By Leslie Gourse
All or Nothing At All: A Life of Frank Sinatraby Donald Clarke
(Fromm International, New York, $25.95)
from Jazz Notes 1/1 1998Copyright © 1998, Leslie Gourse
This a fascinating and flowing story, replete with details, of how Frank Sinatra became as famous, successful, and powerful as he did. Donald Clarke has at his command the knowledge of developments in society in general and especially in the entertainment world and the recording industry, and he explains how all these elements influenced Sinatra's destiny, and how Sinatra influenced them. This book has much to recommend it, and is an excellent place to start reading about Frank Sinatra. Its greatest strength lies in the richness of its analysis of Sinatra's rise in the 1940s, his fall in the early 1950s, and his second coming when he signed with Capitol and won an Oscar for his portrayal of the doomed Maggio in From Here to Eternity, filmed in 1953. Clarke has an uncanny ability to describe Sinatra's singing style and chronicle his musical maturation. Normally that type of material is rendered in a dry way. But not here.
Early in the book, Clarke examines how Sinatra took a tiny, or anyway, completely untutored gift but a big love for singing and turned it into a career. As soon as Sinatra's recording career goes into gear with Harry James's band, Clarke launches his analysis of Sinatra's style and the material he sang. Clarke maintains that intense scrutiny without ever letting the book turn into a glorified discography. It always remains a narrative, and the ins and outs of Sinatra's performances are skillfully woven into the story of his personal and professional ups and downs.
For example, Clarke describes precisely how Sinatra discovered the secret of Tommy Dorsey's phrasing. The trombonist kept a little air hole open at the side of his mouth to replenish his breath between phrases so he could play long, fluid lines. Dorsey was the most important influence on Sinatra's breathing and phrasing, Sinatra has often said. And Sinatra had the perspicacity to know what to study, whom to emulate, and how to work very hard.
Sinatra also knew when to take professional risks. His timing was perfect not only when he sang, but when he decided to strike out for himself as a solo singer, leaving Dorsey's band behind, devil take the hindmost - and Dorsey almost did, imposing usurious terms when he let Sinatra out of his contract. If these stories aren't exactly new, they are pleasant to read again within the context of the whole Sinatra story.
The book really sails along when Clarke explains Sinatra's position in the music world. Clarke writes about something "important and interesting . . . happening to the record business, something neither Mitch Miller nor Capitol Records nor Frank Sinatra could have anticipated. In 1947, when the long-playing record was introduced, Sinatra's biggest fans, the generation of the returning soldiers and their brides, were short of cash; some were going to college on the GI bill and the rest were starting families. But by 1954, they were becoming more prosperous. Some of them still had their Frank Sinatra 78s, but now they were buying albums, not singles. They were buying Frank Sinatra albums."
Between 1954 and 1957, Sinatra made his first seven albums for Capitol, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, and all reached the top ten of the Billboard album chart. "Only one of them didn't reach the top five. . . . Long playing records always made more money than singles, and at a time when more albums were being sold than ever before, Sinatra was easily beating the competition. . . . Talk about a comeback. . :. . Sinatra was reckoned to be the biggest-selling album artist of all by a wide margin during 1955-59. And for the entire decade of the 1960s he was beaten only by the Beatles."
Clarke theorizes that people bought albums thoughtfully, wanting them to endure, and replaced them when they wore out. "And it is not too much to say that Sinatra's enduring reputation as the greatest pop singer of the century could rest on these 1954-57 albums with Nelson Riddle."
Clarke has a knack for taking the reader through recording sessions and other public events in Sinatra's career and adding color and human interest. Here is an excerpt from the book that illustrates the point - a quote from John Garvey, a fiddler in a dance band with which Sinatra was about to sing in 1943: "The musicians were skeptical until one day, at rehearsal, Sinatra and the orchestra were handed a new song. Sinatra just stood there with the lead sheet in one hand, the other hand cupping his ear, following along silently while the orchestra read through the (Axel) Stordahl chart. A second time through he sang it in half voice. The third time through he took over. We all knew then that we had an extraordinary intuitive musician on our hands."
Clarke has a wonderful background in the pop music world, and it seems as if all his experience has been put to the service of this book. It isn't always the most elegantly written book I've ever read, but it is always readable and filled with information about the intricacies and interlocking relationships in the jazz and pop music worlds. Anyone who isn't already familiar with much of the history of the music world will undoubtedly welcome Clarke's wealth of information. He certainly added to the considerable amount I already knew. For example, his report on the tumultuous relationship between Buddy Rich and Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey's band held me in thrall. About the tensions and competition between Sinatra and Buddy Rich, Clarke offers: "Rich and Sinatra recognized and respected each other's talent; it was just that they were both spoiled brats and borderline hoodlums."
Later on, Sinatra gave Rich money to start his own band - and nearly provoked a fight with another man unsuccessfully importuning Sinatra for money at the same moment. Sinatra loved to help people whom he liked and hated to be in the position of needing help, Clarke reports.
