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.
Saturday 16 May 1998
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!".
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