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!".

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: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?