American Graffito

Sinatra: The Main Event

at Madison Square Garden, October 12 and 13

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra; drawing by David Levine

Sinatra, who arrived on the scene at the end of one depression, seems to have triumphantly returned at the start of another. Caveat emptor, perhaps the sign at the Garden should have read. But a few Sundays ago on the night of “the main event” there was no apprehension that I could detect—and no WIN buttons either. Most of the fans seemed to me jubilant, middle-aged, affluent; many had probably risen with the star during the boom years of the war when they unexpectedly began making money “hand over fist”; then later, with the “Hit Parade” floating over the dashboard, moved onward to the ranch houses and mortgages of the suburbs. For them Sinatra was more than just a pop potentate, he was Old Faithful whose rill was purest and deepest because its treasured source was in the past.

Lessons of life and love, dues and debts, midnight gamblers at the wheel of fortune—the Sinatra repertoire was never exactly what one could call happy. But the bittersweet rhymes and insinuating rhythms, the tight light phrasing, the intimacy and ease of delivery—these became the perfect accompaniment for an increasingly mobile culture. Somehow as a performer Sinatra could genuinely suggest he’d been through the mill, knew what it meant to “track the hidden country of your smile,” “travel each and every highway,” the eternal drift of the American Romance.

From the start he was both the slum kid from Hoboken (“and proud of it”), following in the wake of La Guardia and DiMaggio, and the sunshine kid with the mournful melting voice, defeating the big band sound, deftly creating a haven of solicitude and concern between his listeners and his songs. He established a new genre and a new tribe, a peculiarly American phenomenon, “the throb-and-sob idols,” who though infuriating to so elegant an émigré as Humbert Humbert could always flutter his indigenous nymphet:

I still hear the nasal voices of those invisibles serenading her, people with names like Sammy and Jo and Eddy and Tony and Peggy and Guy and Patty and Rex, and sentimental song hits, all of them as similar to my ears as her various candies were to my palate.

The old routine of hanging on to notes longer or letting go of them sooner than was normally done was a bit of syncopation Sinatra copped from Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer—though as a stylist he never equaled either. Nor was his voice ever so mellow or so vibrant an instrument as that of Bennett or Eckstine. Yet he learned to sing it salty or with bang-on theatricality or very fast and up, could range from the big bravura number like the soliloquy from Carousel to ditties like “The Coffee Song” or treacle like “This Love of Mine” or the soaring clarity and the gilded truisms, the glistening Nelson Riddle arrangements of the celebrated later albums, the…

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