Frank is 80. Frank is 80. Frank is 80.
Saturday 02 December 1995
producer's bed; Nancy and Ava and Lana and Marilyn and Lauren and Mia in his bed, being very cooperative, sometimes (Ava and Lana) simultaneously. But what's even more amazing than the life is that the records live up to it, and then some. The swagger and attitude, the chicks and mobsters are the incidental accompaniment; the real drama's in the songs. In the banal categorisations of the record stores, Frank operates in the territory usually labelled "middle of the road" or "easy listening". It's hard to get worked up about Vic Damone or Andy Williams. But for many people, Sinatra makes for distinctly uneasy listening, and hardly anyone is in the middle of the road about him. "Whatever his message is, it eludes me," sniffs the New York cabaret darling Michael Feinstein in his new memoir. But the message is simple, even if it takes the worst song in his repertoire to spell it out: he did it his way. And his way has been better for longer than anybody else in the history of popular song.
Before Sinatra, male singers aspired to the condition of Crosby, who sang like he played golf: let's knock it around for a while and get to the clubhouse without breaking into a sweat. When he sang, that's all he did: sing. You realise the difference when you listen to Frankie's version of a big Bing hit:
We're off to ba-ake
A Sunshine Cake...
Those trills were a Crosby speciality. With Sinatra, "ba-ake" just sounds fa-ake. He can't do it; you can almost hear him cringing. His problem is that the song isn't about anything except singing a jolly song. That's enough for Bing, but not for Frank. If you want a more extreme example, try "Home on the Range". Crosby's says nothing other than "Ah, let's gather round the old joanna and sing a well-loved favourite from 1873." Sinatra's is extraordinary: the guy sounds like his home really is on the range and the deer and the antelope are frolicking about 15 yards from the microphone. Inevitably, there was soon heard a discouraging word: he sings songs, said one early reviewer, as if he believes them. And he meant it as a criticism.
Maybe Stanislavskian identification isn't such an advantage when you're doing a song about wanting a home where the buffalo roam, but, as Sinatra emerged from Crosby's shadow, it was to prove decisive - and, in the long run, render Bing's approach inadequate. The Thirties' crooner glided through romance and glossed over pain. Sinatra was the first male singer to say, "Hey, all these songs about women whose men done them wrong. It works the other way, too." So he called up Ira Gershwin and persuaded him to masculate "The Man That Got Away" into "The Gal...", and he resurrected "Last Night When We Were Young", a song slung out of three movies because it was too sad. Of all the pop idols from Jolson to Madonna who ventured into films, Sinatra's easily the best. You can tell how good an actor he is from the songs: these numbers seem first-person autobiographical in a way that Bing's or Ella's never are.
But for someone who represents the apogee of popular singing, he's never really been, apart from that first flush of bobbysoxers, a pop singer. Pop is fashion and Sinatra's usually been at odds with whatever the prevailing fashion is. When pop singers were regular guys like Bing, Frank was spilling his guts out and introducing to the Hit Parade such fine emotional niceties as self-disgust; when Eisenhower's America promoted cosy, domestic, picket- fence family values, he re-cast himself as a ring-a-ding, swingin' bachelor; at 50, a time when most celebrities are still pretending they're 28, Sinatra embraced premature old age and songs of wistful regret: "(When I was 17) It Was a Very Good Year".
Jerome Kern once gave the young British composer Vivian Ellis a piece of advice: "Carry on being uncommercial. There's a lot of money in it." It's worked for Sinatra. Back in the Fifties, the smart money was on Mitch Miller, head honcho at Columbia, the man who single-handedly produced the worst records of the era and so debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley that rock'n'roll seemed like a welcome alternative. It was Miller who insisted Frank record the atrocious "Mama Will Bark" with the big-breasted Scandinavian, Dagmar. Sinatra left Columbia but never forgave Miller. Long after, they happened to be crossing a Vegas lobby from oppposite ends. Miller extended his hand in friendship; Sinatra snarled, "Fuck you! Keep walking."
"Fuck you! Keep walking": it could be the tempo marking on any one of those surging big-town swing arrangements. Indeed, his entire oeuvre could be sub-titled "Fuck you! Keep walking". Pop music never really deserved Sinatra, and his instincts have invariably been better than anybody else's. He virtually invented the concept of the "standard" - a song that endures and can be re-investigated over and over; at the time, Miller would have rather he'd just sung "She Wears Red Feathers (And A Hula-Hula Skirt)".
