Sinatra Turns 100: 'Ring-A-Ding Ding!"

Someone like him comes along just once in a lifetime.
John Wohlstetter
The American Spectator
December 12, 2015
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Amidst the horrific news all over the globe, this holiday season has been a time to count our blessings, and pray for better days ahead for all civilized humanity and for deliverance from atavist barbarism.

This season brings us the gift of Francis Albert Sinatra (1915–1998), in the marking of his birth centennial. Nearly seven years ago I penned a TAS article, Awaiting Obama: Can “The One” Learn From “The Voice”?, discussing Sinatra. I then wrote:

Put simply, Sinatra leavened swagger — his in-your-face superstar persona — with classy style, in his magical music artistry. What followed Sinatra's musical era was swagger unleavened by style: raw lower-class teen lyrics rather than elegant adult use of the language; banal, basic chords rather than richly-textured jazz chords melding aural consonance and dissonance; plodding drum beats rather than subtle, varied rhythms; melodic monotony rather than intonation and phrasing that melded instrumental melody with crisp story-line lyric.

“The Voice” will live on, especially for those of my generation who came to appreciate Sinatra’s music in time to see him perform live during his prime, as I did in winter 1966 during my freshman year at the University of Miami. After hearing Sinatra sing with Count Basie's band at La Ronde, the nightclub in Miami Beach’s fabled Fountainbleau Hotel, how could I deeply care about rock?

Events and posturing since then have seen my hopes dashed. America’s cultural collapse—and with it, its political, economic and social crises—attest to an old world gone forever. The Voice’s centenary thus calls for celebrating his enormous artistic gifts, and the legacy that millions still cherish as the world seemingly implodes.

The arc of Sinatra’s legendary six-decades in the public eye (and ear) can be divided into three ascendant stages, each followed by a transitional trough. In Stage One (1939–1949),Sinatra as Crooner, he becomes Bing Crosby’s successor, mimicking, then expanding upon, Crosby’s innovative use of the microphone to amplify his trademark baritone, while conveying intimacy with an appeal to teenage “bobby-soxers” that the folksy “der Bingle” could not match. This is followed by Transition One (1950-1953), in which Sinatra, beset by professional and personal crises, is eclipsed. In his introduction to Robert Sullivan’s Remembering Sinatra: 10 Years LaterTony Bennett notes Crosby’s rueful quip about his successor: “A talent like Sinatra comes along once in a lifetime. Why did it have to be in my lifetime?”

Stage Two (1954-1966), Sinatra as Swinger, begins the pinnacle of his singing career, infusing the torch song with unmatched emotional intensity, and inventing a new style of swing for up-tempo numbers to vault him into dominance of his profession. Then comes Transition Two (1967-1974), in which the musical earthquake set off by the Beatles drives Sinatra off center stage, into his first retirement.

Stage Three (1974-1995) sees Sinatra as Survivor, bringing his classic renderings, with little noteworthy new material, not only to his old audiences but to new, younger ones as well. Transition Three (1995-1998) is sad and final, as Sinatra descends into senile dementia, eventually failing to recognize longtime close friends. The extraordinary life that began December 12, 1915 on a kitchen table in Hoboken ends in a Los Angeles hospital on May 14, 1998.

Understanding Sinatra’s musical life necessitates reference to his tumultuous personal saga, but celebrating Sinatra’s artistry requires relegating personal matters to second place, using these only where needed to aid in interpreting his contributions.

Selecting from Sinatra’s exhaustive list of songs recorded (one estimate is 1,200) is the proverbial fool’s errand; the May 15, 1998 New York Times obituary contains much of interest—mostly well-known highlights of FAS’s life and career.

Sinatra the live performer exuded an aura of instant command; by the time he reached the center microphone all eyes were riveted. On stage the Chairman of the Board could deftly ad lib byplay, should audience reaction so warrant. Listen to his running commentary during his Sands performance of “I’ve Got a Crush on You”: “You want to meet Monday we’ll pick out the furniture?… There you go again.…Now wait a moment!….” But rarely did he speak first, as with his 1966 “How did all these people get in my room” quip captured on Sinatra at the Sands, his best live performance album. He usually walked to the mike and burst into song.

