Frank Sinatra was born one hundred years ago today. NPR’s Scott Simon recalls a “truly magnificent” moment in Sinatra’s complicated life, when a citizens’ group in Gary, Indiana, invited him to perform at a high school that had recently integrated, spurring a bunch of white students to stage a walkout:
November 5, 1945, Richard Durham of the Chicago Daily Defender described Frank Sinatra’s appearance at Froebel High in Gary this way: “Sinatra, blue-suit and red bow-tie, five feet ten inches tall and 138 pounds, the heavyweight in the hearts of the teenagers, stepped to the stage amid weeping, some fainting, much crying, and said, ‘You should be proud of Gary, but you can't stay proud by pulling this sort of strike...’
“When he described his own racial background and told how he was called a ‘dirty little Guinea,’ the students yelled in horror, ‘No, no, no,’ and listened quietly when he told them to stop using the words...” Well, Sinatra used words we don’t say on the air these days.
“The eyes of the nation are watching Gary,” Frank Sinatra told the students. “You have a wonderful war production record. Don’t spoil it by pulling a strike. Go on back to school, kids.”
“When he sang ‘The House I Live In,’” wrote The Defender, “a strange silence fell upon his normally noisy worshippers and for once they screamed only when the songs ended.”
Heads up that The American Life’s next episode is on the life of Frank Sinatra and it airs tomorrow night at 7pm CST. From the promo link: “That such beautiful music should emerge from such vulgarity is one of life’s great mysteries.”