in a Lifetime
The significance of Sinatra
By Richard Abowitz
Gadfly March 1998
kid's name is Sinatra... No one ever heard of
him, he's never had a hit record, he looks like
a wet rag, but he says he's the greatest. If he
hears you compliment him, he'll demand a raise
to Harry James
January 1940 Frank Sinatra made his debut as the
new boy-singer for Tommy Dorsey's band. At 24,
Sinatra was hardly a boy. He'd already completed
a grinding apprenticeship, first touring as part
of the Hoboken Four and then singing at every
opportunity he could scrounge up around his native
New Jersey until he finally managed to land a
regular gig at the Rustic Cabin. Though the job
required him to be a singing waiter, the Rustic
Cabin had a direct radio wire to WNEW which allowed
Sinatra's voice to cross the river into New York
City. After a brief stint with the Harry James
Band, Sinatra (with James' blessing) jumped ship
to join the more popular Tommy Dorsey Band. Not
surprisingly, Sinatra's recordings during his
years with Dorsey (collected on the 5CD RCA box
set "The Song is You") show little development. Already full of confidence,
Sinatra glides into songs with perfect timing,
sustains notes for extraordinary lengths of time
and effortlessly handles tricky phrasing. Still,
Swing Era bands made dance music, and the real
star of the Dorsey-Sinatra recordings is the big
band itself. In a sense Sinatra was lucky; it
had only recently become the fashion that bands
required a regular vocalist. When Bing Crosby
began singing with Paul Whiteman's band, he was
required to sit holding a dummy instrument so
as not to look odd to the audience.
Sinatra's tenure with Dorsey, Sy Oliver and Axel
Stordahl did many of the arrangements, Buddy Rich
was frequently on drums, and occasionally Bunny
Berigan would show up to play trumpet. The songs
ranged from the dreck of the day ("I'll Take
Tallulah") to the songs that Sinatra would
record throughout his life ("Night and Day,"
"Everything Happens to Me"). Opening
with Dorsey's trombone and leaving ample room
for instrumental solos, most of these recordings
clocked in at around 3 minutes. In fact, only
one of the Dorsey-Sinatra sides—they made
close to 90—is over 4 minutes long ("Without
a Song"). Sinatra did not have the authority
to dictate the tempo, which too often collapsed
songs into band showpieces. For example, on "I'll
Be Seeing You," which was recorded in 1940,
The Tommy Dorsey Band runs through a clipped arrangement
which forces Sinatra to sing in a peppy manner
that is entirely inappropriate to the language
of the song. The Dorsey-Sinatra recordings show
what an extraordinary vocalist Sinatra had become,
but working in a big band did not afford him many
opportunities to develop his artistry as a singer.
Eventually, Sinatra decided to go solo. Even though
he gave Dorsey notice of his plan a full year
in advance, it was still a shock. After all, at
the time, the only truly successful pop singer
who wasn't linked to a band was Crosby.
I'm a Crosby fan. Everybody's a Crosby fan."
told Sinatra that the one singer he should be
listening to was Bing Crosby. Old news to Sinatra;
as a kid he had a picture of Crosby taped above
his bed. Bing Crosby has been reduced in our cultural
memory to the "White Christmas" guy
who once did a duet with David Bowie. This is
unfortunate, because despite his public persona
as a pipe-smoking, mild-mannered golfer, Crosby
became the most significant singer in the first
half of this century through a revolutionary approach
to singing. Earlier singers like Al Jolson and
Eddie Cantor had felt the need to project their
voices in the style of theater. Crosby was the
first to understand that the invention of the
microphone allowed for a less showy and more focused
style of singing. When Bing Crosby recorded his
classic version of "I'll be Seeing You"
(1944) he slowed the tempo and used lingering
phrasing to make his interpretation work. (Always
competitive, Sinatra, using an arrangement much
closer to Crosby's, again recorded "I'll
Be Seeing You," for his 1961 Capitol album
Point of No Return.)
Though his whistles and trills eventually assumed
their own mannered style, Crosby's "crooning"
helped bring about the era of pop vocalists, uniting
theater tunes with the ease of jazz phrasing.
