Over the nearly six decades of Frank Sinatra's career, details of his often turbulent private life have fueled many a newspaper headline, yet none of his relationships has been as stormy as that of his lifelong involvement with the music business, and by extension, his audience. Any number of artists have had to struggle with the demands of the marketplace, but extremely few have impacted the colossus of public taste as Sinatra has, shaping it with the force of his talent and the probity of his vision.
When he appeared in the late Thirties, Sinatra was only one of countless crooners to emerge in the wake of Bing Crosby. What set this skinny kid from Hoboken apart from Crosby and his followers was a characteristic that, ironically enough, may be the most commercial hook of all: His honeyed voice was just dripping with sex.
True, one of his greatest gifts, his ability to personalize a song and make it believable, is evident on even his earliest recordings; but it was hardly these elements that had the teenage girls swooning in the aisles. Critic Will Friedwald pinpointed the appeal of Young Blue Eyes: "Sinatra showed a patience and a willingness to take his time, and a sensuality that must have sounded like forbidden fruit to the repressed and post-depressed generation . . . Never in a hurry, yet always in a tempo you could dance or pat your foot to, Sinatra sang with an erotic warmth that implied slow lovemaking."
Listening to Sinatra's Forties recordings, one has to marvel at the intimacy of his vocal, the overwhelming impression that he is singing to you personally. Moreover, a kind of glow seems to envelop each performance; have any records before or since captured such an aura of romantic longing? It is as if each individual 78 rpm record had Sinatra's very heartbeat encoded into the grooves; they live and breathe with each listener. Both altruistic and alluring, starry-eyed and seductive, his tender brand of masculinity was the perfect key to unlock timid young hearts.
But if sex appeal afforded timeliness, this one singer was determined to be timeless. Like his contemporaries, he relied on new songs for chart hits; but by lacing his recording schedule liberally with tunes by Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, and their Tin Pan Alley colleagues, Sinatra helped invent the concept of the standard, the song worth reprising.
More important than the standards he sang, however, were the standards he applied to his art. Those who know him through his Rat Pack foolishness or his caustic Eighties persona may find it difficult to conceive of the care with which he approached the business of making records -- accents on both the records and the business. He wanted the most substantial songs, the most inspired arrangements, and the most sympatico musicians; but he also understood the business, and it seems likely that he knew from the very start what types of compromises would be beneficial, even necessary to his career.
His early years at Columbia certainly saw their share of creative give-and-take. These tended to fall into either of two categories. There were experimental forays into musical idioms outside of pop balladry, such as his gospel session with the Charioteers vocal group ("I've Got a Home in That Rock" and "Jesus is a Rock in the Weary Land," 1945), or half-hearted stabs at Americana ("Home on the Range," 1946, unreleased until 1991) and modern jazz ("Bop! Goes My Heart," 1948). There were also the occasions when he stooped to exploit wartime nostalgia, recording songs like "Homesick, That's All," which, stripped of their topical appeal, sound as phony today as the phonetic Italian he trips over in "I Have But One Heart" (both 1945).
Disappointment inevitably stems from high expectations. It is only after the singer has made us misty-eyed with "Where or When," drowned our sorrows with "You Go to My Head," and puffed out our chests with "You'll Never Walk Alone" (all 1945), that we rightfully feel let down when he offers up only greeting-card sentimentality. Others fared better with such material: Doris Day's massive "Sentimental Journey" today comes off as dated but not pandering, as it was perfectly suited to her vocal style - warm, but lacking depth. (In fact, Sinatra covered that song years later, providing the only lull on the otherwise stunning Come Swing with Me [Capitol, 1961].)
Such infractions were few. More often one is struck by the consistently stellar quality of his first few years at the label. For the most part, he'd settled into a comfortable routine, alternating records of his own favorite songs with sides devoted to the latest potential hits. As the Fifties approached, however, the songs pitched his way by new Artists & Repertoire chief "Sing Along With" Mitch Miller were rarely the kind he could take seriously, leaning towards folk songs and forgettable fluff. The singer held his ground as long as he could, resisting novelty tunes of the sort that made careers for Perry Como, Guy Mitchell, and even Rosemary Clooney. But like anyone else, Sinatra's clout had its limits. In order to make the kind of records he preferred, he had to generate sales. As his efforts fell further from the top of the charts, he was persuaded to stray farther from the music he liked best.
The results weren't all bad. Sinatra comes off reasonably well in an unnecessarily hideous Miller arrangement of Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene" (1950). It went to #5, but Sinatra hated it, and only with great reluctance answered concert requests for it. "One Finger Melody" (1950, a #9 hit) is childish but tuneful. "Peachtree Street" (1950), on the other hand, is a non-entity of a song that becomes a gem of a duet with Clooney, overflowing with charm and chemistry; only commercially did it go nowhere.
