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An Appreciation of Frank Sinatra: 1915-1998

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The 1940s were an era full of big hopes and bigger perils. The nation had recovered from the long, devastating Depression of the 1930s, but it was now enmeshed in a high-stakes world war in Europe and Asia. In the midst of these years of risk  in this time of possible ruin or rebirth  America found its favorite voice in a fragile-looking romantic balladeer. No doubt part of what Frank Sinatra offered to his audience was the allure of a pleasant diversion during dark nights of uncertainty. But there was also something about the perceived vulnerability in the young singer's voice and manner, and how it mixed with his clear longing, that spoke to and for many of those who elected him to his early popularity. Sinatra was a sign that America had a promising outlook: There were still great songs and exhilarating nights to come, and the last dance was a long way off. Or at least Sinatra's own future looked fine. In 1943 he signed with Columbia Records, and with the help of arranger Axel Stordahl, he recorded a remarkable series of graceful and inspiriting hits, including "All or Nothing at All," "Where or When," "These Foolish Things," "Put Your Dreams Away," "I'll Never Smile Again," "Day by Day," "Someone to Watch Over Me," "Try a Little Tenderness," "Nancy (With the Laughin Face)" and "That Old Black Magic." Sinatra also appeared with Gene Kelly in a pair of key 1940s song-and-dance musicals, Anchors Aweigh and On the Town, and gave his first dramatic performance, in the 1948 film The Miracle of the Bells. In 1944, Sinatra was a guest at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's White House, and in 1945 he won a special Academy Award for The House I Live In, a short film about racial bigotry and tolerance. At that time, nearly a decade before the civil-rights movement would inflame and transfigure America, such a progressive stance from a popular entertainer was uncommon, and the film's message was one of the reasons that several members of the press and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI termed Sinatra a Communist.

Then, toward the decade's end, Sinatra fell from grace. In part the decline simply had to do with shifting musical tastes: In the elation of the postwar period, a new audience wanted more verve than the light-voiced Sinatra now seemed capable of. In addition, Sinatra alienated many of his remaining supporters in a matter of personal conduct. In 1939, Sinatra had married his longtime girlfriend, Nancy Barbato, and the couple would have three children: Nancy, Frank Jr. and Christina (Tina). But Sinatra had an eager eye, and there were rumors that he saw numerous women during his roadshows. When Sinatra began a steamy public affair with actress Ava Gardner, the press was outraged, and so were many of his fans. Sinatra divorced Nancy and, in 1951, married Gardner. But within a few years, Sinatra's relationship with both Columbia Records and his new wife turned stormy, and in the seasons that followed, the singer lost everything – including his record and film contracts and his marriage with Gardner, and, perhaps most devastating of all, he lost his voice during a performance. After that, no record companies would take a chance on Sinatra. He was back to the club circuit, trying to recapture the voice, confidence and following that had once come so readily.

In 1953, Capitol Records agreed to a one-year contract with Sinatra  if the artist was willing to pay his own studio costs. With his first few sessions for the label, Sinatra surprised both critics and former fans by flaunting a new voice, which seemed to carry more depth, more worldly insight and rhythmic invention, than the half-fragile tone he had brandished in the 1940s. In addition, Sinatra became one of the first pop artists to take advantage of the possibilities offered by the new format of long-playing records. LPs could hold more than forty-five minutes of music in near-continuous play, which meant that a performer could dwell on a mood until it might give up no other revelations. Or, if the artist chose, he might even use the extended format to construct a character study or share an ongoing story. Sinatra brought these prospects to bear on his first LP for Capitol, In the Wee Small Hours, a deep-blue, hard-bitten collection of soliloquies from a man who rarely leaves his own aching memories, much less his room, unless it's to find a 3 a.m. drink. In his Capitol years, Sinatra became, as vocalist Mike Campbell later said, "the first true storyteller outside the blues singers the first guy to take those great standards and turn them into emotional experiences."  

With Wee Small Hours  which was conducted by Nat King Cole's up-and-coming arranger, Nelson Riddle, who would become Sinatra's greatest collaborator  Sinatra staked out the vocal sensibility that would become the hallmark of his mature style and that would establish him as the most gifted interpretive vocalist to emerge in pop or jazz since Billie Holiday. On the surface, Sinatra's new style seemed almost more colloquial than musical. He took supremely mellifluous material, like the title track, and sang it as if it were a hushed yet vital communication: a mournful confession shared with an understanding friend over a late-night shot of whiskey or, more likely, a painful rumination that the singer needed to proclaim to himself in order to work his way free of a bitter memory. In other words, Sinatra was now singing songs of romantic despair as if he were living inside the experience of those songs and as if each tune's lyrics were his and his alone to sing. It was Ava who did that, who taught him how to sing a torch song, Nelson Riddle later told biographer Kitty Kelley. That's how he learned. She was the greatest love of his life, and he lost her.

Sinatra's stay at Capitol  along with the credibility he gained as an actor from his Oscar-winning performance in From Here to Eternity  proved to be the redemption of his career. During the next ten years, he would record twenty-plus top-selling LPs for the label alternating between sexy, uptempo, big-band-style dance affairs and regretful musings on romantic despair and sexual betrayal  and he would also become one of the most consistently popular Top Forty singles artists of the 1950s. It was among the richest and most successful growth periods that any pop artist has ever managed.

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