Saturday, December 12, 2015

Frank Sinatra's 100th Birthday

Frank Sinatra, 1950's.

The greatest singer ever, in action during the 1950's.
One hundred years ago today, Frank Sinatra was born. Sinatra would go on to become one of the major entertainers of the 20th century. His performing career spanned 60 years, from his days singing on the “Major Bowes Amateur Hour” radio show to headlining at majors concert hall in the United States and around the world. (Sinatra would sometimes use the phrase “Major Bowes Amateur Hour Loser” as a put-down.) Similar to Bing Crosby, Sinatra’s popularity stretched across several different mediums as Sinatra became a star on radio, television, and film. Also like Crosby, Sinatra won an Academy Award for his acting. Crosby once memorably said of Sinatra, “A fellow like that only comes around once in a lifetime. Why did it have to be mine?”

Sinatra’s recording career went through several different phases. His first recordings were made with the big band of Harry James. Sinatra left James’ band to join trombonist Tommy Dorsey’s band from 1940 to 1942, and they made many hit singles together. When Sinatra left Dorsey’s band, it was a risky move, trading the sure thing for the chance to have more artistic freedom over his work. Even in Sinatra’s early records you can hear something in his voice that set him apart from the other male big band vocalists of his era. While others tried to do their own version of Crosby’s crooning style, Sinatra, though obviously influenced by Crosby, didn’t try to imitate Bing. Sinatra was always his own man, and his singing style, full of sensual romantic yearning, set bobby soxer’s hearts aflame. The girls who were screaming for Frank at the Paramount Theater in the 1940’s understood that he was making love to them through his songs. Sinatra might not have been conventionally handsome, but he had very striking features, including a winning smile, piercing blue eyes, and at this time, a head full of dark, wavy hair. He also had a strong personal magnetism and loads of charisma. 

Sinatra’s solo recording career began at Columbia Records in 1943. (I reviewed Sinatra’s complete Columbia recordings here.) Singing lush, beautiful ballads, he became one of the most successful vocalists of the 1940’s. As the decade ended, however, his career seemed to be on the wane. The break-up of his first marriage, his scandalous and disastrous affair with Ava Gardner, and some vocal problems made some think that Sinatra was past his prime. Without a film or recording contract, Sinatra’s future did not look bright.

But the brightest time was still to come. In 1953, Sinatra signed with Capitol Records, recorded with the arranger Nelson Riddle for the first time, and played the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as Maggio, and his records started selling again. One of the great comebacks in show business history was now complete. In Nelson Riddle, Sinatra had found his perfect arranger. It’s my own personal contention that Riddle’s arrangements for Sinatra are one of the prime reasons why Sinatra is the greatest male vocalist. No one else had arrangements that good that fit their voices as perfectly as Riddle’s fit Sinatra’s. It also helped that Sinatra’s voice sounded better than ever in the 1950’s. In the 1940’s, Sinatra’s voice had been achingly pure and perfect. Now in the 1950’s his voice was slightly lower, with a more assured and confident air. The music was also changing too. Whereas ballads had made up 75% of Sinatra’s repertoire in the 1940’s, now swinging songs alternated with those ballads. Sinatra showed off his jazzy side with albums like “Swing Easy!,” “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” and “A Swingin’ Affair!” Sinatra showed that not only was he the best ballad singer, he was also the best swing singer around as well. Sinatra’s phrasing was always superb, and he was able to sustain long phrases, giving the songs more emotional depth.

Sinatra’s status as a pop icon would be cemented in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s as he palled around Las Vegas with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., and became friends with President John F. Kennedy. Sinatra started his own record label, Reprise, in 1961, and encouraged many of his famous friends, like Dean and Sammy, to record for his label. Reprise only lasted two years as a true independent record company, as it was sold to Warner Brothers in 1963, but it was a bold and audacious move. Sinatra’s records for Reprise during the 1960’s were still excellent, although they don’t seem to have the cultural cache of Sinatra’s Capitol albums. 

Turning 50 was a big event for Sinatra, and he marked it by recording the terrific album “September of My Years,” and by taping the TV special “A Man and His Music.” (Sinatra also released a double album career retrospective called “A Man and His Music.”) It was during the taping of “A Man and His Music” that journalist Gay Talese followed Sinatra around and wrote his classic profile for Esquire magazine, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” (You can read the full essay here; it’s still one of the best pieces written about Sinatra.)

For the rest of his life Sinatra continued to pack concert halls and stadiums full of people anxious to see him in person. The last two records he made “Duets” and “Duets II” were both Top Ten albums and both sold more than one million copies. 

Sinatra is still a towering figure in American pop culture, and even though he passed away in 1998, his name is synonymous with great music. I think he would be very happy at how he’s remembered by his many fans and admirers around the world.

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