Sinatra at 80: The Ultimate in Theater
Voice Jazz Special, June 20, 1995
Frank Sinatra will be 80 this year, on December 12, an event telegraphed by several commemorations, notably a three-concert salute at Carnegie Hall in July and a complete retrospective (24 CDs) of his Reprise recordings, scheduled for release in the fall. Never before has the totality of his recorded work been so readily available. His complete Columbias and RCAs are boxed, the Capitol and Reprise albums have been reissued, as have various anthologies, and other performances of ambiguous legal standing — radio and TV broadcasts and the like. In recent years, Sinatra’s phoned-in Duets became his best selling album ever, his life was told in a miniseries, and he concluded what will probably be his last tour. He’s performed for several seasons with cue cards, and rumors of memory loss and mental confusion are rife; the nitwits behind the Grammy telecast felt sufficiently empowered to give him the hook, as though he were a Ted Mack contestant. Even his children are back in the news with cryptic messages — the former conductor now singing to beat the band; the former “tomboy in lace” now flashing her 54-year-old pubes. Happy birthday!
Any other artist of Sinatra’s stature would be allowed to achieve octogenarian status without the smirks, though who else would raise as much fuss in the first place? Saul Bellow and Arthur Miller share his year of birth: will attention be paid? Probably nothing comparable to Dr. S. (honorary degree, Stevens Institute, 1985), who occupies the low, middle, and high ground of popcult, but eternally undermines his undoubted genius with an edgy kitsch that verges on self-parody and promotes skepticism. That he is subjected to bad jokes at an age when his footfalls should be muffled with rose petals may simply signify that he is no longer anyone to fear. For, puzzling as the fact may be to future generations, Sinatra is one entertainer who instilled a sense of fear in paying customers as well as paid attendants; not a fear of physical violence per se; though, yes, there have been a few such victims, but of a more general sort — fear of not qualifying for the vicarious ratpackery of the affluent society’s Peter Pan-on-testosterone club for middle-aged rakes, of which Sinatra was Chairman of the Board, not to mention boss of bosses.
You can hear that fear stick in the throat before erupting in overeager guffaws during his amazing 12-minute monologue on Sinatra at the Sands, a deeply embarrassing attempt at humor, replete with Amos and Andy-isms in which Sammy is dismissed as a custodian (after seeing him on TV, “I sent him a wire, ‘No you can’t!'”), Dean is lampooned as a drunk, audience members are heckled, his father is belittled, and so it goes. One imagines Sinatra paying good money for the jokes (“I was so skinny, my eyes were single file”), determined to make them work. But it’s one of the peculiar characteristics of Sinatra that as an entertainer he can do anything — sing, act, dance — except be funny. In Tony Rome, he asks a pet owner, “You got a pussy that smiles?” and you squirm like a worm on a hook. Maybe he’s just too self-conscious. If you want to be funny, it’s usually a good idea to let the audience laugh at you before you ask it to laugh with you. Sinatra, however much he may protest to the contrary, doesn’t want to be laughed at. Les Paul tells a story of the first time Sinatra sang a duet with Bing Crosby on radio; the younger man missed a low note that Crosby instantly collared, interpolating, “Is this what you were looking for, son?” The king of bobby socks was not amused.
But there is another side of Sinatra, where parody doesn’t intrude, where he is in fact emblematic of sage maturity, where his interpretations of verses of varying quality are evened out by a semblance of experience that promises and often delivers rapport, understanding, perhaps wisdom. That’s the Sinatra of our dreams. In song, the voice is honed with craftsmanship so knowing it doesn’t have to call attention to itself. Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping fur air as Sinatra effortlessly plots a 16-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to notice anything but the absolute dramatic rightness of his decision. For this is a Sinatra who is above all else a great storyteller: in Ellington’s memorable phrase, “the ultimate in theater.” In the spell of his artistry, we forget the moral ambiguity associated with a Gambino poster boy; and we know — even if he doesn’t — that the stalwart liberal of “The House I Live In” is the true Frank, not the disappointed favor-seeker who abandoned progressive politics for the Palm Springs militia.
