The podgy middle-aged bloke with the silver rug glued to his head; the skinny sailor wandering around NYC and bursting into song – the two contradictory images I had of Frank Sinatra as a child; the former was the contemporary artist and the latter was the old Hollywood heart-throb courtesy of BBC2 on Saturday afternoons. Although my parents belonged to the wrong generation and consequently owned no Sinatra records, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the name. The man who was born exactly one-hundred years ago today was still omnipotent, even in the 1970s.
Growing up, the impression given was of a corny old has-been, the man who inspired a thousand kitsch cabaret crooners in dickey-bows and dinner jackets, churning out cheesy Vegas-style versions of the same standards that were once the staple diet of the Jimmy Young Show on Radio 2, my grandma’s chosen playlist whenever I stopped at her house. In that relentless adolescent search for whatever was ‘cool’, Sinatra seemed the irrelevant antithesis of every recommended exponent of ‘cool’; he was a long way from The MC5 or The Stooges or The Velvet Underground; he appeared to represent that whole schmaltzy, sentimental showbiz world that rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to have swept away. John Lennon had said, ‘Before Elvis, there was nothing’, and that view still held sway in the 80s, certainly for me and my sneering teenage peers.
Once I reached my mid-20s, however, I gradually outgrew juvenile prejudices and no longer did as Melody Maker told me. I would consciously seek out anything I’d been warned to avoid; it felt like an act of rebellion to pick up a prog-era Genesis LP from a second-hand record shop, as it did to visit the local record library (libraries used to have actual vinyl records in those days) and sample Sinatra’s greatest hits. I realised the only thing that closes your ears to music of every shape and form is the cynical critic dispensing listening advice. Ignore them and you can enjoy anything, just as you did before you became aware of the divisive cancer of genres. And when I gave this Sinatra album a fair hearing, I was back where I’d been in the beginning, able to simply listen without antiquated notions of ‘cool’ getting in the way.
Although Frank Sinatra was essentially the first teen idol when he inspired pre-Beatlemania hysteria amongst American girls in the early 40s, the body of work for which he is most remembered came after he’d been written off as yesterday’s man and had been reduced to recording novelty singles with the proto-dumb blonde, Dagmar, and seemingly sacrificing whatever chances he still had of a long-term career by throwing himself into an insane affair with notorious, albeit lascivious, man-eater, Ava Gardner. At his lowest ebb – which included an alleged suicide attempt – he was rescued from the showbiz abyss by vigorously pursuing and grabbing his dream role in ‘From Here to Eternity’ (whether a horse’s head had a part to play or not) and scooped an Oscar; this in turn kick-started his musical vision. Free from the constrictions of his previous record deal, he signed to Capitol and took control of his recorded output for the first time. Now Sinatra was going to make the kind of records he wanted to make.
Not a writer himself, Sinatra nevertheless had an instinctive sense of what a made a great song and he set about revamping standards so that his interpretation of them became the definitive versions. He did this by allowing his most traumatic life experiences to infect his voice with both a mature adult swagger and an emotional vulnerability, acquiring a deeper, wider range than it had possessed in his young crooner days and delivering the song as though he had penned every word from the heart. Crucial to this transformation was his musical marriage with bandleader and arranger Nelson Riddle, who took the Big Band sound of the previous decade and made it elegant with a full orchestral facelift. Sinatra had found his most invaluable collaborator and the pair of them embarked upon a sonic journey that had few precedents in the pre-rock era.
When the phrase ‘concept album’ appears, one tends to think of the prog monoliths of the 70s, yet Sinatra effectively pioneered the idea with the series of LPs he released from 1953’s ‘Songs for Young Lovers’ onwards, finding the relatively new long-playing record the perfect vehicle for his musical rebirth. As the Sinatra/Riddle collaboration progressed, each new album tended to select a collection of songs to convey a specific mood – from the upbeat euphoria of ‘Swing Easy’ to the downbeat melancholy of ‘Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely’. The artwork on the album sleeve also reflected which Sinatra the listener was going to get. The cover of 1955’s ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ bears a portrait of Sinatra slouched against a wall, cigarette in hand, with a poorly-lit deserted street as the backdrop, whereas its follow-up, ‘Songs for Swinging Lovers’, shows a quintessential young 50s couple embracing as Sinatra’s smiling face floats above them like a benevolent Cheshire Cat midway through vanishing into the warm orange sky.
Perhaps the finest product of this purple patch on Capitol came when Sinatra’s confidence was flying so high that he replaced Riddle with Billy May and released ‘Come Fly with Me’, an LP whose memorable sleeve Sinatra apparently disliked as he felt it resembled an ad for the American airline TWA. In retrospect, it stands as the perfect visual accompaniment to the music, evoking the wonderfully enduring illusion of the Jet Set who dressed for a plane ride as though visiting the opera, travelling from one exotic location to another with the kind of nonchalant ease most hop onto the bus. The travelogue track-list takes the listener to Capri, Vermont, New York, Mandalay, London, Paris, Hawaii, Chicago and Brazil. At a time when air travel was beyond the financial reach of all but the wealthy, the album gave what is actually a pretty interminable method of getting from A to B an irresistible glamour that still maintains the allure it had sixty years ago.
Sinatra had been able to dominate the album charts during the rock ‘n’ roll era, as that was largely a singles phenomena; but by the time The Beatles showed their insatiable creativity also encompassed the LP, Frank’s days as the undisputed king of the long-player were numbered. Sinatra slowly slid into legendary status and parted company with the zeitgeist, finding the live arena more appreciative of his talents than the recording studio. The last three decades of his life saw Sinatra gradually become the kind of performer people pay to see because of the legend – ironically, the same reason people pay to see the likes of the Stones now.
If you want the gossip column Sinatra, read the plethora of books devoted to his dealings with mobsters or the self-indulgent antics of the Rat Pack or the numerous notches on his bedpost. But if you want to know what made Frank Sinatra stand head-and-shoulders above the competition and why he remains remembered whereas somebody like Vic Damone isn’t, avoid ‘My Way’ or ‘Strangers in the Night’ and listen to the cream of the Capitol crop from the early 50s to the early 60s. If you’re still not convinced, try arguably his last great recording from 1965, ‘It Was A Very Good Year’, the musical equivalent of ‘King Lear’ as an ageing man looks back on his life by remembering the loves of it. If your eyes are still dry when it ends, you haven’t got a heart.
© The Editor