Swing and Sensibility

Whatever Frank Sinatra sang, he swung, and his musicianship will endure longer than the swagger that today's singers so admire
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WHEN anyone asks did I see Sinatra, I answer yes; I saw him in Philadelphia in November of 1991, on his "Diamond Jubilee" tour. Really, though, all I saw from my seat in the press box was a tuxedoed snowcap who looked a little bit like Casey Stengel and occasionally sounded like him too. I wound up watching Sinatra on a color monitor suspended from a scoreboard, feeling no closer to him than if I were at home, watching him on video. What I most noticed was his hands -- translucent, veined, and, to judge from his weak grip on the microphone, arthritic.
Almost forty years before, on his first collaboration with the arranger Nelson Riddle, in 1953, when Sinatra sang of having the world on a string, he might as well have had it dangling. He spent the next fifteen or so years taking songs off the market. Who wanted to hear anyone else do "Angel Eyes" or "I've Got You Under My Skin"? His interpretations were immediately accepted as definitive. During these years, with assistance from Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May, among other arrangers, Sinatra originated what is generally called the concept album, though in his case I prefer to think of it as the LP of sensibility. Many performers, including Sinatra, had released collections of songs that were related in some way as far back as the 1940s, before the long-playing album was even invented. Sinatra's innovation, on a series of albums initiated by Songs for Young Lovers, in 1953, was to make a concept out of mood. Unlike Ella Fitzgerald (whose albums for Verve in the late 1950s combined with Sinatra's for Capitol to define an adult market for pop standards at a time when teenagers were beginning to dominate the singles charts), Sinatra never recorded composer songbooks. He didn't share billing. The unifying theme of his classic albums was either that he was feeling dreamy and sad (as on In the Wee Small Hours and Only the Lonely) or that he was feeling too marvelous for words (as on Come Dance With Me and Songs for Swingin' Lovers). Eventually he himself became the concept; by 1964, when he recorded Frank Sinatra Sings Days of Wine and Roses, Moon River, and Other Academy Award Winners, the selling point wasn't that all the songs were Oscar winners but that Sinatra had deigned to sing them.

Despite quick fame as the best of the "boy" singers of the early 1940s, and also as the cutest in the eyes of that era's hysterical teenage girls, Sinatra didn't hit his stride as a singer or an actor until the early 1950s, when he was pushing forty and starting to lose his hair. Part of the Sinatra legend is that he was destined for oblivion until he switched labels, from Columbia to Capitol, in 1953. Sinatra wasn't really washed up; he was just no longer a craze. His recording of "Mam'selle," a keepsake from the movie The Razor's Edge that reached the top of Billboard's chart in 1947, would be his last No. 1 single until "Learnin' the Blues," in 1955. But he put a whopping forty-three songs on the Top 40 between "Mam'selle" and the expiration of his Columbia contract, including nine in the Top 10. These were mostly covers of other singers' hits, including Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" and the Weavers' "Goodnight, Irene," or novelty tunes, such as "One Finger Melody" and "Don't Cry, Joe (Let Her Go, Let Her Go, Let Her Go)," for which Sinatra didn't bother to conceal his contempt. But also among his chart entries in these years were "Almost Like Being in Love," "What'll I Do?," "But Beautiful," "I've Got a Crush on You," and the haunted "I'm a Fool to Want You" -- which, legend has it, Sinatra, still licking his wounds after being dumped , completed in one take before fleeing into the night. Sinatra's dip in popularity, his romantic misadventures, his quick temper, and the rumors that began to surface about his mob connections -- all the things that supposedly put his career in jeopardy -- ultimately worked to his advantage. They shifted his appeal from women to men, giving him credibility as the guy on the next barstool, a singing Bogart, the recipient of an honorary degree from the School of Hard Knocks. At least two generations of American men came to love him not just for his singing but for his having met middle age head on, with a combination of style and swagger they hoped might also do the trick for them. He was them with talent and the privilege it can buy.

