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Masterful Singer, Chorus of Praise

By Karlyn Barker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday May 16, 1998; Page A01

  Style Showcase


    In Paris Sinatra, arriving in Paris, 1968. (AP Photo)
Frank Sinatra, 82, who died Thursday night at a Los Angeles hospital after a heart attack, was hailed yesterday as a versatile, combative crooner whose unique sound and intimate style made him this century's acknowledged master of popular song during a career that spanned nearly 60 years.

Sinatra, who influenced such disparate artists as Bruce Springsteen and opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, won nine Grammys, recorded more than 2,000 songs and made 240 albums. From his 1939 "All or Nothing at All" to his 1994 "Duets II," he performed an impressive repertory of 20th-century popular vocal music, often choosing tunes and lyrics that expressed his emotional ups and downs. He also made more than 50 films, including "From Here to Eternity," for which he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1953 and "The Man With the Golden Arm," for which he received an Oscar nomination.

Famous for his intensely personal interpretation of lyrics, he sang songs – the aching, bittersweet love ballads, the cocky, swinging renditions of old standards – with peerless phrasing and intimacy.

Sinatra first came to musical prominence in the early 1940s as the slender, sunken-cheeked singing idol, whose screaming fans erupted in a hysteria matched later by only Elvis Presley and the Beatles. After a slump in popularity, the scrappy entertainer made a stunning professional comeback in the mid-1950s, recording some of his best, top-selling albums and winning his Academy Award for dramatic acting.

After dominating the music business, movies and Las Vegas, he quit performing briefly in 1971, then reemerged in 1973 to enjoy continued concert and recording success as "Ol' Blue Eyes." He last performed in public in February 1995 at his annual charity golf tournament in Palm Springs, Calif., but seldom left his Beverly Hills home after suffering a heart attack in January 1997.

He was almost as well known for his temper and run-ins with the media. He also was generous and kind to friends and strangers, everyone from U.S. presidents and other leading entertainers to children he never met but whose hospital bills he frequently paid.

But it was as a singer that the once skinny, bow-tied kid from Hoboken, N.J., gained his lasting, worldwide renown.

"Frank Sinatra was a true original," singer and lyricist Mel Torme said yesterday. "He held the patent, the original blueprint on singing and the popular song, a man who would have thousands of imitators but who, himself, would never be influenced by a single, solitary person."

As news of Sinatra's death spread across the country and around the world, tributes to the singer once known simply as "The Voice" poured in from President Clinton, fellow entertainers and sorrowful fans – some of whom rushed into record stores to snap up Sinatra compact discs.

"I think every American would have to smile and say he really did do it his way," Clinton said from Birmingham, England, where he is attending an economic summit. "I was an enormous admirer of his."

At Tower Records on 21st Street NW, customer Pat Kennedy, in town from the Bronx, N.Y., marked the day by buying "Sinatra's 80th-All the Best," a double disc greatest-hits collection. Later, he said, he and his friends would mourn Sinatra's passing in a manner befitting the self-styled saloon singer.

"We've been expecting this for some time," said Kennedy, 28. "We promised that when the day came, we'd all go out and get stinking drunk and listen to Frank. That's what we're going to do – find some old man bar, pop quarters into the jukebox, listen to Sinatra all night and drown our sorrows."

In Los Angeles, at Hollywood and Vine, once the crossroads of Hollywood's golden era, fans left messages and flowers on one of Sinatra's three stars on the Walk of Fame.

"He'll be missed, but his legacy will go on forever," said Ray Martinez, a disc jockey who once worked at a party at the entertainer's house. In his car, Martinez had taped a picture of Sinatra, with the message: "Thanks, Frank, for doing it your way."

And in Hoboken, John Spano, proprietor of Pinky's Anything and Everything – located next to the spot where Sinatra's birthplace stood before fire destroyed it – sold his whole supply of Sinatra mugs, buttons and T-shirts within 45 minutes of opening.

"It's something everyone knew was coming, so it's hard to be super sad," Spano said. "When people reminisce, they're talking about the good things. The Chairman of the Board, that seat is vacant."

