Unlike other big band singers, Frank Sinatra, who died 10 years ago today, studied the lyric, searching for the telling detail pointing to the song's center of gravity. When he deliverd the lyric, he didn't ride the beat like a jockey on a runaway house to make it to the finish line in sync with the rest of the band.
He rephrased certain lines and verbal cues, giving added emphasis to key words, improvising, holding back a few beats, stretching some notes, the way that Billie Holiday combined vocalization and time to underscore the moment of truth in a conventional 32-measure Tin-Pan-Alley standard. As a jazz singer, he used his skills as a stylist to convey to the listener a heightened awareness of the body heat of a well-crafted song that frequently spoke between the lines.
A first-generation American born of immigrant parents, Francis Albert Sinatra was born on Dec. 12, 1915, in a cold-
water flat on 415 Monroe St. in Hoboken, N.J.
At the legal age of 16, he dropped out of high school and worked nights as a singing waiter at the Rustic Cabin, a roadside club in Englewood, N.J. On a date with Nancy Barbato, his future wife, he squired her to the Loew's Journal Square Theatre to catch a live performance by legendary crooner Bing Crosby. Determined to follow suit, Sinatra auditioned and appeared on a popular radio show, "The Major Bowes Amateur Hour," with the Hoboken Four. The group won first prize and went on a national tour.
When he wasn't working as hod carrier for the Barbato construction company, young Frank would hop on the Manhattan ferry from Hoboken pier, carrying a portable suitcase equipped with a folding microphone and a small speaker, visiting rows of song pluggers on Broadway's Tin Pan Alley, hoping to be hired. Closer to home, on station WNEW, he was given a 15-minute vocal fill-in that netted him lunch money and trolley fare from Hoboken.
Discovered by band leader Harry James, the nervous 23-year-old singer made his professional recording debut on July 13, 1939, accompanying the band on the lyric to "From the Bottom of My Heart" on the Brunswick label.
Six months later, he signed on as lead male singer for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, then the second-most popular big band in the nation. Over the next 21/2 years, Sinatra was on tour with Dorsey, playing in top clubs, performing solo or as lead singer with Jo Stafford and the Pied Pipers. He gained nationwide exposure on more than 110 Dorsey dance records and in neighborhood jukeboxes. For a modest investment of a salary of $150, the singer generated a lot of clout for his boss.
After going solo in late September 1943, Sinatra was penciled in as an "extra added attraction" at New York's Paramount theater for its New Year's show. The headliner was the Benny Goodman Orchestra, but for every stage show, close to 2,000 teenage fans were encamped for hours in the seats, while waiting lines outside the box office were lengthening.
Adoring female adolescents in plaid skirts, angora sweaters, Peter Pan collars, bobby socks and saddle shoes came to hear and cheer what an enterprising gossip columnist called the "Sultan of Swoon." Tabloids picked up on the phenomenon. Long after the Goodman band left the Paramount, Sinatra's booking was extended an additional four weeks, well into mid-March. At every performance, hordes of screaming nymphettes choked and sobbed and gushed tears of ecstacy, coining new titles for their hero: Frankie, Swoonatra, Hoboken Heart Throb, The Voice, King of the Baritones. Sociologists penned magazine articles defining the current epidemic of Sinatromania. The Paramount theater conspicuously posted an ambulance outside to ferry advanced cases of Sinatrauma to the nearest infirmary.
By 1945, he had signed a lucrative contract with Columbia Records, co-hosted radio's popular "Lucky Strike Presents Your Hit Parade" from the West Coast, and was offered a generous $1.5 million contract by MGM to appear in a series of big budget musicals. In 1946, Sinatra narrowly missed being named the country's "best male vocalist" by Downbeat Magazine when he lost to veteran showman Bing Crosby by only 34 votes.
Soon after, Sinatra became a Hollywood fixture; gossip columnists began to zero in on his clandestine affairs with filmdom's leading ladies, among them Lana Turner, Marilyn Maxwell and Ava Gardner. Though married to Nancy Barbato and with two children at home, Sinatra violated the cozy homespun image cultivated by his studio by vacationing in Cuba with exiled Mafia boss Lucky Luciano, and then being involved in a knock-down nightclub brawl with gossip writer Lee Mortimer.
Why did the postwar super hero, for all the glitter and scandal while still in hits early 30s, become more than a passing phenomenon? When he first arrived on the scene, America soon became involved in World War II. For four long years, few Americans were spared the misery of seeing off husbands, sons, relations and closest friends overseas, wondering if they'd ever make it back alive or in one piece. A popular wartime ballad, "They're Either Too Young Or Too Old," cleanly dissected a familiar female quandary. In December 1944, Sinatra was declared 4-F by his draft board due to a punctured eardrum sustained at birth and was declared unfit for military duty.
Comedians poked fun at Sinatra's unprepossessing physical appearance. Of middling height, hollow-cheeked, and slope-shouldered, he seemed a walking ad for advanced anorexia. Whenever he approached a stationary standing microphone, his critics said, his body could easily be hidden behind the supporting metal rod of the mike.
Always neatly groomed, he favored custom-made shirts with French cuffs, floppy bow ties and stylish sports jackets without lapels (owing to wartime restrictions). And once he planted his feet and launched into song, he mesmerized his fans. His piercing blue eyes framed by a head of tousled curls and a fetching quiver of his trembling lower lip set off verbal explosions and more than maternal instincts in his smitten audience. And when he'd segue into a popular wartime plaint like "You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To," his rich baritone gave off an electric pulse that vibrated every synapse in a female brain and fluttering heart. He became the long-gone missing son or missing lover suddenly restored on the wings of song.
His gift was his impeccable vocal phrasing and breath control, something he'd discovered by listening to Tommy Dorsey's long trombone solos with extended legato lines that seemed to glide effortlessly over mandatory breath stops. He experimented with backing off the beat, slowing the pulse of the line the way musicians bent blue notes to accommodate a shift from major to minor key. He clipped the consonants of key words for their implosive effect:
"aflame with such a burning desire
that only your kiss
could put out the fire"
In totality Sinatra personalized songs the way old Neapolitan singers once cultivated the "bel canto" style of rephrasing an aria in grand opera. He used his voice as a deftly honed instrument for piercing the heart of a Cole Porter lyric, squeezing and stretching iconic phrases and images, invoking and releasing stored energy in the scaffolding of a sophisticated ballad by Johnny Mercer. An infatuated bobby sockser, not entirely understanding how the great one had invaded her inner space, would probably have only a vague presentiment. "He just sends me. Like he's dedicating this song only to me. Just for my ears."
As music biographer Donald Clark accurately observed, when Sinatra came along in the 1940s, the songs he helped popularize are about "sexual desire in disguise, a modern misconception of romantic love." Sinatra himself revealed to reporter, Pete Hamill, "Music is to me sex. It's all tied up somehow, and the rhythm of sex is the heartbeat. I always have some woman in mind for each song I arrange."
The secret of all great art, from the feet of Fred Astaire to the soaring voice of Pavarotti, is to hide the artifice and make it seamless with the performance, converting mere minutes and seconds into a series of complicated executions that freeze the moment, giving the memory of the piece a permanent gloss and making the act itself seem more simple than it truly is.
Joseph Fioravanti of Oneonta wrote Chapter 3 of "Frank Sinatra: The Man, The Music, The Legend," published by University of Rochester Press/Hofstra University in June 2007.