On Frank Sinatra (1915–1998)


Murray Kempton

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,…

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