I'm a Frank Sinatra fanatic—one of those who have been listening to Sinatra passionately for years and years, and never can get enough or hear the same old songs too often. My wife, generationally of the Elton John and Joni Mitchell dispensation—there was even a Hall & Oates LP in the stack she brought into our marriage, I found to my horror—for a long time thought that my love of Sinatra was some kind of complicated, slightly campy, tongue-in-cheek joke. In truth, it was probably the only completely sincere passion I brought into the marriage, aside from the obvious one. (My literary affections, for Barthelme and Cortázar, were, well, affected.) This is partly a Canadian thing. Martin Short, in his lovely recent memoir, writes of growing up a Sinatra fanatic and imitator in Hamilton, Ontario, a few short years before I did the same in Montreal. He suggests, I think correctly, that the space, small but real, between America’s fierce political-musical sortings of the period (to be with Sinatra was, for an American, to stand with Spiro Agnew) and Canada’s nicely blurred and gentler sortings allowed us to love Sinatra without worrying too much about what he stood for. All that was made indistinct by distance. (Though Short admits that his late wife, Nancy, had to explain to their kids that their father had been raised in a weird Canadian musical time warp.)
I certainly never abandoned the passion. In fact, one of my very first pieces for this magazine, almost thirty years ago, was an account of Sid Mark, the disk jockey who has been playing nothing but Sinatra records for what was then thirty and is now closer to sixty years. (He’s still around and playing nothing but Frank!) And I was privileged to write a farewell notice when Sinatra died, in 1998. But I still find Sinatra resistance in surprising corners. What ought to be his unshakeable reputation as the subtlest, the most charming and profound, the least show-offy and exhibitionist, the most sensitive and emotionally rewarding and wide-ranging of all American singers, has, I’ve discovered, never entirely recovered from his late, leisure-suited, swaggering period, nor from the tough-guy reputation that stuck to him (not entirely of his own conniving, but not entirely not either), nor from the bad, late duet recordings, where bravura and bravado tried to do the work of musicianship. I spent some time this past weekend trying to persuade a friend of excellent taste, who saw the new HBO documentary and was a bit bemused by it, to really listen to Sinatra. Though I said nothing that you won’t find in other forms from other writers—Will Friedwald, Wilfrid Sheed, and Whitney Balliett have all said much the same thing —I present a version of it here as a service to all the doubters, in the doomed but evangelical spirit of a Jehovah’s Witness handing out pamphlets in the subway:
Just a few more organized words on Sinatra.
If nothing survived of Sinatra but what’s been written about him, posterity would have a hugely misleading impression. If you had never heard the music and only read the biographies (or seen the documentaries with the sound off), you’d be left with a sense of bigness: big voice, big manner, big entertainer—a brawling guy, a sort of pop Pavarotti, a crooner Caruso, a guy blessed with a giant instrument that sets plaster falling from the ceiling, but who didn’t use his instrument well or have much taste. In truth, a less operatic, stage-forward singer hasn’t lived. Sinatra is all understatement, relaxation, wit, and ease. “The Voice” is mostly kept underneath the music; the aesthetic is one of inwardness. He’s much less self-consciously virtuosic than even his contemporaries among pop singers. Judy Garland is all vibrato and tears; Sinatra is all legato and regrets. In recordings, Bing Crosby or—greater still—Louis Armstrong both still sound like performers: you feel the stage and the footlights in their singing. Sinatra’s voice is always that of someone confiding, not someone emoting. He isn’t square. This gives his voice its extraordinary sympathy. He sounds the way you would sound if you could speak the things you feel. (His first role in the movies, and on records, was that of the younger brother, the kid. This matured into his role as the big brother, the counselor.)
The virtues that are essential to his art—understated swing, intelligent understanding of the lyrics, perfect taste in material—would seem to be ones that might belong to a fine jazz singer of lesser fame: a Mel Torme, or a Johnny Hartman. (Hartman is the black Sinatra, and of all other singers comes closest to his tone, though he lacks his sense of mischief.) But Sinatra’s odd charisma and power as a personality made his gifts as an artist part of his fame as a star. And so you get these two odd, coinciding figures: Frank and Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board and the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau of pop—really, the first artist to make thought-through pop albums. Sinatra was not a jazz artist, but he was one of the number—including Leonard Bernstein and Alec Wilder, around the same time—who brought jazz ideas into thoroughly composed and arranged music. Of all Sinatra’s alliances, the most telling, early on, may have been with Wilder, the nonpareil composer of great pop songs and melancholic chamber music, whose orchestral compositions Sinatra conducted for a fascinating session in the nineteen-forties. (There’s an agonized what-happened-between-us? letter to Sinatra in Wilder’s collected correspondence, though, as with many of Wilder’s letters, it was never mailed.)
