This weekend will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s greatest (if not the greatest) singers, Frank Sinatra. It is hard to believe that had he been alive today, he would have reached the century mark. In a full, colorful—and sometimes controversial—life, Francis Albert Sinatra packed in a century’s worth of living in his 82 years. He was a star among “stars” in Hollywood’s Golden Age; he stood out not only for his personality, but for his greatest attribute, his voice. Innumerable and memorable songs came from his vocal cords and entered the pages of the American songbook; songs—and the way he sang them—are embedded in the American memory and will be with us forever as long as good music is valued and treasured.
Much will be written about him this weekend in commemoration of his centenary birthday, and rightfully so. He was one of those rare people who made an imprint not only upon the American musical scene, but upon American society as well. He will be remembered through TV specials, movie marathons, books, newspaper and magazine articles, and naturally, through his recordings, where he will become appreciated all over again.
Christmas has always been one of my favorite holidays of the year and apart from the given religious aspect of this holy day, from childhood on I have always loved the festivity of it, in the effort that is made to make all things “merry and bright” for the Christmas season, not only in the Christmas trees and decorations and the family and social gatherings that went with it, but also in its music. We all have our favorite kinds of music; but Christmas music is in a class in itself.
Growing up in the 1960’s, I always looked forward to the Christmas specials that the “big-name” stars in Hollywood would produce every December (something which we sadly don’t see much of anymore). The Christmas shows put on from everybody like Bing Crosby (naturally), Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Perry Como, Mitch Miller made you anticipate Christmas even more. But as I got older, I noticed something; with all the stars and guest-stars on all these shows, one “star” was missing from the Hollywood Christmas firmament: Mr. Sinatra himself.
It wasn’t that Mr. Sinatra was deliberately absent from Christmas shows; he wasn’t—he often was a guest on one or another of them through the years. The difference was that he didn’t have an annual show like the rest of the stars did. It was said that Christmas wasn’t his natural “genre” as far as music went. He did produce two notable Christmas albums, which I thought, gave the lie to that assertion: “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra” and “The Sinatra Christmas Album,” among others. So, it wasn’t as if Frank Sinatra wasn’t a part of Christmas.
Frank Sinatra’s Christmas albums became a part of my Christmas musical collection, part of my Christmas “soundtrack.” But it was during a Christmas shopping expedition some years ago that I came across something that has since become a part of my musical and visual Christmas: it was an actual Frank Sinatra Christmas special from 1957 called “Happy Holidays from Bing and Frank.” It was an episode of “The Frank Sinatra Show,” which ran for only one season on ABC.
This DVD was a “find” indeed: it had everything a lover of Christmas could want: the two finest crooners that ever lived, in what could be regarded as the coolest retrograde setting you could ever want—a “swinging 1950s pad”—with furniture and furnishings that (though “modern” for the time) was a touch futuristic with a throwback to how Christmas music was like in “Merrie Olde England” with Bing and Frank appropriately costumed, with the requisite mugs of ale to offer toasts of “Season’s Greetings” to assembled company. And everything in a jazzy tempo, to boot.
It was a revelation to see how Christmas was celebrated on television back then, before one’s conscious memories took shape. This show had a sharp, “with-it” look, just like its star, Mr. Sinatra himself. It began with him decorating a Christmas tree, singing, as he put it, “one of the newer Christmas songs,” which had lines like: “Oh by gosh, by golly, it’s time for mistletoe and holly, fancy ties and grandma’s pies and greetings from relatives you don’t know…” With Der Bingle around, Ol’ Blue Eyes couldn’t have anything but a jazzy Christmas in store.
What a show that was. The whole production was meant to be evocative of all things Christmas and the songs associated with it. It began with a visitor—Bing—laden with gifts for his friend Frank. One was—as Bing put it—“a long-playing pizza pie,” to which Frank retorted, “it won’t play long in this shack!” Bing begs for some heated meatballs and Frank promises that Bing’s “a cinch” to get some. They both exchange their latest Christmas recordings (LP’s back then) with Frank asking if Bing will listen to his offering. (Bing promises to do so as soon as he gets home, so that he can “gnash my teeth,” a friendly nod to their musical rivalry.)
The opening scene of the punchbowl harkened back to an English Christmas, but not before a little sampling of the contents (with Bing’s remarking, after a sip, “That’ll bring up the volume a little…) The open fireplace occasioned the soulful singing by Bing and Frank of “The Christmas Song,” the piano calling out for fast-paced renditions of Frank’s rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” (in which he urges Bing to “hold on tight”) and Bing’s “Rudolph the Reindeer” (“Man, I sing that a million times on the radio!”). And the finish, of course, with both Frank and Bing taking one more libation from the punch bowl with both singing Bing’s “White Christmas” before a snowy window and finally sitting down to a festive Christmas dinner.
It is a Christmas offering you can never get tired of: the musical talents of two musical greats in their prime. It turned out to be a Christmas present from the boy from Hoboken to an older boy from the Bronx. So, if you’re tired—and somewhat tried—by the stress of Christmas preparations, sit back and watch this musical gem for a while. It’ll put a little jazz into your Christmas, thanks to Ol’ Blue Eyes himself.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Sinatra, and Merry Christmas, too!