Hannah McGill: A century of Frank Sinatra

A contact sheet of photographs of Sinatra in the recording studio with one of his most celebrated arrangers, Nelson Riddle. Picture: Getty

A contact sheet of photographs of Sinatra in the recording studio with one of his most celebrated arrangers, Nelson Riddle. Picture: Getty

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For those about to celebrate Ol’ Blue Eyes’ centenary, Frank Sinatra’s demons – the sex, scandal and paranoia – are the secret ingredients of a divine, inimitable voice, writes Hannah McGill

‘LISTEN, we’re all possibly Frank Sinatra’s son,” tweeted Mia Farrow’s son Ronan in 2013, to widespread delight. He was responding to his mother’s juicy insinuation to Vanity Fair that she and Sinatra had “never really split up” after their 1968 divorce, and that Ronan might have been the result of that liaison rather than her relationship with his putative father, Woody ­Allen.

Sinatra and Mia Farrow cut the wedding cake at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1966. Picture: Getty

Sinatra and Mia Farrow cut the wedding cake at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1966. Picture: Getty

This may never have been nothing more than mischief; one of Sinatra’s three official and declared children, Nancy, recently referred to it as “Mia’s little joke”. But whatever the grim ins and outs of the Allen-Farrow saga, Ronan Farrow’s tweet netted a couple of wider truths about the image of Frank Sinatra that has survived his 1998 death. There’s the mythology that clings around his prolific sex life and near-limitless power over women. Then there’s the sense of Sinatra as a sort of multipurpose shared father figure, particularly for Americans: a progenitor of modern popular music and of 20th century celebrity, but also an icon whose extremes of character – domineering and needy, lovable and unavailable, giving and punitive – constitute a familiar archetype of problem fatherhood. Finally, there’s the clear fact that even as we close in on 100 years since his birth in Hoboken, New Jersey, gossip about Frank Sinatra remains a surefire means of commanding attention.

Shawn Levy is the author of Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Showbiz Party. “The enduring appeal of Sinatra has several roots, I think,” he says. “There is the sheer quality and breadth of his work. There are his enviable bad boy antics, for which he never seemed to pay a heavy price. And there is his sheer resiliency in American popular culture. His endurance became part of his legend; he was colossal.”

On a personal level, the appeal can be more visceral and intimate. “Oh, Daddy!” was one of the exclamations that his publicists encouraged teenage fans to scream at him while his image as a sex symbol was being most rigorously honed; and many fans, male and female, continue to associate him with their own fathers. For Pat Kane, singer with Hue and Cry, the connection precedes memory. “In order to get me to sleep as a baby,” he says, “my dad had to hold me up to the window and sing Fly Me To The Moon straight on to my temple. It’s the thinnest part of the skull, apparently – so I have my dad and Mr Sinatra wired into my very earliest being. My dad died a few years ago, so when I sing I revive him, and the way he channelled Sinatra’s singing style… It’s about as elemental an influence as it gets.”

The elemental force in Sinatra’s own life was not a father, but his formidable mother, Dolly, who wielded her own power over life and death in her work as a midwife and sometime abortionist. Frank’s birth was a bloody and near-fatal wrangle, the physical and emotional scars of which never left him. This early drama foreshadowed a tempestuous relationship: Frank craved his mother’s approval, feared her rage and never escaped her influence. It’s a bond explored in James Kaplan’s rich, vivid and dazzlingly thorough biography, Frank: The Voice, the second volume of which is set for publication later this year. “In many ways,” he says, “Dolly and Frank were the same person. She was brilliant, as he was; she was volcanic; she was unpredictable. He never knew if she was going to hug him or hit him.” A degree in psychology is not required to discern some influence on his future relationships with women. “It made him unable to trust in intimacy,” Kaplan says, “and unable to form a truly intimate bond with a woman – although God knows, he kept trying.”

Sinatra’s first marriage to Nancy Barbato lasted from 1939, when he was 19 and on the cusp of fame, to 1951, when his very public affair with Ava Gardner finally convinced Nancy to grant him the divorce that gossips had long predicted. Marriage to Ava – if not the most beautiful woman to ever live, then certainly the sort of figure who makes such designations seem less ludicrous – was brief, although the pair remained intimate. “Their sexual chemistry was extraordinary,” according to Kaplan, “but it was of a piece with their anger. There was also compulsive infidelity on both sides, which added fuel not only to the fury, but to the make-up sex.”

Although it coincided with a troubled phase in his career, when his early success was proving difficult to sustain and his demanding behaviour was causing professional and personal rifts, Shawn Levy believes that Sinatra’s fraught passion for Ava rendered him more sympathetic than pitiable. “Try to name another legendary ladies’ man whose romantic history includes being publicly dumped and humiliated by the love of his life. That Frank could be broken, so hard and thoroughly, is part of his ­allure, I think.”