Sinatra’s street-tough persona is irresistibly softened by an artistic control that is innovative, physical, and hard-won. The voice — or The Voice; as it was once known — is transformed, its extraordinary clarity and directness sharpened for expressive purpose, so that even the old Hoboken inflections achieve eloquence. Although the vocal deliveries of most pop baritones (Crosby, Armstrong, Astaire, Cole, Eckstine) follow readily from their speech patterns and timbres, the cynical diction of Sinatra’s Jilly’s-barfly mode contravenes the beauty of his timbre; and not just in crass monologues. Yet when he steps into a song, the manners of a punk are instantly abandoned for those of an alluring troubadour — almost as if the offstage Frank were chagrined by a perceived unmanliness regarding his profession. His pronunciations differ: he sings a short, English a, but he speaks a flat, nasal one. As Gene Kelly made movie dancing seem athletically heterosexual, Sinatra makes singing a manly art, but a complicated one — aggressive, physical, seductive, sexual, vulnerable, sadistic, masochistic, disturbing. It’s always difficult to reconcile the man who sings “Night and Day” on Sinatra & Strings, to choose one of a thousand examples, with the concert performer who demeans women reporters as whores of the press, to choose one of dozens.
Yet Sinatra is a superb actor. On a conventional level, he brought to ’50s cinema a wiry kind of naturalism that is most credible when he plays small men, loners: Maggio, an assassin, a junkie, a cop. When he’s teamed up with another man or a woman, he loses stature. He was far more authentic as Nathan Detroit than Brando was as Sky Masterson, but as the prole in High Society, he was outclassed by Crosby (who, significantly, considered his duet with Sinatra, “Well, Did You Evah?” his favorite movie scene). Sinatra’s real genius as an actor, however, has little to do with the movies, and is defined by the character he created in concert, on records and record jackets, and on TV. To look, at early photographs of the scrawny crooner who finagled his way out of Tommy Dorsey’s band and laid siege at the Paramount is to be astounded at how little he had to work with — beyond The Voice. Skinny to the point of gaunt, he had a homely, lined face with a wide mouth and small obsidian eyes. His management could hire women to swoon as he crooned, but they couldn’t convince anyone he was Gable. So the original image that was sold to the fan mags and eventually Hollywood was of an innocent, more often than not in a sailor suit, in need of a mother.
It’s of interest to recall that Sinatra was born the same year as Billie Holiday, whose influence he has often acknowledged. Yet Holiday, who began recording at 18, is largely associated with the 1930s, while Sinatra, who didn’t record until he joined with Harry James — at 23, in 1939 (the epochal “All or Nothing at All”) — is a figure of the war years. Most of the male stars of that period were either older favorites, who couldn’t be drafted, or younger and often suspiciously undrafted men who in effect filled in for performers who went overseas. Sinatra was the first singer in a decade to challenge Crosby’s hegemony, but even he was vulnerable to the post-war reaction against a generation of makeshift stars. Returning soldiers were none too sure they wanted their wives swooning for anyone, and as late as 1949 Sinatra was still trying to get by with moonlit ballads (notwithstanding “Bop! Goes My Heart”), bow ties, and a sheepish grin. Soon he was begging for work — selling cutlery on television; playing dumb and dumber in movies with Jane Russell, an actress known mainly for her bra size, and on record with a TV celeb named Dagmar who was famous exclusively for her bra size. Boobs are forever (right, Nancy?), but Frank Sinatra wasn’t. Bobby-soxers were no longer swooning; they weren’t even wearing bobby socks. Besides, he was said to be a comsymp, which didn’t play as well in the early ’50s as it did a few years earlier or later.