To his fans, among them Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, U2's Bono, Bob Dylan and Little Richard, Sinatra had no equal. In 1995, to mark his 80th birthday, admirers as musically diverse as Springsteen, Tony Bennett and Salt-N-Pepa paid tribute in a special televised concert.

"The pure artistry of his voice and the freedom in his singing are unmatched," Springsteen said at the time, describing Sinatra's singing as "filled with bad attitude, life, beauty, excitement . . . sex and a sad knowledge of the ways of the world."

His music "became synonymous with black tie, the good life, the best booze, women, sophistication, [but] his blues voice was always the sound of hard luck and men late at night with the last $10 in their pockets trying to figure a way out," he said.

Singer Barbra Streisand said yesterday that Sinatra "was the epitome of what singing is all about, beautiful sound, smooth as silk, effortless, impeccable phrasing, stylish, intelligent and full of heart."

Leonard Slatkin, the National Symphony Orchestra conductor whose parents frequently backed Sinatra on recordings in the 1950s and 1960s, called him "the most dominant, most influential vocalist of the 20th century in pop culture." Sinatra, he said, "had a far greater influence than Presley because of how broad his music was. [He] would take one song and refine and change it over 40 years. He brought the same discipline to 'I've Got You Under My Skin' that Dietrich Fischer-Diskau brought to Schubert Lieder."

Among his classic recordings: "I'll Never Smile Again," "I'll Be Seeing You," "Witchcraft," "I've Got You Under My Skin," and "My Way," for a time his personal anthem.

Torme's views aside, Sinatra always credited singers Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby as influencing his musical style. Analyzing his success in a 1963 Playboy magazine interview, he said: "It's because I get an audience involved, personally involved, in a song – because I'm involved myself. . . . Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant. When I sing, I believe. I'm honest."

In the same interview, though discussing his music, he seemed to hint at the complex personality behind his well-publicized temper and stormy relationships – and the numerous, but lesser known, acts of generosity.

"Being an 18 karat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an over-acute capacity for sadness as well as elation," he said.

He married four times, and his former wives included actresses Ava Gardner and Mia Farrow.

"He was the first love of my life, and he remained a true friend, always there when I needed him," Farrow said yesterday. "I will miss him more than words can say."

Sinatra had a legendary appreciation for a good lyric and co-wrote two of his early hits, "This Love of Mine" and "I'm a Fool to Want You." He preferred the sophisticated songwriting work of Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Sammy Cahn, and he recorded with some of the top arrangers and conductors in show business, among them Sy Oliver, Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins and Count Basie.

His movie career, in both musical and dramatic roles, frequently was acclaimed. In addition to his 1953 Oscar-winning performance in "From Here to Eternity," in which he played Angelo Maggio, a GI who is killed by a sadistic sergeant, Sinatra starred or co-starred in such films as "On the Town," "The Man With the Golden Arm" – in which he played a heroin addict – "High Society," "Pal Joey," and "The Manchurian Candidate."

Sinatra also was awarded a special Oscar in 1945 for his performance in "The House I Live In," a short subject – for which he donated his services – devoted to the theme of racial and ethnic tolerance.

In the 1950s, he twice hosted his own weekly television show. His 1955 TV appearance as the stage manager in the musical version of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" was widely praised. And his 1965 television special, "Frank Sinatra: A Man and His Music," won Emmy and Peabody awards.

Francis Albert Sinatra was born Dec. 12, 1915, the only child of Anthony and "Dolly" Sinatra, both natives of Italy. His father, a former bantamweight fighter, was a member of the Hoboken fire department. His mother was a nurse and Democratic ward leader. Frank Sinatra dropped out of high school, where he sang in the glee club during his sophomore year, and later worked as a truck loader and copy boy at a local newspaper.

But impressed by Crosby's success, Sinatra began entering singing contests. In 1935, the Hoboken Four, with him as lead singer, won first prize on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour radio broadcast. He was working as a $25-a-week singer at the Rustic Cabin in Alpine, N.J., in 1939 when band leader Harry James caught his act and signed him to a $75-a-week contract.