The Voice used visual gesture on stage. In “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls he mimics the dice-player, Sky Masterson. (In the film FAS played gambler Nathan Detroit, singing his own songs far too well for a quintessential Broadway tout.) He used strategic musical pause to masterful effect in “Fly Me to the Moon” by putting three silent beats between the closing “I love” and “you.”

His final “a-and” in a 1964 performance of “I Only Have Eyes For You” shows how a musical grace note can be used to signal that something big is coming. In a 1959 TV rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String” he points to a rainbow and wraps a string around his finger, adding a musical trill to “finger.” He thus combined visual and aural cues in a scintillating display of artistic finesse.

The deep tenderness he exuded in crooning the classic “Put Your Dreams Away” is an exemplar of the intimacy miking made possible. In Sessions With Sinatra (1998) recording engineer Charles Granata noted that Sinatra would tip the mike away from “plosive” consonants whose “stop sounds”—caused by closing off all airflow to the vocal chords—would otherwise puncture smooth phrases.

Sinatra’s 1960s “I’ll Be Seeing You” swing-fest re-imagines his 1940s Tommy Dorsey crooner version; note his second stanza phrase turn: “In that small café, the park across the way” is recast in his swing version as “In that small café the, park across the way,” the change indicating a faster, swinging tempo. “The Way You Look Tonight” is usually sung as a slow ballad, but Sinatra  swings it, with subtle tempo variations. In the line “keep that breathless charm” first he leads the beat on “keep,” then the second time “keep” lags behind.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” his 1956 classic inaugurating his famed “concept” albums, includes Milt Bernhart’s unforgettable improvised solo and an improvised flatted blue-note “don’t” on “don’t you know you fool” in the last time chorus. But in the late-1960s Sammy Davis one-upped his song idol with an a cappella version. Featuring Michael Silva on drums—Davis politically incorrectly quips,  “Remember Michael, play regular, and no messages!”—and Johnny Mendoza on bongos, Davis departs Cole Porter and tacks on three minutes of improv, vocally miming several Ray Charles hits and then mimicking several 1960s dances. I saw Davis do this in 1967 at the Sands, just after Sinatra decamped for Caesar’s Palace; then in his stage prime, Davis did 90 minutes of unmatched all-round brilliance.

Perhaps Sinatra’s supreme torch song is 1951’s “I’m a Fool to Want You”; recorded when his tempestuous marriage to super-glamorous Ava Gardner was already on the rocks, it is Sinatra’s cri de coeur for the flame of his life. Sinatra co-wrote the lyrics, and sings it with a penetrating self-revelation. He showed what Tony Bennett meant in writing: “You could read Sinatra’s life through his music. You have to be very brave to sing like that, and it set him apart from all others.” The closing lines say it all:

Time and time again I said I’d leave you;
time and time again I went away.
But then would come the time when I would need you;
and once again these words I’d have to say:

Take me back, I love you;
pity me, I need you.
I know it’s wrong, it must be wrong;
but right or wrong I can’t get along without you.

Famously, Sinatra’s final public performance prior to his 1971 retirement ended with his classic “Angel Eyes”: he puffs on a cigarette, then sings “Scuse me, while I disappear.” Then he turns and walks away. In his 1974 televised comeback, “Sinatra: The Main Event,” Ol’Blue Eyes began the song with a narrative preface:

[This song has to do with] a fellow whose chick split. She grabbed whatever money was laying around and all the grass, and she left him five gallons of Muscatel. And after he grabbed all of that grape for about five or six days he decided to go out among us, and he walks into a small bistro at about 2:30 in the morning. And I should like all of you to imagine all of us, shrunken down into a small bar, when this poor soul comes in, fractured out of his skull and he is looking for someone to talk to. He doesn’t want any answers; he just wants to talk. And he nearly makes it but not quite.