While many hold Miller responsible for the mediocrity of much of this period, it was also the Goateed One who encouraged the singer to tackle his first album of swingers, Sing and Dance with Frank Sinatra (1950). Though hardly as infectious as his later Capitol triumphs, it was undeniably a step in the right direction. Sinatra also continued to pour his heart into great ballads, most notably "I'm a Fool to Want You" (1951). But by this time, as Miller has succinctly noted, "The good stuff just wasn't selling." At least not enough.
All, the singer had been demanding for years, All or nothing at all.
Sinatra had first recorded "All or Nothing at All" in 1939 with the Harry James band. As written, the song concerns the minimum acceptable level of a lover's affections. Over the course of Sinatra's career, however, it takes on the feel of a mantra, an ultimatum to his audience. Case in point: There exists a widespread misconception that in his final years at Columbia, he'd become a stranger to the charts ("Exchanging glances ..."). Yet "I'm a Fool to Want You" went to #14; the rhythmic novelty "Castle Rock" (1951) climbed to #8. Even at the very end, he would get "The Birth of the Blues" to #19, "Azure-Te" to #30, and that all-time classic "Bim Bam Baby" (all 1952) to #20. While hardly setting the world on fire, he was only truly doing poorly by his own standards, and naturally the industry agreed.
These meager concessions enabled him to record a few more classics for the ages: "I Guess I'll Have to Dream the Rest," "American Beauty Rose" (both 1950), a handful of songs from The King and I (1951). Overall, though, he was just about breaking even. The great records were becoming exceptions, not the rule. Then again, he hadn't recorded anything really embarrassing.
Which brings us to the infamous "Mama Will Bark" (1951), which nearly cracked the Top 20, but was surely the final nail in the coffin of his relationship with Columbia. Despite its staggering stupidity, the most striking thing about the record today is the amount of sweat the singer expends trying to hoist its dead weight off the ground. In a career remarkable for swagger and seemingly offhand brilliance, this tasteless display of dog howls, Durante impressions, and Dagmar (don't ask) stands alone as the sound of Sinatra -- Sinatra -- positively leaping through hoops for a hit.
His recordings at Capitol Records heralded both a changed singer and a changed man. With the able assistance of several gifted arrangers, most notably Nelson Riddle, he perfected a new style -- swinging but relaxed, forceful yet tempered, bracing but tender, a seamless blend of pop songcraft and jazz freedom. And for the second time in his career, the market yielded.
When Sinatra left Capitol to form his own Reprise label, in fact, his biggest commercial threat was . . . himself. Just as Duke Ellington once remarked that his biggest competitor was a guy named Ellington who made some records in the Thirties, many of Sinatra's most popular records were irretrievably part of the Columbia and Capitol corporations. So at this time, his biggest commercial concession was nothing more than rerecording a number of his older hits in the familiar arrangements. (This is not to be confused with the genuinely new pieces he crafted from his old repertoire, reworkings of classics like "Night and Day" [Sinatra & Strings, Reprise, 1961] that stand as worthy and distinctive additions to his catalogue.)
But this was before the Beatles: While inspiring mass teenage hysteria that dwarfed even the "Sinatrauma" of 1943, Lennon-McCartney & Co. vividly displayed the difference between what the demand for music was, and what the demand could be. After all, musicians everywhere toiled for years to land that career-making Top Five hit, and here one week in 1964, the American Top Five consisted of nothing but Beatles singles. The industry scrambled to catch up, looking to make records that could compete with this unexpected phenomenon, signing artists who fit the image of what the audience seemed to want, discarding artists who couldn't squeeze into that mold.
Back at Mitch Miller's Columbia, Tony Bennett went so far as to record an album of tunes by the Beatles and their peers, with a trendy "psychedelic" cover by Peter Max, and the entire project mortified him. His career had been modelled after Sinatra's, scoring hits with reasonably good contemporary material while lavishing his genuine affection on the great theater songs, though he rarely had the clout to record the kind of classic albums Sinatra had. In the rock 'n' roll age, it was all Bennett could do to persuade his bosses to let him release anything which wasn't aimed at that market. He was being forced to record material entirely unsuited to him, and he did what any artist of integrity would: He picked up his marbles and went home. He lived to fight another day.
Sinatra never had to bother with any of this at Reprise; after all, he was calling the shots. "Strangers in the Night" and "That's Life" (both 1966) would probably have been turned down had Mitch Miller brought them his way at Columbia, but these we forgive, because he made something of them, imparting a touch of class to an otherwise sleazy pick-up tune, and barking that bargain-basement pep talk with a modicum of authority. We're not so understanding where "Little Green Apples," "Gentle on My Mind" (both 1968), "Sweet Caroline" (1974) and their like are concerned. We shake our heads, and wonder why he bothered.
