Frank Sinatra: Singing from beyond the grave

He made his first comeback in the 1950s - and then he kept coming back, again and again. Now Sinatra is singing from beyond the grave in a new West End show. Robert Cushman analyses why we still get such a kick out of Ol' Blue Eyes
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The Independent Culture

Nostalgia and technology have brought Frank Sinatra back into fashion. Supremely great popular singer though he was, that may not be a good thing. All those Rat Pack retrospectives, whether theatrical recreations or repackaged CDs, play to an idea of early 1960s sophistication that was superficial at the time and is rather embarrassing now. They concentrate on the booze, the womanising or at least the talk of womanising), the Las Vegas high-rolling, and the stagy camaraderie, rather than on what was important: the Kennedy-era liberalism (apparently racist jokes by or about Sammy Davis Jnr were quite liberating in their day) and, most of all, the music.

When, in the middle of one of those Clan shindigs, Sinatra goes into a solo song, whether a curt, commanding "Luck Be a Lady" or a yearning soaring "I Have Dreamed", the mood changes; we are somewhere else, and so is he. It seems that he can't help himself; suddenly, he's concentrating. In between, though he may be the master of these revels, he seems out of place. Compared to Davis and Dean Martin, both natural clowns, he seems forced in his banter and somewhat surly; on screen he could be a compelling if stylised actor, but in what is supposed to be his natural habitat, carousing with his buddies, he is heavy-handed, something between a grouch and a bully. Maybe this is the real Sinatra, but it's a reality one would rather not know about.

In all probability, it's just one of many real Sinatras. I have my doubts about the super-hologram version of Sinatra that's about to open at the London Palladium, though they have less to do with my feelings about Sinatra than with my feelings about the theatre. But at least the director, David Leveaux, seems in interviews to have a genuine feeling for his subject; he has summed up Sinatra's artistry by saying that "his relationship with song was conversational yet deeply musical" and his fascination by saying that "it is impossible not to get personal with Sinatra because he is certainly going to get personal with you."

Personal and yet impersonal; or perhaps, super-personal. The great paradox of Sinatra is that he brings to his songs a unique inescapable personality and temperament - not to mention a tumultuous and controversial biography, of which his public is thoroughly aware - and yet puts all this at the service of his material. He disappears into the music, and then reappears in what I can only call purified form. He sheds, for the duration, everything that isn't pertinent to the song, or at least to his interpretation of the song. (His conception of "Let's Face the Music and Dance" is different from Fred Astaire's; come to that, his conception of "The Song Is You" in the 1980s is different from his idea of the same song in the 1940s.)

Part of this has to do with the fanatical precision of his diction. He sings consonants. He sings "Night and Day", where everyone else sings "Nightanday". It sounds like Sinatra, because nobody else does that, but at the same time it's copybook Cole Porter. This is what the man wrote; this is what you are going to hear. And there is, always, the implication that you have never really heard it before. The fusion of arrogance and humility is unique, and irresistible.

As a singer, Sinatra is a great actor. He expresses himself but at one remove, through a text. And just as great English actors define themselves through their performances of the greatest English plays, finding their own voices through the formal challenges of Shakespearean verse, so the great American singers are recognised by their treatment of the great American songs; they, too, have to make an artificial form sound natural, and more exhilaratingly natural precisely because of the artifice.

And Sinatra has an advantage over Gielgud and Olivier; he was there when the tradition was coming into being. He grew up with it; by the time he started seriously singing, in the 1940s, the repertoire - Gershwin and Porter and Arlen and Mercer and Rodgers and Hart - was already half-formed. He helped to codify it. It's an astonishing body of work that has gone in and out of style but has never gone away. It is in fashion now, and identified with Sinatra, even though many other fine singers have performed it. When a Rod Stewart or a Michael Bublé records an album of standards, it's hard to say whether they are doing it because they want to be Sinatra and therefore sing those songs, or because they want to sing the songs and so cannot help but ape Sinatra.

They, like Rat Pack imitators and enthusiasts, can only sound superficial because they have, as actors say, no centre. They either show off or are dull; either way, they think it's about them. Sinatra didn't sing about himself, he sang from himself, and it's a distinction I'd stand by, though I think some of his more bellicose fans might have trouble telling the difference.

