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Sinatra Crooned, World Swooned

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 16, 1998; Page D01

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    Kiss goodbye "The Chairman of the Board"
(Patrick Hertzogt/AFP)
He called himself a mere "saloon singer" from Hoboken, N.J. But Frank Sinatra, who died yesterday at 82, was much more than that.

With his bourbon-smooth baritone voice; his suave, intimate singing style that was both tough and tender; and an uncanny ability to embody public fantasy that made him an idol of millions, Sinatra attained a position of power and influence without equal in the entertainment industry.

"Frank Sinatra is by any reasonable criterion the greatest singer in the history of American popular music," critic John Rockwell wrote in his 1984 book, "Sinatra: An American Classic." As a performer, Sinatra was a consummate stylist who changed the course of popular singing. He eschewed the crooning manner of his most obvious predecessors, Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby, in favor of emotional ballads with provocative lyrics that were delivered with feeling (indeed, sometimes a excruciating vulnerability) and superb phrasing. Crosby once declared that he wasn't really a singer in the traditional sense but rather a phraser. The same could be said, with even more justification, for Sinatra.

He recorded hundreds of songs, some of them several times. (Cole Porter's "Night and Day" exists in almost a dozen versions, including an ill-advised disco rendition from the late 1970s.) His first hit was "I'll Never Smile Again" in 1942. Half a century later, when Sinatra was 78, he was still on top – his first album of "Duets" was released and immediately went platinum. This disc, which the critic Will Freedwald has called Sinatra's "economic zenith, technological masterpiece and artistic nadir," featured him singing (mostly through studio overdubbing) with such disparate performers as Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Bono, Gloria Estefan, Julio Iglesias and Kenny G, and brought him yet another new audience.

In his prime, standing close to the microphone with a snap-brim hat and a sports jacket slung over one shoulder, Sinatra achieved a complete, symbiotic identification with whatever he was singing. Yeats mused poetically on just how to tell the dancer from the dance; when Sinatra was at his best, it was difficult to separate the singer from the song.

Much of his material could have been autobiographical (one thinks immediately of "My Way," written for Sinatra by Paul Anka, "September of My Years" and "It Was a Very Good Year," among others). He specialized in the intimate love ballad, evocative and sensuous, either wooing with visions of moonlight dancing, champagne, rising cigarette smoke and promises of a night on the town, or playing the lonely man sitting on a bar stool at closing time. His voice grew deeper and less versatile with time, but took on an additional poignancy that only made his singing more affecting.

Still, singing was only part of the Sinatra appeal. He made more than 50 films, and won an Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1953 for his portrayal of the doomed G.I. in "From Here to Eternity." He had television shows in the '50s on two networks. Thereafter, he appeared regularly on television specials into the 1970s.

In short, Sinatra was ubiquitous. You heard his records on the jukebox, in the taxicab, in the barroom and steakhouse. Several radio stations presented regular "all-Sinatra" programs; one New York station converted briefly to an all-Sinatra format. Grandparents, who had danced and shrieked to Sinatra when they were young, lived to see their descendants run out and buy his records again. Somehow, he was always there.

"His life has touched on innumerable facets of our culture over the last half century," Rockwell observed, "the struggle of ethnic subgroups within American society; the stylistic revolutions of popular music; the rise of electronic technology and its impact on the business of music; the connections between music and films, entertainment and the underworld, and entertainment in politics, left and right. His career has been shaped by the tangled links between classical music, jazz, pop and rock; by the ambivalent bonds between ethics and art; by the mass sexual hysteria of youth; by the pain of romantic love and the dry desperation of aging bachelorhood; by the personal distortions that celebrity status inflicts upon those who so eagerly desire to be celebrities and succeed."

Sinatra always credited the trombonist and band leader Tommy Dorsey, with whom he sang from 1940 to 1942, as the principal element in his musical education. The secret of his style, he said, was his breath control that he perfected after observing Dorsey sneak inhalations through a "pinhole" in the corner of his mouth. In a performance, he became able to sing six and sometimes eight bars without taking a visible or audible breath. "This gave the melody a flowing, unbroken quality and that – if anything – was what made me sound different," he said.

His career exploded with a celebrated long-running engagement at the New York Paramount theater in 1944. The scene at the Paramount, in the heart of Times Square, was the stuff of legend: thousands of bobby-soxers, some of them waiting from the break of dawn, in lines that circled the block – fainting on the sidewalk, smashing store windows, rioting inside the theater and waving undergarments in the air, all the while shouting "Frank – eee!!"

This was long before the advent of such entertainers as Elvis Presley and the Beatles, who made such behavior familiar; many commentators were baffled and offended by the spectacle. Some editorial writers turned to psychologists for explanations. One popular theory suggested that Sinatra was a surrogate for the soldiers fighting overseas in World War II. Others thought that Sinatra's fragile appearance aroused sublimated maternal instinct. Cynics maintained that the display was engineered by Sinatra's public relations man, one George Evans. Twenty years later, in fact, one of Evans's associates affirmed that some girls had indeed been hired to scream. But nobody paid for the swooning.

