The following was written in December 1996, when Frank Sinatra’s retirement was announced.
Frank Sinatra ever did the fullest duty to his art, and now he is leaving us with the duty to sum him up. My betters have already done that. One day I was dealing with Ella Fitzgerald, and the subject of Sinatra came up and her intruder-mistrusting voice suddenly softened and she said, “Frank. Just this little guy telling this story. That’s all you have to be.”
In 1956, Nelson Riddle thought to employ the Hollywood String Quartet as backup for Sinatra’s “Close to You” album. The HSQ found Sinatra as demanding as Schoenberg had been six years before, when it recorded “Verklärte Nacht” and so gratified its composer that he felt himself fully defined and registered his satisfaction by writing the liner notes. Sinatra asked not a whit less than Schoenberg, and Eleanor Aller, the HSQ’s cellist, has remembered the delight of the challenge and fulfillment as “the sort of thing in which you just enjoy every minute, because the man is so musical.”
And so those made newly aware of the summit of America-bred chamber music that was the Hollywood String Quartet would do well to catch those four on “The Lady Is a Tramp” and understand that the HSQ’s glorious decade belongs not only to Schoenberg and Schubert but to Frank Sinatra, too.
For Frank Sinatra knew, as every artist must, that there is no such thing as trash that cannot be transcended. He also knew the second great lesson, which is that everything is there to be stolen if you have the taste to confine your larcenies to the worth-taking. We cannot appreciate the work if we overlook its elements of creative plagiarism.
The porkpie hat and the walk into the shadows of loneliness with the light at his back are all taken intact from the “One for My Baby” that Fred Astaire consummated in the unjustly forgotten movie The Sky’s the Limit. I remember when Sinatra was trying to put together a sextet for the Kennedy Inaugural and finally had to tell Milton Berle, “Look, Milton, the only way you’ll ever learn to sing is to listen to Billie Holiday and find out how to play out a note.” The Lord had given him his voice; mother wit and a magpie’s cunning account for the enduring distinction of the rest.
Our relations were always cordial, however fleeting, but it didn’t take too long to recognize the puritanical little boy beneath the skin. Once we passed a few minutes after a Kennedy rally in Los Angeles. Sinatra was in the full fit of enchainment in the great clan’s thrall, and said how great they all were: “Jack, Jackie, the ambassador, Bobby, and every one of them.”
He had to confess, all the same, that he was coming to doubt that Peter Lawford, the brother-in-law, had the moral fiber befitting his grand connections.
“Do you mean to say,” I, puzzled, asked, “that, when you and Sammy Davis throw a wild night, Peter Lawford comes along?”
“Yes,” Sinatra replied. “That’s just what I mean.”
And he did, because at bottom he believed—and could rise every morning and believe again—that love is eternal and fidelity is a sacred trust. There and only there was his secret. What would Don Giovanni be except merely coarse bouffe if the Don could not so unvaryingly persuade himself that each fresh object of trifling fancy is his lifetime’s love?
No, if you want to know why Frank Sinatra will intrude himself into the bloodstream of our memories if we survive to a hundred and five, forget the grown man he never became and look for the little boy he could not quite stop being, because that is the little boy who goes about searching for and singing about the love that will always last.
Frank Sinatra’s singing was the only one of his careers—as a natural actor, a tough guy, a mafia friend, a womanizer, a nouveau riche, a political chameleon—that really mattered. (But he had one other largely secret career as a samaritan who was always at the ready when one of his friends—say the singer Sylvia Syms, or the composer Alec Wilder—fell ill or into trouble.) He had a microphone voice, a light baritone of barely two octaves with a slightly quavery Twenties vibrato that he learned to control almost immediately. His voice had a kind of open density, a Hoboken bel canto quality; despite his host of imitators, you invariably knew who it was one measure in. His sometimes baggy emotional range, his easy swing, shapely dynamics, and extraordinary enunciation (try to find a garbled word in a Sinatra lyric) came directly from Bing Crosby and, later in his life, Billie Holiday. But Sinatra also learned from two other disparate masters—his old boss, the trombonist and bandleader Tommy Dorsey, whose long notes hung in the air like gliders; and from the great cabaret singer Mabel Mercer, who had a three-dimensional, mother-hen way of phrasing. The writer and lyricist Gene Lees has called Sinatra our “poet laureate.” Good, but Sinatra didn’t write songs; he got inside them, found their poetry, and gave it to us.
Sinatra “retired” in 1971, but was back on the road a year later. In 1974, he gave a wonderful concert in the huge Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. I went to the concert, and the end of my review read: “Although Sinatra worked in the round, he remained effortless, turning in a slow-as-Earth motion that allowed every one of us to feel, no matter how briefly, his radiance.” Three weeks later—so much for his celebrated hatred of the press—a letter arrived from him. It began: “I did not plan ahead for my unretirement period, so Imust apologize for the delay in expressing my deep appreciation for your kind words.” He went on in the second and last paragraph, his own way of speaking suddenly ringing out: “It felt good—hell, it was great—to be back on stage again.”
Sinatra’s best singing came in two indivisible parts: the cocky, supreme voice, and his passion for the songs of Kern and Gershwin and Arlen and Berlin and Rodgers and Porter. He helped turn them into our American lieder.
June 25, 1998