December 15, 2007
Sinatra: An American VoiceBy Andrew Sumereau
Frank Sinatra received his first Academy Award in the mid-forties for singing, not acting, in a patriotic World War II short featuring the song "The House I Live In". Thirty years later, at a Nixon White House dinner in 1971, Sinatra performed the song accompanied by the Marine band. The performance so enchanted Nixon and the assembly gathered that the President asked him to sing it again as an encore.
Sinatra spoke movingly of how, as a small boy, he never dreamed he would one day speak to a President, and sing in the White House. He choked up before regaining command of himself and began to sing once again.
"The house I live in,
a plot of earth, a tree,
the grocer and the butcher,
and the people that I see, ...
...That's America to me..."
In truth Sinatra had long had access to real power and influence most of his adult life. He enjoyed the friendship of many presidents from FDR to Clinton and was especially close to Kennedy and Reagan. Originally a devout New Deal democrat, like Reagan, he moved right as he aged with the center and common sense of the country.
This "voice" of 20th century America was born in Hoboken, New Jersey this week (December 12th) ninety two years ago. Frank Sinatra, the boy crooner, movie star, ridiculed has-been, swinging saloon singer, recording star, thug, philanthropist, friend of presidents and gangsters, has been gone for nine years now. His over-the-top life and legend has obscured his greatest gift. He was the best singer of the age. His peers never disputed it. Bennett, Como, Cole and Fitzgerald acknowledged it as a fact. Dean Martin, his pal, gave him a characteristic backhanded compliment, " I hate guys who sing serious." And Bing Crosby, no slacker in the singing department himself, said, "A talent like Sinatra's comes along once in a lifetime. Why did it have to be my lifetime?"
It is striking to note how often the really important artists of the past have been neglected in their own time. (Van Gogh couldn't sell a painting, for example, and Herman Melville's writing career was essentially ruined by the poor sales of Moby Dick.) But over time, one sees the enthusiasms of the day and the ephemeral, popular and superficial works fade and the truly excellent efforts shine forth. The test of time effectively separates the universal and relative importance of a court musician like Mozart from his now forgotten princely patron. This test of time will be interesting to note in the case of Sinatra and his artistic legacy. He is already famous and honored. Perhaps now he will be appreciated, in the best sense of that word.
Of course, the ability to winnow the best from the average in this modern age is made more difficult as the pace intensifies and choices increase, dramatically. The technological breakthroughs of the twentieth century created a vast treasure trove of recordings, films, and art; some good, some great, most dreadful. It also created a vast audience of all classes to purchase and enjoy both the best and worst of what was produced. Mass marketing of entertainment demands that words like "best," "greatest," and (most overused of all) "genius", be tossed ludicrously around works of emphatic mediocrity. The trick is to unearth the true pearls from the avalanche of junk.
Luckily for posterity, that although he could wow the crowds in live performances with chaotic scenes rivaling the likes of Elvis and the Beatles, Sinatra at his best and most lasting is the Sinatra of the recording studio. Musicians, without exception, speak with awe of the artistry and essential musicianship of Sinatra at work. His voice was respected as a unique instrument played with the utmost skill and thoughtfulness. His legendary concept LP's from the fifties were symphonic in conception. Songs were handpicked from the best the American music songbook had to offer. And his taste was impeccable.
Berlin, Porter, Rogers and Hart, Hammerstien, Kern, the Gershwins; all had definitive versions of their work recorded by Sinatra. His arrangers, Axel Stordahl, Nelson Riddle, and Gordon Jenkins, each became famous from their association with the singer and each testified to the crucial artistic influence Sinatra exerted in their recording sessions. The essential Sinatra as revealed by these recordings was a man of refined sensibilities.
Yet, to the masses, the common Sinatra caricature is seen casually adding a "Jack!" or a "babe!" to a lyric and delighting the audience with affected boorishness. This, of course, is Sinatra the entertainer. In fact, too often Sinatra's popular image has effectively lowered the perceived stature of his work. Even his admirers have confused the artist with the personality. (Contrary to accepted opinion; the famous recording of I'm a Fool to Want You is a work of art in spite of the tawdry connection to Ava Gardner, a notion so thrilling to his contemporaries.)
Some artists, like Elvis, are so trapped in the binding popular image that their genuine and special talent is unfortunately and inevitably buried. For Sinatra, separating the artist from the image will come easier now, one hopes, as the succeeding generations pass, and the gossip and titillating anecdotes recede.
Not that the image in itself was all bad. Gravitas is a word of derision nowadays (and for good reason) but perhaps it is the right word to define the element of inescapable masculine sophistication present in his mature work. Despite the occasional excess of bravado, there was definitely a sense of the "Everyman" that Sinatra represented for his generation. Consider the compelling narrative: A poor, working class, Italian immigrant neighborhood boy takes a five-cent ferry ride to the big time. The Depression and World War II punctuate his ascension to fame.
Inordinate success and then failure occasions his maturity. "Comeback" with unrivaled wealth and power mark his coronation at the Summit. Then, to top it all off, Sinatra co-opts a Paul Anka tune to announce musically, of course, that he did it all, "My Way". This, I think, partially explains the fact that Sinatra was arguably more respected and admired by males than females.
Sinatra at fifty was a man in the sense that Mick Jagger, even in his sixties, is not.
But the swaggering tough-guy image, hoodlum associations, serial affairs, drunken rages, epic charities, bad movies, and Rat Pack nonsense that so distort the full picture will eventually fade. And the artistry and poetry of Sinatra as recorded will take center stage. It is already happening.
Do not take my word for it. Start by adopting a seasonal mood and get out the Sinatra Christmas Album. Listen to the Gordon Jenkins arrangement of The First Noel. Sense and feel the Sinatra magic. Hear the beginning of Sammy Cahn's Christmas Waltz, "Frosted window panes, candles gleaming inside..." with the almost imperceptible hesitating accent on the word "inside" and appreciate what a truly great vocalist can impart to a song. Swing with the playful and surely only, grown-up, version of Jingle Bells. And enjoy and appreciate the unique artistry of one of America's greatest musical talents.