that included jazz and the classics. The idiom would come
to be known simply as American popular, or pop music. The Swing
Era lasted from 1935 through the end of World War II, and
Sinatra was by far its best known vocalist. His musical roots
and education were that of the Tin Pan Alley tradition, but he
was a diligent student of Italian opera as well. Most important
to him throughout his career would be his insistence on his own
style and arrangements for whatever music he sang. His unique
phrasing of lyrics and his jazzy syncopation of melody lines
were delivered in a voice best described as light baritone with
a sharp New York accent, resonating deep into his nasal cavities
to produce the classic crooning effect.
His wide-shouldered suits and his bow ties were imitated by many
men, but his most ardent followers were the teenaged girls,
nicknamed the "bobby-soxers," who swooned or screamed for
"Frankie" when he sang. For the "Croon Prince of Swing," his
widespread appeal was further fuelled by America's explosive
mass media growth in newspapers, magazines, films, record
players, and radio stations. Sinatra was the first to attract
the kind of near hysteria that would later accompany live
appearances by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. This type of
excitement reached its peak in the famed Columbus Day Riot of
October 12, 1944, when thousands of his fans (mostly female),
denied entry into the already-packed Paramount Theater in New
York City, stormed the streets and vented their frustration by
smashing nearby shop windows.
Though Sinatra was exempted from military service in World War
II because of a perforated eardrum, he helped the war effort
with his appearances in movies and benefits for soldiers. He was
an outspoken supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and liberal
viewpoints, including racial and religious tolerance. His
charitable appearances were consistent and numerous.
Sinatra's first and only major downfall in the public eye came
in 1951 and lasted for almost three years. His extramarital
affairs led to his divorce, and his subsequent well-publicized,
tempestuous marriage to actress Ava Gardner also ended in
divorce in 1957. Rumours of Mafia connections spread, mostly
from his socializing with alleged Mafia kingpins, and these
rumours persisted, along with publicity about his noted barroom
brawls. Musical tastes were changing as well, as "belters" like
Eddie Fisher and Frankie Laine were replacing the crooners in
popularity. All of these events, in addition to his failure to
serve in the military, combined to alienate him from an adoring
but fickle public, and especially from the press. The
allegations of underworld activity were never proven, and no
indictments were ever made. His comeback was secured with his
appearance as the feisty Italian-American soldier, Angelo Maggio,
in the critically acclaimed film From Here to Eternity (1954).
The role won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor, and
he was back on the record charts as well with "Young at Heart."
Nelson Riddle, his arranger in the 1950s, helped Sinatra stay on
the competitive record charts throughout the rest of the decade.
In fact, Sinatra stayed on the charts steadily through 1967,
despite the sudden and overwhelming pre-eminence of Rock 'n'
Roll music. This durability was due in part to the advent of the
long-playing album, the LP, upon which Sinatra could surround a
central theme with a large collection of songs or ballads. From
1957 through 1966 he had 27 top ten albums without producing one
top ten single. These albums were led by Only the Lonely (1958),
Come Fly With Me (1958), and Come Dance With Me (1959). The
bobby-soxers were now adults, but Sinatra had shifted smoothly
to the role of the aging romantic bachelor. This was signified
by the image of him leaning alone against a lamppost, raincoat
in hand. His movie appearances multiplied during this period,
with nine in the span of just two years, including Guys and
Dolls (1955), Young At Heart (1955), The Tender Trap (1955), The
Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and High Society (1956).
His music came to be known as "middle of the road," but his
ever-present style put him in a class by himself because of his
ability to convey the heartfelt romantic message. Additional
hits of the 1960s included "It Was a Very Good Year," from his
Grammy Award winning album September of My Years (1965), and
"Strangers in the Night" (1966). He did reach the top of the
singles charts in a duet with his daughter Nancy, "Somethin'
Stupid," in 1967. A brief marriage to 20-year-old actress Mia
Farrow ended in divorce in 1968. He continued his movie roles,
including Tony Rome (1967) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964),
but they had declined in artistic merit. Critics saw these
movies as vehicles for reinforcement of his tough-guy image, as
well as his and his friends' answer to the great youth movement
that was taking place around them. These friends included
entertainers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and
Peter Lawford, a clique that came to be known as the "Rat Pack."
After his famous recording of "My Way" (1969), Sinatra made an
ill-fated attempt to sing some of the lighter tunes of modern
rock composers. This led to a brief retirement from
entertainment (1971 through 1973), a time that was accompanied
by a shift in his politics from liberal to conservative. He had
become a close friend of Ronald Reagan's and helped Reagan in
his later successful presidential campaigns.
By this time Sinatra's financial empire produced millions of
dollars in earnings from investments in films, records, gambling
casinos, real estate, missile parts, and general aviation. He
came out of his retirement in 1974 with a renewed interest in
the middle of the road genre and older tunes. He was married for
the fourth time, in 1976, to Barbara Blakely. His return to the
limelight was highlighted by his famous recording of "New York,
New York" (1980) as he entered his sixth decade of entertaining.
In 1988, Sinatra joined with Sammie Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin
and embarked on a cross-country tour. The tour lasted only one
week. Sinatra later organized another reunion tour with Shirley
MacLaine in 1992 and it was a resounding success. By 1994,
Sinatra was experiencing memory lapses but that did not keep him
from performing publicly. He merely added the use of a
teleprompter to remind him of the lyrics. After celebrating his
80th birthday at a public tribute and roast at the Los Angeles
Shrine Auditorium, new collector's packages of recordings were
released and became instant best-sellers.
The legions who grew up with him and his music were complemented
by adoration from younger generations, all of whom have made
"Old Blue Eyes" the pre-eminent popular singer of the 20th
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This web page was last updated on:
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