There are of course songs in which Sinatra sounds directly autobiographical - charmingly in "Nancy", unbearably in "My Way" - but they're a minority. And even "Nancy" is as concerned as much with itemising his daughter's qualities as with expressing her father's feelings. For the most apart Sinatra is singing about common experience, or occasionally about a very particular other experience; we assume that he is drawing on similar experiences of his own but we have no proof and we don't need it. It's showbiz lore that his bruising relationship with Ava Gardner in the 1950s informs In the Wee Small Hours, his first great ballad album, but you don't have to have heard that to be moved by the music. There's no self-pity in his singing of "Glad to Be Unhappy" or "Last Night when We Were Young", just wry, searching, majestically structured readings of magnificent songs. Read up on Sinatra's actual behaviour at the time, and it's a lot less ennobling, a lot more self-indulgent. But one is in the past, the other is for ever.

This insight, this dramatic quality, grew with time. Sinatra's career falls into four periods, in each of which he was affiliated with a different record company. As boy-singer for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra on RCA, he sounds appealing but callow, additionally constrained both by the big-band format and by most of the songs. His contemporaries were struck by his apparent belief in his material (we, who are used to hearing him sing as though he means it, tend to take it for granted), and by the sheer tender beauty of the voice. That we can still hear, as we also can, in his pop-idol years with Columbia. The warmth on these is overwhelming; so is the vulnerability that makes his performance of "Someone to Watch Over Me" something like definitive.

These were the years of the string-laden, swoon-inducing Sinatra. He wasn't yet a swinger, at least not in the musical sense. To listen to his impeccably cheerful version of the light-hearted "Five Minutes More", one of the biggest hits he ever had, is to be surprised by the chances for rhythmic variation that he passes up, missed opportunities that he was to repair when he re-recorded the song in the 1950s for Capitol.

The Capitol years were, by common consent, his finest. They offer the best of both worlds, the charm and the vocal bloom of the preceding period offset by a new rhythmic variation and a fierce intelligence. His technical and interpretative mastery are in perfect sync. He seems to revel in taking the measure of classic song after classic song. This, not coincidentally, was the age of the LP; singers who were more than cabaret cultists had the chance to explore the catalogue and, on occasion, to add to it. These were the years of his unsurpassably melancholy "One for My Baby" and his unsurpassably happy "You Make Me Feel so Young". The last stage began in the 1960s when he started his own company, Reprise, which he quickly sold but for which he continued to record. There was no immediate break in style but the voice became grittier and, if anything, more interesting.

It was a long period, which went to schizophrenic extremes. At its crassest there was "My Way", ill-written and bombastic, which unhappily still counts for many people as his identity-song. It gets, anachronistically, into all the Rat Pack tributes; my opinion of the Palladium show will rocket up if they have the guts to leave it out. It's not just that it's a terrible song; it's that its blatancy is a direct contradiction of everything that the true, subtle Sinatra is about.

But there were compensations. He took the measure of genuinely dramatic pieces like "Ol' Man River" and the "Soliloquy" from Carousel, songs he had sung in the 1940s when he neither the depth of voice nor of sensibility to do them justice. "Ol' Man River" is a triumph of imaginative empathy; he isn't black, it's decades since he's been downtrodden, but he gets inside the song and its bleak message ("tired of livin' and feared of dyin'") of universal suffering. He had maybe his finest hour recording a bossa nova album - a style he'd never sung before - with Antonio Carlos Jobim. He takes it over, or let it takes him over. On one track, "Dindi", you can actually hear him being humbled, amazed by the mysterious beauty of the song. This is a pop singer? He sounds like the wisest, most compassionate man you ever met.

As a person Sinatra was at his most appealing when acknowledging contradictions and obligations. ("I've been over-rewarded in my life and that's the truth." "An over-privileged adult ought to do something to help under-privileged children". "Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant; when I sing, I believe I'm honest"). Most of us are capable of both good and bad behaviour, but his position gave him more scope in both directions; my own guess is that, even outside music, he did more good in the world than harm. But it's the music that counts; 60 years of self-expression that mostly transcended self and still have the power to touch.

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