Sinatra’s saloon singing also prominently features “One for My Baby” (link is to a 1950s FAS TV show). But Fred Astaire first aired the song, in the 1943 potboiler musical The Sky’s the Limit. He cannot sing with Frank’s intensity, but goes into a dance routine of taps and destruction that wrecks the bar. Astaire’s version oozes raw anger; but Sinatra captured the deeper emotion of romantic loss.

One of Sinatra’s greatest albums—it should be much better known—was “Sinatra and Strings” (1962), his exquisite collaboration with arranger Don Costa. It features a slam-bang up-tempo “Come Rain or Come Shine” (link is to Reprise re-release of original cut) and a sublime “Stardust” in which he sings only the verse. Sinatra had the range to sing the refrain as well, but in doing only the  verse he showed what a spectacular song of its own is the verse to Hoagy Carmichael’s 1929 classic. It surpasses the singer’s 1943 version (in a promo video for Lucky Strike), in which he sings the refrain only, in conventional crooner style. His 1962 version is an original artistic creation, gift-wrapped in Costa’s lush orchestration.

In the 1960s Sinatra recorded his first two of three personal anthems: “It Was a Very Good Year” is on the 4-LP compendium released to mark Sinatra’s 50th birthday year, “Sinatra: A Man and His Music” (1965). It strikes a warm, elegiac mood, a middle-aged man fondly looking back from the perspective of “the autumn of the year”—his life “as vintage wine from fine old kegs.” In “My Way” Sinatra turns defiant; the Beatles have struck and he is fighting to retain artistic pre-eminence. (The link, to the original sound track, tellingly as to Sinatra’s international cachet, is to a Russian site.)

In the late 1970s Sinatra made his final two quality contributions to his stellar song catalogue:“Send in the Clowns” (1973) and “New York, New York” (1979). The former is a haunting rendition of Broadway superstar Stephen Sondheim’s finest song. The latter replaced “My Way” as his sign-off live-performance anthem.

And then there is Sinatra the actor. From Here to Eternity (1953) is oft cited as Sinatra’s best film because he won the Oscar that jet-started his comeback. But two other roles he played were even better. The Angelo Maggio character Sinatra played in winning the Oscar had much of the singer’s then-public persona (which evolved over the years). But he stepped out of persona to play the addict drummer in The Man With the Golden Arm (1955) and the tormented ex-P.O.W. unraveling a Communist coup plot in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Noteworthy also are his chilling 1954 portrayal of a would-be presidential assassin in Suddenly; and his first swinging bachelor role in The Tender Trap (1955). And, of course, two of his fabled Clan romps, 1960’s iconic Ocean’s Eleven with its Las Vegas New Year’s Eve heist, and 1964’s Robin and the Seven Hoods pairing Sinatra with Bing Crosby for the last time.

Terry Teachout notes an observation (subs. req.) by Robert Wagner, a longtime Sinatra pal, explaining that Sinatra’s one-take rule was a substitute for lack of acting craft training, where one learns from mistakes by applying craft to retakes—as Sinatra tirelessly did in the recording studio. Sinatra’s musicals with Gene Kelly were dominated by Kelly; he played the girl-crazy star with Sinatra as the shy guy who never gets the female lead. His musical film highlight is in High Society; Sinatra takes Bing Crosby on a swinging tour of the planets. He pulls der Bingle into highest vocal gear in Cole Porter’s devilishly witty “Well, Did You Evah?” spoof of social spunk among the swells.

But above all, Sinatra’s perch atop the Great American Songbook pantheon is secured by what separates genius from greatness alone, and is why his peers held him in awe: the greatest of the great not only exhibit supreme excellence; they change the understanding—first among their performing peers, then among their audience—of what is achievable in their chosen art form. Sinatra did for songbook singing what Art Tatum did for jazz piano, to name one example. As Tony Bennett could follow Sinatra, Oscar Peterson could follow Tatum, lifted to a higher plane by their predecessors (as Crosby lifted Sinatra’s crooner style). The legends, put simply, redefine the game.