Frank Sinatra, before he became Frank Sinatra
Is there any more conflicting figure in the panoply of 20th century pop music than that of Frank Sinatra? There are perhaps a small handful of figures throughout the preceding hundred years to have had anywhere near as much of an impact on the world of music as Sinatra, certainly Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but after a list like that, there just aren’t very many figures who come anywhere near to approaching the confluence of this type of incredible talent and iconic presence. No, Sinatra was and remains a singular talent, a singer’s singer, one of the few great interpreters of the “the great American songbook”, and an electrifying performer who even managed to parlay his considerable charisma into a respectable Hollywood sideline. So why is it that, even after running down all these accomplishments in an attempt to come to terms with just how centrally important the man was to the evolution of popular music in America and the world, it still feels slightly unsatisfactory?
Despite all his deserved accolades, there remains something about Sinatra’s character that seems to absolutely resist any kind of recontextualizing. His particular character was formed over the course of many decades of living directly in the public eye, a hyper-celebrity living in an era just before media saturation. It’s not a little bit ironic that the same image that Sinatra so carefully cultivated over the course of many decades, the very same image which made him an icon of cool for the generation immediately following the Second World War, is also the image which largely serves as a barrier to any modern rapprochement with his life and work.
In the 1940s Sinatra was the original template for the phenomena of the teen idol. After the war’s end and a brief creative recession in which he heroically did battle against the forces of stultifying novelty recordings which had infiltrated postwar American record stores (those with strong constitutions should track down “Mama Will Bark”, his sole concession to this fashion), he returned to the spotlight with one of the most amazing second acts in American history. Along the way he established a template for sophisticated adult musicianship within a pop context, which has rarely if ever been matched in the many decades since.
But there is something hard and knotted at the center of Sinatra’s story that can’t quite be accounted for. Whereas all the great musical icons of the 20th century have been periodically rediscovered and reinterpreted by successive generations of fans, Sinatra has seemingly always been your dad’s music, or even your granddad’s music. The image in our collective memory of Sinatra at the height of his powers, rakish grin on his face and jaunty fedora set just slightly at a tilt, has long since passed out of the realm of sincere object of admiration and into the world of kitsch. Oh, sure, there have always been and probably always will be people who try to replicate some aspects of Sinatra’s appeal, be it the fashion or studied nonchalance or the impervious, understated melancholy. But it would not be an overstatement to say that even the most accomplished of his followers have been set at slightly abstruse angles from the mainstream of contemporary culture.
The fact is, as much as his supporters may have tried to fight the fact, and as much as the man himself found the development absurd, sometime in the middle of the 1960s he ceased to be cool on a very profound level. His brand of confident, often abrasive masculinity and affected formality could not have been more at odds with the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It wasn’t just the invention of Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones that made Sinatra suddenly so passé, but a sea change in the whole of American culture. From that point on Sinatra was left to play catch-up. He had lost the kids, and he would never regain them. His audience grew older, his eccentricities grew more pronounced, and the ideological gap between him and the generations that succeeded him grew vast.
So here we are, almost 10 years following the great man’s death, and he’s still the subject of conversation. Perhaps the time has come when we might reasonably expect to be able to deconstruct the many different facets of this man’s fascinating life, examining his indispensable contribution to music separate from his controversial and at times repellent public persona. By means of example I will offer up my mother. She’s normally an open-minded person but she nevertheless absolutely refused to so much as tolerate Sinatra’s voice under any circumstances. If a Sinatra track came on the radio, she would change the station. If the topic of Sinatra somehow came up over the course of the conversation, she would broadcast some manner of a caustic remark by way of the man’s noted chauvinism, and considered the subject closed. This is not an unusual reaction among her generation, from my admittedly unscientific survey on the matter.
The fact is that Sinatra’s reputation was a victim of the changing times, and I don’t think it’s possible to overstate the effect that this transition has had upon the perception of his music. Despite a lifetime’s quiet advocacy of black musicians and black musical forms, he will always be remembered for the regrettably racist stage patter aimed at his friend and fellow Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr. Despite the sensitive and soulful nature with which Sinatra tackled issues of love, romance, and sexual politics in his music, he will always be remembered as the avatar of a particularly 1950s brand of unthinking chauvinism.
At times it seems almost impossible to conceive of squaring the circle of these conflicting signals. It’s not as if Sinatra is the only figure of towering significance in the music industry to have been a moderately unwholesome character in some aspects of his life. But Sinatra also had the bad taste to be almost wholly identified as a figure of the establishment. Elvis and the Beatles never really lost the patina of youthful rebellion that marked the earliest phases of their careers. Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and Miles Davis and John Coltrane were all black musicians set in the context of a dominantly white cultural paradigm. Gershwin and Dylan were Jews, and Porter was (ostensibly) gay. It’s obviously reductive to brand these extremely complex individuals as nothing more than the product of their ethnic, religious or sexual orientation, but at the same time it gets to the underlying point that each of these figures carried something in their background that served as a kind of hook on which they could hang their rebellious identification.
So much of 20th century cultural politics can be reduced to matters of identification and political conflicts, and it just so happens that Sinatra was and forever will be identified with the wrong side in almost every significant culture war. Whether or not he was a card-carrying member of the dominant establishment, according him the right and privilege to exercise casual sexism, unthinking racism and callow condescension towards the youth culture is almost beside the point. These are the associations that we as a culture carry in our collective memory in reference to Frank Sinatra. Whether or not they actually bear up to repeated scrutiny, it’s hard not to wince a little at the accepted caricature of the man in his prime, clad in a dapper tuxedo, lowball glass of liquor in his hand, striding across the stage and making poor jokes at the expense of any hapless broads or long-haired hippies to happened to stumble across his radar screen. There’s enough truth in that image to make even his most strident defenders pause a moment.
But we have come here today not to bury Sinatra but to praise him, and in so doing hopefully find a way past the impasse of many decades of accrued neglect. Certainly on paper the time is right for a Sinatra Renaissance. With the man dead almost 10 years now, many of the most controversial and indigestible aspects of his persona and career are beginning finally to fade into that long cultural twilight. Eventually the image of old Elvis, with his bloated sequined jumpsuits, banana and pickle sandwiches, and kitschy Vegas reviews, faded in such a way as to allow the eternally young figure of Elvis circa 1957 to re-inhabit the cultural imagination: brash, dangerous, artistically courageous and infinitely potent. Shouldn’t it also be conceivable that we can also put aside our memories of Sinatra the institution, symbol of white male privilege and World War II-era cultural hegemony, in favor of Sinatra the artist, infallibly perfect singer and visionary artistic presence?
A Voice In Time can perhaps be seen as something of a tentative first step in this admirable direction. Certainly on the face of it this isn’t an attempt to repackage and reconceive Sinatra for a new generation. The package itself is austere, respectful, and almost lethally classy. Like a Tiffany’s jewelry box, the package presents Sinatra’s material not as part of some living cultural heritage, but as a gilded, desiccated memento of the past. This is not perhaps the most auspicious format given just how strongly Sinatra has come to be identified with this brand of self-aggrandized historical significance. But then, it’s probably true that a $50 box set aimed squarely at established collectors is hardly the most auspicious venue to begin a re-branding effort.
Be that as it may, the music here does a good job of stating its case totally separate from the fussy presentation. This is not Sinatra in his prime, the too-perfect demigod who ruled the roost of American popular music for roughly a decade and a half beginning in the early ‘50s and ending sometime after the ascent of the Beatles. This is the young Sinatra, the jazz singer who fought his way up from obscurity singing with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey’s wartime big hands, who broke out of the established mode of mannered slow dance music to create for himself an improbable career as a universal heartthrob and slightly dangerous talent as a brash interpreter of popular song.
The four discs presented here arrange Sinatra’s career in a roughly thematic arc, beginning with the most indicative material of the Big Band years before segueing into his mushrooming solo career and the creative adventurousness that defined the era immediately preceding his mid-‘50s breakout period. Not exactly chronological, it still does a good job of presenting exactly how Sinatra’s music evolved during the period in question, taking him from a precocious youth in giant suits (strikingly distinctive fashion choices which dimly anticipate David Byrne in Stop Making Sense), facing off against crowds of rapturous bobbysoxers, up to the point where he became something more: an artist of lasting import and impeccable taste.
In the beginning, Sinatra was little more than another cog in the finely tuned machines that were James and Dorsey’s dance orchestras. The singer was much less prominent in these older compositions. The singer often didn’t even begin until a half or two-thirds of the way through the song, leaving the bulk of the melody to be carried instrumentally, the lyrics being mere gilding. The singer was icing on the cake but given the strength of melodies like “Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)” and “Blue Moon”, it’s hard to complain with the results.