There were a few brief periods when Sinatra's star seemed to wane, most notably in the late '40s and early '50s, and again in the counterculture-dominated late '60s and early '70s, during which time he actually retired for two years. ("Nobody's writing any songs for me, and I don't know what to do about it," he explained at the time.)

But he always made a comeback. By the end of his career, his annual income was estimated in the tens of millions – from royalties; record albums; his (increasingly infrequent) live appearances; real estate ventures; and holdings in several companies, including a missile-parts firm, a private airline, Reprise Records (which he founded), Artanis (Sinatra spelled backward) Productions, and Sinatra Enterprises, a personal corporation. He had his own jet and a rambling house in Palm Springs, Calif., with a private helicopter pad and a full-time staff of 75. Until his hair transplant operations, he even had one employee whose sole responsibility was said to be the care and transportation of a selection of toupees.

This is not the place to dwell at length on the less attractive aspects of the Sinatra personality. Great geniuses are not always great human beings – this has been proved again and again throughout history. Sinatra was exuberant, flamboyant and vulnerable, quick to feel both deep sadness and profound elation.

He was known to fly into fits of rage, in which he might toss an ashtray at an assistant, a pitcher filled with water at a fellow musician, or a fist at a photographer. He particularly detested personality journalism, and some regular targets of his abuse were the Washington Post's Maxine Cheshire and the syndicated columnists Liz Smith and Rex Reed. During a 1974 tour of Australia, his insulting behavior managed to enrage an entire country; indeed, the Australian Transport Union workers refused to refuel his jet, which blocked his departure from the continent, until he profferred a grudging apology.

There was a certain vulgarity about the Sinatra persona, with his misogynist and homophobic onstage comments, his public attacks on people who displeased him and his ties to the gangland underworld. In the '80s, comic Joe Piscopo regularly did a fairly good sendup of Sinatra on "Saturday Night Live" that called to mind Lenny Bruce's comment, "There's nothing sadder than an aging hipster." Some Sinatra stories are so wonderfully smarmy as to be irresistible; legend has it that when he sang at the Democratic National Convention in 1956, then-Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn came up and threw an arm around his shoulder. "Hands off the threads, creep," Sinatra is supposed to have snapped.

But he also had a reputation for acts of spontaneous generosity – helping out beginning singers, bestowing extravagant gifts and bailing out friends who were down on their luck. Sinatra's image, carefully fostered by public relations firms, was that of the cocky, rebellious but ingenious young man who fought his way out of Hoboken, N.J., and had never stopped fighting.

According to Freedwald's excellent and exhaustive study of the singer's recordings, "Sinatra: The Song Is You," Sinatra was never a "vocal virtuoso." "But what he has substituted for pure technique in the very good years since his youth has proved far more meaningful," Freedwald continued. "His ability to tell a story has consistently gotten sharper even as the voice grew deeper and the textures surrounding it richer. Generally, rhythm and dynamics are discussed as if they were two distinct qualities, but with Sinatra they're inseparable."

He had an enormously fluid sense of phrasing, with nothing four-square about it. In a word, he swung – teasing along the rhythm of his songs, playing with breath control in a manner that was extraordinarily sophisticated (Sinatra was revered by most classical singers, who were aware of the difficulties he so smoothly surmounted). He chose splendid arrangers – Axel Stordahl, Billy May and Nelson Riddle, among others – and made at least one recording as a conductor. One of his albums – "Close to You," released in 1956 and considered his masterpiece by some listeners – was accompanied solely by a string quartet. (The ensemble was the splendid Hollywood String Quartet, featuring first violin Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller, the parents of National Symphony Orchestra maestro Leonard Slatkin.)

Curiously enough, although Sinatra was an extraordinary perfectionist in the studio (he worked on "Close to You" for more than six months), he was quite the opposite when working in film. He was notorious for the way his takes would become less and less effective as he did them again and again. He was quickly bored by routine. And indeed, once a recording was finished, he had no more interest in it. When he was asked in a 1983 radio interview to name his favorite recordings, he replied, "The ones that stick in my mind are the ones where I think the orchestrator's work and my work came together closely, for instance, 'Only the Lonely,' 'Wee Small Hours' and some of the jazz things with Billy May." Then he paused; many who heard the program were convinced he simply couldn't remember the names of any of his other albums.

His fans can remember those titles vividly – "Songs for Swinging Lovers," "No One Cares," "Come Fly With Me," "Nice and Easy," "Point of No Return," "September of My Years," "Strangers in the Night" and the others, classics all. In many ways, Sinatra anticipated the "concept albums" of the late '60s and '70s – he plotted many of these discs not merely as grab bags of recent work but as complete artistic statements, with beginnings, middles and ends.

There is something both antiquated and forever young about Sinatra's artistic vision. He calls up a lost, spurious big-city glamour – a high life fueled by alcohol, tobacco and willing women – and it is not merely the stern prudery of our own era that has made us mistrust this utopia. No, we will continue to revere and love Sinatra for his ability to capture universal human emotions, in all of their contradictions and complexity, within the straitened limits of a popular song.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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