By Earl Schub
This year marks the centennial of the birth of Frank Sinatra and soon the festivities will commence. By the time the actual birth date comes up on December 12, we will be treated to all manner of testimonials, articles, TV specials and, most surely, several more books to add to the existing imposing and impressive collection. And this is as it should be. Probably no other entertainer – no other singer, surely – has left such an indelible mark on his times and, in fact, most certainly on times to come, if one is to judge by the playing time and references and, yes, homage accorded Sinatra since the day he left the stage on May 14, 1998. The 2,000 recorded titles made over a period that spanned seven decades will always be with us, and that was the legacy he wanted to leave us, since it was in the familiar and congenial setting of a recording studio with an orchestra and a handful of close friends that FS felt most comfortable.
The word, which will pop up again and again as the tributes pour forth, is “swagger”, as if this one aspect of a complex personality and a unique singing style was the most important thing that both defined him and separated him from his contemporaries. Nothing could be further from the truth. “Swagger” is a comparatively new addition to the Sinatra mystique, reaching its largest audience, no doubt, when Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, presented the long overdue Legend Award for Lifetime Achievement at the 1994 Grammy Awards, and proclaimed that “Rock ‘n’ roll people love Frank Sinatra because Frank Sinatra has got what we want: swagger and attitude. Bad attitude. I’m not going to mess with him – are you?” Regrettably, this image of arrogance and menace – and isn’t that what “swagger” and “bad attitude” convey?’ – has clung to Sinatra and, being the savvy showman that he was, Sinatra preferred to let it go at that while performing deeds of kindness and compassion privately. But the point is that so much of why Sinatra was different and why he matters is obscured by making “swagger” the key if not, sole, reason why his body of work continues to be celebrated.
Pete Hamill, in his excellent essay, Why Sinatra Matters, published just months after the singer’s death, suggested that a singer’s talent should be measured against four criteria: Voice, Diction, Taste and Attitude. Sinatra scores high on the first two. His voice, pristine during the 1940’s and ‘50’s and burnished but still quite beautiful in the ‘60’s and into the ‘70’s possessed a solid technique which never deserted him; his ability to replace his Hoboken, New Jersey inspired diction with one which was impeccable in its clarity and projection is legendary. It was in taste and attitude, however, where Sinatra separated himself from the many other successful and admired singers of the period. In these two crucial areas he was off the charts – unparalleled.
I submit that a nearly infallible musical Taste was the bedrock of Sinatra’s artistry.
If you were a youngster who liked music and, especially, if you were gifted with a musical ear, growing up in the 1920’s and ’30’s was a veritable feast. The greatest composers of American popular music – Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and a bit later Richard Rodgers and others – were creating the “in” music of the day, songs which become our country’s gift to the world and, in later years, comprised what came to be known as “The Great American Songbook.” Moreover, radios that could be listened to (and heard by all) in the home, were now available and the burgeoning number of stations, eager to fill their programming hours, were playing the music written by these masters of melody and their lyricists. Phonographs, which until 1921, were using records created acoustically with resulting indistinct orchestral sounds were now able to record electrically and the difference was truly remarkable. In 1927, talking pictures exploded on the entertainment scene and the studios rushed to film musicals. By the early ‘30’s, even the venerable Metropolitan Opera began its iconic broadcasts of Saturday matinees. All of this was available and to a young Frank Sinatra who early on indeed showed he had a musical ear and an uncanny ability to memorize lyrics, it must have seemed like heaven on earth with the Garden of Eden, the nation’s mecca of music, Manhattan, clearly visible right across the river. How could he not develop a superior taste for the best when he was surrounded by Caruso recordings, Met broadcasts, and an avalanche of records and radio programs that featured the very best popular music America has ever produced? And then, when young Frank was 16, he heard and carefully listened to the singing of Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo. Both men reigned supreme with their recordings, and, in particular, Crosby in a string of movie musicals that was to last for more than forty years. Columbo, the son of Italian immigrants, must surely have served as a role model, albeit briefly, because he died tragically in 1934 at the age of 26. By then, Sinatra had already decided on a singing career and Crosby became his idol, not so much because of his crooning style, but because he had gone from a band singer to a phenomenal career as a solo artist in recordings, films and radio. In fact, Sinatra decided early on that he was going to be different. In an article in Life magazine, he recalled, “It occurred to me that maybe the world didn’t need another Crosby. I decided to experiment a little and come up with something different. What I finally hit on was more the bel canto Italian school of singing without making a point of it. It was more difficult than Crosby’s style – much more difficult.” Indeed it was. This tasteful, time-tested tradition of vocal training dates back to the early 18th Century and stresses a highly developed skill of legato, a technique that calls for smooth, sustained singing with breath support, evenness of tone and urges the strategic use of specific vocal ornamentation. No other singer of popular songs has ever managed this demanding and disciplined technique as well as Frank Sinatra. Incidentally, Crosby’s assessment, several years later, was, “A singer like Frank Sinatra comes along once in a lifetime. But why did he have to come along in my lifetime?”
