Of Many ThingsNov. 24, 1990
In the spirit of Ecclesiasticus (44:1), let us now praise famous men: specifically Frank Sinatra. In that same spirit, for the nonce let us overlook the many wives and extras, the coarser encounters, the shifting politics, the bad companions, the superannuated hipster slang, the mean vendettas, the many tacky movies. Instead, with W. B. Yeats, we celebrate not perfection of the life, but perfection of the work – that of the greatest popular singer of our century.
Francis Albert Sinatra (so named, instead of Martin Jr., because of the priest's confusion at his baptism) will be 75 years old on Dec. 12, 1990. The occasion has prompted a reissue of his finest albums by Columbia, Capitol and Reprise records and the start of a '"diamond anniversary'' tour. Not bad for a boy from Hoboken, N.J., who can't read music and whose image as legislator of sumptuary laws has mutated from bow-tie and wide-shouldered suits to the snap-brim hat, loose tie and coat tossed casually on shoulder and on to the tuxedo-clad, cuff-showing Chairman of the Board of today. No other singer has three-hour programs throughout the United States devoted entirely to his music; on a Sunday, for example, one can drive from Boston to Washington, D. C., and lap each mile with Sinatra along.
I know because I have done so countless times, and, like other aficionados, I never tire of the treat. In fact, I can honestly say that no other stranger has provided so much continual and renewable pleasure in my life as has he. That said, it remains difficult to describe to non-enthusiasts why Ol’ Blue Eyes is so special, although John Rockwell, the music critic for The New York Times, in his book Sinatra: An American Classic (Random House-Rolling Stone), has succeeded best. But let us give it a try.
1) There is The Voice. Others (Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes, Vic Damone) perhaps had better "pipes"; others, too, can parody the style and vocal mannerisms, but no one possesses or captures his unique tonal quality. As Rockwell notes, his baritone has a distinctive vocal "edge" in that his voice rarely slips back in his throat; instead, his vocal production is always forward, and he lets the tone resonate in his nasal cavities instead of becoming constricted in his throat and chest. As his voice darkened and his range shortened while he grew older, instead of straining, he exploited its frailty for expressive purposes. The songwriter Sammy Cahn put it another way: He moved "from being a violin to a viola to a cello."
2) Sinatra's musical phrasing is unique in its smoothness, sense of nuance and expressiveness. He admired Bing Crosby immensely, but he decided to try something different; a he said, "I wanted a certain type of voice phrasing without taking a breath at the end of a line or phrase." He listened to the violin-playing of Jascha Heifetz, noting how he moved his bow back and forth without seeming to pause, and he watched Tommy Dorsey's breath-control at the trombone. To personalize these techniques, he swam underwater and paced himself while running to increase lung power. The result: an ability to sustain a legato line, to sing six or even eight bars without a visible or audible breath.
3) His extraordinary care for the song's lyrics and his near-perfect diction (where the hard "d" and "t" consonants are effortlessly articulated) also make Sinatra unique. As a young man, he would always write out the lyrics long-hand to better concentrate on the words and shapes of phrases sans musical distraction. This fastidiousness, coupled with his innate acting talent, made each song a dramatic, intensely personal performance. Few singers so identify themselves with the song's lyrics (and story and setting) and so expose their "personal" feelings (whether he, jauntily and happy or vulnerably sad) as does he, and none so defiantly challenges us listen with a reciprocal intimacy.
One could go on about his remarkable musicianship, the conversational natural- ness of his singing, his dedication to the best in the pop tradition, but I hear you interrupt: What are your Sinatra favorites? As for individual songs, there are far too many to enumerate, but as for albums I lean toward "Songs for Young Lovers" (Capitol, 1954) and ''Songs for Swingin' Lovers" (Capitol, 1956). Sinatra's own favorite album: "Only the Lonely" (Capitol, 1958).
Ol' Blue Eyes RespondsLetters, Feb. 2, 1991
A good friend of mine brought to my attention your "Of Many Things" column (11/24). I want you to know I thoroughly enjoyed the column, and I especially want to thank you for your many kind and wonderful words. I was deeply touched that you took the time to write this lovely tribute in honor of my 75th birthday, and it truly made my day a very special one! Appreciate your love and support.
With all good wishes for the New Year, Father, and my sincere thanks again.