Sinatra also invented the album, approaching it like a song-cycle, a dramatic journey; Capitol would have been just as happy if, like Ella Fitzgerald, he'd simply plucked Cole Porter's 20 biggest hits and called it a Songbook. When you eavesdrop on some of his rehearsal tapes, you appreciate how much he contributes to his arrangements, tinkering with them again and again until he's satisfied. I have before me a tape of Sinatra doing "It's Sunday", a Jule Styne/Susan Birkenhead song from the early Eighties, with just a guitar accompaniment. He gave it to several orchestrators - to Don Costa, to Peter Matz - but he was never satisfied. "Listen, I think you guys are missing the point," he said. "It's an intimate kind of thing." So he and his guitarist Tony Mottola went into the studio and showed them how it should be done. It's the only Sinatra recording with solo guitar, and it's beautiful: not a song for swingin' lovers, but a song for mellow grown-ups, for breakfast in bed with the Sunday papers. I think it's great, but it wasn't great enough for Sinatra, and he wouldn't release it. He sings standards, and he has standards. For every "The Song Is You", where there are three definitive recordings and they're all by Sinatra, there's a dozen numbers that he put to one side, figuring that he'd fix them later. I hope he does.
But the received wisdom is that he should pack it in. They say his mental faculties are diminished, though it ill behoves today's music business to accuse anybody of diminished mental faculties. The Duets albums of the last two years have their embarrassing moments, but none of 'em is Frank's. Where operatic singing is nothing but generalised vowel sounds, in pop all the action's in the consonants, and Sinatra is still king of the consonants: nobody else gets such a kickkkkk out of "I Get A Kick Out Of You". Vowels are non-specific; consonants are finely focused. On "Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered", Frank is focused, old and raw and very powerful. As always, he persuades you that this is his story, that this song has happened to him - and, in making it so specifically his, he universalises it and makes it for everybody. But Patti Labelle's half is embarrassing, full of shrieks and ululations and drowning in melismas - that's to say, taking a perfectly good monosyllable and elongating it to six - "lo-o-o-o-o-ove" - as if soulfulness is measured by the yard. Frank doesn't do melismas: as Jule Styne, his longtime composer and one-time flatmate, said to me, "Frank sings the words. The others sing the notes." But pop, like opera, is now mostly about vague vowel sounds and generalised emotions: you're up, you're down, that's your lot. Sinatra's legend endures, but the pigheaded ignorance of his Duets partners suggests that the vocal technique he took to its apogee is likely to die with him.
In the end, Mitch Miller gave "She Wears Red Feathers" to Guy Mitchell and made him a star. But where's he now? Where's Frankie Laine, Dick Haymes, any of them? Sinatra is 80 years old and he has a recording contract with Capitol Records for a new solo album. His old albums, his discarded tracks, his outtakes, his radio novelties, his studio rehearsals, every sound he's ever made this side of his mouthwash gargles, it's all been digitally remastered and issued on CD. He doesn't make videos and he disdains to compete with "the guys with the funky shoes" on the fashion front. Instead, he just wears a tux and stands in front of an orchestra of dull-looking middle-aged men. Yet he can fill an ugly, anonymous rock stadium, not by using dry ice and laser shows but by shrinking the venue to the size of one of those pokey, smokey New Jersey saloons he hasn't sung in for more than half a century. Just a voice, an old saloon song like "Angel Eyes" and the old props - a tumbler and a cigarette. You're in seat Z97 (Restricted View, Use Gate 34) and you'll believe you're at risk from passive smoking.
The history of American song is the triumph of 4/4 over 3/4. "Fly Me To The Moon" was written by Bart Howard in 1954 as a waltz. In the past 30 years, have you ever heard anyone play it that way? There were more than a hundred recordings of it and not one of 'em did anything until Sinatra's. Think of the opening titles of the film Wall Street: the commuter trains and ferries and buses and subways feed the workers into the city, thousands of them, swarming up from their subterranean tunnels and on to the pavements, anonymous stick figures dwarfed by skyscrapers. And above it all Sinatra sings:
Fly me to the moon
And let me play among the stars...
