Let’s get one thing straight. There can’t be another Frank.
These days, you don’t operate on that plane and get away with it. Was he in the Mob? Was he an informer? Did he ruin Ava Gardner, sleep with Marilyn, throw a plate against a restaurant wall just because they cooked the pasta too long?
Act like that today and you’d be TMZ’d faster than you can tweet Alec Baldwin. But that’s just behavior. Flip on your TV and you’ll understand the other reason nobody can match Sinatra. In this age of the media megatropolis, of over-saturated, over-exposed, over-everything, competition is just too fierce for one figure to so dominate the spotlight.
With Frank’s 100th birthday approaching (Dec. 12), I’ve been talking Sinatra, on the phone, at neighborhood barbecues, with other music fans. I’ve been throwing on his records, from the classics (“Come Dance With Me!”) to the spottier (“Trilogy: Past, Present, Future”), sifting through good books and that Kitty Kelley paperback and scouring YouTube for every scrap of visual data.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Charlotte Observer
Truth is, celebrity anniversaries are nothing more than dates and dates nothing more than marketing opps for album reissues, tribute concerts and related product. But for me, an unrepentant fan, it’s a great time to remind everyone why Frank still matters.
What’s most startling, when you focus on Frank, is how ever-present he is 18 years after his death, how regularly he bullies his way into your living room.
There he is, on David Letterman’s “Late Show” farewell week, channeled through Bob Dylan, the greatest songwriter of our time, who decided to croon a classic made famous by Sinatra. There’s “The Theme to New York, New York,” played 81 nights a season, without fail, after the final out at Yankee Stadium. Even in death, Frank can insert himself into the middle of a nasty domestic squabble. Third wife Mia Farrow taking a swipe at Woody Allen by suggesting that Ol’ Blue Eyes, not her film-directing ex, may have fathered son Ronan.
‘Nobody touches him’
“As far as touching him goes, nobody touches him,” Dylan said in a surprisingly personal interview this year, explaining why his new record featured 10 songs made famous by Sinatra. “Not me or anyone else.”
“He conquered every medium – television, recording, films,” Tony Bennett said after his death. “He was just born for what he did.”
He came from a different world. Frank Sinatra was born in 1915, before TV, before radio, to a pair of Italian immigrants. He grew up in Hoboken, dropped out of high school and then, after working an odd job or two, scored a recording contract with bandleader Harry James. That led to the Tommy Dorsey band, fame and the first stage of his career as the baby-faced big-band crooner.
Eventually, everything came apart: his first marriage, to Nancy Barbato; his singing career (Columbia Records cut him loose in 1952); and his confidence.
It wasn’t until his Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1953’s “From Here to Eternity” that Sinatra’s luck seemed to change. He signed with Capitol Records and reinvented himself. He sang in a lower register and his material stretched, from winks and highballs to smoky, dark confessions.
The best of Frank
There are a lot of Sinatra albums and a lot of people who have pontificated on them. Most start by praising 1957’s ode to pathos, “Only the Lonely.”
But to me, the greatest Frank record is from a June show in 1962. He’s playing with his sextet in Paris, and it’s as loose as a show can get.
His performance is impeccable, whether swinging through “Goody, Goody” and “Without a Song” or breathlessly roaming through the verses of “My Funny Valentine” and “One for My Baby.” More than anything, this performance – stripped down from his orchestral heft and captured in its entirety, unlike the other live recordings released during his lifetime – gets to the essence of what made Sinatra Sinatra.
It is how a man takes a song written by somebody else, performs it for decades, and it still sounds as fresh, pained and passionate as the first time it emerged. It is a special gift and one we don’t need a special birthday to recognize.
6 Sinatra items you should consume
1. “Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely” (1958): This torch song classic is a big candy bowl of downers … and I mean that in a good way. “What’s New.” “Ebb Tide.” And, of course, “One for My Baby.” “So, set ‘em up, Joe …”
2.”The Manchurian Candidate” (1962): John Frankenheimer’s thriller is by far his greatest moment.
3. “The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin’” (1997): Bill Zehme’s book is breezy and as conversational as a gig at the Sands, plus it might feature Sinatra’s final exchange with the press.
4. “Sinatra & Sextet: Live in Paris” (1962): A complete show from 1962, the set is packed with classics, from the dark and moody to up-tempo swing.
5. “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” (1966): This is how Gay Talese invented a new style of journalism. This piece, done without Sinatra’s participation for Esquire, penetrates more than any interview. Watch Frank mope, pick fights and get followed around by his toupee handler.
6. “Duets I & II” (1993, 1994): I know. These sterile “duets” feature singers who didn’t even perform in the same room as Sinatra. But listen more closely. First, the man is committed, even if some of the pairings are beyond odd. Second, Sinatra’s success likely gave a boost to the Great American Songbook. Can inspiring others to record Cole Porter ever be a bad thing?
Geoff Edgers, Washington Post