Interviews


Frank Sinatra


Occupation: Actor, Musician, Singer
Date of Birth: December 12, 1915
Date of Death: May 14, 1998
Place of Birth: Hoboken, N.J., USA
Sign: Sun in Sagittarius, Moon in Pisces
Relations: Wife: Barbara Marx; ex-wives: Nancy Barbato (childhood sweetheart), Ava Gardner (actress), Mia Farrow (actress); kids: Nancy, Tina, Frank, Jr.
Education: Dropped out of Demarest High School at 15

 

CHAIRMAN of the Board; Ol' Blue Eyes; The Voice. Mere labels cannot adequately sum up the mystique of a man who went from bobbysoxer idol to living legend, in the process establishing himself as one of the premier entertainers in the world. Sure, there have been other vocalists with better technique than Frank Sinatra, but the self-described "saloon singer" will always be in a class all his own by virtue of his peerless talent for singing directly to a listener's heart and soul with unmatched emotional conviction. And sure, his ego was titanic, his media-baiting, Mob-fraternizing, megalomaniacal comportment occasionally offensive, but what is never underestimated in any deliberation of the tangled legacy of Frank Sinatra is the fact that he was the single greatest interpreter of popular song that this country has ever known.

Born in 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey, Sinatra was thought to be stillborn until his grandmother doused him with cold water. Though he weighed in at an astonishing thirteen pounds at birth, the only child of Italian immigrants Anthony Martin and Natalie Della "Dolly" Sinatra grew up to be frightfully scrawny. But what he lacked in physical stature, Sinatra more than compensated for with the charismatic, strong-willed, larger-than-life personality he inherited from his firebrand mother, a brash saloonkeeper/midwife who performed abortions decades before the procedure was legal.

Sinatra dropped out of high school at 15, and supported himself with a series of odd jobs, the most notable of which was working as a sports-beat reporter for The Jersey Observer newspaper. By the time the skinny kid from Hoboken hit his teens, he had already decided that he was going to become the next Bing Crosby. As a step toward achieving that ambition, he entered a 1935 radio talent program called Major Bowes Amateur Hour. Paired with a singing and dancing trio called the Three Flashes by a promoter, Sinatra took the stage as part of the hastily named Hoboken Four, and the impromptu teaming walked away with first prize. The win resulted in a succession of dates playing with Major Bowes' traveling show, in addition to some occasional club and radio gigs. Within a few years, Sinatra was regularly singing on different programs on several radio stations. He was also holding down a $15-a-week job as a singing M.C. and headwaiter at an Englewood, N.J., eatery called the Rustic Cabin. There, he was discovered by trumpeter Harry James, a former member of Benny Goodman's orchestra who was looking to hire a featured singer to front his own band, The Music Makers.

Seven months into his two-year, $75-a-month contract, Sinatra quit the Music Makers to join Tommy Dorsey's swing orchestra, and there the hollow-cheeked, vulnerable-seeming crooner polished a signature suave, melody-embroidering phrasing that never failed to make the girls in the audience swoon. In the early forties, Sinatra bought his way out of his contract with Dorsey to launch a solo career. On his own, he continued to drive mobs of teenage girls to the point of orgiastic delirium with his unique vocal interpretations and ability to make each lyric resonate with emotion.

Whether the rumor that his manager planted frenzied females in the front row to whip the crowd into a lather was true or not matters little: Sinatra's appearances were all sell-outs, and his records vied with one another to command the charts. So great was Sinatra's influence that he practically single-handedly put the last nail in the coffin of the big band era to usher in the age of the individual performer. Despite his teen appeal, Sinatra was determined to elevate popular song from its dance-hall status to the level of art. Toward that end, he made a point of studying classical music and jazz; he attempted to emulate the cuts-to-the-bone emotional directness of Billie Holiday and the breath control techniques of Dorsey's horn playing; he even swam underwater to improve his lung capacity.

In 1946, "The Voice" signed a five-year film contract with M-G-M that effectively put his music career on the back burner for a time. An untrained, yet surprisingly instinctive, actor, Sinatra's star rose as his charismatic personality was exploited in a string of breezy, generally music-oriented films. But, truthfully, apart from some fine films he made with Gene Kelly¨1945's Anchors Aweigh and 1949's On the Town¨there were few genuine high points in his early movie career.

The early fifties marked a career cycle that would best be called Sinatra's Blue Period. It all started in 1951, when he created a scandal by leaving his wife, Nancy, and three children to marry screen goddess Ava Gardner (their tempestuous, headline-dominating union would last five years). The following year brought another stroke of bad luck, when the singer's vocal cords suddenly hemorrhaged. With his music career foundering in neglect, his film career stalling out in a string of poor castings, and his personal reputation tarnished, the 37-year-old Sinatra was clearly considered a write-off when he was dropped by Universal, CBS TV, Columbia Records, and his agent.

As Sinatra's star was waning, Gardner's was on the rise, and she was thus instrumental in helping him land a career-revitalizing role in 1953's From Here to Eternity, a part he lobbied strenuously for and won after agreeing to relinquish his normal fee of $150,000 for the paltry sum of $8,000 (it also helped that the studio's first choice for the role, Eli Wallach, dropped out at the last minute to instead appear in a Broadway play). It is widely believed that Sinatra used his Mob connections to secure the role, a rumor that was played out in Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather. (Knowledge¨both real and imagined¨of his social and business affiliations with such prominent Mafia figures as Sam Giancana dogged Sinatra throughout his life.) Regardless of how he actually landed the part, Sinatra proved himself to be a potent actor, turning in a sensitive performance as the doomed, luckless Angelo Maggio; his dramatic resurgence was complete when he won a Best Supporting Oscar for his work in the film.