Quincy Jones's arrangements for Sinatra and Basie in 4/4, the all-American time signature: the film is an emblem of the Eighties, but it takes a 1964 album to kick-start it. Without the song, the scene is nothing: for what is drearier and more humdrum than commuting? But, with it, all the possiblities, all the secret ambitions spring to life and, like the buildings, reach for the sky.
At some recording session or other, Sinatra was asked by an arranger if he could sing in a particular key. "Sing it in...?" he said. "I can't even walk in that key." 4/4 is a time signature you can walk in, chopping up the syllables for that high-rollin' swagger: "Stick-with-me-ba-by-I'm- the-guy-that-you-came-in-with..." signature, for guys, for dolls, for almost every Sinatra recording. "Frank walks like America," says Bono. "Cocksure." He walks not just for the pedestrian dreamers of Wall Street, but for the highest fliers. When Americans really did fly there in 1969, the astronauts took Sinatra on their portable tape recorder and "Fly Me To The Moon" became the first moon song to be heard on the moon itself. Any other nation would have chosen the "Ode to Joy" or "Also Sprach Zarathustra", something formal and tasteful, but Buzz Alldrin knew what the sound of our century is: what's the breezy confidence of the American dream if not Sinatra in 4/4? Let Patti Labelle have her moment. With any luck, when the little green men finally land, they'll have their hat pushed back on their heads and be going "Ring-a-ding-ding!"
The Seven Ages of Sinatra And One For The Road
1 "All Or Nothing At All" (1939)
Where it all began, with the Harry James Band
2 "It Never Entered My Mind" (1947)
Sinatra's first starring role was the film version of Rodgers and Hart's Higher and Higher. Then he discovered that the studio had thrown out most of the score - including this ballad, which he and Axle Stordahl recorded as a pointed rebuke to the movie mush-heads. it's one of the earliest standards "saved" by Sinatra.
3 "When Your Lover Has Gone" (1955, from In The Wee Small Hours)
If you're looking for autobiography, here's Frank after the break-up with Ava. A song by a one-hit writer (EA Swan) briefly heard on the soundtrack of Jimmy Cagney's Blonde Crazy in 1931 and then forgotten - until revived by Sinatra and Nelson Riddle as a bleak meditation on lost love.
4 "Night and Day" (1957, from A Swingin' Affair)
And here's the other side: all the heady, swirling intoxication of love, scored, in what Riddle called, "the tempo of the heartbeat".
5 "Luck Be A Lady" (1963, from Reprise Repertory Theatre Guys and Dolls)
One of those Sinatra showtune arrangements so good it makes the Broadway version sound like a half-hearted first draft. Instead of Damon Runyan's small-time crap-shooters, Frank rides Billy May's rhythm like a cocky, dice-rollin' swinger. If anything, he's even better on the 1994 remake, defiantly carving up the lines ("blow on some/other guy's/ dice"). but unfortunately that recording is marred by the extraneous presence of the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde.
6 "There Used To Be A Ballpark" (1973, from Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back)
Forget Bob Dylan. If you want a protest song, this is a much more devastating indictment. Sinatra was a lifelong Brooklyn Dodgers fan - and then they moved to LA, leaving Ebbets Field to be turned into just another housing project. But you don't need to know that. Films like Field of Dreams and documentary series like Ken Burns's Baseball are always trying to make baseball a metaphor for America; Sinatra and Joe Rapos (the Muppet's in-house songwriter) wrap it up in four minutes, making the song into an image of cultural decline.
7 "A Long Night" (1981, from She Shot Me Down)
This is as close as you get to film noir on record: Sinatra trudging down mean streets after dark in pursuit of a squandered love. Great, brooding string arrangements by Gordon Jenkins, from Frank's darkest album yet.
and "One For My Bay (and one more or the road)" (1993, from Duets)
The last and best track on Duets isn't really a duet at all. First take a chisel to the CD and remove Kenny G's syrupy instrumental drooling of "All The Way" and then sit back as the strings recede, and Frank's veteran accompanist Bill Miller begins his bar-room piano intro. The voice is rough, its vulnerability deliberately exposed, especially on the last line's long goodbye. But, harrowing as it is, it's a final Sinatra masterpiece. The piano dies away and the last saloon singer lays down his burden: one for us and one for that long, long road.
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