In 1940, he joined Tommy Dorsey's band.

"We were on stage when Tommy made the announcement for Sinatra's first appearance," singer Jo Stafford recalled. "As Frank came up to the mike, I just thought, 'Hmmm, kinda thin.' But by the end of eight bars, I was thinking, 'This is the greatest sound I've ever heard.' But he had more. . . . You knew he couldn't do a number badly."

Dorsey teamed Sinatra with the band's Pied Pipers quartet, and their 1940 recording of "I'll Never Smile Again" became No. 1. Critics and the public started to take notice of the lead singer, a skinny baritone in oversized bow ties.

It was during that period that Sinatra developed his distinctive singing style – by copying Dorsey's unusual way of phrasing with his trombone. He learned the technique of breathing in the middle of a note, so he could slide smoothly from one note to the next and preserve the continuity of a lyric.

Sinatra quit Dorsey's band in 1942. His first solo engagement was at New York's Paramount Theatre, where the 27-year-old was deemed a sensation by World War II-bruised bobby-soxers. A press agent later conceded that at least part of the Paramount hysteria was staged.

"We hired girls to scream when he sexily rolled a note," the agent said. "But the girls we hired to scream swooned, and hundreds more we didn't hire swooned with them."

Sinatra – exempted during the war because of a punctured eardrum – quickly became the singing idol of the country, pulling in $25,000 a week. There were club dates, a starring spot on the radio show "Your Hit Parade," contracts with Columbia Records and MGM, and later "The Frank Sinatra Show" on CBS.

There also was saturation coverage of just about everything he did. It made him furious – particularly when reporters began trailing him after he took up with Ava Gardner while still married to his first wife, Nancy, the mother of his three children. A lifelong feud with the media was born.

By 1950, though, his popularity had waned. The Big Band era was over, and his records weren't selling. Even his voice deteriorated, giving out altogether one night when his throat hemorrhaged while he was on stage. Probably an all-time low occurred in 1951, when he cut a novelty record with TV personality Dagmar. Produced by Mitch Miller, it featured Dagmar singing – and Sinatra barking and growling.

While his star plummeted, Gardner's was rising. They had married in 1951, a week after his divorce was final, but the relationship was marred by career and other conflicts.

A year later, his recording contract with Columbia expired, and no label made a move to sign him. Capitol Records finally proffered a contract but with terms that were a far cry from his "Swoonatra" days: no advance, arranging and musicians' costs to be paid by him.

He accompanied Gardner to Africa, where she was filming "Mogambo" with Clark Gable. But he returned to Hollywood to screen test for the movie role that launched one of show business's greatest comebacks. He begged for the chance to play Maggio. Surprised critics raved.

By the time he received the Oscar in 1953, he was recording again.

But the Sinatra who went back into the recording studio was a different singer than the Sinatra of a decade earlier. His voice was deeper, richer. Still the temperamental perfectionist, he recast himself as the hip swinger and concentrated on albums instead of singles. His Capitol LPs, recorded between 1953 and 1960, are among the most popular ever made, and he later recorded more than 20 hit albums on his own label, Reprise.

Trying to explain Sinatra's influence, blues singer Joe Williams said in a recent magazine interview that "Frank's personal interpretation of a lyric [is] like people who read poetry, or an actor in a role. With Frank, each song is a vignette for the story, and he tells it like nobody else."

For a time, at the height of his renewed popular appeal in the 1960s, Sinatra was the leader of the "Rat Pack", a collection of Hollywood show business cronies such as Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford, then the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy. They took their act, and their rowdy, "Ring-a-ding-ding" partying, to Las Vegas and made several comedy/adventure movies.

Considered a loyal friend by those who knew him best, Sinatra could be counted on in times of need. He paid hospital bills in financial emergencies, made numerous contributions to charity and sponsored several philanthropic endeavors.

After Gardner, for whom he carried a torch for years despite their 1957 divorce, he dated actresses Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak, Jill St. John and dancer Juliet Prowse, to whom he was briefly engaged. In 1965, the year he turned 50, he began dating 19-year-old Mia Farrow. They married the next year but divorced in 1968. In 1976, he married Barbara Marx, a former Las Vegas show girl.