Sinatra was experiencing a revival in his professional fortunes when he wed Mia Farrow (whose father, John Farrow – Oh, Daddy! – had been one of Gardner’s lovers) in 1966. At 21 to his 50, Mia may have seemed a naif, but according to Kaplan, her elfin looks belied both powerful sexual allure and steely ambition. Their separate careers and values forced them apart after two years, though Sinatra would remain a close enough friend to Farrow to offer to arrange various punishments for Woody Allen down the line. Sinatra’s next marriage, to Barbara Marx, would endure until the end of his life. In between all of these trips to the altar and divorce proceedings, he fitted in a great many more significant liaisons, including a long one with Angie Dickinson and short ones with Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe.

In this centenary year, many will question why the salty tales that crowd around Frank’s private life are sometimes permitted to subsume talk of his art. The Broadway producer, Bruce Charet, who knew and worked with Sinatra towards the end of the latter’s career, is very clear on where our attention should be focused. “What makes him extraordinary is that he was the greatest popular singer there has ever been. His personal life – his charm, his generosity, his sadism – all of it only matters because he was the greatest.”

“His non-musical life seems to have been a theatre in which to play out his extreme loves and hates, his masculinity, his anxieties,” says Kane. “But I’ve never read an account of him with musicians, playing live or recording, in which he hadn’t given people in the room the utmost respect if they performed to the best of their ability.”

This tallies with Charet’s experience of watching him at work. “Nobody was as charismatic, nor as generous. But he expected you to do your homework, because he did. He’d stop drinking for five days before a recording. He’d do a hundred takes. I once heard him asked what annoyed him the most. His answer was ‘Amateurs.’”

A little brutal. But then, even the biggest fans tend not to deny that Sinatra could be that – and more. Was the pain and anger in Sinatra the source of the talent, or a reaction to the pressures it brought to bear? For Kaplan, it’s complicated. “As with many geniuses, there’s a deformation of character that is part of the genius. But what preceded everything was an extraordinary feel for music.” Charet puts it more simply: “If every woman wants to f*** you and every man wants to be your best friend – it’s going to make you crazy.”

Tommy Smith is founder and director of the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, who will stage the tribute show Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra across Scotland in May. For him, the backstage dramas are an element of the story, but not its core. “For me, it’s about the music. The rest of the time he was just doing what everyone else does… only more! If you analyse his phrasing, which I have, it is incredible what he does with a melody. He’s composing as he goes – and it’s second nature to him, it’s subconscious.”

For Charet, the fact that Sinatra would sing slightly behind the beat is key, since it produces an unconscious but addictive anxiety in the listener. “Jazz musicians do it, but he was the only vocalist who did it. It was difficult for drummers, who have a natural inclination to correct.” Sinatra also benefited from encountering the great American songbook of the 1920s, 30s and 40s – the work of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Irving Berlin – at its pinnacle of sophistication. “Artistically,” argues Charet, “Frank will live longer than the Beatles and Elvis Presley, because these songs are better than Blue Suede Shoes and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. He will be carried by the giants.” Audiences at Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra will be able to judge for themselves, with the Grammy Award-winning Elling performing 27 carefully selected Sinatra songs, most from verbatim transcriptions of original arrangements by the likes of Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones, Billy May and Neil Hefti.

For Pat Kane, there’s something more to be considered in Sinatra’s style. “The genius of his voice comes from his historical, class, and ethnic background,” he says. “Frankie was an Italian emigrant boy who dreamt of being as good as the Wasps who surrounded and often derided him. So the way he phrases this powerful torrent of a voice sits precisely between the uptown elegance of Cole Porter or Richard Rogers, and the daily struggle for survival and respect in the streets of Hoboken or New York.”

One source of respect was his fabled interaction with organised crime, a detail that often dominates his complex story. “He brought that on himself; he idolised those guys,” says James Kaplan. “They were tough guys. He was a small guy, full of vulnerabilities and needs… His legacy will be marked by that.”

Yet such darkness is balanced to some extent by Sinatra’s genuine, lifelong commitment to civil rights and social justice. “He always had black acts on the bill with him,” notes Levy, “and insisted that they be paid as much and treated as well as any white act. He never wavered; it’s one of the great unsullied aspects of his personality and legacy.”

“You have to accept Sinatra as a complex, disturbing totality,” concludes Kane, who is working on a book on ­Sinatra’s impact on his own life and art and an album of ballads drawing on his influence. “His absolute belief in his own pre-eminence seemed to require more than the usual dose of celebrity paranoia and mood swings.” And yet, “for all his bastardry”, the positive wins out. “More than any other artist I can imagine, ­Sinatra made music to translate his ­furies and raging needs into something lovable and admirable.” «

Twitter: @HannahJMcGill

• Volume One of Frank Sinatra: The Voice by James Kaplan is published by Anchor. Volume Two follows later this year. Rat Pack Confidential: Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter, Joey and the Last Great Showbiz Party by Shawn Levy are published by Fourth Estate. Kurt Elling Swings Sinatra is at various venues from 21 May (snjo.co.uk). Details of Hue and Cry’s upcoming album, September Songs, and live dates can be found at www.hueandcry.co.uk

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