Sinatra invited Oscar consideration a second time, for his galvanizing performance as a heroin addict in the 1955 Otto Preminger film The Man With the Golden Arm. His Academy stamp of approval resulted in castings in a number of choice films, including the compelling 1962 Cold War psychodrama The Manchurian Candidate. On the lighter side, he perpetuated his success by exercising his wry insouciance in the musical features Guys and Dolls (1955), High Society (1956), and Pal Joey (1957).

Director Vincente Minnelli's 1958 film Some Came Running paired Sinatra in melodrama for the first time with fellow singer-turned-actor Dean Martin. The two co-stars subsequently became the acknowledged leaders of an exclusive "fraternity" of hell-raising Hollywood figures, dubbed by the press the "Rat Pack," that included Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, and countless other hangers-on. Michael Munn, author of Hollywood Rogues, articulated the standard operating procedure of the brotherhood: "The Pack lived by a simple code: do what the hell you liked, do it together, but be loyal to the King Rat [Sinatra]."

The "togetherness" of the passel of Vegas-frequenting entertainers was most obviously manifested in a series of largely innocuous films¨Ocean's Eleven (1960), Sergeants 3 (1962), Four for Texas (1963), and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), among them¨that reflected the esprit de corps of their brawling, boozing bonhomie. What a gas, ring-a-ding-ding, and all that. Castigated, celebrated, and emulated for its outrageous capers, the Rat Pack's reputation became legend, as its king exerted an ever-increasing political and cultural influence. The Pack's notoriously hedonistic lounge culture has enjoyed an explosive resurgence in popularity in the '90s, a fact established beyond a doubt by the sleeper success of the 1996 film Swingers, which paid surpassing homage to all the martini-quaffing, finger-snapping, lady-slaying tenets of Sinatraism.

Sinatra's phoenix-like creative renaissance was not just confined to his once-again hopping film career. In 1953, he embarked on a new recording contract with Capitol Records, where his brilliant collaboration with music arranger Nelson Riddle generated some of the first best-selling LPs in history, including the classics Songs for Young Lovers, This Is Sinatra, A Swingin' Affair, Come Fly With Me, Swing Easy, In the Wee Small Hours, and Songs for Swingin' Lovers. The distinctive "Sinatra sound" took shape during his Capitol era, as each album he released reflected, almost exclusively, one of two widely opposing Sinatra-esque moods: either the brassy, cocksure facet evinced on such albums as Songs for Swingin' Lovers, or the maudlin, cry-into-your-bourbon one that characterized his so-called "suicide albums" (Where Are You? and Only the Lonely). In a 1962 interview published in Playboy, Sinatra would explain his bipolar persona: "I don't know what other singers feel when they articulate lyrics, but being an 18-karat manic-depressive and having lived a life of violent emotional contradictions, I have an overacute capacity for sadness as well as elation. I know what the cat who wrote the song is trying to say. I've been there¨and back. I guess the audience feels it along with me. They can't help it. Sentimentality, after all, is an emotion common to all humanity."

A veritable fount of hit songs, Sinatra's winning streak continued unabated into the late '50s. With his sold-out singing engagements, chart-dominating records, and popular films and television specials, no one could touch him. "The Chairman of the Board," as he was dubbed, had not only made a comeback, he was all the way back on top, as the nickname implied. Sinatra funneled his profits into funding savvy business deals, including the co-founding of Reprise, his own recording label, in 1961.

Following his 1957 divorce from Gardner, Sinatra unleashed his manly charms on a bevy of Hollywood's most beautiful, talented, and notably younger stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, and Lauren Bacall. He surprised the hell out of everyone by marrying the scarcely weaned actress Mia Farrow, thirty years his junior, in 1966. They divorced in 1968. In 1976, Sinatra married his fourth and final wife, Barbara Jane Blakely Marx, Zeppo Marx's widow.

Though Sinatra announced his retirement from both recording and acting in 1971, he was back with a television special and album, Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back, in 1973, and with a movie, the urban crime drama The First Deadly Sin, in 1980. He continued to appear sporadically on TV and in film throughout the eighties, and the latter part of the decade witnessed him launching an enormously successful tour with Sammy Davis, Jr., and Liza Minnelli. Duets (1993) and Duets II (1994), collections of collaborative recordings of old standards, propelled the octogenarian hipster up the charts once again, outselling every other release in his catalog. That Sinatra's appeal knew no delimiting factors of generation barriers or changing musical trends was readily apparent upon the occasion of his star-studded eightieth birthday celebration, at which Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen,Salt-N-Pepa, Paula Abdul, and Hootie (minus his Blowfish) paid tribute to the famed entertainer.

A man of extreme contradictions, Sinatra inherited a quick temper from his mother and was often involved in fights. Yet he always maintained a reputation for being a consummate professional and a generous contributor to many philanthropic organizations. At Oscar time in 1971, the Academy awarded him the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his many charitable deeds. Among the more notable of the numerous honors he received during his lifetime were the Kennedy Center Life Achievement Award, presented in 1983, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed two years later. In 1987, Sinatra was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the N.A.A.C.P., and he received the most august honor of all, a Congressional Gold Medal for his countless accomplishments as a singer, actor, and humanitarian, in 1997.

The legendary entertainer died of a heart attack on May 14, 1998. He was 82.

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