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The Great Voice SilencedCopyright © 1999Scotland On Sunday, 1990, updated 1998
Sinatra, FrankIn an outake from a recording session in the late 50s, the introductory phrase to "How Little We Know" is interrupted by the singer's "once more". In response to an inaudible enquiry from the booth, Sinatra replies "No, I'm just trying to cheat with notes, but you can't cheat with notes. You've gotta sing them." And sing them he does, impeccably, in the inimitable manner which marked him out as the greatest popular singer of the century.
Francis Albert Sinatra (his real surname was Sinestro) inherited -- even if he had to rediscover it -- the Italian bel canto tradition of singing, and its influence is a constant in his work, notably in terms of his legato (literally "bound together") delivery, and his trademark handling of extended vowel sounds. That remarkable breath control was also influenced by listening to trombonist Tommy Dorsey during his stint in Dorsey's popular band in the 1940s, notably Dorsey's way of running beyond the end of a phrase and into the next one before taking the breath, a classic Sinatra device.
"Sinatra could turn a thirty-two bar song into a three-act play," singer Julius La Rosa once said, and although he never claimed to be a jazz singer, his easy swing and that flawless phrasing endeared him to generations of jazz players as well as singers.
Back in the 1940s, he became the first pop star in the modern sense. Adored by swooning hordes of young girls (although his agent, George Evans, knowing a good thing when he saw one, notoriously paid a selected number of them to start off the hysteria on public occasions), he was equally reviled by suspicious adults (and boyfriends), all before Elvis Presley was even out of short trousers. The singer filled the role to the full, and ensured that the gossip columnists would never be short of a sensational headline.
His shady connections with mob figures (it was said his exclusive contract with Tommy Dorsey was only torn up after a visit from New Jersey Godfather Willie Moretti, who made him a non-financial offer he couldn't refuse), his predeliction for public outbursts (including an assault on columnist Lee Mortimer in a fashionable restaurant), and his many affairs (Dean Martin once joked that when Sinatra died, his zipper would be donated to the Smithsonian Institute), notably with Ava Gardner, whom he later married, all provided endless fodder for the scandal merchants.
It is not difficult to imagine the roots of what came to seem the singer's obsessive paranoia about his privacy growing out of those experiences (years later, the doormat in his heavily-guarded Palm Springs mansion read "Go Away", while the buzzer at the gate warned anyone bold enough to press it that their reason "had better be good"), and his creative peak years from 1954 through to the late 1960s only served to increase the wattage of the relentless public glare.
Throughout his career, Sinatra had a highly ambivalent relationship with fame. The singer lived - and gloried - in that public gaze, and liked to eat in restaurants and drink in bars, rather than shutting himself away in seclusion. At the same time, he has attempted to counter the attention of press and over-zealous admirers by measures which would be considered draconian for a head of state, far less a popular singer.
When he went on the road for a concert tour, he carried a huge entourage, comprising personal bodyguards and backstage security as well as all the musicians and singers involved in the show. Press interviews were refused as a matter of course, a rebuttal which simply drove the less scrupulous members of the profession to retail more and more bizarre stories (and the true ones were bizarre enough).
Those who saw it in operation testify to the rigour with which his backstage arrangements are enforced. Nobody - but nobody - was allowed into that sacrosanct area without Sinatra's personal say-so, a proscription enforced by a security team who bounced first and asked questions later. Musicians were issued with backstage passes, and woe betide if they forget to bring them. The whole operation was carried off in an atmosphere of suspicious tension.
Even his infamous inner circle of friends - at various times known as the Varsity, the Rat-Pack and, latterly, The Clan - were not safe from error; the late Sammy Davis Jr, who worshipped Sinatra, once endured six-months of the cold shoulder for daring to criticise his behaviour in a radio interview. If that aspect of Sinatra's complex, multi-faceted character has inevitably attracted more attention than, say, his work for charity, none of this insatiable interest in the man would have existed had it not been for the unique gift which he possessed.
In the mid-1940s, Frank Sinatra had the world at his feet; by the end of the decade, however, he was, in his own words, "a has-been. Sitting by a phone that wouldn't ring. Wondering what happened to all the friends who grew invisible when the music stopped. Finding out fast how tough it is to borrow money when you're all washed up." He had overused his voice in those years, and fell from favour with the public and his record and movie producers alike, losing his studio contract in the process.
Another singer would simply have slipped from view, a brief and exemplary pop career, burning brightly and almost as quickly snuffed out. Sinatra, though, had the incalculable benefit of a genuine artistry to fall back on, allied to the kind of indefatigable determination which had made him famous in the first place.
