Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, Muddy Waters, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were all born in 1915. Perhaps the most popular and influential singer born that year was Frank Sinatra, whose centennial is being celebrated this month.
Sinatra began as a big band singer, first with Harry James and then with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. He soon became a solo star (with legions of bobby soxer fans) and began appearing in movies. At first, he was a lightweight, physically and dramatically.
Though he made some movie musicals when he was in his vocal prime, Hollywood usually let him down. For example, in “On the Town,” the studio rejected most of the Leonard Bernstein songs. Sinatra pleaded with them to let him sing the ballad “Lonely Town” but they refused. He later recorded it for one of his own albums.
Similarly, he was signed for the musical “Guys and Dolls” but was cast as Nathan Detroit, not Sky Masterson (the role he wanted). Thus, Marlon Brando got to sing “Luck Be a Lady,” which Sinatra often featured in his live shows.
In “Pal Joey,” his singing of Rodgers and Hart songs was tops, but the film was lackluster.
He gave significant dramatic performances in “From Here to Eternity” (for which he won an Oscar), “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Man with the Golden Arm,” and “Some Came Running.” However, many of the films he acted in were duds, and he also made a number of movies with his Rat Pack buddies where everyone had a good time except the audience.
Sinatra’s most important contribution to the arts was his singing of the great pop songs from the past as well as pieces written especially for him by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen, among others. He is quoted as saying, “I adore making records. I’d rather do that than almost anything else.”
Though Sinatra could not read music, he had an infallible ear. Cy Coleman (who wrote the music for “Witchcraft”) recalled that the singer changed some notes in one of his songs, “Why Try to Change Me Now?” Coleman thought Sinatra’s version was better and he changed the music to fit the master’s interpretation.
Along with his film comeback in “From Here to Eternity,” Sinatra found a musical revitalization at about the same time when he signed with Capitol Records and began working with the brilliant arranger Nelson Riddle as well as Gordon Jenkins (whose arrangements were more sentimental).
Sinatra began issuing thematic albums, like “Only the Lonely,” that were a critical development in the LP era. No male singer performed a lyric with more sensitivity or finer phrasing than Sinatra. He was a complete perfectionist with his music; he was known to be the opposite on films, generally refusing to do retakes.
He even reached into Judy Garland’s songbook, crooning “The Boy Next Door” or belting “The Man That Got Away” (though the macho Sinatra always made sure the gender was changed).
Was Sinatra a jazz singer? Yes and no. He could swing hard enough to be included in the Smithsonian’s “The Jazz Singers” collection. Yet unlike Mel Torme, he was not comfortable in a small group of improvisers. Rather, he liked to sing in front of an orchestra, albeit one that included jazzmen. The distinctive jazz trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison frequently played on Sinatra’s sessions.
Also, Sinatra recorded albums with the bands of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
A variety of events have marked the centennial. TCM has been showing his movies and, more importantly, his music specials, including the classic “A Man and His Music.”
Among the reissues of Sinatra’s recordings, I enjoyed the box set “Sinatra: London.” I didn’t know of his connection to Great Britain. The set includes a 1962 studio recording, “Songs from Great Britain,” accompanied by an orchestra of English musicians conducted by Robert Farnon, who also did the arrangements.
Sinatra is in fine voice on the album, with a lyricism that disappeared over the following decades.
An interesting extra is Sinatra speaking on BBC radio about each piece, noting that he was friends with Noel Coward and had met Ivor Novello.
The second disc contains outtakes from the “Great Britain” sessions plus three tracks recorded live for the BBC in 1953.
Disc 3 is a 1984 show from Royal Albert Hall. The other discs are DVDs of shows from Royal Festival Hall in 1962 (with Queen Elizabeth in attendance) and 1970 (introduced by Princess Grace of Monaco, who had appeared with him in “High Society”).
Some songs appear more than once and Sinatra sang old favorites as well as more recent material, like his hits “My Way” and “New York, New York,” plus George Harrison’s “Something” and Jimmy Webb’s “Didn’t We?”
The accompanying booklet has information about the recording session and concerts as well as a timeline of Sinatra’s appearances in Great Britain. Photos include one of him with Queen Elizabeth.
For those who want an overview of the Chairman of the Board’s recording career from his Columbia, Capitol, and Reprise years, Capitol/UMe has released “Ultimate Sinatra” in 25-track CD, 26-track digital, 24-track 180-gram 2LP, and 101-track 4CD and digital editions.
For an enjoyable tribute from a jazzman, pick up guitarist Lou Volpe’s CD “Remembering Ol’ Blue Eyes (Songs of Sinatra).” Volpe doesn’t try to sing or to replicate Sinatra’s arrangements; he just plays his tasty guitar with an excellent group that includes Onaje Allan Gumbs on keyboards.
The album closes with Carlos Santana’s “Europa.” The one piece on the album that Sinatra never performed but to which Volpe adds the title “Dedicated to the Brilliance of Frank.”
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.