Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard

Pal Joey SinatraFrank 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.

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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.

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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.

James Sinatra CD

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.

Harry-James[1]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.

Sinatra & Dorsey CD

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.

5744094758_4fd5c7930c_b[1]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.

Henry Ford: A Complex Character Whose Automobiles Changed America

Henry Ford was both the quintessential entrepreneur/industrialist and one very complex individual. No other person comes to mind whose influence produced the effect that Ford and his Ford Motor Company have had on the way we Americans live our lives today. Imagine: Barely a century has passed since the time when people and their goods were still transported by horse and wagon, yet today, our lives and our landscape are dominated by the presence of the automobile.

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Henry Ford did not invent the automobile, although he was an early player in its American introduction. Nor did he invent the concept of mass production, yet he espoused and perfected it on a scale beyond anyone’s wildest imagination. His rise to fame and fortune was fueled by personal traits eerily reminiscent of those of the equally famous and successful “brothers of flight,” the Wright Brothers – Wilbur and Orville from nearby Dayton, Ohio.

13499743301[1]Henry Ford’s place in history hinges on his early and unique vision for the motorcar in America. Unlike virtually all of his dozens of early competitors, he and he alone saw the motorcar not as an expensive rich man’s convenience and toy, but as an affordable product for the middle-class that would quickly revolutionize life in America …and that belief was the engine that powered his ambition. He visualized and sought to sell a well-built, reliable automobile that the average American could afford to buy and own. He believed in this vision with all his heart, and he was also convinced that he was the man who could and would make it happen. Henry Ford proved himself right, yet again.

Ford possessed a no-nonsense, common-sense attitude toward life, living, and things technical. Like the Wright brothers in the aviation field, Ford believed in hands-on (his) development backed by intelligent testing and product refinement. Ford maintained that “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” Despite the failure of his first two car companies, he persisted in his beliefs and successfully started the Ford Motor Company in June of 1903 with a capital investment of $28,000. For Henry Ford, “Failure is the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.”

Ford had been able to start his first company in 1899, the Detroit Automobile Company, in part with money saved from his early stint as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company in the early 1890’s. Later in life, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone (of tire fame) became fast friends, a trio often prone to retreat to the “woods” for a few days of outdoor camping. It is interesting to ponder this who’s-who of industrial power and wealth off in the woods on a “camping” trip!

Henry Ford married Clara Ala Bryant in 1888; their early support came from Henry’s farming and work in a sawmill. In 1893, they had their only child, Edsel Ford, namesake for one of Ford Motor Company’s later and greatest failures, the Edsel automobile, and a somewhat tragic figure with great promise who was continually subjected to the vagaries of his father’s substantial ego. Many have claimed that the difficulties of living in Henry’s shadow contributed to Edsel’s early death at age 49.

Henry was born on a Michigan farm in 1863, but he always despised the nature of farming. He grew up loving things mechanical, all the while exhibiting a fine curiosity and the ability to quickly decipher machinery, from wristwatches to steam engines. Young Henry’s schooling was spotty at best, and he never progressed beyond the eighth grade.

Henry Ford succeeded for many reasons, but his mechanical/engineering intuition, his attention to detail, and the single-minded pursuit of his unique vision for the automobile were the prime factors behind his spectacular success. By 1903, he and his Ford Motor Company were in hot pursuit of his ideal automobile and the mass-production techniques required to meet quality/price goals for the car. Ford became a master of time-and-motion studies while configuring factory mass production in anticipation of his “ideal automobile.”

In 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced the famous Model T Ford, the most iconic automobile ever to roll off American assembly lines. Whereas his early competitors were selling luxury cars to well-heeled clients for $2,000, Ford priced the Model T at a stunningly low $825 – and it was a great car, with huge long-term sales. Thanks to mass-production, in 1924, when production peaked at 1,922,048 Model T’s, the car’s price sank to an incredibly low $265! Oh, and you could have it in any color you want…so long as it’s black! Ford and his engineers had determined that, in addition to the savings inherent in offering only one color, black paint dried faster than the others, making it ideal for mass-production and high factory throughput. The advent of the Model T and its success signaled the arrival of the Ford Motor Company as a long-term player in the market while verifying to Henry Ford that his dream had become a reality. He had his ideal automobile; nothing in America would ever be the same.

