Frank Sinatra, the greatest vocalist in the history of American music, elevated popular song to an art. He was a dominant power in the entertainment industries—radio, records, movies, gambling—and a symbol of the Mafia’s reach into American public life. More profoundly than any figure excepting perhaps Elvis Presley, Sinatra changed the style and popular culture of the American Century.
FRANK SINATRA creating the Great American Songbook
Frank Sinatra: The Man, the Music, the Legend, a long-awaited collection of essays gathered from a famed 1998 conference at Hofstra University and edited by Jeanne Fuchs and Ruth Prigozy, probes various aspects of Sinatra’s influence in his long career (he was a national figure from 1939 until his death, in 1998). But it insists, both explicitly and in its editors’ selection of subjects and themes, that the “proper historical setting” for its subject “is the fifties.”
Although that point can be debated, the 1950s—more precisely, the period from 1953 to the mid-1960s—was clearly the era of Sinatra’s supreme artistic achievement and deepest cultural sway. It amounted to the most spectacular second act in American cultural history. In the early 1940s, following his break with the Tommy Dorsey band, Sinatra had emerged, thanks largely to swooning bobby-soxers, as pop music’s biggest star and a hugely popular Hollywood actor. By the end of the decade, he was all but washed up, having lost his audience owing to shifting musical tastes and to disenchantment over his reported ties to the Mob, and over his divorce, which followed a widely publicized affair with Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1951. He soon lost his voice (he would never fully recover his consistently accurate intonation and precise pitch), his movie contract with MGM, his record contract with Columbia, and Gardner—their passionate, mutually corrosive entanglement plainly and permanently warped him. But in 1953, his harrowing, Oscar-winning performance as the feisty, doomed Maggio in From Here to Eternity made him a star again.