We continue examining the voices that make up the Great American Songbook with a look at Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), the most polarizing figure of the classic American pop era. Polarizing, I think, because more than any of the other figures we have looked at thus far, Sinatra’s persona is the one most imitated by his followers; indeed, there is an entire “Sinatra Way of Life” that inspired several generations. Sinatra has had, for adults, much the same bad influence as the Beatles had on children.
However, it’s not for us to judge an artist’s work – and Sinatra was certainly an artist – by his personal life. (Indeed, our canon of artistic heroes would indeed become a small one!) And Sinatra’s iconic status is undeniable. He was the last “superstar” of the Great American Songbook, and the last of his ilk to continue producing hit records after the advent of the rock era, when music descended into hopeless juvenilia. Even for those for whom music begins and ends with the rock era, Sinatra is a presence to be reckoned with.
Sinatra began his singing career in the Big Band era, fronting for both Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. He was often dubbed The Voice, and listening to his clear, clean and sweet tones, it is easy to see why. His voice was certainly the most honeyed of his era, and listening to his late 1940s recordings of such songs as All or Nothing at All, There’s No Business Like Show Business and Why Was I Born, illustrates why legions of teenage girls (the Bobby Soxers) fell under his thrall.
However, the most fascinating thing about the voice of the early Sinatra is that its beauty is the only thing it has to commend it. He was not a particularly affecting singer, and, unlike, say, Bing Crosby or Fred Astaire, he didn’t really connect with a song and what it meant. He was all talent and no technique.
Sinatra found his incredible popularity begin to wane in the early 1950s. He returned to the concert stage after a two year absence in Hartford in 1950, but his vocal chords hemorrhaged onstage at the Copacabana later that year. It seemed as if his meteoric career was about to burn out.
Then something happened. He landed a key supporting role in From Here to Eternity (1953) and won the Oscar. His renewed popularity did much to renew his vitality, and he signed a contract with Capitol Records, where he worked with some of the industry’s finest musicians, including Billy May and Nelson Riddle (the two men most associated with the Sinatra Sound).
And it is here, really the second act of Sinatra’s career, that Sinatra the artist emerged and the paradox begins. Paradox because after 1950, Sinatra’s voice was never the same – it has lost its beauty and sweetness; but, he also became a much better singer.
What Sinatra learned was what Astaire and Crosby had known instinctually – that phrasing, lyricism and telling the story of a song is the final piece of the puzzle in making a great singer. It was during this period that some of his signature recordings – I’ve Got the World on a String, Love and Marriage, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, Three Coins in the Fountain, South of the Boarder, Hey Jealous Lover – were all recorded. These were not simply songs knocked out after a few rehearsals, but deep and personal mediations on the narrative of each number, delivered in a style best matching the overarching story.
Sinatra was able to maintain this winning streak – professionally and artistically – throughout the 1950s and 1960s, despite changing national tastes in music. In the 1970s and 1980s, he recorded a string of epics or anthems (including the unfortunately ubiquitous My Way), and started his own record label, Reprise. But the bloom had long since faded from the rose.
Frank Sinatra is a remarkable study for those interested in the history of American popular song – he was the greatest singer who ever lost his voice.
Tomorrow – Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks!