An Appreciation of Frank Sinatra: 1915-1998

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Sinatra began his professional life at a crucial time in the history of the entertainment arts. Advances in technology – including improvements in recording science, the influence of radio and the spread of jukeboxes and home phonographs – were changing how music might be heard and preserved. The most important of these changes was a fairly recent one: the prevailing use of microphones by popular singers. It was a development that proved key to Sinatra's success and art. In earlier years, singers had relied largely on their own force of projection or on a megaphone as a way to be heard over a band's accompaniment. Those sorts of methods forced vocalists into high volumes, upper ranges and, sometimes, unnatural tones. Belters like Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson used those limitations to a spectacular but showy effect. But as crooners like Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby discovered, a microphone allowed a singer to draw closer to an audience's ear and emotions. Indeed, a singer could now vocalize in the same intimate tone and manner as one might use while confiding to a friend, or to a lover in bed  and the effect of that new intimacy was electrifying to listeners. This made the microphone an instrument inseparable from the singer's voice, and Sinatra was among the first artists who recognized the clear erotic (and, later, the artistic) potential of this valuable tool. In 1939, after he had left the Hoboken Four and was touring briefly with Harry James and his orchestra, Sinatra was already beginning to improve his microphone technique. He moved the instrument close to his mouth in moments of romantic avowal, then pulled back from it when the music's intensity increased. All the while he held on to the mike's stand in a tender but unmistakably sexual manner.

But it was during his tenure with trombonist Tommy Dorsey's big band that Sinatra made the most important strides in his early style. Dorsey could be a sublime soloist, playing musical passages that stretched for many bars in a smooth and continuous line, seemingly without pause for breath. Dorsey made it look effortless, and Sinatra studied the bandleader closely as he played, trying to figure out how he timed his breathing. Sinatra decided to model his own phrasing and breathing after Dorsey's. He began taking long swims, holding and modulating his breath underwater as he played song lyrics in his head. After a few months, he redefined his phrasing. He was now able, like Dorsey, to execute long passages without a pause. "That gave the melody a flowing, unbroken quality," he later said, "and that's what made me sound different."

By 1941, Sinatra had become Dorsey's chief draw, and in that same year, he won Billboard's Best Male Vocalist award. He was singing in a manner that had not been heard before, and he was now eager to step outside his role as a big-band vocalist and establish himself as a solo artist. In 1942, Sinatra left Dorsey ("I hope you fall on your ass," Dorsey told Sinatra). That same year, Benny Goodman and his orchestra were scheduled to play several December dates at New York's Paramount, and the theater's manager asked Goodman whether Sinatra could make a local appearance with the band. At first, Goodman had no idea who Sinatra was. He ended up agreeing to the request, but he gave Sinatra last billing.

By the time of the opening show, on December 30th, 1942, a crowd of 5,000 was crammed into the Paramount (Goodman and Sinatra performed several shows throughout the day). The audience was mainly made up of teenage girls, known as bobby-soxers for the white socks they favored. When Sinatra walked onstage, the theater exploded with the shrieks of young women. What the hell was that? Goodman asked, looking at Sinatra. The sound was so deafening that even Sinatra was momentarily stunned. Then he laughed, giddy at the thrill of it, stepped up to the microphone, wrapped his hands around the stand, leaned toward the crowd and moved into For Me and My Gal. The pandemonium became so furious that, according to comedian Jack Benny, present that day, there were fears that the building might collapse. Come the end of the performances, according to some reports, there wasn't a dry seat in the house. It was the first sizable moment of adolescent pop-culture fervor that America would see, and it became immediate news around the country. When Sinatra returned to the theater two years later, the event set off a riot and provoked fights among Frank's fans and detractors.

The Top 25 Teen Idol Breakout Moments: Frank Sinatra  1942

More than a decade later, Elvis Presley would duplicate  even extend  Sinatra's feat with his early hits and his highly charged TV appearances on The Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, and in 1964, the Beatles pulled off their own generation-defining breakthrough with their first performances on Ed Sullivan. But Sinatra's astonishing emergence at the Paramount in 1942 was the event that opened up pop culture to new possibilities. At first, Sinatra's burst of fame (like that of Presley and the Beatles) was greeted as a mass sensation  beguiling to some, alarming to others. It would be some time before the true drama and worth of his art, and its ability to stand for people's hurts as well as their desires, would become known. Even so, many observers could see that Sinatra's sudden and immense popularity would change American music. The big-band era was effectively finished, and a new era of pop-vocal heroes was fast on its way. That shift would have a tremendous impact that lingers to this day  and nobody made that transition more possible, or would imbue it with as much artistic potential, as Frank Sinatra.

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