He remained friends with all his former wives and was particularly close to first wife Nancy and their children, Nancy, Frank Jr. and Tina. He encouraged Nancy and Frank Jr. when they embarked on singing careers, even recording a hit duet, "Somethin' Stupid," with his daughter in 1969. His son later became the orchestra conductor at his father's concerts.

Over the years, Sinatra's voice changed, sliding "from violin to viola to cello," as songwriter Cahn once put it. But his popular appeal endured, particularly with older audiences, as did his penchant for controversy.

A devout Democrat in his early years, he campaigned for a fourth term for Franklin D. Roosevelt and was an ardent supporter of Kennedy, singing at his inaugural. But the Kennedy family later distanced themselves, in part because of the singer's alleged ties to Mafia figures.

According to a 1970s Senate investigation of underworld crime, Sinatra introduced first Kennedy and then Chicago mobster Sam Giancana to Judith Campbell Exner, who alleged that she had affairs with both men. His relationships with syndicate hoodlums figured in several federal probes, and he was forced to sell his half-interest in a Lake Tahoe gambling casino in 1963 after officials discovered Giancana was staying there.

But in 1981, after praising Sinatra for his charitable works, the Nevada Gaming Commission gave him a state gaming license. Actors Kirk Douglas and Gregory Peck testified on his behalf, and there was a supportive letter from President Ronald Reagan, a friend since their Hollywood days.

In 1981 and again in 1985, he produced and performed at Reagan's inaugural galas. He later was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award a civilian can receive from the U.S. government in peacetime.

His trips to Washington were not without incident, however. In 1985, during an inaugural gala rehearsal, he reacted angrily to a Washington Post story about his Rat Pack days. Issuing a message to the media, he warned: "You read The Post this afternoon? You're all dead, every one of you. You're all dead."

There were more serious controversies. In 1981 and 1983, in defiance of a United Nations cultural boycott protesting South Africa's apartheid policies, Sinatra gave several concerts in Sun City in the black homeland of Bophuthatswana. He was criticized for insensitivity to the aspirations of oppressed blacks, a curious turnabout for someone who had championed Nat King Cole's and Sammy Davis's right to have homes in white Hollywood neighborhoods – and who once slugged a Southerner for refusing to serve a black musician.

In 1983, Sinatra filed a lawsuit against Kitty Kelley in an unsuccessful effort to stop her from researching and writing a gossipy, unflattering biography of him. He also clashed with cartoonist Garry Trudeau in 1985 when Trudeau's "Doonesbury" strip satirized the singer's arrogant reputation and alleged organized crime ties.

But there were more congratulations than criticism. In 1971, he received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In 1976, because of his fund-raising efforts for Israel, the American Friends of the Hebrew University of Israel presented him with its Scopus Award. In 1980, he won the Humanitarian award presented by Variety Clubs International. And in 1983, he was a recipient of the prestigious Kennedy Center Honors.

Through controversy and kudos, his fans never wavered. They bought his music, updating their collections from 78s to LPs to CDs. They bought his concert tickets. They even bought his castoffs, paying $2.1 million for items Sinatra auctioned off in 1995 when he moved from Palm Springs to Los Angeles. His metal mailbox, with "F. Sinatra" stenciled on both sides, sold for $13,800.

Hofstra University will host a Frank Sinatra Conference this year for a scholarly look at his life and impact, a gathering that has been in planning for several months.

In a statement issued yesterday, Sinatra's publicist Susan Reynolds said he was pronounced dead at 10:50 p.m. Thursday in the emergency room of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. A private funeral is planned.

"Through his music, Frank Sinatra was a friend to millions," Reynolds said in her statement. "He is a comfort during sad times and a co-celebrant at happy occasions. Frank Sinatra is a stranger to no one."

Perhaps the most poignant and truthful tribute to Sinatra came last year on his 82nd birthday. He received 100,000 messages on the Internet, including one that said simply, "You are the soundtrack of my life."

Staff writers Marc Fisher, Paula Span, Sharon Waxman and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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