Frank Sinatra would have celebrated his 96th birthday today. In May 2008, Kevin Nance reflected on what the foot-tapping singer did best. Originally published on Obit-Mag.com. (Wikimedia Commons / Department of Defense)
Last impressions lingering as they do, we tend to remember Frank Sinatra as an old man with a toupee belting "My Way" and "New York, New York" — the cartoonish Chairman of the Board from those Joe Piscopo skits on Saturday Night Live.
He was a lot more than that, of course. Before Elvis, before Brando and James Dean, Sinatra was the first great exemplar of American cool, the swing-era superstar who acknowledged feelings but kept them safely at arm’s length with his tossed-off delivery and finger-snapping beat.
At his best he was downright chilly, baby, and at just the right time. With the Germans and the Japanese massing against us in the early 1940s, there was Sinatra, slender and sleek, flicking fear and anxiety off his shoulder like lint. Bobbing his head and tapping his foot (often with Tommy Dorsey leading the band behind him), he undercut the heaviest lyrics with an irrepressible buoyancy.
He was the anti-Billie Holiday; where she dragged most of her material down into pathos and longing, he pushed his upwards toward a joke and a shrug.
With Sinatra in a career slump in the early 1950s, he reinvented himself as a movie star, winning an Oscar for From Here to Eternity in 1954 and following it up with an even more dramatic role, as a heroin addict in The Man With the Golden Arm. This general beefing-up also included a new wrinkle to his recording career: In addition to the swingin’, devil-may-care persona that had made him famous, Sinatra became, with the help of lush romantic arrangements by Nelson Riddle and others, a straightforward interpreter of darker musical material.
After 1953, when he signed with Capitol Records, Sinatra’s music divided into two parts, each with its own personality, on parallel tracks. He was either hip and cool (on albums like 1954’s Swing Easy! and 1957’s Come Fly with Me) or sincere and morose (on 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours and 1958’s Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely).
Both modes were giant hits with record-buyers of the day — Swing Easy! was Billboard’s Album of the Year and Only the Lonely landed at No. 1, staying on the charts for 120 weeks — but in retrospect it’s Sinatra the hipster, not Sinatra the balladeer, who sounds truer to himself.
He was a natural ironist, with a glittery, hard-edged glibness that feels as modern as, say, Gnarls Barkley, the contemporary pop act known for undercutting its despairing lyrics with an aggressively upbeat delivery. Sinatra’s comfort level with swing may also have been the result of a clear-eyed reckoning of his own parameters as a performer, which made him more suited to movie musicals like On the Town and Guys and Dolls (as Nathan Detroit, his greatest screen role by far) than heavy drama.
Listen, for example, to the Sinatra classic "One for My Baby (And One for the Road)" from Only the Lonely. It’s a gorgeous saloon song about the end of a “brief episode” of a relationship, showcasing Sinatra’s warm and intimate baritone, but you can feel him straining against the song’s wistful lament; it’s not his nature to wallow in sadness. The performance is better than almost anyone else’s, but it isn’t his best.
For a more prototypical example of Sinatra’s genius, try his cover of “Night and Day” from A Swingin’ Affair, in which Cole Porter’s portrait of obsessive romantic torment — “oh such a hungry yearning burning inside of me” — becomes an occasion not for angst but for lip-smacking anticipation.
The beloved isn’t his yet, but you can bet she’s going to be very soon. In the meantime, he’s got the world on a string.
Obit-Mag.com celebrates life through the lens of death.