December 12th marks the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra. The master of the romantic mood has entertained millions since his first recording in 1939, a long forgotten thing called “A Little Street in Singapore.” The 1940’s saw him dubbed The Voice and The Bedroom Baritone. After a brief decline in the early 1950’s he came roaring back with a mellower sound, a hipper style and another nickname – The Chairman of the Board. The moniker Ol’ Blue Eyes didn’t stick until later.
I will state up front that although I’m a big fan of Sinatra the singer (and sometimes Sinatra the actor), Sinatra the person didn’t really appeal to me. I’ve read enough backstage tell-alls to know that the public and private Sinatras were two different personalities, and one of them wasn’t always pleasant. But man, could that cat sing!
My favorite period in Sinatra’s career began in the 1950’s, when his voice had morphed from a boyish baritone into something more suitable for grown-ups. It was during this phase that he learned how to relax and swing, thanks to a couple of jazz arrangers named Nelson Riddle and Billy May. Sinatra pioneered the concept album, a set of songs built around a theme to tell a musical story. With the advent of a newfangled thing called the long-playing album, he was able to break away from the slew of singles he recorded for radio and jukeboxes and explore more ambitious projects. Albums like “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” “In the Wee Small Hours,” “No One Cares,” “Come Dance with Me” and “Swing Easy” set a mood and were geared for the stay-ups and drinkers in the crowd.
Sinatra kept things interesting by releasing several collections of what he called saloon songs, laments sung by a guy whose gal split the scene, leaving him with a broken heart and a bottle of Jack for company. Someone dubbed these “suicide albums” and they weren’t far off. Listen to “Only the Lonely,” “I’m a Fool to Want You” or “One For My Baby” when you’re in the dumps and you’ll be reminded of your own heartbreaks.
In the 1960’s he cranked out one album after another, including some classic pairings with Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Antonio Carlos Jobim. This was also the era of The Rat Pack, a party hardy group that included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop. They held court in Vegas and Hollywood for several years before the novelty wore off. Listening to one of their recorded concerts today, one cringes at the politically incorrect humor while secretly enjoying the tomfoolery. Watch the original “Ocean’s 11” and it’s apparent that the boys were having a helluva good time filming it.
Times and musical tastes change, and the Chairman was eventually overthrown by some guys named Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Sinatra maintained a public dislike for rock music yet he kept covering pop hits in an attempt to prove that he was in sync with a younger world. Some of them were good (soulful renderings of “Yesterday,” “If,” and “Didn’t We”), but did the world really need his lounge lizard interpretations of “Mrs. Robinson” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway”? And what was up with the TV special where he wore a Nehru jacket and love beads?
I had the pleasure of seeing Ol’ Blue Eyes in concert twice during the later stage of his career. Each show was terrific, even though his voice had begun to show the ravages of time and abuse. He may not have hit the high notes as well as he used to but when the band played his intro music, this stately figure in a tailored tux commandeered the stage and didn’t let go until the last encore. What he may have lacked in vocal depth he made up for with showmanship and enthusiasm. He had often said that for him, there was nothing like performing for live people, and it showed.
I think this was Sinatra’s real gift—the ability to connect with an audience and make you think that he was singing for you and you alone. Not many entertainers can pull that off.
Let’s drink one for my baby and one more for the road. The first round is on me.
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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author whose books range from romantic mystery/thrillers to contemporary erotic romance. His website is www.timsmithauthor.com.