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Workforce Problems in the Ford Factory

The advent of the Model T and the factories which produced it so rapidly and in such high volumes soon produced workforce problems for Ford in the form of rapid employee turnover. The working conditions were difficult, and the work was monotonous, yet it hummed along at “double-time” as dictated by mass production. A Ford worker did not truly build an automobile; he instead sat at a station beside a long assembly line and added yet another part to growing subassemblies traveling down the line of workers – the same operation hour after hour, day after day, etc. Boredom and close, noisy, working conditions literally fried some men’s brains within a few weeks of joining the company. High turnover and constant retraining of replacements was anathema to the operation of a mass-production facility, so Henry Ford came up with a solution which blew the socks off his investors and competitors.

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Ford increased line worker’s salaries from just under $2.50 per day to $5 and initiated a profit-sharing plan, as well! Ford’s investors went berserk over the proposal, but Ford was absolutely correct: The morning after the news was released, Ford’s facilities were besieged by armies of potential employees who, for the “fantastic” money on the table were determined to just “deal” with the hardships of the job. This was, indeed, an interesting solution from the head of a company who much later was to have serious quarrels with employee unions!

When his investors told Ford he was crazy to throw so much money at employees, the boss countered that it would prove to be a good bargain for the company in addition to halting employee turnover. He went on to emphasize that, with more money in their pockets, his employees would now have the means to buy a car – his car – and the company would recoup the money in spades! I know of no better example of Ford’s outside-the-box thinking than this specific episode which initially so flustered his less-clever investors.

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   My father in 1937 with his hard-earned, brand new ’37 Ford V-8

There is so much to the Henry Ford story that it can only be presented in the form of a sizeable book or documentary. Ford was a man driven by principles, yet his actions often reflected stark contradictions. Here was a man dedicated to the simple life, one who early-on espoused what we today call “green” mandates for living, yet he industrialized our lives to an extent never matched in modern history.

Despite his revulsion of “paternalism” on the part of government in people’s lives, his early corporate profit-sharing program was partially administered by Ford’s “Social Department” which frowned on rewarding employees whose personal lives did not mesh with the founder’s guidelines on drinking, gambling, and “deadbeat” dads at home. A Ford quote summarizes his views on government intervention into our private lives: “Any man who thinks he can be happy and prosperous by letting the government take care of him, better take a closer look at the American Indian.”

Ford’s “Social Department” at the company was ill-advised in light of his views on paternalism…and short-lived. Ford also had strong anti-Semitic views which provoked much controversy during his lifetime.

81IePfwEcpL._SL1500_[1]For a more comprehensive, yet absorbing story of the man and his industry, I heartily recommend the PBS American Experience DVD documentary, Henry Ford – it is extremely well done and interesting. As usual, I have no connection with this product other than the fact I just ordered a copy on Amazon, having  recently watched it on public broadcasting.

Do You Like Pop Music? If So, You Should Thank Bing Crosby!

 

If the name “Bing Crosby” kindles any response at all among younger readers of this post, it is likely the image of “that old-style crooner” who regularly surfaces once a year at Christmas time and sings the best-selling recording of all time (by far) – “White Christmas.”

Single_Bing_Crosby_-_White_Christmas_cover[1]The very same sparse reaction would be registered by most middle-aged readers who experienced Crosby in their youth and, even then, regarded him merely as a “pleasant crooner,” a purveyor of pop music. Such images fall far short of the reality of the man and his accomplishments. “Der Bingle” is factually remembered in show business as one of the great innovators in jazz and pop music and THE most versatile, prolific, and popular vocalist…ever.

Bing Crosby’s era is not defined solely by the familiar nineteen-forties, a decade in which he became the most popular singer of all time: Yes, that’s right – even more popular than his successor and closest competitor, a young fellow named Frank Sinatra. Crosby’s rise to prominence began way back in 1925 when bandleader Paul Whiteman first took note of the newly formed, young vocal duo of Crosby and buddy, Al Rinker. Whiteman hired them on the spot to perform with his “orchestra” which was already experiencing a steep rise to fame by capturing the public’s fancy while pioneering the newly-emerging jazz idiom along the way.

 The Greatest Male Pop Singer of Them All?

No, the greatest was not Bing Crosby: That is history’s verdict and my personal opinion, as well. That honor belongs to Frank Sinatra. The younger Sinatra followed Crosby, and by taking cues from the best vocalist of the nineteen-thirties and early forties, Sinatra learned much about style and phrasing. Style, phrasing, and attention to song lyrics were first introduced into vocals by Bing Crosby; Sinatra improved upon Bing’s model and added his own panache, as well.

