It seems like Frank Sinatra and his music are more alive today than when he was actually with us. TV shows, remastered re-issued cds, Vegas tributes and now a Twyla Tharp Broadway revue featuring his music called "Come Fly With Me"--Frank is everywhere these days. Loved, revered and admired for his tough, take no crap attitude and of course all the wondrous music.
It's nothin' new to me. Frank's always been in my house or in my head. Growing up, Sinatra’s music filled my house. As a boy I recall the presence of his voice being a symptom of good times--parties, Saturday nights, perfume and cigarettes, cuff links sweeping down to pat my hair. People briefly at the top of their game. Certain songs--”Fly Me To The Moon,” “Tangerine,” “Where Or When”--still evoke the fragile good fortune that comes with familial and social blessing. Sinatra is so laden with family emotion and generational demarcation that writing about him has seemed daunting.
In my adolescence, Sinatra became all that was square and phony: anathema to the counterculture, actually now the dominant rock and roll culture. When compared to rock’s songwriters, songwriters like Gershwin, Porter, Van Huesen, Cahn and Kern seemed like Tin Pan Alley irrelevance. That's what we thought anyway. It was not the only thing I was wrong about. I now know that the Sinatra songbook, particularly the songs of Cole Porter, represent stylized imagination at its most refined. Genius is often one word where there once were eight. And the currency of timeless work is in tackling the big subjects: Love, Death, Aging, Faith and Loneliness.
Anyway, my father hated rock and I hated Frank. Our stalemate was beautifully balanced. I’m not entirely sure when the thaw came, but, to paraphrase Mark Twain, I can’t believe how much the old man has learned in the last few years. There are still some things that can put a young listener off on Sinatra--his mythical meanness, his ribbing of Sammy Davis in the Rat Pack days (which was extremely misleading; Sinatra was an ardent civil rights activist), his clumsy interpretation of rock songs (in George Harrison’s “Something” Frank sings, “You stick around, Jack, it may show”), his punchy sentimentality, his ultimate descent into self parody. (All of the greats, with their style once so powerfully fresh and seminal, seem to eventually erode into self parody.)
Like many of this century’s great artists Sinatra is highly enigmatic. James Isaacs points out in his liner notes to Sinatra In Paris that there’s an artistic schizophrenia attendant to Sinatra’s genius: There is Sinatra--an artist worthy of mention in the same breath as Picasso and Casals--and Frank--everybody’s Pal Joey, the King of the Ring-A-Ding-Ding, in Dave Marsh’s words “the original Gangsta rapper.” It’s the difference between his singing voice, that cello-like instrument sustaining rosewood notes and romantic dreams of The Love, and his speaking voice, which is never more than a few short blocks from Hoboken via Las Vegas.
The cocky swagger fronts the bruised feelings--That's Frank. My father has always said that Sinatra achieved his tone from having his vocal cords stomped on, from getting kicked around. Sinatra was washed up a bit at 38, between recording contracts, singing poorly, divorced and hopelessly in love with Ava Gardner, not working as much as he had in his “Voice” period.
There’s little question that he went on to become the greatest interpretive singer we’ve ever heard. It was Frank who perpetrated the macho myth; Sinatra, on the other hand, lived to sing. He never condescended to his audience. Instead he increasingly valued his audience and moved closer to it as he aged. He eventually transcended popular culture completely and made age and enduring--rock’s great enemies--his most potent subject, save love.
I have a bootleg of Frank, Dean and Sammy at Sam Giancana’s club in Chicago, the Villa Venice, in November of 1962. The height of their powers. It’s hilarious, poignant, utterly embarrassing and totally dated--great period piece farce. Any good singing, even any respect for the audience’s expectations, are secondary to boozing. Out of the blue a woman, a fan from Milwaukee, hesitantly approaches the stage. Says she drove all night and can’t she please hear a serious song? Martin tells her to buy an album. Much laughter. Frank, meaner, mockingly offers her bus fare home. When she insists on hearing “Nancy” there’s an enormous sea change: Frank becomes Sinatra.
Along with “Night and Day,” “Nancy (With The Laughing Face)” was something of a charmed talisman for Sinatra; he would eventually record it four times before retiring. But on this night he becomes contrite, shuts Dean and the crowd up, calls her request “fair and reasonable” and proceeds to kill the song. Not a dry eye in the house. Frank knew where his bread was buttered; Sinatra loved his audience and had the goods to reach both their hearts and souls.
Ironically, Sinatra actually hurried the demise of the big bands he loved so much by ensuring that the front man was the focal point of the performance. It’s what he did with the projection of language that kills me, even after much hard-headed analysis. Instead of using melisma or even “sung” syllables, Sinatra developed a legato conversational quality that emphasized meaning as much, if not more, than melody. In another irony, it was this quality of Sinatra’s that then paved the way for rock’s great lyrical expressionists--Dylan, Lennon and Joni Mitchell. When they first showed up, Frank hated ‘em. Same with Elvis. By the late 60s he was doing TV with Elvis and regularly recording rock related material.
Every singer--really anybody who sings--marvels at Sinatra’s physical gifts. It’s been said that his jaw has a certain shape that accounts for some unusual projection of sound, etc. One thing is true. When he sang, nothing but sound came from his mouth; that is, very little breath or forced vibrato accompanied the full voice. In this sense his instrument was much like a cello--a brandy soaked tone reflected from wood and string.
Sinatra also did much to invent the concept album, an innovation usually associated with Sgt. Pepper or Tommy. While at Capitol in the 50s he alternated humongous concoctions of swing--Songs For Young Lovers (1954) Come Dance With Me (1959)--with sad song cycles like In The Wee Small Hours and Where Are You? 1958's Frank Sinatra Sings For Only The Lonely is simply one of the finest collection of mood songs ever recorded. “What’s New,” “Angel Eyes,” “One For My Baby” and “Blues In The Night” all on one record. Of course much credit goes to a trio of brilliant arrangers--Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and the unmatched Nelson Riddle--for this amazing emotional range over the years.
After starting Reprise Records in 1961, Sinatra had one unqualified triumph, 1965's September Of My Years, and a late 60s string of very interesting failures. But it’s the love songs we’ll forever expect--no, need--from Sinatra. Love songs are becoming a scarce commodity today. And no one sings of the Big Love anymore, that nostalgic notion that says that action is larger than intent.
My father used to tell me, once a day it seems like now, to TURN THAT GUITAR DOWN and get a hair cut, put on a tux and make a livin’ singing Sinatra songs on cruise ships. And my buddies and I would drag our ass into the garage, turn up the guitars and laugh at how short sighted and unhip he was. Now I call up the old man and he’s listening to my own record in the background. I’ve been trying to get him to listen to some of these remastered Sinatra cds for almost six months. I can’t get him to listen, can’t get him to talk about how great Frank is. He wants to talk about rock & roll or my music, of all things. Our stalemate remains beautifully balanced.