Frank Sinatra - Biography
By Johnny Whiteside
Frank Sinatra was the most successful, revered and dearly cherished pop vocalist of the 20th century, the bold hep cat with whom every man and woman in America wanted to swing. At his peak, Sinatra was a monolithic artistic force, yet his entire career was very nearly driven into a ditch several times. Born Francis Albert Sinatra in Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 12, 1915, even his entry to the world was a struggle. At 13 1/2 pounds, it was a delivery so touch and go that the attending doctor resorted to a pair of forceps to pull him free, tearing part of the infant's left ear apart (Sinatra’s face also forevermore bore the scars inflicted by the instrument). Apparently stillborn, it was not until his grandfather doused the lifeless baby with cold water that Sinatra even drew a breath. Family members interpreted his unlikely survival almost mystically: "You're meant to be somebody," an uncle told him.
Sinatra agreed and, after exposure to Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby, pursued his chosen career as a singer, Sinatra organized teenage vocal quartet the Hoboken Four, but the group didn't last long. He struck out on his own, playing vaudeville package shows and in August 1937, was hired as Singing Emcee for Englewood, New Jersey's Rustic Cabin--he sang through a megaphone into which some creep invariably tossed coins. An arrest on a marijuana charge almost ended everything, but Sinatra got out from under it (and posed for one pop music's most memorable mug shots). Back at the Rustic Cabin, radio station WNEW ran a regular live remote broadcast, and one night the singer caught the ear of trumpeter-bandleader Harry James. James hired Sinatra for $75 a week, and soon had him onstage at the Brooklyn Paramount. On July 13, 1939, Sinatra cut his first record, with James and his orchestra, and returned to the studio in August for the session that produced his earliest success, "All or Nothing at All." American pop was never to be the same.
Sinatra left James after six months and got a job with trombonist-bandleader Tommy Dorsey. Still just a boy singer without much clout but loads of appeal, he recorded "I'll Never Smile Again," as one of Dorsey's Pied Pipers, things began to happen fast. He took advantage of the setup by teaching himself a method of breath control that allowed him to hold sustained notes for dozens of bars of music, a technique inspired by Dorsey's trombone style (“I‘d watch the vent in Tommy‘s jacket“ he said.). Despite the fact that Dorsey's records only identified singers as 'vocal chorus,' "I'll Never Smile Again" was a big record and before long, Sinatra had bumped Bing Crosby from the number one spot on Billboard magazine's college pop poll. Sinatra was also becoming a bigger star then Dorsey himself, and in September 1942, finally went out on his own--after ceding 43% of his future earnings to Dorsey and manager Leonard Vannerson (how Sinatra got out of that deal remains unclear, but insiders believe it to be similar to the version Mario Puzo cooked up for his Sinatra-inspired character in The Godfather).
Either way, Sinatra, now popularly known as 'the Voice,' had a free hand, his own radio show and, after a fabled late 1942 date with Benny Goodman at Manhattan's Paramount Theater where the audience, mostly teenaged girls, broke out in sustained, shrill collective swoon, a reputation as a bona fide idol. In 1943, Sinatra went to Hollywood, made his film debut in Anchors Aweigh and seemed to well and truly have the world by the tail. In 1946, he was presented with a special Academy award for The House I Live In, his post-war, short-film format plea for patriotic tolerance and racial diversity. Recording for RCA and later Columbia, he issued a steady stream of 78s, continued making movies and playing SRO appearances.
By 1951, the married father of three also began a torrid romance with Ava Gardner, followed by a divorce from wife Nancy that badly dented his image. This setback coincided with the rise of a new breed of boy singers, dubbed 'the Exciters,' typified by Frankie Laine and Johnnie Ray, black influenced-belters who eschewed the decorum of Crosby and Sinatra in favor of high octane, almost shouted vocals. Sinatra despised them, and the drift in public taste soon spelled disaster. His records weren’t selling and Sinatra blamed producer Mitch Miller. His movies (rarely screened bombs like Meet Danny Wilson) also were flopping
In April 1952, MCA, the biggest talent agency in the country, announced they would no longer represent Sinatra, even though he owed them $40,000 in commissions; CBS cancelled his five year television contract--and lost a million dollars; Universal International did not pick up his option; radio shows were pulled; not long after, Columbia Records, to whom he owed over $250,0000 in unearned royalty advances, dropped him. One night onstage at the Copacabana, Sinatra opened his mouth and nothing came out. Cysts on the vocals chords, doctors said; friends intimated he was near suicidal over a rift with Gardner. Columnist Earl Wilson called it “Frank’s Big Nosedive.” Sinatra was washed up, a has-been.
