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Frank Sinatra

by Joy Williams
first published in Novaya Yezhedevnaya Gazeta, Moscow, Russia

Francis Albert Sinatra was born of Sicilian ancestry on December 12, 1915, in Hoboken, New Jersey. As a youngster, he had visions of a sportswriting career and worked briefly as a copy boy for a local newspaper.

However, that ambition was short-lived once Frank Sinatra heard the unique music styles of Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby. He decided to pursue a singing career and teamed with a local group called the Hoboken Four. When the quartet broke up after only a brief time together, the young singer took the solo route and toured the vaudeville circuit. In 1937 Sinatra landed a job as a singing MC at the Rustic Cabin, a fabled roundhouse in Englewood, New Jersey.

His talent attracted Harry James, who hired Sinatra to sing with his orchestra, and on July 13, 1939, two weeks after his debut as a big band vocalist at the Hippodrome Theatre in Baltimore, Sinatra cut his first disc, "From The Bottom of My Heart" b/w "Melancholy Mood," with the orchestra.

With his recording of "All or Nothing at All" on August 31, 1939, as well as his later debut as a band singer, Frank Sinatra changed the face of popular music in America and paved the way for others. Of the ten sides he recorded with James "All or Nothing at All" was the biggest, selling just over 8,000 copies upon release. In 1943, when Sinatra and James had both become national figures, it was re-released and became the first of Sinatra's many million-sellers, hitting #2 on the charts.

In 1940, Tommy Dorsey's lead singer, Jack Leonard, quit and Sinatra began a two-year stay with the Dorsey band, developing his phrasing by studying Dorsey's technique on the trombone. After leaving Dorsey, he appeared as a regular on the "Hit Parade" radio program. Also around this time he began his film career with 1943's "Higher and Higher." Other roles included "Anchors Aweigh," "'Till the Clouds Roll By" and "The Kissing Bandit." In all, he made more than 50 films. During the years Sinatra was with them, the Dorsey band consistently hit the Top Ten (15 entries in 1940-41 including their first #1 hit "I'll Never Smile (Again)." His radio work with Dorsey was the springboard for Sinatra's solo career.

"The Voice" later struck out on his own and made memorable appearances on radio's "Your Hit Parade" and his own show, "Songs By Sinatra." In late 1942 Sinatra made an historic appearance at the old Paramount Theatre on Times Square in New York. The headliner on the bill was Benny Goodman and when the bandleader introduced Frank Sinatra, the audience erupted and cheered itself hoarse. There was dancing in the aisles, whistling, whooping and shrieking. It was the beginning of a long love affair between the singer and his fans. It was one of the most spectacular events in show business history and Frank Sinatra's career soared.

Frank SinatraDuring the war years, Sinatra sang love songs to his mostly female audiences, notably on Lucky Strike's "Hit Parade," and between 1943 and 1946 had 17 Top Ten chart singles. But with the GIs back in the US after the war, public taste shifted away from these songs and Sinatra's popularity waned. At Columbia, his record label, producer Mitch Miller burdened Sinatra with inappropriate novelty songs (washboard accompaniment on one, barking dogs on another), and his sales slipped to an average of 30,000 per record.

In the early Fifties he was dropped by his record company and his talent agent, and he lost his motion picture contract with MGM. To rescue his popularity he begged to be cast as Maggio in the film of "From Here to Eternity." His first non-singing role, it won him the 1953 Best Supporting Male Actor Oscar and brought him back into the limelight. (His film debut had been with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in 1941's "Las Vegas Nights.")

Sinatra's career was rocked in the early '50s when his voice deteriorated. Also, fans were upset over his divorce in 1951 from his first wife, Nancy Barbato, and subsequent marriage to Ava Gardner, which lasted until 1957. (He also was married to Mia Farrow in 1966 and, in 1977, he married his last wife, Barbara, who was the widow of Zeppo Marx.)

