Monday, November 01, 2010

And When I’m Gloomy, You Simply Gotta Listen to Me

The New York Times
October 31, 2010

The Voice
By James Kaplan
Illustrated. 786 pages. Doubleday. $35.

He provided the soundtrack for several generations of Americans trying to navigate the rocky shoals of romance and grapple with love and heartbreak. And he became one of 20th-century pop culture’s quintessential men of contradictions: the bullying tough guy whose singing could radiate a remarkable tenderness and vulnerability; the ring-a-ding-ding Vegas sophisticate with an existential outlook on life; the jaunty urbanite who could deliver a torch song like no one else. Fans could recognize his voice from two or three perfectly phrased syllables, and they knew him instantly from his style: the rakishly tilted hat, the coat slung over one shoulder, the Camels and Jack Daniel’s.

He was the original teeny-bopper heartthrob and the harbinger of a new age of celebrity. When it snowed, one writer observed, “girls fought over his footprints, which some took home and stored in refrigerators.”

The story of Frank Sinatra’s rise and self-invention and the story of his fall and remarkable comeback had the lineaments of the most essential American myths, and their telling, Pete Hamill once argued, required a novelist, “some combination of Balzac and Raymond Chandler,” who might “come closer to the elusive truth than an autobiographer as courtly as Sinatra will ever allow himself to do.”

Now, with “Frank: The Voice,” Sinatra has that chronicler in James Kaplan, a writer of fiction and nonfiction who has produced a book that has all the emotional detail and narrative momentum of a novel.

Mr. Kaplan’s spirited efforts to channel his subject’s point of view can result in some speculative scenes, which make the reader race to the book’s endnotes in an attempt to identify possible source material. For instance Mr. Kaplan tries to recreate Sinatra’s tumultuous romance with Ava Gardner and tries, not always that convincingly, to map his complicated feelings about the mob. But at the same time Mr. Kaplan writes with genuine sympathy for the singer and a deep appreciation of his musicianship, and unlike gossipy earlier biographers like Kitty Kelley and Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan, he devotes the better part of his book to an explication of Sinatra’s art: the real reason readers care about him in the first place.

If there aren’t any startling new insights about the music here that haven’t been made before by critics or by Will Friedwald’s superb book “Sinatra! The Song is You” (which drew on dozens of interviews with collaborators), Mr. Kaplan nonetheless does a nimble, brightly evocative job of tracing the development of Sinatra’s craft, showing how he assimilated early influences and gradually discovered a voice of his own.

Frank Sinatra surrounded by admirers in Pasadena (1943)

He shows how Sinatra’s adolescent admiration of Bing Crosby (who pioneered a newly casual and direct form of address) and his youthful crush on Billie Holiday (whose emotionalism resonated with his own) shaped his ambitions. He shows how Sinatra emulated his early boss, the bandleader Tommy Dorsey, in everything from wardrobe and accouterments (including “Dorsey’s Courtley cologne, his Dentist Prescribed toothpaste”) to his stage presence and breath control. And he shows how diligently Sinatra worked on his diction, his phrasing and the storytelling aspects of his singing.

As Sinatra himself once explained, he usually began with a sheet of lyrics without music: “At that point, I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing the words, so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together. You sing the song.”

That, of course, would remain the most singular aspect of Sinatra’s interpretive art: his ability to make each song his own, to convey its emotional essence by investing it with his own deepest feelings. The loneliness and yearning for love he felt as a child; the fear he experienced as a young singer setting out to make a name for himself; the high he enjoyed as the hot new phenom trailed by swooning girls; the pain and loss he suffered in the wake of the collapse of his marriage to Gardner: all were exposed in his singing, and combined with his extraordinary musicality and perfectionism, they gave him an intuitive connection with his audience and the abiding respect of his peers.

This book ends before Sinatra’s ascent to legendary status; it stops rather abruptly with his winning of the 1953 Academy Award for his supporting role in “From Here to Eternity,” leaving the reader thirsty for a portrait of his remaining years.

That Academy Award was Sinatra’s comeback from a disastrous fall from grace during the postwar years (that escapist era when silly novelty songs were popular, and Sinatra was forced to sing ridiculous things like the “Woody Woodpecker” song), when his divorce from his first wife, Nancy, and his turbulent relationship with Gardner (pictured at right) had turned him into tabloid fodder.

Through sheer will and talent, Sinatra would pull himself out of the career gutter — his own publicist George Evans had predicted he would soon be “dead professionally” — and by taking the sort of deal offered new artists (not onetime superstars) and covering his own recording costs, he would go on to reinvent himself, creating at Capitol Records albums like “Only the Lonely” and “In the Wee Small Hours” that would become indisputable classics.

In recounting his subject’s rise and fall and rise again — all before the age of 40 — Mr. Kaplan gives us a wonderfully vivid feel for the worlds Sinatra traversed, from Hoboken and New York to Hollywood and Las Vegas, as well as the rapidly shifting tastes in music that shaped him and were later shaped by him. He introduces us to Sinatra collaborators like Nelson Riddle and rivals like Crosby and Eddie Fisher, and along the way he scatters some delightfully vivid cameos of acquaintances and friends. For instance he describes Tommy Dorsey’s influence as the “gravitational field of an enormous dark star,” and the movie producer Sam Spiegel as “an operator straight out of a Saul Bellow novel: heavy jawed, prow nosed and pinkie ringed.”

As for Sinatra’s hot temper and cold ambition, Mr. Kaplan writes that he would “step on or over everyone in his path until he grasped the brass ring,” that “the master plan for himself was exactly that: for himself. Alone.” Mr. Kaplan also reminds us, however, that Sinatra gave “the world his best self in his music.” And that music, in the end, remains the most revealing autobiography of the singer.

“Having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation,” Sinatra once observed.

“Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant,” he added. “When I sing, I believe I’m honest.”

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