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.

Jazz and the Swing Bands: Four Music Legends

One day several years ago, my wife and I were browsing in the local Border’s bookstore (remember those?). Entering bookstores, we usually head in different directions after first establishing a time to meet back at the registers. Well into our designated half-hour, I stumbled upon a book on the sale rack; it was Ken Burns’ companion book to his ten-DVD documentary titled Jazz. I knew about the series, but I never much fancied jazz given my poor understanding of it at the time; to me, “jazz” was limited to the early fifties/sixties embodiment – which I still do not like much. I picked up the book, anyway, thumbed through it, and proceeded to be astonished at the wide range of music the name “jazz” really encompasses. New Orleans jazz, the big-band sound, and the swing dance bands are all part of the historical evolution, and I have always enjoyed listening to that music. Now, after fully digesting Mr. Burns’ Jazz and acquiring some historical perspective, I am hooked more than ever on New Orleans jazz and the big bands of the thirties and early forties.

Louis Armstrong

Within those genres, there were many great performers, but four in particular stand out in my mind. First, there was Louis (not Louie) – Armstrong, that is. Although Burns dotes perhaps more than he should on Armstrong and his pioneering effect on all of jazz, there can be no question that he was one of the primary forces responsible for shaping the evolution of jazz. In general, the public has been kind to Armstrong over the decades, given his one-of-a-kind persona and such later recording hits as Hello Dolly, Mack the Knife, and It’s a Wonderful World.

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But Armstrong is far more laudable and important for his innovative musical phrasing in the early days which set the direction not only for jazz but for much of the popular music that ensued; and then there was his dynamic trumpet. Back in the twenties and thirties, his driving style, high register capability and the overall power of his playing found him pretty much alone in the spotlight. From the forties on, his technique and ability on the horn fell behind that of younger players, but what a storied life he led! From dire poverty in the slums of New Orleans, the fatherless boy from the Colored Waif’s Home learned to play the cornet in the Home’s band and proceeded to ultimately become an international musical celebrity who played command performances for royalty around the globe despite the early and long-lingering obstacles presented by racial prejudice.

Benny Goodman

 Benny Goodman: “The King of Swing” – at least the white version. Many would argue that Chick Webb, holding court in Harlem at the Savoy Ballroom, came sooner and was more deserving of the title, but leading an all-black band had its disadvantages back then, so Benny was anointed with the title in the mid-thirties. His band in the years, 1937-38 was one of the best ever assembled featuring soon-to-be-recognized all-star performers such as Gene Krupa on drums and Harry James on trumpet. Benny was truly a virtuoso on the clarinet; his smooth, effortless style on the lead solos imparted the trademark “swing” for which his band became so famous.

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Goodman came from a large immigrant Jewish family, dirt-poor and mired in the worst of Chicago’s slums. His father caught wind of a local charity that was providing musical instruments to young students who could not possibly afford to rent or own them. Benny received a clarinet, quite by luck of the draw. His father saw to it that Benny received tutoring from a classically-trained teacher, Professor Schoepp, who taught him the fine points of musicianship and technique. Goodman quickly proved to be a child prodigy on the clarinet, possessed with a life-long desire to excel on his instrument and in his musical profession.

 By the age of twelve or thirteen, he was already playing in local dance bands with adult musicians – Benny was the one in short pants….literally!

He could do it all at a very early age: Sight-reading, improvisation, jazz, classical, and he was driven early-on by musical instincts and ideas for a genre of music not yet readily heard (or even played) – the sound that became big-band swing. He practiced constantly on his instrument, even after decades of fame and international renown. He never let-up. He was the best clarinetist out there, even in the company of Artie Shaw.

One aspect of Goodman I admire tremendously is the fact that one NEVER hears a compromised note in any of his thousands of intricate lead-solos, and woe to any band member who misses notes or comes in late for his solo. I heard the same accolade paid to Harry James on the trumpet by a well-known music critic; this is an assertion I can attest to after years of listening. Like Goodman, James never fluffed notes, even when playing intricate, high, and fast jazz riffs – an amazing feat on the difficult trumpet. Goodman was very confident in his abilities on the clarinet even as a young teenager playing professionally with adults. I recently saw an interview of the aged but still active and able Goodman conducted by a young Diane Sawyer. When asked about his talent, he answered with complete frankness and humility that it is something one must be born with. Determination and hard work alone are not sufficient to produce that kind of capability. We mere mortals could practice an instrument twelve hours a day for years and never approach the abilities of a Benny Goodman or a Harry James. The fact that Goodman worked so diligently at his craft despite his great gifts is the ultimate tribute to him and undoubtedly reflects the difficulties and insecurities he experienced as a child in the Chicago slums. He was driven to excel; He was one-of-a-kind, the likes of which will not be seen again. 

Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey – a fine musician and trombone player whose band was second to none thanks to fabulous instincts and a no-nonsense approach to band-leading. Benny’s band swung harder; Harry James and His Music Makers were louder and brassier, but Dorsey’s outfit was more versatile and endowed with fabulous musical arrangements and taste. He made Frank Sinatra the star he became when Sinatra joined him in 1939 after a year with Harry James and his new band.

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I have a CD called The Essential Frank Sinatra With the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra which features a bonanza of stellar recordings from the 1939-1941 era when the band was still featured but the vocalist had a major part in the number. These are priceless arrangements with Sinatra on the verge of perfecting his genius, supported by fabulous, often subtle-as-silk orchestration. They called Dorsey “The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing,” yet he was anything but. He was one tough character with a fiery temper who was not above driving home a point with his fists….and yet somehow he produced this beautiful musical product – an amazing contradiction.

Harry James

 As good as Benny Goodman was on the clarinet, perhaps Harry James was even better on the trumpet. Also a child prodigy on that difficult instrument, it seems that James could so anything on the trumpet ….and do it perfectly. I recall Goodman, himself, paying that compliment to James. Unlike even the best of his contemporaries, he NEVER fluffed or sloughed notes, even the quick ones tucked in a rapid passage; you heard them all – each and every one of them!  He was very versatile, equally able to play the difficult trumpet standard, Carnival of Venice like any classically trained trumpeter, yet able to improvise the hottest of jazz licks and make them shimmer. Comparing Goodman and James for virtuosity, Goodman did have competition from Artie Shaw on the clarinet. I cannot name any trumpet player during the late thirties and through the forties who could seriously challenge Harry James.

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James came from a traveling circus family in Texas. His father, Everett, was a fine cornet player responsible for leading the circus bands; his mother was a trapeze flyer. Like so very many of the major players in the music business, Harry led a hard-scrabble life as a youngster, following the circus from town to town with his parents. His father was a stern taskmaster and saw to it that James was well trained on the horn, driving young Harry to master Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method  For Trumpet, the trumpet player’s bible. Young Harry apparently did just that.

The “Chill” Factor and Harry James

 It is a wonderful, other-worldly experience when one hears music which can produce chills up the spine. I recently bought a DVD of the 1948 film, Young Man with a Horn starring Kirk Douglas as a talented, obsessed trumpet player. Harry James did all the playing for the film.

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In one scene that has burned itself in my movie-memory, Douglas and Doris Day visit a posh nightclub where the elder trumpet player who mentored Douglas years ago as a boy was playing with a small jazz group. Douglas was recognized by his old teacher and was invited up to the stage to play a number for the audience. He took out his horn and, with the backing of the other musicians, launched into the old standard, With a Song in My Heart. Right from the very first note and all the way through the piece, I got chills up and down my spine from the power, the tone purity, and the musicality James put into that number. The scene was beautifully staged; the elegant nightclub audience was stopped cold in its conversational tracks on the first note, mesmerized by the beautiful artistry on display. I do not believe it took much acting on their part.

 At the conclusion of the song, with the audience a-buzz, the elder player remarked to the audience that he, indeed, had taught the young Douglas how to hold that trumpet, but he “did not teach him how to play it – not the way that he does.” Putting his hand on his breast, he added, “That’s something that you can’t learn; you’ve got to have it.”

 I have heard a lot of very fine trumpet in my years of involvement with the instrument and am not that easily impressed, but James’ playing in the fine soundtrack of this film takes my breath away every single time I hear it – especially that one number. Pure genius; one has to be born with it to be that good. 

A Social Commentary on the Interesting Common Denominator of These Four

All four performers came from rough/tough beginnings – from dire poverty – and all four had to develop very tough skins early in life. Artie Shaw, another great musician/bandleader fits the same mold. Reading their bios, one is amazed at the sensitivity and artistic expression which became the hallmark of their music given the rough and tumble business in which they worked and the hard-driving lifestyle that being on the road made virtually inevitable. The three bandleaders profiled were not only superb musicians in their own right, they also mastered the supremely difficult task of hiring and retaining the best (and often ego-centric) musicians – and keeping them in line. The lesson to be learned from the three of them: Steel, hard-forged in fire, is the toughest.

I wish more young people today were aware of the great artistry they and others of their ilk displayed and the tremendous lift their music provided to a country emerging from a great depression while simultaneously mobilizing for a world war. Those fine musicians deserve the recognition. They and their music need not take a back seat to any musical genre. Lucky are we who understand and know the joy.