After winning the Oscar for his role in "From Here to Eternity" in 1953, the fledgling Capitol Records signed him, and thus began an association that lasted seven years. With ex-Dorsey trombonist and arranger Nelson Riddle, Sinatra moved into the next phase of his recording career with a new emphasis: booze ballads and swing tunes. With Capitol, he concentrated on making albums, although he once again began charting in the singles Top Ten, notably with "Young at Heart" (#2, 1954), "Learnin' The Blues" (#1, 1955), "Hey! Jealous Lover" (#3, 1956), "All The Way" (#2, 1957) and "Witchcraft" (#6, 1958).

Though the Fifties, Sinatra was equally well known as a movie star, winning especially high praise for his role of a drug addict in "The Man with the Golden Arm" (1955). Beginning in 1959, his singles failed to hit the Top Thirty, and in 1961 he left Capitol to establish his own recording company, Reprise, signing Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr. among his first acts. (In 1963 he sold Reprise to Warner Bros and became a vice president and consultant of Warner Brothers Picture Corp.)

Sinatra decided to try once again to become a Top Forty singles artist. "The Second Time Around" hit #50 in 1961; subsequent releases charted lower. But in the mid-Sixties he recouped. He was the triumphant headliner of the final evening of the 1965 Newport Jazz Festival in a 20-song set accompanied by Count Basie's orchestra, conducted by Quincy Jones. His 1965 Thanksgiving TV special, "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music," a review of his 25-year career, won an Emmy and set the precedent for numerous other TV specials, including one each in the four next years. In 1966-67, he charted three of his biggest hits in the Top Ten: "Strangers in the Night" (#1, 1966), "That's Life" (#4, 1966) and "Somethin' Stupid" (a duet with daughter Nancy, #1, 1967).

In the Sixties, he made his Las Vegas debut at the Sands and continued to be a main attraction at Caesars Palace for many years. In 1968, he recorded Las Vegas regular Paul Anka's song "My Way." While it was a modest hit in the U.S. (#27), it was an overwhelming smash in the , staying in the Top Fifty an unprecedented 122 weeks. (Sex Pistol Sid Vicious later recorded a sarcastic version.)

In 1970, Sinatra announced his retirement and was honored with a gala farewell on June 13, 1971, at the Los Angeles Music Center. He reversed that decision in 1973 with the release of "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back," a TV special of the same name, and a performance at the Nixon White House at a state dinner for visiting Italian Premier Giulio Andreotti. In 1974, he mounted an eight-city, 13-date sold-out US tour and performed in Japan and Australia. (In Australia, he once again aggravated the paparazzi with his anti-journalist harangues: through the years he has referred to the males as parasites, and the females as everything from "a buck-and-a-half hooker" to "two-dollar broads.")

In the mid-Seventies, Sinatra's career slowed somewhat but in mid-1980, after a five-year recording hiatus, he released Trilogy, which included his version of "Theme from 'New York, New York'" (#32), a version that city has fervently adopted. Into the Eighties, Sinatra continued to perform sell-out concerts in major halls, to star in movies and TV specials, and to spark controversy for his business and political associations. (His 1972 appearances before the House Select Committee on Crime investigating criminal infiltration into horse racing were front-page news.)

The most acclaimed and influential pop stylist of his generation, he continued to record standards. While his staples have been the songs of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and George and Ira Gershwin, he also recorded pop and rock songs by Stevie Wonder, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Jimmy Webb, Jim Croce, Neil Diamond and Billy Joel.

Frank SinatraIn 1978, Sinatra went to Israel for the dedication of the Frank Sinatra International Student Centre at the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University (another building in Israel named for him is the Frank Sinatra Youth Centre in Nazareth). The following year Sinatra returned to the Middle East, performing a benefit concert in Egypt at the request of Madam Sadat for her favorite charity. The Sinatra Family Children's Unit for the Chronically Ill was established at the Seattle Children's Orthopedic Hospital and Medical Center. Sinatra was one of the five distinguished honorees (the others were Jimmy Stewart, Elia Kazan, Virgil Thompson and Katherine Dunham) at the 1983 Kennedy Center Honors. He served as producer and director of entertainment for President Reagan's Inaugural Galas in 1981 and 1985, and also played a role in the Inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Sinatra appeared at several highly successful annual engagements at Carnegie Hall, each surpassing the previous year in critical acclaim and box office records at the fabled New York landmark. Like the best performing artists, however, Sinatra has proven timeless. The following interview is from 1992:

Q: What was one of the first things you learned about singing? Do you still adhere to it?