But eventually someone had the bright idea to put the kid up front, and spruce up the Big Band repertoire with a handful of fleet swing numbers (“swing” being a relative term within the context of wartime pop, that is). Suddenly, it was madness. You can hear the crackle of electric change in the air. If you listen carefully to Elvis’ Sun Sessions recordings, you can pinpoint almost down to the moment where Elvis and his band figured out the exact rhythmic combination required to create rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a similar sensation here. At some point, Sinatra steps into the spotlight and out from behind a dominant bandleader, allowing his charisma to carry the material on its own merits. (Sinatra’s arranger in the time immediately after he left Dorsey’s orchestra, Alex Stordahl, was smart enough to step out of the way of a moving train.) This was a revolutionary move. Although few singers would ever equal Sinatra’s presence, the centrality of his presence created the template, which all popular singers would follow from this point on. Yeah, even Elvis and Dylan.
Some of the tracks that made Sinatra’s fame are probably not worth remembering in the same breath as his later work. There are a lot numbers culled from movie soundtracks and current Broadway scores, a few classics like “The Trolley Song” (from Meet Me in St. Louis), but also “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”, from 20th Century Fox’s long-forgotten I’ll Get By. It’s the third disc that really showcases Sinatra’s abilities by moving past this clutch of inferior material, and into the corpus of what is now known as the “great American songbook”. These are the tracks that Sinatra would spend the rest of his life singing, “All of Me”, “Body and Soul”, “Begin the Beguine”, “The Nearness of You”. In most cases these aren’t the most famous versions of these songs Sinatra would record but you’d hardly kick them out of bed for having cold feet, either. For instance, Sinatra first recorded “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” in 1947. Most people are probably familiar with the Nelson Riddle-produced version available on 1958’s Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. This version isn’t as deep a reading as the later recording, but it’s an interesting counterpoint nonetheless. His voice was rapidly maturing during this period, and while he didn’t quite have the emotional range he later would, it’s a remarkable performance nonetheless, evidence of a swiftly evolving artist coming into his own.
The final disc of these four is titled “The Shape of Things to Come”, a reference to the period immediately after the purview of this box, which ends in 1952. The late ‘40s were a dark time for Sinatra. He was a serious artist whose teen-idol popularity had faded, leaving him the unsavory choice of recording insulting novelty singles (all the rage in those carefree days following the end of the war), or, well, not recording much of anything. Eventually, however, Sinatra made the jump from Columbia to Capital, where he teamed with Riddle to create some of the most sublime examples of traditional American pop ever recorded. (If that sounds like an exaggeration, go track down a copy of Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely.)
The conventional narrative creates a fairly clear demarcation between the Columbia and Capital periods in terms of the type of material he recorded, but this set makes it clear that he had been chafing to branch out for a long time. Columbia had little interest in releasing the kind of music Sinatra was recording. The national mood was upbeat, buoyant and musically silly, whereas Sinatra’s muse was leading him into subsequently more melancholy and focused territory. Even the upbeat tracks like “The Birth of the Blues”, which foreshadowed the compact, focused jazz of his Capital swing LPs, seems quite out of the ordinary in this loosey-goosey context. But then, the real lure is the ballads and torch songs he recorded here, between 1949-1952. These are the first real inklings of the pronounced artistry that would blossom at Capital, in the form of an enduring string of torch song albums that began with 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. So here we have “Autumn in New York”, “Hello, Young Lovers”, “I’m a Fool to Want You” which are downbeat tunes that may not have fit the national mood, but fit Sinatra’s mood to a T. At the time this probably seemed like career suicide but Sinatra would have the last laugh.
With the passage of time, the noxious intergenerational politics surrounding Sinatra’s life and legacy begin to fade. If nothing else, the old vanguard of cultural critics who championed Sinatra and his beloved, sometimes fatuously over praised “great American songbook” as bulwarks against the corrupting forces of rock and roll and longhaired hippies, are mostly gone. Popular songwriting didn’t die with Cole Porter and the invention of the Beatles in America (although both occurred in 1964). Although Sinatra never really came close to anything resembling a true rapprochement with popular culture after around 1965, he was smart enough to see the value in George Harrison’s “Something”. This is the most important thing to remember: as silly as Sinatra the man and cultural icon could be, Sinatra the artist was rarely possessed of anything other than marvelous discriminatory taste. Forget the image of Sinatra, “old blue eyes” slouched under the lamppost, focus on Sinatra the voice.
A Voice In Time is a necessary artifact, from an era before Sinatra was invincible. There’s vulnerability here, the occasional twinge of insecurity that propels these occasionally pro-forma tracks into something more, and it’s the same vulnerability he would cultivate to such great effect on his later records.