And that’s when Sinatra created the role of the century. He completely reinvented himself: parted his hair, put on some weight, changed his music. His famous performance in From Here to Eternity certainly helped, reestablishing him as a commanding personality and restoring his vulnerability — toughs reportedly threatened Ernest Borgnine for knifing him in the movie. But Frank couldn’t sustain a career as a likable Italian-American wiseass who gets killed every time out. So in Suddenly, he took the Borgnine role, playing an assassin and in Young at Heart, he took his turn as John Garfield. As a singer, he had to remake himself as a killer as well, a transition presumably made easier by an agonizing marriage to Ava Gardner. The voice soon shook with sorrow, self-pity, and resolve. He began to swing; indeed, he invented a new style of swing, an optimistic four-beat volley that in its way was as removed from the fussier rhythms of the ’30s as the contemporaneous developments in r&b. With Nelson Riddle and Billy May writing arrangements, he dressed basic big band instrumentation in the finery of flutes, strings, and harp. Some detractors dismissed his rhythm as a “businessman’s bounce,” but the more assured Sinatra became, the wickeder that bounce. Rhythmic integrity is one reason his recordings of the ’50s and ’60s have survived as classics.
He now had everything but a personal style. The attitude and outfit he needed was close by in the person of his friend Jimmy Van Heusen, the brilliant songwriter, who, until late in life, was a bachelor with the most envied little black book in town. He was beloved of Hollywood madams, one of the most prominent of whom is said to have bought him an airplane (he was a licensed pilot) as a token of appreciation. Van Heusen was the kind of guy who kept an icebox on his porch empty except for rows of martini glasses and a pitcher to fill them. He was tall and hugely charming, not especially handsome, but catnip to women, and effortlessly stylish. Born Chester Babcock (Bob Hope adopted the name for movie roles), he took his nom de plume from the shirt manufacturer famous for ads that featured one-eyed male models. He favored fedoras with wide bands and liked to sling his jacket or raincoat over his left shoulder.
If Van Heusen hadn’t lived, Sinatra would have had to invent him. Onstage and on album jackets, he played the part to perfection. The new Sinatra of the affluent generation was nothing like the beanpole crooner of the Paramount. He was riveting and sure, the embodiment of good times, the keeper of old songs that somehow no longer seemed quaint or sentimental when he sang them (consider the provenance of “It Happened in Monterey” in his hands a rigorous swinger, but previously a waltz warbled by the Brox Sisters, one of whom — coincidentally — would eventually rob Jimmy Van Heusen of his bachelor-hood). Above all, he was adult. He sang to adults. He had turned himself into an embodiment of all those returning servicemen who were redefining American society and business. He was their troubadour, just as Elvis was that of their children. He said to them: this is what we look like, this is how we sing, this is how we treat our women and are treated by them, this is how to relax, and this is how we age. Sinatra’s transformation was complete: he was handsome, charming, at times quite dazzling.
Not until the mid 1960s, when he was in his early fifties, did he attempt to elicit the good opinion of his audience’s kids, with two arguable exceptions: “High Hopes,” from Capra’s unholy film, A Hole in the Head, was an attempt to reach toddlers the way Crosby had with “Swinging on a Star”; getting Elvis to make his first post-Army appearance with him on TV was a patronizing if savvy bow to the Nielsens. Teenagers in the ’50s were often resentful of as well as bored by Sinatra, and as adults they are often surprised to realize that his peak years coincide with Presley’s. He wasn’t singing to them. He sang of supreme assurance, and teenagers are confident of little. He celebrated love the second time around when most teenagers are lucky to gave gotten there once. He idealized the comforts of booze. He sang about sex in the voice of someone who had been there — a lot. Teenagers are — or were — more comfortable with Doc Pomus laments and Norman Mailer essays.
