December 11, 2015
Capitol Photo Archives: Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra gave pop music a beating heart.
Before Michael Jackson, before Bob Dylan, before Elvis Presley, there was Sinatra, the first modern pop superstar. In the floodtide of centennial tributes (he was born on Dec. 12, 1915), we celebrate the cool, ring-a-ding-ding Sinatra, a man with the world on a string — but his most far-reaching accomplishment was infusing popular song with intimate personal emotion.
His union of the singer and the song was fortified by his protohipster image: a film-noir loner in a fedora with a cigarette and a drink; the flip side was the swinger bedding countless beautiful women and partying with his pals till dawn. To borrow a title from Tom Wolfe, he was “a man in full.” In Sinatra’s intensely emotional interpretations, popular standards took on a new life by becoming quasiautobiographical confessions. The lyrics mattered as never before, foreshadowing the singer-songwriters of the next generation. Men didn’t simply admire him; they wanted to be him, partly because he revised the definition of masculinity. He made self-pity a virtue.
Beginning with his somber 1955 album of torch songs, “In the Wee Small Hours,” which some believe to be the greatest pop album ever made, Sinatra gave men license to cry without shame. Sanctioned by a tough guy who consorted with mobsters, behavior once synonymous with cowardice and weakness became noble suffering.
Before 1955, most popular music was dismissed as kitsch by the reigning culturati, and distinctions between “high” and popular art were rigidly demarcated. By treating popular standards as secular art songs dressed up in elegant semiclassical and pop-jazz trappings by his most brilliant arranger, Nelson Riddle, Sinatra began blurring the distinctions.
Almost single-handedly, he canonized the American songbook, a body of work created mostly for Broadway and the movies that looms much larger than it might have had he not given it his passionate, sustained attention. It became a platform for philosophical ruminations on the meaning of it all.
Ella Fitzgerald also contributed to that preservation with her monumental “songbook” albums, but with a couple of exceptions, they pale beside the power and authority of Sinatra’s best work. Fitzgerald, with her phenomenal gifts, was not emotionally invested in song lyrics. Everything Sinatra recorded he made sound intensely, sometimes agonizingly, personal. Songs like “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “One for My Baby” and “Laura” became his and no one else’s. He recorded these and others more than once over a period of years. When you think of them, it is likely Sinatra’s voice you hear in your head.
No matter what he’s singing, you listen to the words and how he phrases them and often have the sense that they’re coming spontaneously out of his mind and not from the pen of the song’s lyricist, although in his concerts he was scrupulous to give writing and arranging credits.
With each re-recording they expressed Sinatra’s changing point of view over time and became the story of his life. Other singers followed his lead, and the interpretation of popular songs took on an entirely new significance.
Evolving technology conveniently and happily coincided with his ascendancy. Until the invention of the microphone, the pop crooner adopting a relaxed conversational tone couldn’t have existed. The sound of Bing Crosby, Sinatra’s most influential forerunner and role model, evoked congeniality, nostalgia and the comforts of hearth and home — but not the joys and pains of love.
Sinatra used the microphone to convey an astounding intimacy, infused with a tender eroticism that turned increasingly bitter as the years went by. Crosby was your likable, easygoing next-door neighbor; Sinatra was your personal confidant, or in the case of women who adored him, a surrogate lover.
The best of his ’40s recordings, made mostly with the arranger Axel Stordahl, are delicate musical valentines gently murmured by an ardent young suitor to his dream girl. The tinkly hearts-and-flowers arrangements for a chamber orchestra conjure an innocent paradise of lingering kisses and endearments shared by sweethearts floating in a rapturous shared fantasy. Listen to his Columbia recordings of “My Melancholy Baby,” “Dream,” “I Don’t Know Why,” “Oh! What It Seemed to Be,” “Laura,” “The Things We Did Last Summer,” “You’re My Girl” and “If I Forget You” and be transported. These performances have the devotional fervency of whispered prayers.
In the early ’50s, the skinny, blue-eyed boy from Hoboken re-invented himself as a cosmopolitan performer with a purpose: to enshrine the songs of Berlin, Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Arlen and others once and for all.
At a time when novelties dominated mainstream pop, the rise of the long-playing record enabled Sinatra to create the first “concept” albums years before the term was coined around the time of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” The output of Sinatra, Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and others is synonymous with what many believe to be the golden age of the LP. On their albums, romantic love — the subject of a majority of popular standards — was explored from an adult perspective.
In the ’50s, his once celestial baritone acquired a slightly rougher grain, and he became the voice of experience. The bobby-soxers’ idol had evolved into a sexually sophisticated swinger. His increasingly emphatic, upbeat syncopation spurred a full-scale swing revival — newly focused on the singer instead of a bandleader — and heralded an age of individual self-expression that has only expanded and continued into the hip-hop era.
“Come Fly With Me,” the title song from his 1958 album, was an invitation to pleasure delivered in a rough, joyful voice that promised good times ahead if you followed Sinatra, now the ultimate American playboy. In the ’40s, he had played the role of an imaginary boyfriend to women on the home front while their husbands were fighting overseas. The swinging Sinatra announced himself in 1953 with a joyful, confident “I’ve Got the World on a String.” At his peak in the next decade, the world revolving around Sinatra was a hedonistic playground, with the singer the master of revels.
But it was a bipolar world that had a shadow side: The pied piper of good times endured bouts of melancholia that defined his increasingly tragic vision of life. “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” and “Where Are You?” with their quasi-Wagnerian orchestrations were eloquent, even desperate cries in the night.
At the same time, Sinatra’s uptempo albums vented a swaggering aggression that signaled the furies unleashed by the rock and hip-hop revolutions of the future. After the high point of “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” that aggression became steadily coarser, harder and more pugnacious. It’s a sad reflection on contemporary tastes that the rude, swaggering entertainer of the Las Vegas “rat pack” is considered quintessential Sinatra by younger generations unacquainted with the voice of the ’40s crooner.
In the late 1970s and early ’80s, his singing had become so crude that some rock critics even adopted Sinatra as an avatar of punk. But that wishful comparison makes only partial sense. Sinatra never wavered in his undying loyalty to the pre-rock American songbook, and most of his attempts to sing contemporary songs on his 1980 album, “Trilogy: Past Present Future,” sounded naïve.
Beginning in the mid-1960s, his career was the story of an established monarch reviewing his accomplishments while consciously engaged in a losing battle with time. In his last great album, “Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim,” in 1967, he sang Brazilian bossa nova ballads in the soft, weary voice of aging Lothario yearning for his lost youth. After the grand formal statement of “September of My Years,” his turning-50 album, the slow fade of his career accelerated.
His last attempt at a major statement was his 1981 studio album, “She Shot Me Down.” This groan of exhaustion included a funereal version of the Cher hit, “Bang Bang,” and a gloomy new reverie, “A Long Night,” by Alec Wilder and Loonis McGlohon, that looked back in defeat. You feel his despair:
I’ve seen what the street corners
Do to things like love and dreams
Seen what the bottle can do to a man
With his hopes and his schemes
In the end, noir always wins.