“Frank is just like you. Just like me. Only bigger.”
— George Schlatter, a friend
Let’s get one thing straight. There can’t be another Frank. These days, you don’t operate on that plane and get away with it. Was he in the Mob? Was he an informer? Did he ruin Ava Gardner, sleep with Marilyn, throw a plate against a restaurant wall just because they cooked the pasta too long? Come on, al dente!
Act like that today and you’d be TMZ’d faster than you can tweet Alec Baldwin. But that’s just behavior. Flip on your TV and you’ll understand the other reason nobody can match Sinatra. In this age of the media megatropolis, of over-saturated, over-exposed, over-everything, competition is just too fierce for one figure to so dominate the spotlight. If Milton Berle were starting out now, he wouldn’t get a 30-year deal from NBC. He’d be cross-dressing on Comedy Central to beat out Guy Fieri on a Wednesday night.
With Frank’s 100th birthday approaching, I’ve been talking Sinatra over the last week, on the phone, at neighborhood barbecues, with other music fans. I’ve been throwing on his records, from the classics (“Come Dance With Me!”) to the spottier (“Trilogy: Past, Present, Future”), sifting through good books and that Kitty Kelley paperback and scouring YouTube for every scrap of visual data.
Truth is, celebrity anniversaries are nothing more than dates and dates nothing more than marketing opps for album reissues, tribute concerts and related product. But for me, an unrepentant fan, it’s a great time to remind everyone why Frank still matters.
It goes well beyond the tough-guy themes, torch songs and “Duets” albums that, while sterile and disappointing, launched an entire industry of songbook-styled projects. Some of them are even quite wonderful.
What’s most startling, when you focus on Frank, is how ever-present he is 18 years after his death, how regularly he bullies his way into your living room.
There he is, on David Letterman’s “Late Show” farewell week, channeled through Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of our time, who decided to croon a classic made famous by Sinatra. There’s “The Theme to New York, New York,” played 81 nights a season, without fail, after the final out at Yankee Stadium. Even in death, Frank can insert himself into the middle of a nasty domestic squabble. Third wife Mia Farrow taking a swipe at Woody Allen by suggesting that Ol’ Blue Eyes, not her film-directing ex, may have fathered son Ronan. And his staying power is undeniable, even as the icons of yesteryear — Ray Charles, Liz Taylor, even Hemingway — fade away.
“As far as touching him goes, nobody touches him,” Dylan said in a surprisingly personal interview earlier this year, explaining why his new record featured 10 songs made famous by Sinatra. “Not me or anyone else.”
“The word ‘icon’ is much overused, but if it applies to anyone in American popular culture, it is Frank Sinatra,” critic Terry Teachout said in the Alex Gibney documentary that aired on HBO in April, “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All.”
Let’s play a quick parlor game. Try to come up with a contemporary equivalent of Sinatra. I tried. You can at least take a good stab with Jimmy Stewart (Tom Hanks), John Wayne (Clint Eastwood) or Jackie Wilson (Bruno Mars.) With Sinatra, you’ll need to combine superpowers, taking Robert Downey Jr.’s swagger, Beyonce’s Forbesian reach and Justin Timberlake’s triple-threat skills. And that still doesn’t fill out the man.
“He conquered every medium — television, recording, films,” Tony Bennett said after his death. “He was just born for what he did.”
The “fully emancipated male,” Gay Talese called Sinatra in his famous 1966 Esquire profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
Then take on that other quote, the one that sounds, at first blush, like enough jive to knock your DeSoto out of second gear.
This, to me, is about authenticity. It’s a word often tossed around but rarely practiced. It is about being real in everything you do, on or off stage. Remaining authentic is no small feat when you’re hanging around presidents and movie stars, selling millions of records, and when your very identity comes from singing songs written by others.
Yet Sinatra, with all of his qualities and flaws, remained completely authentic. As a singer, he didn’t just adapt, he crawled into each phrase. On those rare moments were he chose poorly — listen to his corny take on the Beatles classic “Something” — the singer still feels 100 percent committed. As a public figure, he never hid, whether accused of having ties with the Mafia or playing out his marital splits in public. There would be no joint press releases on a “conscious uncoupling” with Gardner, Farrow or anyone. To the end, Frank confessed that he knew nothing more than the average galoot.
“I’m supposed to have a Ph.D. on the subject of women,” he is quoted in Bill Zehme’s wonderful “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin'” “But the truth is I’ve flunked more often than not. I’m very fond of women; I admire them. But, like all men, I don’t understand them.”
He came from a different world. Frank Sinatra was born in 1915, before TV, before radio, to a pair of Italian immigrants. He grew up in Hoboken, dropped out of high school and then, after working an odd job or two, scored a recording contract with bandleader Harry James. That led to the Tommy Dorsey band, fame and the first stage of his career as the baby-faced big-band crooner.
Eventually, everything came apart: his first marriage, to Nancy Barbato; his singing career (Columbia Records cut him loose in 1952); and his confidence. In the early ’50s, Sinatra tried to kill himself, once with sleeping pills, a second time by slashing his wrists. (He denied the attempts.) It wasn’t until his Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” that Sinatra’s luck seemed to change. He signed with Capitol Records and reinvented himself. He sang in a lower register and his material stretched, from winks and highballs to smoky, dark confessions.
“At times, the lowest note of a melody becomes almost spoken, giving him a much greater sense of intimacy,” Elvis Costello wrote in Mojo.
These days, we marvel at the entertainers atop the Forbes list, Dr. Dre raking in hundreds of millions from headphones, Taylor Swift defying all with her Spotify grab. Frank Sinatra did this 60 years ago, at a point when artists were usually too busy being ripped off to become corporations. Yet Frank had “his own film company, his own record company, his private airline, his missile-parts firm, his real-estate holdings across the nation, his personal staff of seventy-five,” as Talese wrote.
(Sinatra also, the writer revealed, had a woman on his payroll at $400 a week to follow him around with one of his many hairpieces.)
As far as he got from New Jersey, as much as he reinvented himself — there was the second “retirement” in 1971, before a return two years later — Frank never forgot his roots. He took pride in his Italian heritage, even if part of that pride came from feeling mistreated because “my name ends with a vowel.”
How much was true, how much was simply who he hung out with? The FBI had more than 1,000 pages on Sinatra, but never charged him with anything. Mario Puzo created the fictionalized Johnny Fontane in “The Godfather,” a crooner whose career is saved multiple times, in ways mirroring Sinatra’s life, by the Corleone family.
There are a lot of Sinatra albums and a lot of people who have pontificated on them. Most start by praising 1957’s ode to pathos, “Only the Lonely.”
But to me, the greatest Frank record is from a June show in 1962. He’s playing with his sextet in Paris, and it’s as loose as a show can get. “It’s obvious what his trouble is — girls,” Frank tells the audience as he introduces the saloon ballad “One for My Baby. “Cherche la femme. Which in French means ‘why don’t you share the broad with me?'”
At other moments, he coughs, clears his throat and apologizes. “I’ve gotta stop sleepin’ in the park.”
Jokey or not, his performance is impeccable, whether swinging through “Goody, Goody” and “Without a Song” or breathlessly roaming through the verses of “My Funny Valentine” and “One for My Baby.” More than anything, this performance — stripped down from his orchestral heft and captured in its entirety, unlike the other live recordings released during his lifetime — gets to the essence of what made Sinatra Sinatra.
It is how a man takes a song written by somebody else, performs it for decades, and it still sounds as fresh, pained and passionate as the first time it emerged. It is a special gift and one we don’t need a special birthday to recognize.
4. The Song
2. Beyond imitation