He bounced back in 1952 by begging the role of Angelo Maggio in From Here To Eternity, and his Oscar-winning performance placed him back among the winners, opening the door to a fame which made his 1940s success seem modest by comparison. His film triumphs were to continue, but his standing as a great popular artist will ultimately rest on his singing. In 1953, a then small Hollywood record label, Capitol Records, took up the option on his recording career which CBS had dropped, and launched the greatest decade of his life.
Sinatra began singing in the crooning style of Bing Crosby; indeed, his earliest CBS recordings reveal a very similar phrasing and voice tone to that of the older man. Sinatra quickly realised, he claimed later, "that the world didn't really need another Bing 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. That meant I had to stay in better shape because I had to sing more."
His adaptation of that bel canto tradition has been a constant feature of his work from the early 1940s onwards. Its principal characteristic lies in long, flowing legato (literally "bound together") lines, and a particular way of extending vowel sounds, both of which Sinatra refined in his own distinctive delivery.
The ability to extend a breath beyond the end of the line and into the subsequent bars has been at the root of Sinatra's unique phrasing - and phrasing is the most personal part of a singer's armoury - since his days with the famous dance band led by trombonist Tommy Dorsey in the 1940s. Once of the featured singers in the band, Sinatra quickly became its star, but recalls closely studying Dorsey's trombone style night after night, trying to work out the intricaces of the instrumentalists's breath control.
At the same time, he was the first singer to really understand the use of the microphone, still a fairly new development at that time. "Many singers never learned to use the microphone properly," Sinatra said. "They never understood, and still don't, that a microphone is their instrument."
If Sinatra tended to make the headlines for non-musical reasons, he worked on his singing with enormous dedication. Initially a tenor, his voice deepened to a baritone with a comfortable two-octave range (although he has never been completely secure at the top of the register; even his over-rated signature tune "My Way" is more effective in the brooding verses than in the big climaxes). He started out with a magnificent vocal instrument, and set about refining it in a manner which marked him out as the greatest popular singer of his age.
As much as phrasing and an exquisite enunciation, however, Sinatra's greatness lay in his ability to invest genuine emotion and conviction in the classic but often rather trite love songs of the 1920s through to the 1950s, justly regarded as a golden age of American popular song. Although never really a jazz singer - he preferred to describe himself as a saloon singer - he could swing with the best of them.
His voice had darkened (arranger Nelson Riddle likened the early Sinatra to a violin, and the 1950s model to a viola), but he still possessed - and now refined - an unparalleled gift for taking the most banal of songs and singing them as though they were Shakespeare, drawing every last nuance of meaning from the lyric with an apparent artlessness which served to hide the real art behind it. "When he was through," composer Lyn Murray once said, "every word of each lyric was laid out like a jewel on black velvet."
In the early 1960s, Sinatra left Capitol and set up Reprise records, where he continued to record classic albums, although he never really came to terms with modern song-writing. The Capitol years, though, produced his very greatest recordings, and his subsequent work tended to consolidate rather than to extend the artistry reflected in that eight years worth of genius.
His retiral in 1971 (allegedly to foster political ambitions which never came to fruition, despite a switch of horses from the Kennedy camp to Ronald Reagen's Republican cause) lasted only two years before he returned to performing in public. The golden voice was no longer quite so golden, but he was still capable of great, autumnal performances, and there was no shortage of people who wanted to hear a genuine idol in person.
I heard him live only once, in Glasgow in 1990. A massive tocket confusion rendered the occasion a potential disaster, quite apart from all the unanswered questions on his performing abilites by that stage. Those questions received an immediate and affirmative -- and, I have to confess, surprising -- response.
The standing ovation he recieved simply for walking on stage set the tone for the evening. Glasgow roared joyfully at each of the string of great songs which he chose, mainly plucked from the timeless standards he made famous in his vintage Capitol years of the 1950s, and played by his highly-professional 29-piece Orchestra.
Reports that his singing voice had deteriorated to a mere pastiche were simply untrue on that night. Certainly, he had many moments where he didn't quite make a note, or wobbled insecurely on a line, and seemed to get a little hoarse as the set wore on, but it seemed somehow indecent to dwell on them. From the opening "Come Fly With Me" to his theme-tune encores on "My Way" and "New York, New York" (just short of ninety minutes), Sinatra sounded, well, just like Sinatra.
Any deficiences which had crept in were overcome by his artistry and his warm communication with the audience in any case, but they were hardly needed. The distinctive, subtle phrasing and timing remained substantially intact, and his voice has acquired an even darker tone than the already rich baritone of thirty years ago, with a knowing asperity which he put to good use on songs like "Mack the Knife" and "Angel Eyes". If it was something of a bask in nostalgia, we heard what was still identifiably a great artist at work.
That was not true of much of his work in the last decade of his life, including the ill-advised Duets albums. Like many great names used to the public eye, he could not quit even when he must have known it was time to do so. It hardly matters, though. In his prime, he did more than enough for one lifetime, and if he always had his detractors, they can't take that away from him.