In the course of redefining adult pastimes, he frequently made himself a candidate for derision, along with those dopey adults who followed him to Vegas, actually wanting to be part of the clan that gave us Ocean’s 11. He compensated for his hair-trigger temper with exaggerated hilarity. Occasionally, the grand performance was shaky, the meta-adult seemingly un-moored. The smart Sinatra of the songs became unglued by the aroma of real political power. If he pimped for JFK, he gave better than he got. He was more himself in “the house I live in” than the Oval Office he allegedly schtupped in. The end of the beautiful fantasy of the affluent generation was embodied in rat pack insipidity a good two years before Dealey Plaza. Francis Albert Sinatra’s contributions to the American language:
Forget his pop hits of the ’60s. His image was no longer tenable. He seemed somehow to deserve a daughter who sang like Nancy Sinatra. So in 1971, it didn’t mean all that much when he walked away; retirement at 56. But a few years later, he was back, preceded by a press campaign that saluted him as “Ol’ Blue Eyes” a sobriquet not earned with affection but bought from a publicity firm. At first, the comeback didn’t promise much. He was ensnared in his usual press feuds and was out of voice and overweight when he hit the Uris Theater (with Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie), looking sullen and sounding defensive. The children of the ’50s took their shots. The idiot jazz critic in The Village Voice wrote, “I have never found his interpretations of popular songs more substantial than those of most pop singers, who are usually content to hit the right notes and enunciate the lyrics, however moronic … Sinatra’s records are more catalytic than absorbing. For Sinatra is a great craftsman but not an artist.”
But Sinatra’s audience was changing, and so consequently was his standing. As his original audience pushed 60, he was at long last discovered by its children, who, no longer acne-scarred or bell-bottomed, finally understood what those songs were about. Lost love, one for the road? — hey, let me get this round. Now his champions were younger than Frank Jr., and they didn’t treat him with the casual admiration/contempt due a contemporary, but with the awe reserved for a living … well, legend. His movie days were finished, and for a while nobody wanted to record him, and Garry Trudeau reminded everyone who needed reminding what a scumbag he could be. But Trilogy was a huge success, and so were his concerts, which now drew bi-generational crowds. He embodied a major life lesson: Never dismiss an artist just because he plays golf with Spiro Agnew. And yes, an artist he was, not a craftsman. Like Garbo or Chaplin, he looms over the cultural life of the century, defying analysis, because every generation has to figure him out from scratch.
And where do you begin? The list might change with the weather. But you wouldn’t want to miss his aching rueful lament, “I’m a Fool to Want You,” or ”Time After Time,” or “I Fall in Love Too Easily”; or the ecstatic duet with Louis Armstrong on “Birth of the Blues” (The Edsel Show, 1957); or the Metronome All-Stars’ “Sweet Lorraine.” Or the two studio albums with Basie, especially the first with its ingeniously embellished “Pennies From Heaven” (an inevitable riposte to those who insist Sinatra can’t sing jazz). Or the prolonged inspiration of Songs for Young Lovers, Swing Easy, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, Close to You, Come Fly With Me, Come Swing With Me, I Remember Tommy (with its improbably fast “I’ll Be Seeing You”), Moonlight Sinatra, Sinatra & Strings, and All Alone. Or ”Let’s Fall in Love,” “I Have Dreamed,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,”‘ and “I Had the Craziest Dream?” Or “Thanks for the Memory” from She Shot Me Down, his last great album. Or the neglected and deliciously dilatory Francis A. and Edward K.
Did I miss many of your favorites? Mine too: I forgot the Dorseys and Only the Lonely and A Swingin’ Affair and a dozen others. It’s a vast legacy. The Sinatra achievement is not least a guide to modern orchestration — a how-to concerning the adaptation of old pop to postbop consciousness. And Sinatra, no less than his great arrangers — Riddle, May, Johnny Mandel, Sy Oliver, Don Costa, Neal Hefts, Quincy Jones, Gordon Jenkins, and the rest — knew all about reclamation projects. A peerless interpreter of our best lyricists, Sinatra is expected to demonstrate unexpected depths in the work of Larry Hart, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Burke, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin. But the real test of his transformative powers are those songs beyond redemption, an area in which his ability is at one with Armstrong, Crosby, Holiday, and very few others. Who else would sing “The Curse of an Aching Heart,” previously the subject of burlesques by Fats Waller and Laurel and Hardy (in Blotto), but in Sinatra’s hands a joyous, straight-faced romp? Sinatra’s imperviousness to the song’s clumsiness is symptomatic. The generosity he hasn’t always been able to summon in life is the very marrow of his gift to music. ■