I enter this post with an appropriate amount of fear. What can possibly be further said about the Chairman of the Board, Francis Albert Sinatra? The entire pop musical experience of the twentieth century is essentially wrapped up in the song journey of this one man. How we listen to a song, how we judge an artist’s interpretation is based on our memory and comparison to the incomparable Sinatra. He took ownership of the Great American Songbook and never let it go, frequently producing seminal performances of a particular song then later in life re-working it from a new direction, equally as perfect and untouchable. It is the quest for lyrical perfection in a song that drove the kid from Hoboken and allowed the world to overlook his many personal failings and difficult personality. Sinatra never touched a song he didn’t improve in some way, and this spoke to his brilliant musicianship despite an almost complete lack of training and education, leaving high school after only 47 days. He was, however, a musical savant, and it was this special gift that separated him from the innumerable crooners that populated the stage in the 1930’s and 40’s. It was this special gift that in the 1950’s and 60’s drove him to rework himself from a ballad singer into a definitive interpretor of a vast expanse of music through his unique talents of story telling and perfect cadence. He created songscapes of drama, loneliness, love, confidence, hopefulness, and despair that transcended the songs and played with the bassest human emotions. What ever else this difficult man brought to life’s table, he left us with his death in 1998 a wealth of music that will never become outdated, and remains fresh with every repeated listen.
Everybody has his favorite Sinatra. There is the early Sinatra of Tommy Dorsey’s band with I’ll Never Smile Again and All or Nothing At All. This was the 1940’s balladeer that created hysteria among young women during the war years and led to Elvis like public adulation in sold out performances at the Paramount theater in New York with screaming, fainting fans. In the 1950’s Sinatra, facing vocal changes and a public that had moved on from his “bobby soxer” prominence completely re-worked himself in a series of thematic albums in partnership with Nelson Riddle, bringing the large band symphonic capacity and impressionistic pallets to the most intimate of songs in albums such as Only The Lonely and In the Wee Small Hours. The late 1950’s and later, 1960’s was larger than life Sinatra with albums expressing his confidence in his special skills and America’s world prominence with a series of swing albums that produced such gems as Come Fly With Me, Witchcraft, and I’ve Got You Under My Skin. The 1970’s and 1980’s were the age of wistful retirements and triumphant returns to the stage, with his diminishing vocal capacity more than made up with his theatrical presence and his story telling art in songs such as My Way and L.A. Is My Lady. Sinatra was the perfect interpreter of prose. He understood better than any one the way words fit into sentences and their individual weight, and uniquely created a slightly off the beat cadence and delayed inflection that brought increased power to the words and emotions behind the songs. When Sinatra sung of love, you wanted to be in love; when he sang of loss, you wanted to cry; when he sang of happiness, you wanted to fly. These were the uncontrollable responses that Sinatra could evoke in his listener, and the special nature of his talent that will last as long as their are means of sharing his recordings, no matter what the generational distance.
Three examples of the art of the living Sinatra are below for your pleasure. The first is the perfect “swing” song of the 1960’s Sinatra, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, a Cole Porter song with Sinatra performing with the best swing band ever, the Count Basie Orchestra. The second is Sinatra the balladeer from an unexpected modern source, the great American songwriter Jimmy Webb, who I’ve expounded upon recently, in Didn’t We? Last, is the quincentennial Sinatra song, the Johnny Mercer Harold Arlen classic, One For My Baby, performed in London in 1971, with Sinatra’s superb pianist the understated Bill Miller, performing at his side.
Life as a story, was never told better, than by the Chairman of the Board: