By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
From 1939 to 1995, he has been all these things and more--bright-eyed Bobby Soxer and Mob-connected Rat Packer, the giddy heartthrob who sang with Tommy Dorsey's band and the broken-hearted romantic crushed by Ava Gardner, The Voice and hoarse voice, exuberant boy and broken-down old man. And it's all there in the grooves, in the black-and-white photos and words written and spoken by critics and old friends and gossip hounds masquerading as biographers. An X-ray of the man would be less revealing.
The history books are filled with glossy photos of a kid from Hoboken, New Jersey, on the verge of superstardom--the shining blue eyes, the thick hair, the gaunt fresh face, the hand eager to hold a pen and sign autographs. But the new magazines are now filled with photos of a different Frank Sinatra--the fragile senior citizen who can't get around without the help of his wife Barbara, the frail and bald Sinatra who showed up in People magazine several weeks ago with a wispy beard and without his toupee.
On December 12, Frank Sinatra will turn 80, but instead of celebrating a birthday, obituaries are being written while the body is still warm. Sinatra's a memory to most of his longtime fans and, worse, a self-made parody to younger generations who can't comprehend why this boorish fossil is beloved as one of the greatest singers of all time. They're the ones who laughed at him at the Grammys, mocking the old man who rambled on and on only to be unceremoniously cut off by commercials.
Perhaps one reason he's still celebrated so much and so often is simply because Sinatra is not dead yet; he still hangs on after Sammy kicked and Dean went into exile, still shows his weary face in public, still tries to sing on those awful Duets albums long after most septuagenarians are either happily retired or dead.
So we continue to celebrate him, digging out his past work to remind ourselves on the occasion of 80 years what made Francis Albert Sinatra one of the best who ever stepped in front of a microphone. As happened five years ago, a new spate of boxed sets and best-ofs and unreleased material is hitting the stores. This week alone, Capitol Records is releasing two collections: one, a two-disc "best-of" that recycles his magnificent '50s output for the fifth or sixth time; the other, a live album recorded in the '80s, long after The Voice had become just another voice.
Also just out is a four-disc set from Columbia Records documenting his output from 1943 to 1952, the period during which he evolved from pretty-boy crooner to forlorn romantic. Then there's the daddy of all collections from Reprise, the label Sinatra started at Warner Bros. in the early '60s--a $500 leather-bound 20-CD, 450-plus-track boxed set that features everything Frank recorded for the label from 1960 through 1988 (including 15 never-before-released tracks). And on top of that, Simon and Schuster has just published Will Friedman's Sinatra: The Song is You, a masterfully written history of Sinatra's recordings with thankfully little attention paid to his private life.
Each release, on CD or on paper, is designed to remind you of how great Sinatra was--very past tense. They aren't boxed sets, just tombstones with CDs in them meant to celebrate a period in popular music that doesn't exist anymore, a time when the pop charts were dominated by songwriters like Sammy Cahn, Lorenz Hart, Richard Rodgers, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gerswhin--craftsmen who created the standards of another era, who communicated a lifetime of emotions and desires in three minutes. It was a time when pop music was lush and heavily orchestrated, when arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Billy May and Gordon Jenkins were the unheralded stars of the day.
And it was a time when Sinatra was a generation's pop star, a voice (if not The Voice, as he was so often called) who made songs like "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Night and Day," "All the Way," "All of Me," and "I've Got You Under My Skin" his own. They were songs recorded before and since by so many others, but Sinatra seized them, owned them, possessed them. He did not write a single one of the songs he recorded, and yet they were his during the 1950s and early '60s--until he tried to keep pace with rock, until he started recording the Beatles' "Something" and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" and so many other songs out of his grasp and understanding.
The Columbia period is perhaps the most overlooked of the three because Sinatra diehards dismiss it as his teenybopper phase, his voice rail-thin and too much a knock-off of his idol Bing Crosby's. And it's true, for the most part, that Sinatra's '40s output suffers from youth: His 1944 "Embraceable You" or 1945 "Someone to Watch Over Me" or 1947 "Fools Rush In" pale in comparison to the versions he'd record for Capitol in the '50s or even Reprise in the '60s, sounding like the forlorn songs of a boy instead of the desperate plaints of a grown man. And yet there's a certain naive, sweet charm about his Columbia work, a certain vulnerability that would later give way to sorrow, loss, and surrender. Frank at Capitol wouldn't dare record "The Hucklebuck," but Frank at Columbia had no choice.