The Total Sinatra

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I wrote this last summer after reading James Kaplan’s monumental Frank Sinatra biography. I didn’t post it then, but here it is now. 

Frank Sinatra was the first musical celebrity in the modern sense, the first to excite mobs of screaming teenagers like Elvis Presley and the Beatles and a gaggle of lesser stars would eventually do. While his popularity in the 40s rivaled that of Bing Crosby, his celebrity was of a different degree. Bing was cool and understated; Sinatra was hot, and he made other people hot. Nobody was going to tear up a theater or rush a police line to get their hands on Crosby, but Sinatra pushed people’s emotional buttons in an entirely different way.

That fundamental difference between the two men crossed all forms of media. Every week for a decade (1936-1946), millions of American radio listeners settled down for a comfortable hour or half-hour of Bing as host of Kraft Music Hall, while Sinatra hosted several different shows that struggled. Similarly, Crosby was more visible and successful on TV. Crosby’s easy charisma translated to the movie screen; as a screen presence, Sinatra was more intense. (Crosby won his Oscar for playing a kindly priest in Going My Way; Sinatra won his for playing a sawed-off troublemaker in From Here to Eternity.) Some of the differences work in Sinatra’s favor, however. Crosby disliked singing songs containing the phrase “I love you,” although he would sing of love obliquely; Sinatra was far more swooningly romantic. On the other hand, Bing could sell Christmas songs from the heart, while Sinatra never seemed comfortable with them.

While biographers have revealed that Crosby was cold, harsh, and unfeeling in his private life, there was almost never a hint of it while he was alive. By the late 40s, Sinatra was frequently in the papers for hanging out with mobsters and punching out photographers. His love life was also a familiar topic, although as Kaplan reveals, the women whose names made the papers were only a tiny fraction of the total. Eventually, many would be decades younger than he. Sinatra feuded with reporters and columnists over the way he was covered but he didn’t change his behavior, which ensured that the papers would continue to write stories that angered him, over and over again.

It has been the official position of this website for many years that while it’s appropriate to discuss the private lives and behavior of artists, we should not use private lives and behavior to judge their art. As soon as we start discounting artistic merit because of personal failings, the slope gets very slippery. Some of our greatest artists were drug users, child abusers, or simply jerks for their own private reasons. Does any of that affect the intrinsic value of their art? It should not. What’s in the grooves is what should count.

Outside of the grooves, Frank Sinatra was not an especially nice man, and often barely an admirable one. It’s all part of the historical record: he was capable of great personal kindness, but he also treated both friends and strangers callously, and he squabbled childishly with lovers. He donated time and money to charity, but he also used people selfishly and then cruelly cast them away. He hung out with mobsters, knew exactly who they were, and took professional and personal advantage of those relationships. And he did it all as if it were his due. Don Hewitt was onto something when he promised that Walter Cronkite would treat him like a president. By the time of that 1965 Cronkite interview, Sinatra had long since expected head-of-state deference from everyone in his life.

Was Frank Sinatra, in totality, a good person? Your mileage may vary. But was he a great singer, perhaps the best America has ever heard? Listen to his music and there’s only one answer: indisputably yes.

5 thoughts on “The Total Sinatra

  1. Tom Nawrocki

    One of the things that gets overlooked in Sinatra’s success is his phenomenal taste in songs. He was the first to record so many songs that became what we now know as the Great American Songbook, and his classic albums from the 1950s don’t have a single dog anywhere on them.

    I’ve read a lot about Sinatra but would love to know more about how he chose the songs he recorded. He was so good at it. And, of course, he was the greatest vocalist of the 20th century.

  2. Wesley

    It’s amazing in retrospect that in his early fifties during the rock era, Sinatra became again the pre-eminent male vocalist on the American pop chart for a time. His string of top 40 hits as a soloist from 1966-69 were all memorable and mostly hold up well too, from “It Was a Very Good Year” to “Strangers in the Night,” “Summer Wind,” “That’s Life,” “Cycles” and “My Way.” Having been on here a few months ago bemoaning his private flaws, I also freely acknowledge now that he was a great artist and one unmatched by any of his many imitators at the time and since then. Nice assessment here as always, JB.

  3. Tim M

    Great post, JB!!! Frank was also one of the first really big-name artists to integrate music, appearing with and recording with black artists/arrangers (Quincy Jones) and one time refusing to give a concert unless blacks were allowed to attend. He did three fantastic LP’s with the Count Basie band, including “Live at the Sands”, with Quincy Jones arranging/conducting, and an LP with Duke Ellington (Frances A and Edward K) featuring really long cuts so Ellington’s soloists could stretch out a bit on 16-bar solos. The live album with Basie at the Sands (1966) is a landmark LP which is probably in the possession (albeit on CD) of a lot of musicians. Also IMO contributing in no small way to Frank’s success was Capitol Records pairing him with really outstanding arrangers: Billy May in the late 50’s and early 60’s for all the “with me” albums – Come Dance With Me, Come Fly With Me, etc. and from the early 60’s with Nelson Riddle. Both May and Riddle came from the big-band tradition of great brass/saxes arrangements. In the 50’s/early 60’s for Frank’s ballad albums, Capitol used Alex Stordahl as the arrangers, and he could score strings like nobody else. Frank’s 1965 “September of My Years” album was released on his Reprise label and featured those fantastic Gordon Jenkins arrangements. Jenkins won a Grammy for his arrangements for that album. Frank released a lot of “marginal” albums in the later years; Watertown was a bomb; but the Duets albums sold better than expected. I saw him twice in concert, once in LA and at one of his last concerts, at the Metro Center in Rockford (IL) on Halloween in 1990. He closed that concert with “New York, New York” and the band was really cookin’. Frank’s voice was pretty much gone by that time, but he put on a helluva show.

  4. mikehagerty

    I was fortunate enough to see Sinatra three times; in 1980 at Caesar’s Tahoe, in 1985 at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas and in the early 1990s in Phoenix (which I was covering for the news).

    He was amazing in ’80, beginning to forget words (but not alarmingly) in ’85 and blowing it, even with massive teleprompters on the stage, in the 90s.

    I don’t remember who it was, but a reviewer in (I believe) Esquire said by the end we were paying 200 bucks to watch an 80-year-old sing Karaoke.

    1. Tim M

      That was exactly the situation in 1990 when I saw him in Rockford, IL. He lost track of the lyrics several times and shook his head and laughed about it. He shouldn’t have done his last few tours. But the band was cookin’ and….it was Frank.

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