F. Scott Fitzgerald to the contrary, American life is swimming with second acts, the longest of them interminable. Artists who die young, in full possession of their gifts, are remembered mostly for dying. Performers who survive to old age -- as Sinatra somehow did despite those Camels and sips of Jack Daniel's that were never just bits of stage business -- suffer a perhaps greater indignity: they become living reminders of their audience's mortality.

SINATRA was on stage about ninety minutes that night in Philadelphia -- a good night's work for anyone. But he spent much of that time resting on a stool while being serenaded with a medley of his greatest hits by the unctuous Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. The most alarming sign of his diminished capacity was the TelePrompTer Sinatra apparently needed to recall lyrics he'd been singing from the heart for decades.

Am I making too much of Sinatra's electronic crib sheet? A friend who saw him on the same tour points out that photographs of Sinatra in the recording studio in the 1950s and 1960s show him looking at scores, even though he was unable to read music. I doubt that this proves that Sinatra never bothered to memorize lyrics. I see it as evidence of his intuitive musicianship, his way of keeping an eye open for dynamic markings and the vertical movement of notes. Regardless of his arranger or conductor, or who was listed as the producer, Sinatra was the arbiter of how the final take should sound. James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "Only the Lonely" is familiar as the title track of a 1958 album that Sinatra often named as one of his favorites. On the three-disc Frank Sinatra / The Capitol Years this art song disguised as a ballad -- which Sinatra seems never to have performed in concert, probably because of the difficulty that certain of its intervals would have presented to a road-show orchestra -- begins with Sinatra's spoken instructions, and he could be Martin Scorsese telling his cinematographer what he wants in the next shot. "The whole orchestra should be fairly light from the beginning of the vocal," Sinatra says, presumably to Felix Slatkin, the violinist and concertmaster. "From bar eleven ... to the beginning of the crescendo."

One gathers that Sinatra's studio associates followed his orders not because he was a star and a tough guy but because his suggestions invariably worked like a charm (he is said to have given the arranger Gordon Jenkins the idea for the out-of-the-mist solo French horn that precedes the full orchestra on their 1957 recording of Leonard Bernstein's "Lonely Town"). But in 1993, when he began to record the material for Duets and Duets II (albums that proved to be his all-time best sellers, and also his recording swan song), he wasn't even in the studio at the same time as his duet partners, an assemblage of rock and pop glitterati many of whom Sinatra had probably never heard of. He simply laid down his vocals and then (in effect) told his producers to send in the clowns.

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Francis Davis

"If I go to a concert and I'm supposed to be reviewing it, and I'm taking notes, I sometimes wind up jotting down as much about the audience as I do about the performers," Francis Davis recently told The Atlantic in an online interview. "I'm interested in what music means to people: what does it signify to them?" A contributing editor to The Atlantic since 1992, Davis's interest in the social and intellectual significance of jazz, musical theater, pop, and blues has brought a unique depth to his career as a music critic and historian.

Davis's writing career began to take form in the scripts he wrote for a Philadelphia public-radio show (which he also produced and hosted) that specialized in playing out-of-print jazz. When his scripts evolved into more sophisticated jazz criticism, he started submitting them for publication and became a staff writer at a small New Jersey newspaper. Since his first article for The Atlantic, "The Loss of Count Basie" (August 1984), he has authored seven books: In the Moment (1986), Outcats (1990), The History of the Blues: The Roots, the Music, the People From Charley Patton to Robert Cray (1995), Bebop and Nothingness: Jazz and Pop at the End of the Century (1996), Like Young (2001), Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael (2002), and Jazz and Its Discontents: A Francis Davis Reader (2004)

Davis writes for a variety of publications, including The Village Voice, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Stereo Review. A 1994 Pew Fellow in the Arts, he teaches a course in jazz, blues, and folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and is currently working on a biography of John Coltrane and a history of jazz.

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