SINATRA: When I first started, it was my idea to make my voice work like a musical instrument. I've always been fascinated with Jascha Heifetz' way with the violin and Tommy Dorsey's way with the horn. Heifetz' constant bowing, when you never hear a break, carries a melody line straight through, just as Dorsey's trombone did. I tried to use my voice in the same way as a violin or trombone—not sounding like them, but playing my voice like them.

Q: Outside of music, what are some of your other interests?

SINATRA: I've dabbled in oil painting and I like photography. Over the years I've gathered a marvelous collection of model trains, specializing in steam engines. Many of the trains were sent to me by fans and they're very special to me. Barbara and I have several dogs, cats and a parrot named "Rocky." What a greeting they give us when we come home from a road trip! Of course, I like to cook... learned from both my mother and father.

Q: What was your most memorable moment with Tommy Dorsey?

SINATRA: I was with Tommy for a little under three years and according to my trusty little calculator, that comes to something like 1,500,000 moments—and every one of them was memorable.

Q: In your formula for success, what is the main ingredient?

SINATRA: What formula? I never had one, so I couldn't say what the main ingredient is. I think everybody who's successful in this business has one common ingredient—the talent God gave us. The rest depends upon how it's used.

Q: What do you look for, musically, in new songs for concerts and recordings?

SINATRA: I'm looking for the same elements I've sought throughout my career: a melody that sings, flows smoothly, allows me to become totally involved and gives me room for my own phrasing and timing; strong, poetic lyrics that are solidly related to the music and tell a good story; fresh, imaginative arrangements that provide a glow to the words and music. In short, I look for outstanding musicianship, taste, dedication and professionalism.

Q: You've been critical of the press. Yet, if you were a reporter and were given an assignment to do a story on Frank Sinatra, how would you handle it?

SINATRA: It's no secret I've been critical of the press, and I feel justified. I have great respect for responsible, professional journalists who are objective, unbiased and report the truth. On the other hand, there are reporters an editors who distort, exaggerate, misquote or color the news without bothering to check the facts. They're the ones who give journalism a bad name, and people who are in the public eye are often victims of unscrupulous headline-hunting reporters.

Q: Do you think you would have had a more serene, happier life if you had not achieved all the fame and glory? Was it worth all the problems and the pressures?

SINATRA: More serene, perhaps, but certainly not happier. We all have problems and pressures, regardless of the kind of life we lead, in show business or any other field. Has it been worth it all? Sure it has, because I love what I'm doing and I'm one of the happiest people I know.

Q: Who, in your opinion, are the best, most promising songwriters in the business today?

SINATRA: There are several contemporary composers whose talent I regard highly and they'll get even better as they progress. I've been using, with much personal satisfaction and fine audience reaction, some of the best material of songwriters such as George Harrison, Jim Webb, David Gates, Carol Conners, Carol Bayer Sager, John Denver and Alan and Marilyn Bergman.

Q: You once said that if reincarnation were possible you'd like to return as opera singer Luciano Pavarotti. My question is, Do you prefer classical and operatic music for your own enjoyment?

SINATRA: I like all music—opera, symphony, pop, show tunes, etc—and I'm comfortable with most of today's music, except the acid rock. I do, however, admire the technique and clarity of opera performers.

Q: What was the most memorable moment in your life?

SINATRA: There have been several, among them, the two times that I became a grandfather, first of Angela Jennifer Lambert, then of her sister, Amanda Catherine Lambert. They gave me bigger thrills than any standing ovation.

Q: Would you rather sing in nightclubs or in concerts?

SINATRA: At heart, I guess I'm a saloon singer because there's a greater intimacy between performer and audience in a nightclub. Then again, I love the excitement of appearing before a big concert audience. Let's just say that the place isn't important, as long as everybody has a good time.

Q: Which do you like best, singing or acting?

SINATRA: I started out as a singer and I'll end up as a singer. The acting was in between. I prefer not to classify or pigeonhole my craft because there's a lot of acting in my singing and my singing has helped my acting.

