What women surely recognized in his oddly gentle baritone was a degree of tenderness and sympathy rare in the daily opera of radio. When he sang ''Try a Little Tenderness,'' Sinatra wasn't merely a wise young man advising the world's husbands on their love technique, he was identifying with women as someone who knew about the world's brutishness. Crosby was, from the beginning, a model of virility; the young Sinatra was vaguely feminine, and consequently a bit subversive. You have to go to the records for his inventive highs in those years, because the movies and the fan mags cheapened him, marketing him as a naif, an innocent in a sailor suit in need of a strong, maternal woman. In 1946, a sexual confusion bordering on camp found its apogee in the climax of the disastrous Till the Clouds Roll By, as the camera arcs into the sky to catch a pristine and gleaming Frank, standing atop a column and missing only a ribbon in his hair to pass as a Ziegfeld adornment, as he sings ''Ol' Man River.''

He needed a makeover, no question, especially with his idol turned rival, Crosby, now enjoying the greatest popularity of his life. Crosby had always been generous to him. ''A voice like Sinatra's comes along once in a lifetime,'' he often said. ''Why did it have to be my lifetime?'' But postwar audiences pleased by Bing were tired of Frank. For a while he had a television show in which he wore a mustache and hustled cutlery. His movies declined, and so did his recordings--the heights he could still scale (''I'm a Fool To Want You,'' ''The Birth of the Blues'') vied with depths of commercial desperation. A faithful New Dealer, he was accused of Communist sympathies by rabid pundits, including Lee Mortimer, whom Sinatra rapped in the mouth, bless his soul. It didn't help.

And then, with alarming suddenness, Frankie grew up, reinventing himself on the threshold of 40. He left the mother of his three children for Ava Gardner, which cleared up the androgyny business fast. Soon he put on weight, parted his hair, and changed his music. Perhaps it was his reportedly suicide-prone marriage to Ava that did for him what hormones couldn't--toughening his vocal edge, teaching him something about despair, resolution, bitterness, and hatred. The first recordings in his epochal new contract with Capitol stand as a definition of artist-in-transition. Even the cover of Songs for Young Lovers suggests the persona change. In one shot, he's got the hat, the hankie, and the smoke--he's Richard Widmark in Night and the City. In the other, he's leaning against a streetlight while two entranced couples walk by, ignoring him; put him in a skirt and he's poised to sing ''Love for Sale.'' The performances, arranged with sly ingenuity (this begins the collaboration with Nelson Riddle), are suave, notwithstanding a few false steps and gauche embellishments. Perhaps the highlight is ''Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,'' a song closely associated with the young Crosby, but no more.

By the 1956 release of Songs for Swingin' Lovers, he had the accomplishment and attitude of an old master, as well as a dark vocal edge that was at once appealingly uncertain--an accidental virtue of his pitch problems--and implacable. Recently, a fanatic Sinatraphile label issued running tapes from some of his recording sessions, illustrating the extent of his musicality. That he was an interpretive virtuoso who plotted his phrases with military efficiency was obvious, but I had assumed his arrangers or conductors ran the sessions. Not true. Sinatra ordains dynamics, tempos, and phrasing; the conductor hardly makes a peep. Still, a firm and unwavering control was always implied, which is one reason I especially treasure such anomalous recordings as his 1962 version of ''Pennies From Heaven'' with Count Basie, whose stamping four-beat is dramatically different from the thudding backbeat Sinatra preferred--it's a wide-open range of possibilities. Rising to the challenge, Sinatra goes beyond the usual embellishments, and in his second chorus configures one canny melodic inversion after another.

He could not have continued in that vein forever, but I doubt there was anything he couldn't do superbly every once in a while. Sinatra's career on records spanned 54 years, during which time he enjoyed spectacular successes in movies and more modest ones on radio and television. The immensity of that body of work will fuel rediscovery and reassessment long after his iconicity has become vestigial and the controversies he inspired have faded from popular memory.


PRIMARY COLOR

By Tom Carson

RONALD REAGAN has probably already forgotten where he was when Sinatra got shot. ''For God's sake, Ronnie,'' Nancy must be prompting him right now, ''the bald guy I used to take those long lunches with, remember? When you were in the East Wing rambling to Gorbachev about Harry Cohn, and thinking the whole time you were rambling to Harry Cohn about Gorbachev.'' But between the two--and Reagan, not Bing Crosby (who dat?) or even Elvis, is Frank's true competition--there's no question which icon packs more oomph. In office, the older Reagan served as an emissary from a false history of his compatriots; the older Sinatra, who was never out of office, from a real one. It's like the way World War II didn't really end until Churchill kicked the bucket. Older Americans wouldn't so keenly lament the peaceful death of an 82-year-old if he hadn't been the last surviving embodiment of an era now all but unimaginable even to those who lived through it.

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