In large part, Sinatra's entire career involved
capitalizing—in ways Der Bingle never could—on
the possibilities inherent in Crosby's approach.
a slow start, Sinatra the solo artist was a sensation.
In the middle of 1943, the bobby soxers made Sinatra
famous by swooning and throwing their underwear
on stage at his performances. By 1944, Sinatra's
shows at the Paramount Theater in New York City
sold out the 3,600 seats inside, and left 30,000
fans outside wanting to get in. As would later
be the case with Elvis Presley and then the Beatles,
riots, hysteria and fandom drove a wedge between
parents and their teenagers. Sinatra's recordings
from the period, however, were not, as his many
critics contended, schlock for teenagers, but
neither did they exhibit the interpretive genius
that marked his Capitol recordings.
1943-1952 Sinatra recorded for Columbia Records
(a good introduction is the 4CD Columbia/Legacy
box set Frank Sinatra: The Best of the Columbia
recordings while frequently meritorious and memorable
are among the most conservative works in Sinatra's
oeuvre. For many of his Columbia recordings Sinatra
used fellow Dorsey veteran Axel Stordahl as an
arranger. Stordahl specialized in ballad orchestrations
which cushioned Sinatra's voice with heavy strings.
In this context, Sinatra sounded far more like
Crosby than he had before with Dorsey. Many of
the musicians used on the Columbia sessions had
worked with Crosby. Stordahl himself would record
a number of sides with Crosby. Matters weren't
helped by Sinatra's selection of material: many,
if not most, of the songs Sinatra/Stordahl recorded
were previously hits for Crosby; at Sinatra's
first Columbia session with Stordahl (a musician's
union strike had resulted in some earlier a cappella
recordings) they recorded "White Christmas."
Despite well publicized voice problems, Sinatra
sounds superb throughout the Columbia years. If
as an artist Sinatra had yet to fully emerge,
these recordings capture some of his finest singing.
For example, on "Ol' Man River," he
delivers a superb reading that contains just enough
fatalism to be neither as bombastic nor as patronizing
as his later recordings of it. Other tracks like
"Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night in
the Week)," "Guess I'll Hang My Tears
Out to Dry" and "She's Funny That Way"
are pop music perfection.
most famous recording from his time on Columbia
is "I'm a Fool to Want You." The lyrics,
to which Sinatra contributed, reflected his adulterous
and tempestuous relationship with Ava Gardner
(whom he would later marry and divorce). Legend
claims he sang it once and then left the studio,
emotionally exhausted. In fact, Sinatra's version
of "I'm a Fool to Want You," while certainly
among the highlights of his Columbia years, does
not sound near as tortured as Billie Holiday's
reading of the song on Lady in Satin.
Holiday's voice is a magnificent wreck of its
former glory. Sinatra sings beautifully, but though
the lyric should demand isolation, the Ray Charles
Singers bolster Sinatra throughout the track with
the aid of a busy violin. Sinatra is too good
on "I'm a Fool to Want You," to declare
the track overrated, but it is fair to say that
he still had room to grow.
Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along
once in a lifetime—but why did it have to
be my lifetime?"
comeback as a celebrity with his Oscar winning
performance in From Here to Eternity was
remarkable enough, but his return to prominence
as a singer was unprecedented. After he was dropped
by Columbia, Sinatra was washed up. Though he
had three number one hits in the 40s ("Oh,
What It Seemed to Be," "Five Minutes
More" and "Mam'selle), they were all
eminently forgettable. As Sinatra approached 40,
he was a second rate Bing Crosby, and he was now
too old to be screamed at by teenage girls. Record
companies didn't want him. Sinatra lacked not
only a recording contract, but even a booking
agent for live appearances. Finally, Sinatra was
forced to sign with a ten-year-old label, Capitol
Records, which had been having some hits with
Les Paul and Mary Ford. Capitol Records, which
at the time was not even technically a major label,
only offered Sinatra a one-year contract the terms
of which were almost an insult: Sinatra not only
wouldn't receive any advance, but he was required
to pay his own recording costs. Despite this inauspicious
beginning, the relationship between Capitol and
Sinatra lasted eight years; it helped Capitol
become one of the world's most successful labels
and it made Sinatra a living legend. When Sinatra
left to form his own label, he pointed at the
Capitol Tower: "I helped build that,"
he said, "Now let's build one of my own."
part by design, but mainly because of changes
in technology and in the marketplace Sinatra's
recordings for Capitol fall neatly into two categories:
singles (movie songs, novelty songs, experiments
and new songs) and albums (carefully chosen, sequenced
and arranged American standards by the likes of
Porter, Kern, Gershwin and Rodgers & Hart).
