No performer ever had to grow up in public like Frank Sinatra. No one has ever had every second of his adult life chronicled with so much detail and tenacity--in film, in photos, in books, and most certainly in song. As a result, he is man and myth in one package--a beautiful boy who sprang fully formed as handsome superstar only to decline slowly, gracelessly, toward old age.
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.
It was at Capitol that Sinatra achieved greatness; if he had only recorded for that label, from 1953 through 1961, it would have cemented his legend forever. There, he recorded the "concept" albums that rank among the finest non-rock albums of the early rock generation: In the Wee Small Hours, Only the Lonely, Songs for Swingin' Lovers, A Swingin' Affair!, Where Are You?, No One Cares, Come Fly with Me, and (Frank Sinatra Sings For) Only the Lonely among so many others. They were bigger-than-life and intimate at once, as brash as an orchestra and as quiet as a whisper.
The newest Capitol collection--hyperbolically titled Sinatra 80th: All the Best--distills them down to an assortment of songs that communicate neither the power nor the breadth of the individual albums of that period. There's no consistency to the collection, only a greatest-hits vibe that misses the point; and so there's the unbearably sad "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning" next to the overly optimistic "You Make Me Feel So Young," a contrast so jarring it does neither song any justice. (Same exact thing goes for a pairing like "What is This Thing Called Love?" next to "High Hopes.") And as a final kick in the gut, there's a "newly recorded" duet between Sinatra and Nat "King" Cole on "The Christmas Song," a stocking-stuffer only a necrophiliac could love.
The live album (titled, of course, Sinatra 80th: Live in Concert) is no more or less a souvenir of a man's downfall: By the '80s, Sinatra's voice had grown pale, his once-inspired and near-revolutionary phrasing flat, and his persona bloated. The disc is no embarrassment (in fact, the near-10-minute "Soliloquy" is a showstopper smack in the middle of the thing), but it presents a legend on his way back to becoming a man--full of frailties, capable of making a mistake or a dozen, enraptured with his own myth. It was a time of "New York, New York" and "My Way" and "Strangers in the Night," a man singing his theme songs in front of a crowd that by then thought of Sinatra as a museum exhibit touring the world like King Tut. A Frank Sinatra concert was not an event--Frank Sinatra was the event itself, the man and not his music.
Which is why some of his Reprise material is brilliant, and why much of it's dreck: When Sinatra collaborated with the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim or Count Basie, it approached masterpiece (save for the till-now-unreleased Sinatra-Jobim duet on "Desafinado," appropriately retitled "Off Key"); but when he went pop, covering the Beatles or Paul Simon or recording "Something Stupid" with daughter Nancy, he sounded nothing but old, out of touch and out of time. Even when he went back to the standards in 1984, recording "Mack the Knife" with Quincy Jones, he couldn't resurrect the magic.
It is difficult, perhaps, to explain to a post-rock generation what made Sinatra so great; after all, his time has long since past, and now he has been reduced to self-parody on the Duets albums, rendered ineffective by age and self-abuse. He is, in many ways, an outdated relic held over from another period--the sexistspeak of "dames" and "broads," the Rat Pack clich of boys gambling and drinking late in the night, the legacy of fist fights and Mob ties and running around with the Kennedys so much a product of the post-war era.
Sinatra never got rock and roll, never understood its appeal, and loathed how it ruined the pop song forever. Even when he performed with Elvis Presley on television in 1960, something of a welcome-home celebration for the King-turned-soldier, he seemed to treat Elvis with something dangerously close to condescension. He thought of rock and roll as the music of delinquency, something "sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons"; he also referred to rock as a "rancid-smelling aphrodisiac," Sinatra being a man never given to subtlety or holding his tongue.
But, as John Rockwell pointed out in his 1984 book Sinatra (published by, of all things, Rolling Stone magazine), that never stopped Sinatra from trying to keep pace with the rock crowd. From the mid-'60s on, he would begin covering songs by the likes of Jim Croce, Jimmy Webb, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, the Beatles--and not a single one of his "rock" songs ever sounded anything but foolish, like an old man trying to get hip with the kids by saying "groovy" long after the words had become pass.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Sinatra has never experienced the quick-buck resurgence of old friend and former prodigy Tony Bennett, who became the sudden and inexplicable darling of MTV for a brief moment in late 1993, even landing his own "Unplugged" performance joined by k.d. lang and Elvis Costello. Bennett's comeback was nothing but cheap marketing because he never went anywhere, but Bennett had this much going for him--by continuing to release new albums of new-found and traditional standards with the great Ralph Sharon Trio, Bennett didn't have to reduce his legacy to a gimmick, didn't have to desecrate a memory.
When, in 1993, Capitol Records stole Sinatra away from the label he founded in the '60s, they all but certified his status as a legend far past his prime. By getting him to release his first "new" album in a decade--the laughable, pathetic first Duets album featuring cut-and-paste duets with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Carly Simon, Gloria Estefan, Kenny G, and Bono--it was like letting John Grisham rewrite the Bible. Francis Albert Sinatra was like a puppet propped up behind a microphone, blindly mouthing someone else's words--his words.
Until his recent self-imposed retirement late last year, he was still on the stage stumbling through his old moves, forgetting lyrics to songs he had sung for 40-plus years, blanking out at the TelePrompters placed all over the stage, barking orders at son and bandleader Frank Jr. in front of audiences. He was a shadow of a shadow when he came to the Fair Park Music Hall last year, still capable of finding that occasional spark that still flickered within him, but more often than not drifting out and nodding off. It was sad, exhilarating, touching, altogether uncomfortable. You just knew people went to see Frank so they could say they saw Sinatra before he died.
But he's not dead, just old. Just tired. Just alone. He will never sound as wonderfully sad as he did when he cried the words to "In the Wee Small Hours," nor will he phrase a lyric so precisely as he did on "I've Got You Under My Skin." But he doesn't have to anymore, not if he lived to be a thousand.