So don’t start with the Vegas-era material, though it has its charms. Start instead with the live recording of Sinatra in Australia in 1959, with the Red Norvo trio—a fine jazz-vibraphone group. Listen to his “Night And Day” and hear chamber-swing singing of a very high order. Though one hears “Frank” in the recording, too: he turns on a musician who has hit a clam in the opening chord of “ All The Way,” then deliberately screeches out of tune and warns icily: “Nobody sleeps in this act, Freddie.” Admirable perfectionism and thuggish intimidation, and at the same time. (To my shock, this aside, which became at our family’s table a wildly annoying paternal motto, used frequently on distracted children, turns out to have a little sociological literature of its own. Though one of the commentators of the midrash on this bit of the Talmud thinks, wrongly I am sure, that it is addressed to a dozy audience member rather than to a delinquent in the band.) Only then move on to the fifteen Capitol albums recorded between 1954 to 1961, which are the heart of his work, from “Songs For Young Lovers” to “Point of No Return.” (Louis Menand has insisted, accurately, that there’s an iron, three-year law of stardom; but there’s a six- or seven-year penumbra of excellence around the three years of heat.)
What will astonish you is—there’s no other phrase—the purity of Sinatra’s artistry. Nothing is thrown in for effect; there are no second-rate songs; he revives what was then a dated repertoire of classic material and brings it to life. It’s essential to hear what all that Gershwin and Porter and even Rodgers & Hart stuff sounds like in the original Broadway recordings to grasp what Sinatra (and the arranger, Nelson Riddle, yes, but Riddle was Sinatra’s choice) did to them. Sinatra did not merely interpret the American songbook. In many respects he invented it. Listen to the original recordings of the great Rodgers & Hart numbers and you will be amazed—and a little shocked—by how much of the thrum and vibrato and rhythmic squareness of operetta they retain. They become the songs we know when Sinatra begins to sing them. The “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” sung by Nancy Lamott and James Taylor is a masterpiece of composition—a perfect song, with a sterling idiomatic lyric and an unforgettable dark-into-light melody—but it is infinitely closer to the Sinatra version than to the square, melodramatic, prim sound of the stage original. (You can find that on YouTube, too.) And with one, so with many: Sinatra made the songbook happen. His version of Cole Porter is so free as to be—almost, not really—a new invention. That’s the mystery: he’s perfectly faithful to the songs and wonderfully free with them. (Billie Holiday, I learned later, first found this freedom, and Sinatra learned it from her, but she was forced to use almost entirely sub-standard material.) Ella Fitzgerald codified the songbook; but Sinatra intuited it first. Listen especially to “Only the Lonely,” the Schubertian album, and to “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” which is the scherzo one; try “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which manages to be both tremulous and torrential, and if you’re not converted, you never will be.
Of course, this way of talking risks making a poet into a pedant—but the odd thing is that the pedantry, the insistence on singing good songs, is one simple but potent reason that Sinatra was such a good singer. The familiar Sinatra story (which is detailed again in the HBO documentary)—that he was forced to sing badly by Columbia, in the fifties, before he sang well for Capitol—may have some myth in it, but the commercial resistance to good old songs was part of what he had to overcome. And, pretty much alone, he did. At the tail end of his career, he got shaky exactly because his taste got, or was made, shaky; when he had good material—as in the tragically underrated album that Bob Gaudio wrote for him, “Watertown”—he was almost as good as ever.
The truth is that you only get Sinatra if you break free from the pop sociology that infests his reputation and just listen. The HBO documentary is far from free of that interpretive tendency, with too-breezy generalizations about omnipresent cultural moods neatly expressed in changing musical attitudes; it tends to turn a career as a singer-artist into a series of publicity poses. In the old days, studios and record companies imposed such poses; now pop critics infer them—but those critics, too often, tend to make the social poses more important than the songs.
Not that there isn’t something worth contemplating in the many faces Sinatra projected. There are, to be sure, at least two Sinatras—the swinging Sinatra and the sad Sinatra—and if one is hostile to the personality (or to the man), then one might insist that they represent the two sides, so to speak, of the Tony Sopranos of the world, the violent and the maudlin. There is no special virtue, in other words, in having access to vulnerability, as Sinatra’s admirers like to say, when it’s simply a kind of self-pity alongside the exercise of violence. What’s fascinating, though, is that both accounts of Sinatra are true: he is the id of the Tony Sopranos of the world, defining their most basic drives (dominance and self-pity), and he is the super-ego of the American male psyche, defining its two most attractive traits: the charm of self-confidence and the melancholy of self-reflection (the same traits we love in Scott Fitzgerald). Sinatra is the American singer; he is the American song. Nobody—really nobody—should sleep in, or through, this act, all Freddies included.