The singles (collected on the 4CD Capitol box
set Frank Sinatra: The Complete Capitol Singles
were the less ambitious recordings, but it was
on a single that the "new" Sinatra first
on April 30, 1953, "I've Got the World on
a String" is Sinatra's first pairing with
arranger Nelson Riddle. Sinatra had wanted to
keep working with Axel Stordahl, but was persuaded
to try working with Riddle. Their collaboration
would be among the most successful in popular
music. Riddle kept his orchestra out of Sinatra's
way and learned how to use bass, reeds and horns
to underline and punch-up Sinatra's phrasing.
Sinatra, too, had changed from his Columbia years.
His voice became deeper and even richer, and his
phrasing cleaved more closely to the emotional
demands of the song. Less interested in showing
off, Sinatra developed an assured confidence that
allowed him to alter stress and even change the
composer's words if it helped wed the music to
the lyric. All of this is apparent on "I've
Got the World on a String." Riddle opens
with an orchestral volley which quickly vanishes,
leaving Sinatra to sing the opening lines with
only slight accompaniment: "I've got the
world on a string/ Sitting on a rainbow/ got the
string wrapped around my finger..." Then
comes an orchestral explosion followed by Sinatra:
"What a world/ What a life/ I'm in Love."
Riddle uses a drum in a way that seems to anticipate
Rock & Roll's back-beat. It is a wondrous
the cornerstone of Sinatra's achievement with
Nelson Riddle is on the albums. Among the best:
Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, In the Wee Small Hours,
Songs for Swingin' Lovers,
Only the Lonely.
The making of albums was still fairly new and
many approaches were being tried: Crosby gathered
together a variety of possible hits, Ella Fitzgerald
recorded the entire songbooks of great writers.
Sinatra's records from the period are frequently
called concept albums, because the song selection
tended to create a single mood. Some, like Only
the Lonely even
opened with a specially composed (usually by Sinatra
regulars Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) title
song which dictated the album's theme. Most of
the songs on these records had been recorded by
Sinatra before and many would be again. However,
it is on these records that songs which had been
standards, open to any interpretation, wound up
unalterably Sinatra songs. On Songs
for Swingin' Lovers alone, Sinatra puts a definitive stamp on "You
Make Me Feel So Young," "You're Getting
to be a Habit with Me," "Pennies From
Heaven," "I've Got You Under My Skin"
and "Anything Goes." Sinatra's readings
are so persuasive that any later singer who attempted
these songs had to either consciously sing around
Sinatra (as Jimmy Witherspoon does on his 1965
recording of "Blues in the Night" which
Sinatra sang seven years earlier on Only
the Lonely) or give up and call their version a tribute. Those
singers who came before, like Bing Crosby, found
their interpretations erased from memory. Of course,
this success created a problem for Sinatra as
well: what to do for an encore?
taste of his martini didn't please his bitter
tongue/ Blame it on The Rolling Stones."
made no secret of his hatred for Rock & Roll;
he published a piece describing the music as:
"brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious."
Over the years, he went out of his way to pick
feuds with rock stars as diverse as George Michael
and Sinead O'Connor. While rock music may have
supplanted Sinatra's style of music, it had no
discernable impact on Sinatra. Though Buddy Holly
and Elvis Presley arrived during his tenure at
Capitol, Sinatra produced nineteen Top Ten albums
for that label. It may seem surprising, but even
throughout the 60s only the Beatles sold more
albums than Frank Sinatra. In 1961 Sinatra started
his own label, and within three years he recorded
his first ten albums for Reprise Records.
prolific, inspiration was clearly lacking on many
of Sinatra's Reprise recordings. Frequently, Sinatra
seemed to be singing by rote. His voice stiffened
and his phrasing became more edgy and forced.