Q: Did you have any training in singing or acting prior to your first professional experience as an entertainer?

SINATRA: The only background I had in singing was with the glee club at Demerest High in Hoboken, NJ. I had no training in either singing or acting and I learned everything from experience. I performed at parties, social clubs, the corner candy store—any place people would listen to me.

Q: What is your favorite song?

SINATRA: I've sung and recorded so many wonderful songs over the years that it would be impossible to name one in particular as my favorite. They've all been special for me for one reason or another.

Q: Will you go on performing for the rest of your life?

SINATRA: You'd better believe it!


  Sinatra, who's always been admired for his effortless handling of the microphone, used a megaphone (à la Rudy Vallee) during his early singing days. And there was always some character who tried to throw coins into it.

  His smash hit, "New York, New York," is so much an unofficial theme song of the Big Apple that it's played at home games of the New York Yankees and the New York Mets during the baseball season.

  A lifelong sports fan, Sinatra once dreamed of a sports-writing career and even got as far as a copy boy on a small New Jersey newspaper, the Jersey Hudson Observer. He came closer to that ambition in 1971, when he joined the Fourth Estate, press card and all, as a press photographer for Life Magazine, covering the bout between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier—and his photo landed on the front cover.

  The world probably lost a fine civil engineer when Ol' Blue Eyes went into show business. During his youth, at the urging of his parents, he planned to enter the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is regarded as an outstanding engineering school.

  The "Battle of the Baritones," referring to Sinatra and Bing Crosby, wasn't a "battle" at all, for they were close friends. Bing, in fact, was Frank's idol and it was his music that inspired Sinatra to become a singer himself.

  During World War II, Sinatra recorded dozens of songs, but not a single disc was ever sold, because they were all US Government property. They were the V-Discs he made for the Armed Forces, and the Government still owns them.

  Back in the late 1930's when he was just beginning his career, Sinatra sang wherever he could find an audience, and most of the time he wasn't even paid. At one point, he was appearing on no less than 18 radio shows and they were all "sustaining"—that meant no money. All he ever got was carfare.

  Sinatra's friendship with drummer Buddy Rich dates back to the days when they were roommates when they both were members of Tommy Dorsey's band. Years later, when Buddy organized his own band, the man who backed him was… you guessed it.

  His first appearance with the Dorsey band was in Indianapolis, Indiana, and he was so new to the band that he had arrangements for only two songs. When he finished, the crowd yelled for more, so he and the band faked "South of the Border" for an encore.

  Everybody knows that Harry James gave Sinatra his big break, and here's how it happened. James was relaxing in a hotel room in New York and he heard a young unknown singer on radio station WNEW. The program was being broadcast from a New Jersey roadhouse, the Rustic Cabin. The trumpeter didn't catch his name, but the following night he went to the place and asked the manager where he would find the singer. He was told, "We don't have a singer, but we have an MC who sings a little… maybe that's him."

  When Sinatra went out on his own after leaving Dorsey, he landed an engagement at the old Paramount Theatre on Times Square in New York. It was in December, 1942, and the headliner of the stage show was Benny Goodman. The kid from Hoboken was listed on the bill as "Extra Added Attraction." That was the performance that set the kids wild, dancing in the aisles. After that, he was never again billed as "Extra Added Attraction."

  Not only was Sinatra a singer and actor, he was also a movie producer ("Sergeants Three," "Robin and the Seven Hoods" and "None But the Brave"), director ("None But the Brave") and songwriter (he wrote the lyrics to "This Love of Mine," which he recorded during the Dorsey era).

  His phrasing, acclaimed as the best of any singer in show business, is due to his expert breath control, which he developed by extensive swimming underwater. ("Keeps the old bellows strong," he said.)

  A lover of opera, he was a great admirer of Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and other artists. And his good friend Robert Merrill gave him frequent advice on singing. Sinatra's association with opera stars goes back to the days when he was on radio's Your Hit Parade, the citadel of pop music. When he left the show, his replacement was, believe it or not, Lawrence Tribbett, the great Metropolitan Opera baritone.


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