Frank Sinatra: It didn't mean a thing unless Ol' Blue Eyes made it swing

Once criticised for singing songs as if he believed them, that was precisely what made him the best.

IN RECORD stores, Frank operated in the territory labelled "middle of the road" or "easy listening". But for many Sinatra makes for distinctly uneasy listening, and hardly anyone is in the middle of the road about him. The message is simple, even if it takes his worst song 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 Bing 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 Crosby 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...

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. It's enough for Bing, but not for Frank.

For 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 that was meant as a criticism.

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...".

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 the prevailing fashion. 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 picket-fence family values, he re-cast himself as a ring-a-ding, swingin' bachelor. At 50, when most celebrities are still pretending they are 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. 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 debauched the currency of mainstream Tin Pan Alley.

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 opposite ends. Miller extended his hand in friendship; Sinatra snarled, "Fuck you! Keep walking." The phrase could be the tempo marking on any one of those swing arrangements.

"Fly Me To The Moon" was written by Bart Howard in 1954 as a waltz. In the past 30 years, have you heard anyone play it that way? There were more than 100 recordings of it and not one of them did anything until Sinatra's. Think of the opening titles of the film Wall Street: the commuter trains, ferries, buses and subways feed the workers into the city, swarming up from their subterranean tunnels and on to the pavements beneath the skyscrapers. Above it all Sinatra sings:

"Fly me to the moon

And let me play among the stars..."

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. With it, all the possibilities, all the secret ambitions spring to life and, like the buildings, reach for the sky.

At one recording session, 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." But 4/4 is a time signature you can walk in, chopping up the syllables for that high-rollin' swagger." Frank walks like America," said Sonny Bono. "Cocksure."

When Americans really did fly to the moon in 1969, the astronauts took Sinatra on their portable tape recorder singing "Fly Me To The Moon". Any other nation would have chosen the "Ode to Joy" or "Also Sprach Zarathustra", but Buzz Aldrin knew what the sound of our century is: what's the breezy confidence of the American dream if not Sinatra in 4/4?

With any luck, when the little green men finally land, they'll have their hats pushed back on their heads, going "Ring-a-ding-ding!".

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Recruitment Genius: PA

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness