"And now, the end is near/And so I face the final curtain..."
These lines--the first two from "My Way," co-written by, of all people, Paul Anka--have proven irresistible to commentators desperately trying to sum up the life of Francis Albert Sinatra, who died last week at age 82. TV journalist Jim Brown, speaking on the Today show the morning of May 15, when most people learned that the Voice had been silenced, went so far as to say that Sinatra and the song were one. But this verdict drastically oversimplifies a man who epitomized popular culture in twentieth-century America more completely than any other single individual.
In point of fact, "My Way" doesn't stack up to the finest compositions on which Sinatra placed his stamp over the course of his long and fruitful career: It's fairly clunky and lacks the thematic subtlety he was so masterful at reflecting. However, Sinatra realized that the tune would resonate with those aficionados whose lives had been bound with his for as long as they could remember. He was hardly on his last legs on December 30, 1968, when he first recorded "My Way"; he still had nearly three decades left to him. But he'd long been drawn to romantic fatalism--back in 1959, when he was among the most popular men in the country, he'd released a moody LP boldly titled No One Cares--and he correctly guessed that in his hands, the offering's last-stand structure would come across like autobiography of a very cocky, heroic kind. In other words, he had a strikingly objective handle on his persona, and he understood that by taking advantage of his personal history, he could make "My Way" work. And work it did.
Given the plethora of intriguing characteristics that came together in Sinatra, it's to be expected that comparatively few observers have commented upon his self-knowledge. But this attribute as much as any accounted for his ability to ride the tides of changing fashion for well over a half-century of public life. In each era, he was able to look with cool detachment at his virtues and at the times themselves, and again and again he made them work together. There were periods in which the fit was a bit awkward: He never quite came to grips with rock and roll, his cover of George Harrison's "Something" notwithstanding, and when he tried to look country by dressing in denim, he seemed as uncomfortable as Richard Nixon hugging Sammy Davis Jr. But what's more remarkable than his stumbles are the triumphs he enjoyed during the September of his years. The Seventies saw his "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back" return and the smashing breakthrough of "Theme From New York, New York," arguably the all-time karaoke classic. During the Eighties he was a top concert draw thanks to tours with Davis, Dean Martin and Liza Minnelli. And the Nineties were highlighted by two volumes issued under the moniker Duets, both of which hit the Billboard Top 10. The albums were generally dreadful as a result of their bloodless concept: Because Sinatra's partners sang along with pre-recorded tracks rather than interacting with him in person, the teamings exhibited all the spark and spontaneity of a corporate report. But the participants, who ranged from Lena Horne and Barbra Streisand to Gloria Estefan and U2's Bono, testified to his cross-generational appeal.
The entertainers on Duets obviously believed that associating with the Chairman of the Board would enhance their reputations. Likewise, Sinatra went into the project hoping to receive a much-needed boost; the reviews of his early-Nineties concerts had noted his forgetfulness, his sloppiness and the fraying of his once-impeccable delivery. But he needn't have worried that the public's affection for him was waning. At the 1994 Grammy Awards ceremony, the speech he gave while accepting a lifetime achievement prize was so rambling and disconnected that his own staffers requested that the orchestra at his feet cut him off. But instead of applauding the producers of the broadcast for acquiescing, fans were aghast at the rudeness of the decision. After all, this wasn't just any long-winded celebrity. This was Frank Sinatra, and if he wanted to babble incoherently before a mammoth global audience, then that's precisely what he should have been allowed to do.
Over and over, Sinatra proved immune to the sorts of public-relations disasters that regularly caused others' stars to dim. A case in point was His Way, author Kitty Kelley's muckraking 1986 expose of his darker side. Much of the information catalogued in the tome, which followed Sinatra from his birth in Hoboken, New Jersey, to his allegedly more-than-casual relationship with First Lady Nancy Reagan, was far from flattering. Dolly Sinatra, Frank's mother, was portrayed as a freelance abortionist who initially dressed her only child in pink because she had been hoping for a girl. Her husband, Marty, came across as a Milquetoast who followed Dolly's orders like the weakest private in the division. And Frank was cast as a tinpot Napoleon who littered his speech with profanities and racial epithets, slept with an astounding array of floozies and prostitutes and mistreated virtually everyone who came into contact with him; in one vivid episode, he is depicted as having thrown a gal pal through a plate-glass window.
Still, only a relatively small percentage of the millions who pored over such accounts reacted negatively. Far from it. Kelley's screed actually led to a burst of nostalgia for the Rat Pack, the group of entertainers who clustered around Sinatra beginning in the Fifties. (The Pack even developed its own lexicon. According to Kelley, "Dullsville, Ohio" was every place other than Las Vegas, and the accepted greeting was "How's your bird?"--"bird" being a slang term for penis.) The fascination with this group, which included Martin, Davis, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, continues to this day. HBO will debut a Rat Pack telefeature starring Ray Liotta later this year, and director Martin Scorsese is reportedly hot to adapt Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams, Nick Tosches's Dean Martin bio, for the big screen.
Sinatra's film work was spotty from the mid-Sixties on, when he either shambled through the likes of Robin and the 7 Hoods or went predictably gruff in the Tony Rome pictures. But he proved that he could act, not only in 1953's From Here to Eternity, for which he won an Oscar, but also in challenging efforts such as 1954's Suddenly, 1955's The Man With the Golden Arm, 1958's Some Came Running and, especially, 1962's The Manchurian Candidate, an intense blast of political intrigue that grows more prescient with the years. But his Hollywood exploits were always a secondary part of his resume, a spinoff from his primary mission. Music was where Sinatra was able to express himself most fully, and even though the words he sang were penned by others, he took possession of them once they passed his lips. None of the tunes on Perfectly Frank, Tony Bennett's CD tribute to one of his role models, bore a Sinatra writing credit, but no one doubted that they were his.
When Sinatra was asked about his singing secrets, he usually spoke about microphone technique; through trial and error, he learned to use the device in a way that made his delivery more conversational, more natural, and less affected than that of the performers who came before him. But his ability to move from a croon to a rafter-rattling bellow in the span of a single verse wouldn't have lifted his artistry to so high a level had it not been for his adventurousness. He often lingered just behind beats or cues, confident that his audience would wait for him, and he was willing to play against type. Even during the Forties, when bobby-soxers embraced him with a fervor that was unmatched until the rise of Elvis Presley, he was unafraid of appearing vulnerable. His openness coupled with those famous limpid eyes and a frame so slender that he could have doubled as a skeleton key added up to sex appeal that was as unlikely as it was undeniable.
During World War II, Sinatra was well-hated by GIs, who resented him for enchanting their sweethearts while they were being used for target practice. (A punctured eardrum won him a 4-F rating that prevented him from serving in the military.) In response, Sinatra unleashed the thug in him, as untold numbers of reporters abused and threatened by him can attest. This trait eventually took over his personal life almost entirely, but once inside a studio, he could manipulate it at will. He allowed it free rein while making such ditties as "I've Got the World on a String" or "Come Fly With Me," throughout which he swung with a finger-popping abandon that men of all ages are still imitating. But for songs that called for him to expose his innermost feelings, he was able to strip away every last bit of bluster, knowing that his tough-guy credentials added tension to every note.
While recording for Capitol Records in the Fifties, Sinatra used this approach to make some of the most wonderful popular music ever to come out of this country. The peak was the 1955 album In the Wee Small Hours, in which Sinatra and his most sensitive collaborator, producer/ arranger Nelson Riddle, surveyed a batch of evocative selections with unparalleled grace. "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," "Mood Indigo" and "What Is This Thing Called Love" are the most celebrated of the platter's tunes, and they certainly deserve every last laudatory adjective bestowed upon them. But the effort that captures everything that was best about this deeply contradictory person is a lesser-known cut, "I Get Along Without You Very Well." Written by Hoagy Carmichael, the song finds Sinatra trying to convince a paramour who left him behind that he's moved on with his life, but instead he succeeds only at conveying how crushed he remains. The words spin poetry from simple Americanese--"What a guy/What a fool am I/To think my breaking heart could kid the moon"--and Sinatra caresses them all with a tenderness that's truly devastating. Swaddled in shimmering strings stirred gently by Riddle, Sinatra allows the listener to experience through him the profoundest of losses--a tragedy more painful to him than death. Yet because it's Sinatra who's singing, we know that he'll survive even this and come back stronger than ever.
There'll be no more comebacks now, of course--none that Sinatra can experience in the flesh, at least. But while the beauty of "I Can Get Along Without You Very Well" still survives, the sad irony at its core now feels very different.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.