Blog Archive

15 December 2015

Where Would We Be Without Frank?

Frank Sinatra was such an artist, so dedicated to his art, and so uniquely willing to explore every facet of popular music, that his influence on music is overwhelming. It's almost impossible to imagine what American popular music, which is loved and emulated all over the world, would have been like without him. But there are some important innovations I think he doesn't get enough credit for.
For instance, what is now called the Great American Songbook, that treasure trove of classics, might not even exist without him.
During the 1920s and 1930s, popular bandleaders spent a lot of effort searching for the next hit song, and most of them had their singers perform anything and everything that came along, hoping something would strike the public's fancy. But at the height of his first wave of popularity -- and we tend to forget just how huge this was -- Sinatra rejected this approach, and selected songs for their actual worth. True, he had some fine songwriters on his payroll, and was certainly always on the lookout for good new songs. But he wasn't willing to drop a  great song just because it was from a previous season. One of his early major hits, for example, was Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine, which was more than ten years old. It has a complex, precise lyric, and a gorgeous, compelling tune; it is one of the greatest pop songs ever written (if you can call it that; the lyric is a poem in itself*). The great swing bandleader Artie Shaw had recorded a very popular and exciting instrumental version, but lesser singers tended to shy away from the lyrics, which are difficult, requiring careful diction and actual thought. Sinatra's 1944 version still stands as one of his finest recordings; every facet of his early artistry is present. His beautiful voice was as yet unaffected by overuse, and his control of pace and inflection is unparalleled.
Sinatra appeared on Armed Forces Radio with Rudy Vallee and Fred Allen in 1944, and naturally the two witty fellows tease him about his thin frame and his plentiful hair. Frank takes this in stride. And then he sings Begin the Beguine live in the studio -- and his performance is so masterful it shuts them right up.
AFRS Mail Call: Sinatra, Allen, and Vallee
Another important milestone in pop music that Sinatra is responsible for is the concept album.  another thing that seems so natural now that it's hard to recall that somebody had to invent it!
Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours album, from 1955, was the first concept album. Before this, albums were more like variety shows; examples of up-tempo songs, novelty songs, and torch songs were perhaps not jumbled together, but side by side on the same record -- which would have been a shorter-playing 10-inch. On In the Wee Small Hours, which was originally released as two ten-inch discs in a cardboard album (this practice is why they were called albums in the first place), the songs all center around the theme of, to put it simply, heartbreak. The arrangements, the pacing, and, of course, most of all the voice , express feelings about the loss of a lover.
This album hit some people like a ton of bricks; I remember one writer reminiscing about being in his rooms at Oxford University in the summer of 1955 and hearing Sinatra's voice wafting across the quad every evening. He remembered locking himself in his room and listening to it over and over again. And this reaction is understandable; who hasn't been heartbroken at one time or another in their life? Up to this musical seismic event, there would have been no haven for a music lover to turn to -- afterward, concept albums blossomed like a thousand flowers, and within quite a short time you could find a musical collection for any mood or feeling. Again, the idea now seems so simple and obvious -- but somebody had to think of it, and that person was Frank Sinatra.
But I think he made an even greater contribution to -- well, to human life. After his first wave of great popularity as the romantic idol of young women -- the bobbysoxers -- Sinatra failed. In public. His first marriage broke up, his film career faltered, he developed vocal problems, he fell madly in love with a glamorous star movie star and their tempestuous relationship made none-too-flattering headlines, and even his recordings were less and less successful, both artistically and commercially. By 1950 neither his personal life nor his career was in good shape.

With great determination, he began a "comeback" with a difficult and different role in From Here to Eternity, resulting in an Academy Award nomination; he took charge of his recording career, rejecting the novelty songs that CBS tried to foist on him and insisting on choosing his own superior material. His marriage to Ava Gardner included public spats and eventually a humiliating break-up; but he also weathered these setbacks in public. And, rather surprisingly, that is perhaps Sinatra's greatest accomplishment, and what made him  a role-model for generations of guys. As the young, floppy-haired Crooner, he was immensely popular with women; but his second wave of fame garnered the devotion of men. Not just the artistically minded, but ordinary men, average joes. Because after everything that had happened to him, he came out of that long, dark tunnel cooler than ever -- the Chairman of the Board. Frank Sinatra became a macho hero not through fist fights, car chases, and shoot-outs, but by surviving sorrows that can happen to anyone -- a broken heart, professional failures, loss of status -- and equally publicly overcoming these troubles and eventually triumphing over them with grace and valor, and with his enthusiasm for life undiminished. And that's a fine archetype to add to our popular culture.

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