But just two years later, there was Sinatra, tuxed up and smiling at the Pantages theater in Hollywood, picking up 1953’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar for From Here to Eternity, the beginning of a full-fledged return to form (you’ve seen The Godfather, right?). With a new recording contract at Capitol Records, he was poised to launch what turned out to be the most spectacular run of creative and commercial successes ever managed by an individual. While signed to Brunswick, RCA and Columbia, Sinatra had only released singles, but at Capitol, partnered with the brilliant arranger Nelson Riddle, Sinatra began recording full length albums. The first, 1954’s Swing Easy (Capitol), topped Billboard’s Disc Jockey poll as favorite album and favorite male singer for Sinatra. This inaugurated his golden age of theme albums, and, with Riddle’s dynamic charts, the development of the ‘swinging ballad.’ In 1957, he released five long players including the penultimate Riddle-Sinatra gem, A Swingin’Affair (Capitol), and the artistically ambitious Tone Poems in Color (Capitol), a collection of original works commissioned by the singer (from such composers as Victor Young, Alec Wilder, Elmer Bernstein) that Sinatra also personally conducted.
Of course, such a heavy output could be viewed as “the Voice’s” response to rock & roll, which he viewed as, to put it mildly, a cancer on the healthy body of American pop music. For a time, Sinatra’s popularity was scarcely affected by the rise of Elvis Presley, and he continued forging ahead, not only on record but also, radio, television and the big screen. Notable dramatic performances include his turn as a dope-sick junkie in Man with the Golden Arm and later in the superb political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. Even as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” reputation grew (a notorious public dust-up with journalist Lee Mortimer was but one of many image bruising incidents), behind the scenes Sinatra was a strikingly generous man; after the actor George Raft fell seriously afoul of the IRS, Sinatra sent Raft a signed blank check. When Hollywood nightclub owner Charlie Morrison died suddenly, leaving nothing but a huge debt, Sinatra sang, with Nelson Riddle and his orchestra, for two soldout weeks at Morrison’s Mocambo, turning over all the box office receipts to widow Mary Morrison. Sinatra had never before appeared in a Hollywood night club, and these paltry examples of his good deeds, most carried out anonymously, are barely representative of his generosity.
By 1960, rock & roll had began to erode the Sinatra supremacy, and he abruptly left Capitol to start his own label, Reprise. Sinatra’s first Reprise single, “The Second Time Around,” released in March 1961, made little impression on radio or the pop charts. He struggled for the next several years within the lower reaches of the Top 100 (even going so far as to cut the teen-pandering 45 “Ev‘rybody‘s Twistin'”), but could not get a hit. At the time, Reprise’s roster was strictly cream of yesterday (artists included Alice Faye & Phil Harris, Keely Smith, the Maguire Sisters, Rosemary Clooney), but after executive Mo Ostin hired lapsed rock & roller Jimmy Bowen as A&R man, things up-shifted dramatically. In 1964 Bowen began producing Beatles-defying Reprise hits for Dean Martin, and in 1966 the Bowen-produced Sinatra single, “Strangers in the Night” comfortably placed “the Voice” back at number one. This gratifying smash initiated another golden age for the singer, cutting superlative long players like The September of My Years (Reprise), Dorsey-homage I Remember Tommy (Reprise) and with Brazilian samba alchemist Carlos Jobim, a flawless album of the composer-guitarists compositions. Other collaborations with Count Basie and Duke Ellington were equally memorable, and by the time a career-spanning, retrospective double album had been released, A Man and his Music (Reprise), Sinatra had once again comfortably reinstated himself as the reigning heavyweight champion of pop. He was now universally regarded as a transformative artist of unrivaled sensitivity, taste and talent.
His staying power was awe-inspiring, scoring major hits in the 1970s like “My Way” and “New York, New York,” and relishing his universally acknowledged status as swingin’-est cat of them all. Sinatra’s awards are were numerous, including a shelf full of Grammys, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and such prestigious international recognitions as Austria’s Medal of Honor for Science & Art First Class. In 1979, his fortieth anniversary as a recording artist, he stunned the world when he announced his retirement. He climaxed his incredible career with an NBC television special that ended with the singer alone, wreathed by cigarette smoke, illuminated only by a tiny pin-spot that went to black as he sang “Angel Eyes”’ closing line “Excuse me / while I disappear . . ”. It was just a tease of course. Sinatra changed his mind, he roared back full throttle with his Ol’ Blue Eyes is Back tour, again demonstrating that the irresistible voltage which had kept him at the forefront of pop music for decades had not diminished in the slightest.
Just before his 75th birthday, he kicked off a year long Diamond Jubilee world tour on December 11, 1990, drawing sellout crowds at every stop (the Guiness Book of World Records recognized his Rio de Janiero audience of 175,000 as the largest ever to attend a concert by a soloist). At age 80, on the heels of his star-studded Duets and Duets II (Capitol) albums, he released Sinatra 80: Live in Concert (Capitol), and remained as salty, unpredictable and scrupulously creative a vocalist as ever. Frank Sinatra died on May 15, 1998 at the age of 83.