Others found ways of coping with changing times. Mercer Ellington once related to journalist Francis Davis, "What I liked [about the posthumous Ellington revue Sophisticated Ladies] was that it presented Ellington to a contemporary audience. It meant that an additional generation would be familiar with his work. But, you know, every time he had a big hit song, he felt that that permitted him the luxury to do something major which might not go over so big."
Sinatra's work of the mid-Sixties seems, superficially, to follow a similar pattern. When the singer's biggest hit in a decade exploded, he hired Nelson Riddle to craft an LP of mostly standards around it, ensuring at least a certain level of quality. Strangers in the Night (1966) isn't one of Sinatra and Riddle's better efforts, but it's got "Summer Wind" and a few other moments. That's Life (1966) ditched this format, supporting the title hit with material on roughly the same level, aiming to please the contemporary pop audience. It's not a bad record, but it's an obvious decline.
There were yet to be a couple of triumphs. Sinatra never could fit convincingly into the rock mold, but he sang the bossa nova style as if it was in his genes. Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim (1967) may very well have been as calculatedly commercial a move as anything from this period, but it was a resounding musical success.
Beyond this, however, and a long-awaited collaboration with Ellington (Francis Albert Sinatra and Edward Kennedy Ellington, 1967), it all went straight downhill. When his bland (though charming) duet with daughter Nancy, "Somethin' Stupid" (1967), hit the charts in a big way, the album crafted around it, The World We Knew, contained little to cleanse the collective palate (though the title track -- which manages to successfully graft The Voice to some honest-to-goodness fuzz guitar -- isn't bad at all). Cycles (1968) is a shameful middle-of-the-road mediocrity. My Way (1969) provided the singer with a new signature song, another example of a lackluster tune ennobled by a masterful performance, but he failed to capitalize on its message. Between indifferent performances and mediocre material, he was sounding more and more like a soul who'd lost his way.
It's not as if there was any shortage of good songs. All Sinatra had to do was dig into the bag of standards he'd invented years before -- and there were plenty he hadn't gotten around to. Or if he preferred, he could call up his favorite songwriters and request some new material, as he had with September of My Years (1965). He did neither. While standards continued to dominate his concerts, they rarely graced his recording sessions. And the only time he commissioned new material in the Tin Pan Alley vein was from alleged poet Rod McKuen. While the resulting album A Man Alone (1969) isn't a total loss, it took Nina Simone to prove it, when she recorded three of its songs for her album A Single Woman (Elektra, 1993), and turned them into pure catharsis.
If Sinatra was simply afraid of repeating himself as he passed his fiftieth birthday, he needn't have worried. One of his strong points had always been a knack for presenting great songs, old or new, in fresh, cogent ways. Worthy collaborators were certainly at his disposal. In arranger Don Costa he had a major talent who had only one moment, Sinatra & Strings (1961), in which to shine, and was then handed only second-rate material. Ring-a-Ding Ding! (1961) with Johnny Mandel is excellent, and whets the appetite for more high-stepping sets that never arrived. There was a lovely and most atypical album of British tunes with Robert Farnon (Frank Sinatra Sings Great Songs from Great Britain, 1962, withheld in America until the CD age due to reservations with the Voice's voice); surely Farnon could have handled a set of Broadway tunes just as well. And how could Sinatra have forsaken his beloved "saloon songs," avoiding even a single cry-in-your-whiskey set for Reprise until She Shot Me Down -- in 1982!
While there still was the occasional flash of brilliance, such as the stunning 1976 piano-voice reading of "Send in the Clowns" (The Very Best of Frank Sinatra), moments such as this remained marginal to the singer's Seventies career. Some never even saw the light of day until the 4-CD Reprise Years box set in 1990, like the eloquent, haunting "Just As Though You Were Here" (1974) with Gordon Jenkins, which makes painfully clear how great a Seventies set of saloon songs might have been.
The fans' frustrations were vented by David McClintick in, of all places, the Wall Street Journal. McClintick asserted that Sinatra was wasting his talents on inferior material when he bothered to record at all, that there were any number of good songs out there, and that he should record some of them. Strangely enough, the singer listened.
The result can be viewed in two ways. One might describe it as a monumental act of hubris, an unprecedented attempt to transcend the marketplace with an album crafted to stand apart from the industry's law of topicality. Practically speaking, though, it was simply a curious but welcome compromise. Trilogy: Past, Present and Future (1980) was a three record set, the first consisting of standards, most of which Sinatra had never recorded before; the second of songs written during the rock era; the third consisting in its entirety of a suite composed by Gordon Jenkins, misguidedly attempting to confirm Sinatra's "elder statesman" status by having the singer confront the "deeper" issues of existence, but instead suggesting the sort of thing that might have popped up on a "very special" episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.