Also, Sinatra, applied his finger-snapping "Ring-a
Ding Ding" Vegas style to songs indiscriminately.
Though hardly in need of money, in many cases
Sinatra seemed to be revisiting earlier triumphs
for reasons that had far more to do with commerce
than aesthetics. By re-doing many of his trademark
songs, Sinatra was able to release Reprise "Greatest
Hits" albums to compete against his back
catalogue which, to his chagrin, was continuously
being marketed and re-packaged by his former labels.
On the 1997 collection The Very Best of Frank Sinatra (2CD Reprise) nearly half the selections are 60s versions
of songs Sinatra had done in the 40s and 50s.
Perhaps the most egregious: a 1963 version of
"In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning."
In 1955 Sinatra had recorded a heart-stopping
version of this song with Nelson Riddle as the
title track for one of his greatest concept albums.
Whereas in earlier periods Sinatra had returned
to familiar songs only to find new meaning in
them, the 1963 "In the Wee Small Hours of
the Morning" retains a Riddle arrangement,
and Sinatra uses similar phrasing; it is isn't
different, only inferior.
if Sinatra was no longer making music for connoisseurs,
the Reprise years produced many of his most popular
performances. "That's Life," "New
York, New York" and "My Way," all
cast Sinatra as a bloodied but unbowed fighter
kicking the ass of old age. In a famous 1965 essay,
"Frank Sinatra has a Cold," Gay Talese
wrote, "[H]e makes old men feel young, makes
them think that if Frank Sinatra can do it, it
can be done." But a less generous listener
might detect on these tracks the bluster of an
aging hipster railing against the obvious: his
course, this isn't to say that Sinatra's recordings
for Reprise lacked merit, or aren't worth hearing.
The voice is still Sinatra's and he is accompanied
by first-rate bands including those of Duke Ellington,
Count Basie and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Nor did
his work for Reprise lack ambition. Though the
results were often a disaster (like A Man Alone his 1969 setting of Rod McKuen lyrics), until the end
Sinatra was an artist willing to take risks; sometimes,
as on September of My Years,
the risks paid off. Released in 1965, September
of My Years
is rightly regarded as Sinatra's final masterpiece.
The opening Van Heusen/Cahn title song recalls
the Capitol concept albums. This time the theme
is age, decay and encroaching death. Gordon Jenkins'
string-filled arrangements remind the listener
of Axel Stordahl's settings for Sinatra at Columbia.
But instead of soaring, Sinatra allows his weathered
voice to push against the lush arrangements—he
explores every crack and break that the years
have given him. While many artists have made recordings
about premature death, or talent struck down in
the prime of life, popular music, especially during
the rock era, has avoided the subject of aging
like a taboo. September of My Years remains one of the few recordings in popular music
to face natural mortality.
for a brief retirement in the early 70s Sinatra
never quit. He continued to tour until the end
of 1994 when he was 79 years old. Also, in the
90s he recorded two albums of duets with absentee
partners who were dubbed in later. They were awful
but still topped the charts. The lack of thought
that ruined these records is made clear by a duet
(tacked on to an album inexplicably titled
Sinatra 80th: Live In Concert) with opera singer Luciano Pavarotti on "My Way."
Pavarotti has no feel for the phrasing or meaning
of the song. There is no interaction between Pavarotti
and Sinatra; they simply take turns singing. But
worst of all is the basic choice of material:
"My Way," a song proclaiming self-determination,
is simply wrong as a duet.
1994 Bono from U2 presented Sinatra with a Legend
Award for Lifetime Achievement at the Grammy Awards.
"Rock & Roll people love Frank Sinatra,"
Bono said, "because Frank Sinatra has got
what we want: swagger and attitude. He's big on
attitude, serious attitude. Bad attitude."
But this caricature has nothing to do with Sinatra's
real achievement: a remarkable range of recordings
spanning over half a century. "May you all
live to be four hundred years old," Sinatra
would say when toasting his audience, "and
may the last voice you hear be mine."