It is only when he writes so authoritatively about Sinatra's personal life that I wonder where Clarke's authority comes from. There's no bibliography in the book and no list of people interviewed, though many quotes and ideas are attributed within the narrative. I, like so many other people, have read plenty about Sinatra's headline-grabbing exploits. I assume most people have heard the fable that the Mafia secured Sinatra his chance to play the role of Maggio. In Clarke's history, the Mafia had nothing to do with it. Sinatra admired gangsters and felt comfortable with them. But that sympathy was a matter apart from his career. Sinatra and other people within the entertainment industry, including his second wife, Ava Gardner, lobbied until he got the chance to audition for the role. Though he was bested by actor Eli Wallach's audition, Sinatra got the part anyway, because Wallach had a conflicting engagement. That's Clarke's version of the story, and Clarke never mentions the legend of the Mafia backing Sinatra's bid for a new lease on his career. That omission strikes me as very strange. Clarke certainly exploded a big-time myth - it has become part of the country's folklore - and might have explained how he came to do that.
He also surprised me when he said Sinatra gave up the chance to sing "Mona Lisa," and it passed to Nat King Cole in 1950. Sinatra wasn't signed to Capitol at that time. The brother of Capitol executive Alan Livingston was a co-composer of the song. And I had been under the impression, and I still am, that Capitol artist Nat Cole was first choice for singing that song. Also, while researching my book about Nat Cole, I was told by several people that he had advised Capitol to sign Frank to a contract at a time when Sinatra's career was in the doldrums. Capitol didn't sign Sinatra without thinking the situation over carefully. Clarke suggests that Capitol jumped at the chance to sign Sinatra. Also at Capitol, Cole passed up a chance to record "Young At Heart" and told the company to give it to Sinatra. Cole had already had a big success with "Too Young" and didn't want to do such a similar song. Clarke simply says someone passed the song to Sinatra.
These Cole-related stories may not be the most riveting details you ever heard, but they make me wonder a little about whether Clarke's book is 100 percent correct. It is definitely filled with interesting minutiae carried along in a strong, flowing narrative about one man's career within the context of the American pop music world. Above all, this book is a great history lesson, but maybe there are discrepancies here and there, and this book, as good as it is, just might not be the Bible about Sinatra.
To his credit, Clarke doesn't exploit the tales of Sinatra's sex life, love life, temper, and scandalously rude and even occasionally violent behavior (though I would have liked more scenes - that's my taste). Sinatra's flaws are neither hidden nor overplayed. So this is a high-minded book about one of our less high-minded superstars - a man that could easily be considered a low brow except when it came to music. (And of course that's a monumental proviso.)
I simply can't comment more about the absolute veracity of this book, but it has fascinating theories and reports about his family and personal relationships that are kept subsidiary to the story of his career. And until Sinatra himself tells his story from his point of view - and maybe not even then, since people don't always tell or even know the truth about themselves - he will remain at least a bit of a mystery.
Overall, Clarke's report is engrossing, beginning with his perspective on the Italian immigration and the particular social, economic, and moral orientation of Sinatra's family. If Sinatra wasn't exactly a mama's boy - he alone decided to become a singer, against his mother's advice - he nevertheless benefited enormously, at least at first, from his mother's attempts to help him, or control him, or make him dependent upon her. Without her ability to pull strings to open the first doors, he could never have gotten through them on his own. She was his first powerful mentor. A politician, saloon keeper, midwife, abortionist, and "small time gangster," as Clarke described her, to some degree she was an embarrassment to her son, though he didn't admit it. She was arrested for her activities as an abortionist.
As an only child he had the ability to get her to spoil him. And he paid strict attention to her forceful personality, worried about her opinions, and respected her all his life. She scared him to death, he eventually admitted. She engineered his employment as a singing waiter at the Rustic Garden in New Jersey, whence he was spirited away by Harry James. Then Sinatra's rise to stardom begins in earnest.
There's a great deal in this book that I never heard before about Sinatra's complex personality, and now that I know, I'm more interested, or tantalized, by him. Apropos his music, I always liked many of his interpretations of songs, and now I understand more about his musicianship - his phrasing, his bravura, his approach, even his tonality, and much more.
There's no discography, but Clarke pays such great attention to Sinatra's songs, one by one, as they came along in his career, that a discography isn't really necessary here. That remains as another study to be done. The most important quality any biography can have is veracity, I believe, and perhaps this book is the most plausible one so far. I can't comment about the reports on the innermost workings of Sinatra's soul, but the book is always engaging - except when it deals with Sinatra's personal life from the 1970s on. Then the book becomes mostly theoretical, with few intimate views of Sinatra or his fourth wife, Barbara Marx, and does not even have pictures of third wife Mia Farrow or Barbara. It's as if the best sources for that sort of material have pulled back into their shells.