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 Crosby, Grace Kelley, Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong in “High Society”

Tommy Dorsey who, besides having the finest big-band of all time, was also a very savvy and shrewd musician. Dorsey counseled his band vocalist, a very young Sinatra, to pay close attention to song lyrics – “like Bing Crosby.” Another great (white) big-band leader, the irrepressible Artie Shaw, singled out Bing Crosby as “the first hip white person born in the United States.” Contrary to the modern image of Crosby, Shaw was right-on: Crosby had what it takes.

Listen to Bing’s predecessors, vocalists like the band-leader Rudy Vallee and hear the difference. Early songsters sang “on the beat” – the precise way a song is notated on paper… and the style of the nineteen-twenties – but a style that soon proved tedious and unexciting. Crosby changed all of that with his innovative phrasing, style, and respect for lyrics. With his fine, mellow, baritone voice, Crosby set the standard for vocalists – until Mr. Sinatra came along and “did it his way.”

 The Thrill of “Finding Out” Such Things

If you have followed this blog, you already appreciate the effect that Ken Burns’ excellent film documentary, “Jazz,” has had on me. I am a “musician”… of sorts, and as I began to progress with my trumpet playing late in life, I reached out to learn more about the music I love – the early forms of jazz which led to swing and the big-band era. Along with much musical history, I learned one very important lesson from that film: Some of the performers who were already regarded as “old, tired, and predictable performers” when I was young in the nineteen-fifties had, in their own young, dynamic years, actually pioneered the new music called jazz and swing, and, by their influence, set the standard for much of the music heard ever since.

armstrongThe prime case in point is Louis Armstrong, a cornet/trumpet man from the slums of New Orleans via Chicago in the early twenties whose youthful talent on the instrument were both stirring and trend-setting. There was no one who played better trumpet and possessed the musical creativity/improvisation that Armstrong displayed. Indeed, the Burns film credits Armstrong with his power-playing, creative phrasing, and improvisation skills as the single individual most responsible for the evolution of jazz as we know it. What Armstrong did for instrumental music and the jazz idiom, Bing Crosby did for vocalizing. That is powerful stuff, and little did I appreciate the historical importance of these two legendary performers and just how far back in time they did go. These days, when I think of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, a wholly different image of each appears in my mind’s eye. After many hours of pleasurable reading /researching the history of jazz and entertainment, I became very aware that both Crosby and Louis had great respect for each other’s talent and place in the history of music and entertainment. To experience that mutual respect, take a look at the famous segment from the fine movie, “High Society,” in which Crosby, with Armstrong and his small group perform the famous “Now You Has Jazz” number – not a bad performance for two old-timers, already well past their prime in 1955. In that same movie and vein, also take a look at the terrific “Swell Party” duet performed by Crosby and Sinatra which hints at their different styles while projecting great mutual respect and fantastic showmanship.

The Just-Released PBS American Masters Documentary
on Crosby: “Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

I watched the new PBS documentary last night and very much enjoyed it. Bing Crosby traveled many, many miles during a vibrant life. It was not always good, and it was not always pretty along the way, but the man left this earth with his feet firmly planted, and he deserves to be remembered for his contributions to music and to our culture. His life-long, chiding comic cohort, Bob Hope, put it this way referring to his pal, Bing: “Never before has someone done so much, for so long, with so little, for so much.” On the contrary, Crosby accomplished much over his lifetime…with much talent, talent deceptively masked by his greatest asset: The ability to make it all look so easy!

1024px-Bing_Crosby_star_HWF[1]Twenty-three gold and platinum records and forty-one hits reaching #1 on the charts is far beyond the stats of any other vocalist or group: That includes Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. And then there are the three separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which speak to his versatility as a performer. It is said that Crosby’s is the most electronically-recorded voice in history. Yes, I can believe that, and he did much more during his career than record vocals on lacquer by also triumphing in the movies, radio, and television – truly an amazing life. The best-actor Oscar in 1945 for his priestly role in the fine film, “Going My Way,” speaks to the depth of his talent. As with Louis Armstrong, I quickly grasped Crosby’s importance to the music and entertainment culture after watching the Burns film, “Jazz.”

Bing BioAccordingly, I purchased Crosby’s definitive biography by Gary Giddens. I still recollect my parents relating attending Catholic mass with Bing, his second wife, Kathryn, and their family at Our Lady of Angels in nearby Burlingame, California. My parents lived just blocks from the church and the Crosbys lived in nearby Hillsborough.

Now, realizing just how extensive were Bing Crosby’s travels through a long and very colorful life, I am transfixed by the image of his gravestone in Culver City, California. It all ends right there: His long journey is over. Have a peaceful eternity, Bing…and thanks for the memories.

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For more of my posts on music and entertainment, go to the “Home” page, click on “Categories” in the right-hand column and then select “Music.”