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Happy Birthday, Frank Sinatra

By On

On this day in 1915, Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was a difficult home birth for Sinatra’s mother, Dolly. The 13 pound Sinatra arrived stillborn. The child was set aside as attention turned to saving the life of the mother. A quick-thinking midwife snatched the infant, rushed to the kitchen sink and ran cold water over the lifeless child. He awoke and sang.

Thus began the extraordinary life of an entertainer whose career spanned four generations—and never found a gap.

Sinatra died in 1998. But his musical legacy is preserved and enhanced by the wonders of modern technology; records, tapes, CDs, as well as the arrival of a rich anthology of YouTube videos, some familiar, some refreshingly rare.

Biographer Bill Zehme offered that, "Arguably, no man ever lived a life more broadly, or confidently, or stylishly than Frank Sinatra…." Those familiar with his life and work would likely agree.

The passage of years can dim the brightness of our public stars…......entertainers, politicians, sports figures. In particular, singers suffer the diminution of stature that accompanies the physical process of aging. For your elder boomers out there—get ready. It's coming. For all of us.

Sinatra performed well into his 70's. But in today's coarse society, many younger types vaguely remember Sinatra in less-than-flattering ways. An over-the-hill saloon singer from a previous century. Lots of ink has been spilled about Sinatra's associations with the Mafia. His womanizing. His tempestuous behavior. His May-December marriage to actress Mia Farrow. For the record, Farrow spoke lovingly of Sinatra in her autobiography, "What Falls Away."

Politically, Sinatra was once Hollywood's top Democrat and a friend of John Kennedy, also born in 1915. In his later years, Sinatra gravitated to the right to Ronald Reagan. I don't think the Dems ever forgave Sinatra for that switch. However, through the prism of the last 20 years, it was not a bad move.

Society has always been fascinated by the wild, supermarket-checkout lives of celebrities. This explains why Sinatra garnered considerably more publicity in his time than Perry Como—a handsome, warm and gentle man of the same era…..and also a very good singer. But dull.

When we choose our celebrities, we often slacken our moral leashes, probably a good thing. Why should a person's lifestyle, politics and sexual appetite really matter? Should we truly care that Picasso was a libertine? Or dwell on the peccadilloes of a John Kennedy or Bill Clinton? They are celebrities because they fascinate us. And we admire them because they are very good at what they do. All we ever really wanted from Frank Sinatra was to have him sing for us. And he did that particularly well for over 40 years.

Sinatra was a classic baritone, the category closest in weight and timbre to a normal male speaking voice. His range was a modest two octaves. Perhaps his near-universal appeal stems from the fact that millions of men actually think they are capable of singing a Sinatra song. His voice is familiar and personal. By contrast, few men would attempt to mimic Pavarotti, not even in the shower.

"My Way" is hardly Sinatra's best, but unfortunately he has become identified with it, particularly by the younger generation. Fans like me give him a pass on "My Way" because (1) he personally hated the song, and (2) it came along in the 70's during an unfortunate musical period when lyrical self-aggrandizement was commercially popular.

The 70's were a flatulent decade when songs like "I've Gotta Be Me," "Feelings," and other musical banalities were actually performed with conviction to appreciative audiences. Nowadays a karaoke reprise of these forgettable ditties would get you laughed right off the stage.

Musically, the 50's and 60's were prime time for Frank Sinatra. His style and phrasing set him apart from other great singers of the day. His vocal virtuosity was complimented by an ensemble of the very best arrangers, conductors and musicians. One hallmark of a Sinatra song is that you can hear every word and know the singer absolutely believes the lyrics. He is quoted as saying, "If it's worth saying, Cole Porter probably said it in a song. Or Rogers and Hart. Or Sammy Cahn or Jimmy Van Heusen."

Sinatra's best collaborations were with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, although Don Costa, Gordon Jenkins, Axel Stordahl and Claus Ogerman also backed Sinatra on his finest albums.

I saw Sinatra perform live three times. Once in his prime, twice in the September of his years. The man had amazing stage presence. Even in a large stadium, at some time during the performance you were sure he was singing just to you and no one else.

I did not care much for the "Duets" albums in the 90's. Too contrived. However, his earlier live pairings with Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Dinah Shore and others are some of his best.

You can sample them at www.johnlesow.com, YouTube Songs menu.

I have about a half dozen favorite holiday albums. "A Guitar for Christmas" with Canadian Guitarist Liona Boyd is a beautiful album, particularly as a backdrop to Christmas dinner. Upbeat Christmas music from the Beach Boys, Phil Spector and James Brown is always fun, especially after a few drinks.

But my sentimental favorite is "The Sinatra Christmas Album," recorded in 1962 with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.

I heard the Sinatra version of "Jingle Bells" while I was shopping at the mall the other day. It brought a smile to my face and a lightness to my step.

Happy Birthday, Frank. Thanks for the memories.

About John Lesow

Citizen Journalist • Member since Mar 21, 2008

Comments by Readers

David MacLeod

Dec 14, 2009

Nice review of Sinatra’s life John.  The recordings with Nelson Riddle are indeed classic.  Songs for Young Lovers, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, and especially “Only the Lonely” - a desert island disc.

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John Lesow

Dec 14, 2009

Thanks, David

I see the Sinatra You Tube Police have been busy taking down the videos on my website;  some live performances still remain with Dean Martin and Ella Fitzgerald.

Sheffield Enterprises is a company that has the rights to Sinatra’s work; the You Tube posts by video fans are reqularly withdrawn from You Tube over threat of action by Sheffield for violation of copyright laws.  Invariably, someone else picks up the videos and posts them again…..a game of Internet cat and mouse.

Yes, the Nelson Riddle collaborations you mention are classic.  Another very rare and wonderful album is “Sinatra Sings the Great Songs of Great Britain”, recorded in 1960 in London with the Robert Farnon Orchestra.

Farnon was Britain’s Nelson Riddle, and the album is a treasure.  Particularly the opening cut “The Very Thought of You” and “Garden in the Rain”.  Every one of the songs is a classic;  very listenable.

The album was never released in the United States;  Reprise Records chose “Ring a Ding Ding” as a debut album; they wanted an up tempo Sinatra LP instead of a more introspective compilation of British songs.

Too bad.  The Farnon collaboration is as beautiful as it is rare…... I believe the CD is available on Amazon.

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