While Sinatra never lacked an appreciation of his own gifts – here’s that word “attitude” again, but more of that in a bit – he knew from the start, after working with the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands that his different style of singing could only be truly appreciated if backed by orchestrations of the highest caliber. If his voice and way with words were the jewels, a worthy setting was required to show them and the songs off to the best advantage. His taste in selecting arrangers to work with him was uncanny and the scope and quality of his work is a testimony to his ability, to paraphrase the Bard of Avon, to suit the words to the music; the music to the words. Axel Stordahl during the Columbia years (1943-1952), Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Billy May in the defining Capitol Records decade (1953-1962) and Johnny Mandel, Neil Hefti, Don Costa, Ernie Freeman, Quincy Jones, Robert Farnon and Claus Ogerman along with Riddle and Jenkins, when Sinatra recorded for Reprise Records (1960-1984) were his eager and indispensable collaborators and Sinatra never failed to give them credit when he appeared in the many concerts that formed the major part of his activities during the final twenty years of his life. His faith in them and his taste in choosing these gifted musicians, was justified time and again.
His interpretation of songs was guided by two principles: Less is More and Content dictates Form. Unlike many performers who are over the top, embellish, try to overwhelm, Sinatra, especially in the ballads, was restrained and understated. You had to listen carefully and, in so doing, were drawn into the music and, most important, the message and could respond empathetically to the story he was telling us. Even upbeat songs were more an invitation to join in the fun than to simply observe someone having a good time. By his giving “less”, we were able to enjoy it “more”. It was a total commitment to the lyrics and their meaning that informed his decisions regarding tempo and dynamics. The “content” of the song dictated the “form” he would give it. Because of his consummate taste, he made music into his own form of poetry and, in the process became our own 20th century troubadour.
Attitude? Well, there’s little doubt that he wanted to be seen as a “tough guy”, especially after his career careened downward in the late 1940’s and he lost his agent, movie and recording contracts and had to “re-invent” himself. Often he would act out the role with an inexcusable relish. Thereafter, no one would ever mistake him for the shy, awkward, vulnerable “Frankie”, an image he projected at the start of his career. But this had nothing to do with his singing. “When I sing, I’m honest,” he often said and in those performing moments when he was probably most truly alive, his attitude changed with each song just as a good actor must play many parts. Sure, in some songs such as “Come Fly With Me” he had “swagger” but oh, what sensitive introspection he brought to “Here’s That Rainy Day”, and such exposed need and longing in “I’m a Fool to Want You.” Frank Sinatra wore many masks and played many roles; his “attitude” was ever-changing but his supreme good “taste” was a constant. Because he was an accomplished actor when he sang, he transferred this talent to some but not all of his movies. To see his “Less is More” and “Content dictates Form” in action, check out the scene on a train when he meets Janet Leigh for the first time in “The Manchurian Candidate.” While the quantity (and some of the quality) of his film work is impressive and his personal appearances always attracted a large and enthusiastic audience, it is his studio recordings that best display the unique, often overwhelming, combination of Voice, Diction, Taste and Attitude that make Frank Sinatra an artist for the ages.
Hamill concludes: “He made many of us wiser about love and human loneliness. And he was still trying to understand what it was all about. His imperfections were upsetting. His cruelties were unforgivable. But Frank Sinatra was a genuine artist and his work will endure as long as men and women can hear, and ponder, and feel. In the end, that’s all that truly matters.”
A man of many inconsistencies – – but, in his art, never a lack of taste.
Happy Birthday, Frank . . . and many more.
Earl Schub began teaching at The Osher Institute at UCLA Extension in 2006 and has never lost his sense of joy at sharing his experiences and insights with large classes of men and women who share his love of the human singing voice whether in opera or the popular field.