3D Sinatraby Karen Bennett
Copyright © 1999 Karen BennettThis article, in slightly shortened form, was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Frank Sinatra's 80th birthday, December 12, 1995. Sinatra died in May 1998.
My father took me to see Frank Sinatra when I was 13. He was performing at the Philadelphia Civic Center, a huge arena, and I really didn't want to go. I was listening to Marvin Gaye, the Doors, and a panoply of r&b artists. Of course, with two Italian parents, a certain amount of saturation in Sinatra was inevitable. (Bennett, if you're wondering, is a not uncommon Italian pseudonym -- cf., Tony Bennett. My elders Americanized Bentivengo, the true surname, in the '40s.) Tony, Mario Lanza, Vic Damone, Enzo Stuarti and Perry Como all got time on the household turntable, but Ol' Blue Eyes got the max. Parental decisions were non-negotiable. I went to the concert.
And there I beheld wondrous things. Buddy Rich worked the crowd to a fever pitch, and I saw grown adults behaving like adolescents, standing on their seats, shrieking, in some cases throwing underwear on the stage. Then Frank appeared, and for awhile, pandemonium reigned. But soon Sinatra's self- possession won out. He held the crowd captive with his poise -- reminiscing, singing, crediting the tunes' composers. On a dais to the left of the bandstand sat Mia Farrow, Frank's wife at the time, as enthralled as every other member of the audience.
Myself included. When Frank sang "Moonlight in Vermont" and glissed down into baritone range, then and there I was converted. It was a near-visceral experience. Frank didn't just sing about the landscape, he rendered it so convincingly that the sycamore and the night sky were all but visible. His take-no-prisoners approach to "All Or Nothing At All," capped by that final crescendo, turned the tune into a veritable manifesto. I heard, distinctly, lyrics that I hadn't been entirely sure of before. (An attribute I also prized in Dinah Washington.) Moreover, I heard those lyrics interpreted in unequivocal fashion. "Half a love never appealed to me," Frank sang, conveying a world of disdain by fully articulating the "d" in "appealed." His nuances shimmered, redefining tune after tune. And the curious effect of being in the presence of such knockout star-power was that one left feeling like a bit of a star oneself.
Philadelphia was home to Sid Mark, the deejay who took Sinatraphilia to such an exhaustive level his show could probably have qualified for college credit. My new interest was easily indulged. I started listening to "Friday With Frank," then "Sunday With Sinatra" and, about once a year, "The Legend" -- an entire weekend of nothing but Frank. I played the title cut on The World We Knew until there was practically a declivity in the vinyl. It was the ardor, the style -- those subtle changes in notation when the melody is restated -- the momentum that I loved.
With the passing of time and an exposure to jazz, I began to suss out the elements of Sinatra's greatness. It is almost de rigueur to talk about his phrasing, which is indeed cause for adulation. But there's also the way he modifies his timbre to create a mood: from the whispery devastation that haunts "I'm A Fool To Want You," to the smart-alecky drawl of "Goody, Goody," to the world-weary raspiness employed sparingly, but to great effect, on tunes like "Drinkin' Again." His modulations, executed at the drop of a hat, are the hallmark of a fine musician: tune into the segue just before the final chorus of "Prisoner of Love" for one example among hundreds.
Jazz musicians love to run around talking about obscure verses to standards, and Frank, in many cases, affords those verses equal time and painstaking attention. On Sinatra With Strings his rendition of "Stardust" consists of the verse and nothing else. Without grandstanding, Frank manages to lavish care on every syllable. When combined with the famous phrasing, the result is nothing less than the regeneration of a lyric. A lyric that has been there all along, just waiting for the proper respect.
Ah, respect. In 1994, Frank was awarded the "Legend" Grammy, then cut off in the middle of his acceptance speech. He also mentioned that he was "a little hurt" that they hadn't asked him to sing. To diehard fans, the incident vied for prime time's most ignoble hour. (And you can be sure that the Italo- American translation of "a little hurt" is "insulted beyond belief and fuming.")
Time marches on. Tony is hotter than a brick oven. Mia is cooling down from the glare of an unwanted spotlight. Both my dad and his buddy, a friend of Frank's who provided the tickets for that memorable show, passed on years ago. I still have my scratched copy of The World We Knew, but I later became drawn to another gem on the LP, "You Are There". It is a classic Frank vehicle, full of difficult intervals and tricky passages, and it remains one of my favorite "unknown" Sinatra tunes. Frank has withstood the test of time. He is 80, and hasn't done an interview in eons. Not even all the birthday hoopla (boxed sets from Reprise, Capitol, and Columbia, plus a TV special) will change his mind. What a drag. There were just a few little questions I've been dying to ask -- but curiosity is my general state of being. And perhaps there is no more compelling statement than the bounty of music he has made.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Sinatra.