Frank Sinatra: Possibly the best-known name in the music business, yet under-appreciated by the public in certain respects. The other night, I watched a tribute to Sinatra via PBS broadcast from the Lincoln Center in New York City. The program celebrated the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth in 1915. Being a big fan of Sinatra’s talent and contribution to popular music, I had recorded the broadcast on our DVR, hoping that it would prove to be worthwhile viewing. Often, such tributes are disappointing – even “cheesy.” It was very late last Friday night after a long day for us, but I decided to que up the recording on our DVR merely to catch the flavor of the show – just five or ten minutes of viewing before going off to bed and watching it the next day… if it proved worthwhile. In minutes, I was hooked and watched the entire ninety minutes of the tribute, finally turning off the lights at 1:00 am. More on the program, later.
To fully appreciate Sinatra, is to know his personal history and timeline. Born Francis Albert Sinatra in Hoboken, New Jersey on December 12, 1915 to Italian immigrants, his prospects seemed no better than those of millions of other immigrant children. The mother, Natalina “Dolly” Garaventa Sinatra, apparently was the dominant influence on young Sinatra’s personality and self-confidence. Early in life, he discovered music as well as his idol, Bing Crosby, who was riding the top of the music charts in the early nineteen-thirties as the country’s premier male vocalist and pioneer of the genre. 1938 found young Sinatra menially employed as a singing waiter at a small roadhouse diner named “The Rustic Cabin,” in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, earning $15 per week! When he was not tending tables, he would front the small dance band and perform a few vocals.
One such evening, fate stepped in and drastically altered young Sinatra’s life trajectory. He happened to be singing with the band that night while a local radio station broadcasted the dance music from The Rustic Cabin to a regional audience (a common occurrence during the infant days of radio). Fatefully, Louise Tobin, the young wife of another about-to-be-legend in the music business was tuned-in to the broadcast. Impressed by what she heard, she awakened her husband, the great jazz trumpet player, Harry James, from his nap and suggested he listen to this young singer on the radio. James’ newly formed band was just getting started and he was looking for a vocalist, so a few nights later, James drove over to New Jersey and The Rustic Cabin, introduced himself to young Sinatra, and not only offered him a job, but set in motion the whole of Frank’s incomparable music career. Suddenly, Sinatra was making a whopping $75 per week with James who, with his new band, was perched on the threshold of music greatness, as well.
Harry James was the best thing that ever happened to Sinatra, for they soon recorded some fine hits together. Listening to Sinatra and his early live performances with the Harry James Orchestra at New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom in 1939, one hears a soft, immature, somewhat tentative delivery which nevertheless hints at greatness-to-be. The barely audible background noises of the Roseland dance crowd dining, drinking, clinking glasses, laughing, and finally applauding add immeasurably to the great charm of these early recordings.
Others began to notice James and his young vocalist, particularly Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. Dorsey’s group was well-established by 1939 and rapidly cementing its status as the very best in the history of the big bands. The offer to join Dorsey for $125 per week as featured vocalist could not be denied, although Sinatra had barely been with James for one year of a two year contract. When the young singer apologetically approached James about leaving his band, James very willingly released Sinatra from the remainder of his contract with a sincere handshake and best wishes.
Sinatra never forgot James, his gracious gesture, and the wonderful times he had with Harry and his band. They remained lifelong friends, and when James was dying from terminal cancer decades later, Sinatra insisted that he deliver the funeral eulogy for his friend. Sinatra was a tough customer in many ways throughout his life, but he was loyal to friends and he had a decidedly sentimental streak which ran deep but wide through his personality. In addition to discovering the greatest male pop singer, ever, Harry James was the finest jazz trumpet player – ever.
Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”
Tommy Dorsey was both a superb musician and a great bandleader. His band and his music exemplified the highest musical standards possible. His musical arrangements and taste were simply beyond those of all the others in terms of beauty and complexity. He insisted upon total excellence not only from members of the band, but from himself as well. Dorsey was known as “the sentimental gentleman of swing,” reflecting his great hit and theme song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” which featured Tommy’s lilting trombone solo. Dorsey was decidedly un-sentimental, though, and undeniably one very tough customer who would come down hard on anyone who stepped out of line – with fists flying, on occasion.
