Making It Look Easy
The Art of Frank Sinatra
"He sang a song like it was his, and his alone."

In 1939, Frank Sinatra was beginning his career in Harry James' big band. In the jazz magazine Down Beat, the trumpeter said of his new 23-year-old vocalist, "He considers himself the greatest vocalist in the business. Get that! No one ever heard of him. He's never had a hit record. He looks like a wet rag. But he says he's the greatest."

He was. Through six succeeding decades in the studio and on the concert stage, Sinatra proved himself to be the consummate American popular vocalist. And he made it look easy, though it wasn`t. Sinatra`s incomparable artistry was a combination of technique, technology, and taste. His vision of what singing could be and his continuous commitment to perfection set him apart from even his most gifted contemporaries, and made him an enduring figure in the nation`s musical culture.

Italian-American by birth, Sinatra from the beginning embraced the dictates of an antique Italian style: bel canto ("fine singing"), a product of the 18th and 19th centuries. Bel canto emphasized a conversational style, clear enunciation, superior physical control, and effortless delivery - all of which Sinatra brought to bear in his distinctly 20th-century attack.

Sinatra merged the lessons of bel canto with the examples of some influential musicians of his era. His first great inspiration was Bing Crosby, whose casual-sounding, bluesy `30s recordings brought a new intimacy to popular singing. The cabaret performer Mabel Mercer`s distinct diction was mirrored in Sinatra`s crisply voiced performances. Sinatra himself called jazz singer Billie Holiday the most rhythmically acute and daring singer of her day, "the greatest single musical influence on me," adding that the legendary Lady Day taught him "matters of shading, phrasing, dark tones, light tones, and bending notes."

He also had one important non-vocal model: trombonist Tommy Dorsey, who employed Sinatra as a band vocalist from 1940 to 1942. The singer took note of Dorsey's exquisite breath control, and his finest performances, with their long, gracefully executed vocal lines, mirror the craftsmanship Sinatra learned at the bandleader's feet.

Sinatra came of age as a solo performer in the 1940s, when leaps in technology brought the development of microphones that captured every nuance of a performer`s delivery with unprecedented sensitivity. During the era when Sinatra was an icon of shrieking bobby-soxers, he was often caricatured behind a microphone, with his slim frame disappearing behind its narrow stand. But he approached the mic not merely as a prop-though he used it very effectively as one - but as a tool.

"One thing that was tremendously important was learning the use of the microphone," Sinatra said. "Many singers never learned to use one. They never understood, and still don`t, that a microphone is their instrument. It`s like they are part of an orchestra, but instead of playing a saxophone, they`re playing a microphone." His thorough understanding of the technology resulted in recorded performances of unequalled sonic presence and impact.

Sinatra`s astonishing gifts would have meant little if they had been deployed on meaningless pop material. But, from his first solo sessions for Columbia Records in 1943, he enjoyed extraordinary creative control over the material he recorded, and he took the songs of what came to be known as the "Great American Songbook" as the raw material for his work. Sinatra almost single-handedly installed great songs - many of them penned for long-forgotten Broadway shows - by George and Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Cole Porter, and Johnny Mercer in the national popular consciousness. He complemented these splendid numbers with elegant commissioned songs by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne (and later, Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen) that dovetailed seamlessly with those classics. The tunes supplied the thematic core of Sinatra`s art: romance`s exhilarating highs and profound lows.

Sinatra essayed these abiding numbers with unsurpassed fidelity and respect, while putting his authoritative stylistic prints on each of them. Reviewing a 1980 concert at Los Angeles` Universal Amphitheatre for Rolling Stone, Mikal Gilmore observed, "[H]e sang the song like it was his, and his alone... [H]e took the songs of Porter, Gershwin, Arlen, and others, and made them seem personal and imperative."

Throughout his career, Sinatra assembled these refined compositions into collections that reflected a sustained mood or tone. He pioneered the "concept album" with the 1946 Columbia release The Voice Of Frank Sinatra, a subdued set of ballads arranged by Axel Stordahl.

After his acrimonious exit from Columbia in the early 50`s - spurred largely by his discontent with the mediocre tunes he was asked to execute - he returned to concept recording and revitalized his career at Capitol Records with a stellar run of long-playing albums arranged by Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May, and Stordahl; taking full advantage of both the LP`s extended playing time and the singer`s deeper, darker voice, they ranged from meditative ballad works (In the Wee Small Hours, Frank Sinatra Sings For Only the Lonely) to finger-popping up-tempo salvos (Songs For Swingin` Lovers, A Swingin` Affair). He continued his commitment to thematically programmed albums after he established his own label, Reprise Records, in 1960, resulting in such rewarding sets as the show tune recital The Concert Sinatra, the autumnal September Of My Years, and the ambitious, time-traveling three-LP set Trilogy.

Would there have been a Sgt. Pepper`s Lonely Hearts Club Band or a The Dark Side Of The Moon without Sinatra`s precedent? Perhaps not.

The late opera baritone Robert Merrill explained the timeless worth of Sinatra`s masterful song cycles best when he said, "The beauty of Frank is that he is word-conscious and story-conscious and that`s why he`s so great. He`s a storyteller. He`s sensitive - so automatically he`s sensitive to his words, to the story they tell. What you are comes out in your music."

Frank Sinatra made these conceptual exercises work on the most rarified level imaginable through an ardent fusing of artifice and emotional truth.

Author Charles L. Granata notes, "When all is said and done, Sinatra`s genius, both as a vocalist and in the recording studio, is rooted in his considerable skill as a dramatic actor. The roles for which he garnered critical acclaim - From Here To Eternity, Suddenly, The Man With The Golden Arm, and The Manchurian Candidate - are convincing examples of the breadth and seriousness of his talent. His ability to intuitively grasp a character`s essence and identify the most meaningful elements of a plot helped Sinatra transfer his persuasive on-screen sensitivities to the lyrical interpretation required for his vocal performances." Such subtly executed, intensely dramatic performances as "One For My Baby," "Soliloquy," and "Send In The Clowns" bears out Granata`s point.

Alan Livingston, who signed Sinatra to Capitol Records in 1953, once pointed out that Sinatra's work sprang from the heart of his interior being: "Frank has lived through every conceivable emotion. He's had unhappy divorces, and lost women he didn't want to lose, and experienced his career going down the tubes. He went through everything that could happen to a young man who had been the teenage idol from the 40`s. I think that actually gives him his credibility, as well as his ability to interpret a lyric and to phrase it. Because he feels it, he understands it."

The depth of feeling in Sinatra`s music, and its exceptional intimacy, provoked a highly charged response in audiences. The singer`s longtime aide Frank Military said, "Frank`s appeal is so great and so wide, I think, because it boils down to one thing: You believe that he's singing [directly] to you." The English critic Derek Jewell echoed this sentiment when he recalled his first exposure to Sinatra in the 40`s, at the height of the vocalist`s teen idolhood: "[He gave] a personal stamp to a song like no one else I`d ever heard, making you feel he was singing only to you even if you weren`t female."

It was, and is, complex music, in its making, execution, and affect, but Sinatra himself may have identified the very simple source of his universal appeal when he said, "When I sing, I believe." {view a list of Sinatra's Classic Tracks, as well as his Awards & Recognitions}


Chris Morris is a Los Angeles-based writer and DJ. Formerly an editor at The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard, he received a Grammy award nomination in 2004 for his liner notes for Rhino's No Thanks! The '70s Punk Rebellion. He currently hosts the "Watusi Rodeo" program on Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles, and at www.indie1031.com.

 

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