The album instantly went gold, largely on the strength of The Past, which was rightly hailed as the first great Sinatra album in over a decade, and the smash hit, "New York, New York." While the arrangements lean too heavily on a kind of faux-Tommy Dorsey band style, The Past presents Sinatra '79 as an artist still peaking, his voice harsher and somewhat brittle, but his ability to move listeners largely undiminished, and with a wistful sort of wisdom creeping in. Even The Present isn't bad; the singer has to work harder to make these inferior songs fly, but his efforts often pay off. All in all, the set documents an artist struggling with his place in history: not quite resigned to the past, deeply confused about the present, and fiercely refusing to be left out of the future.
One of the astonishing things, then, about its follow-up, She Shot Me Down, is that the confusion has inexplicably vanished: Ol' Blue Eyes -- pardon the expression -- really is back. Never mind that this is essentially the album of saloon songs that should have appeared ages sooner; what's notable is that it consists largely of good contemporary material, with a couple of highly effective standards thrown in, all sung with utter conviction and authority. In other words, it's precisely the kind of album Sinatra could and should have been making all along.
The key to the singer's reticence may lie in the enormous response to "New York, New York" and Trilogy: Only this massive level of public affirmation seems to have been able to rouse Sinatra from his recording slumber. Re-energized, he dove immediately into She Shot Me Down, which sold only respectably. That might have been the end, had a song called "L.A. Is My Lady" not been called to his attention. Five years earlier, that other song celebrating the other major American coastal city had given Sinatra one of the biggest hits of his entire career. In "L.A." he smelled a follow-up hit. He quickly hired its composer Quincy Jones -- a talented arranger when he makes the effort, with whom the singer had worked in the Sixties -- to assemble an album (L.A. Is My Lady, Qwest, 1984) around it. When that solid but uninspired set sank, a legendary recording career seemed to come to a close -- until a decade later, when Sinatra's management and producer Phil Ramone talked him into the monumentally successful travesty entitled Duets (Capitol, 1993) and its 1994 sequel.
All, it repeats. All or nothing at all.
It's not enough, apparently, to defy the rules for decades and display a longevity virtually unparalleled in the music world. It's not enough to craft hundreds of recordings that will stand for the ages as symbols of the ideals to which America once aspired. It's not enough to be truly the A-Number-One, King of the Hill, Top of the Heap, not enough to merely be the greatest singer American popular music will ever see.
He had to have it all: the unflagging devotion of not only a core audience, however huge, but a neverending series of conquests ensuring his stature among each generation the public produces, no matter how far their aesthetic values may stray from his own. Whatever the whims of public taste, which even in the Forties were beneath him, the Sinatra of the last few decades seemed to value his own artistry only so long as it was affirmed by the masses. How unlike the Sinatra of the Forties who was rightly embarrassed when he recorded music that was unworthy of him, and how unlike the Sinatra of the Fifties whose confidence in his own taste and abilities made his miraculous comeback possible. How unlike even the Sinatra of the early Sixties who refused to grow complacent with his most rarefied level of success.
Which, ladies and gentlemen, is how Frank Sinatra will be remembered anyway: not merely as the Swingin' Lover of the Fifties or the Voice of World War II, but as the artist who stuck to his guns with such integrity for so long against such long odds. The bulk of his career stands as a rare example of courage and taste in a business that rarely rewards either quality. If he let us down later, it was only after a quarter century of unwavering brilliance and dedication to his muse.
So why did we ask so much of this man? Why, even after his sad passing, do we continue to hound his spirit so? Surely it's ungrateful to suggest that he could have given more, he who gave so much, so long. But it's only natural to crave more of what one needs, and we need Sinatra, as much now as we ever did. Despite the displays of vulgarity which temporarily threatened to overshadow his art, he redefined masculinity for a world that had been firmly stuck in the past. He demonstrated that a man could be strong and vulnerable, heroic and human. He plucked romance from the province of epics and fairy tales, translating it into the language of our daily lives; he made it something to which we could not only aspire, but relate. He said the things we wanted to say, expressed the things we wanted to express. He gave us something to live for in an age of banality and decay.
If we howl for more, if we rant and moan, it is only the last in a series of lover's quarrels that have stretched back for over half a century. We demand Sinatra's all, just as he demanded ours. We occasionally settle for less, however, because as sad as it could be to see the singer squander his talent on commercial garbage and phony techno-duets, it's far sadder still without him, offering us nothing at all.
Back to Dancing about Architecture (music essays and reviews)
Perpetual Starlight home page