It was with Dorsey and his band that Frank Sinatra developed into the great vocalist the public would ultimately recognize. For me, his numerous recordings with Dorsey constitute the finest of musical treasures in my fairly extensive music collection. Sinatra’s voice had now developed, the fine musical phrasing was there, and his dedication to and respect for song lyrics were evident. Much of the learning curve that made Frank Sinatra into history’s finest vocalist resulted from his two years under Dorsey’s tutelage and influence. Sinatra once remarked, “The only two people I’ve ever been afraid of are my mother and Tommy Dorsey.”
When Sinatra quickly exploded as a teenage idol drawing huge crowds for Dorsey, the youngster accurately foresaw the trend-line for popular music. The future did not include big bands; instead, the era of the pop vocalist would predominate…and it did, in several short years. The youngster took a huge gamble in 1942 by informing Dorsey that he wanted to leave the band and hit the performance trail as a solo act. Unlike the gracious Harry James, Dorsey fought back with lawyers making Sinatra’s departure an expensive one. Dorsey’s final farewell to Sinatra: “I hope you fall on your ass.”
I find it fascinating – the implausibility – that so much musical art came from certified tough characters like Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and others in the music business. Often their personal lives were chaotic and regrettable, yet deep inside these rough exteriors, lurked a surprising creative sensitivity. Those who see only the rough exterior surely appreciate little of the musical artistry they left behind. Another facet of Sinatra’s considerable talent was his success in film.
When Frank’s musical career was completely stalled in the late nineteen-forties, his movie role in the film,“From Here to Eternity” kick-started his musical comeback. His deft performance in the film surprised everyone earning him the Oscar in 1953 as best supporting actor for his portrayal of “Maggio.” One of my favorite film clips from another film is the song-and-dance duet done with Sinatra’s boyhood idol, Bing Crosby, in the 1955 film, “High Society.” One of my favorite films: “Pal Joey” from 1957 starring Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth. Joey, Sinatra’s character, is a knock-off of his own entertainer-persona which guaranteed the seamless portrayal he delivers in the film – with irreverent wit and great vocalizing. The musical score of Rodgers and Hart and the supporting female cast make for great entertainment. To see Sinatra staged perfectly and performing at his best, see this film.
By 1953, Sinatra had begun work with crack musical arranger, Nelson Riddle. Their collaboration quickly propelled Sinatra back and into a brighter limelight than ever before. An amazing career: From literally bringing down New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early forties as a young matinee idol, to suffering tiny audiences in that very same house by the late forties, to exploding again in 1953 to become the greatest male vocalist in pop music history!
That brings me full circle back to the PBS Lincoln Center tribute to Sinatra which took viewers through Sinatra’s personal history/timeline – so important to comprehend such a complex personality and career.
The production, hosted by a young fellow named Seth MacFarlane (who?) and anchored throughout by the venerable New York Philharmonic Orchestra, delivered BIG TIME. The entire production was first-class, in all respects. The New York Philharmonic is comprised, for the most part, of mature, seasoned musicians, but that staid-looking orchestra belied its image and delivered real punch and zing to its rendering of the musical arrangements which anchored Sinatra’s vocals during his prime in the nineteen-fifties. Swinging Sinatra favorites like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” proved also to be ultimate classics of Sinatra’s favorite arrangers – Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May, to name a few. Frank Sinatra insisted upon and got only the best arrangers, producers, and studio musicians for his performances and recording sessions – and it always showed in the finished product. Complex and challenging musical arrangements, these are, but the New York Philharmonic really delivered. I was overjoyed to watch them in action as fabulous camera choreography moved adroitly from trumpets to flutes to violins to trombones and back to vocalists – all right on the beat. So often, television concentrates, up-close, only on vocalists who are performing in front of a large orchestra. The talented musicians in the far background often seem merely like an assemblage of automatons from which music emanates. Not in this telecast with its excellent production values: All aspects of the musical performance come alive, including the orchestra members.
Host Seth MacFarlane provided a deft touch to the whole evening with scattered, light comic touches interspersed among the stories of Sinatra’s life and his music. Most importantly, Mr. MacFarlane can SING – an imperative for this production – and he did it very well, indeed. MacFarlane was ably assisted on stage by six great dancers and several renowned guest vocalists including Bernadette Peters, Christina Aguilera, Fantasia, and Sting, who, despite their diversity, all managed to entertain with the solid support of the peerless Philharmonic. As stated by the host, the whole production was truly a “labor of love” for all concerned in the project, and it showed – truly a fitting tribute to Frank Sinatra, the man and his music.