Sinatra's Way: the Voice, The Threads, the Attitude
There were no "casual Fridays" in Frank Sinatra's world. I thought about his elegant professionalism when the media machine ground out almost as much furor over his passing last week as over the demise of "Seinfeld." And I thought of the young dancers requesting Sinatra songs when our swing band played for them a couple of years ago. Mikhail Baryshnikov also dances to Sinatra songs choreographed by Twyla Tharp decades after the singer first put his stamp on tunes by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and others from the golden age of American popular music.
"What is this?" we might ask in nonprofane paraphrase of bandleader Benny Goodman's reported disbelief when the willowy young Sinatra - an "added attraction" on the same bill - caused frenzy in a teenage audience before he sang a note. Leonardo DiCaprio, eat your heart out. It was at New York's Paramount Theater in 1942. Five years earlier Goodman's band had roused similar excitement there.
Now it was the vocalists' turn. They would not be just girl singers and boy singers with the big bands, as Sinatra had been with Tommy Dorsey. Now the singers became stars and the bands became accompanists. Then the bands simply began to disappear.
One band that kept coming back was Count Basie's. Sinatra's singing often had a jazz feeling, and eventually he and Basie gave concerts and made records together - such as the landmark "Sinatra at the Sands" album.
"Frank is a perfectionist," Basie recalled in his autobiography, "and he believes in thorough preparation and hard work, but he also likes for things to hang loose.... Whenever he steps out on that stage, he knows what's happening, and he's ready. You'll never catch him coasting.... He might look like he's taking it easy up there, but that's just your impression, and that's because he's such a pro."
Frankie grew up among the working class in New Jersey. He became The Voice, Ol' Blue Eyes, and the Chairman of the Board.
Somehow he combined the work ethic with hanging loose and allowed us all to enjoy ourselves in his presence.
Not every concert was perfection, but Sinatra was always trying for it. We teenage musicians never put it this way back in the small Midwestern town where I grew up. Maybe we sensed it as we listened to Sinatra, the Pied Pipers, and the Dorsey band making "I'll Never Smile Again" into a seamless work of popular art.
But only later did we realize it was a sophisticated breakthrough in the choice of unusually slow tempo and vocal phrasing following the phrasing of Tommy Dorsey's trombone.
Sinatra said he learned simply by watching Dorsey's breathing as he played night after night. Breath control enabled musical control.
Sinatra went so far as to have underwater fitness sessions as he sought similar breath control. Musicologist Gunther Schuller writes: "Like Dorsey in his trombone solos, Sinatra would carry phrases across bar lines or phrase joinings, balancing out weak points in songs or dramatizing their best structural elements."
And he could act too. That was the surprise when Sinatra came out of temporary obscurity to win an Oscar playing an unglamorous GI in "From Here to Eternity." He continued doing movies, usually musicals or melodramas, almost with his left hand while he reigned internationally in music. In recent years the adventurous veteran began making "Duet" recordings with younger artists who might be at a studio far away "joining" him through electronic technology.
Then there was the matter of how an icon dresses and behaves. Maybe I, the teenager, would have worn a tilted felt hat even if there had never been a Sinatra, but who knows?
As time went on, the public made his style embrace more than singing. Now we hear that his insistence on the right socks and the right "threads," as clothes used to be called, is influencing a return to sharpness from the years of shapelessness. Also, alas, a segment of the current generation seems to be taken by the cheerful, cost-free self-indulgence conveyed by Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the other celebs that ran with him in the Rat Pack. There seems a far cry between the wavy-haired object of teenagers' affections and the big-time-operator who was not above hobnobbing with alleged members of the mob.
But Sinatra hobnobbed with presidents, too, notably Democrat Kennedy and Republican Reagan. Unlike some who might ape the Rat Pack, he was politically concerned. And he shared his wealth and talent on behalf of charitable causes.
The dark side is there to be confronted in the case of Sinatra as in the case of many public figures. It is the best of their lives, and of his, that we cherish.
Back in that little town we long knew nothing about him but his music on the radio or the phonograph.
There, as Count Basie said, "You'll never catch him coasting."
* Roderick Nordell, a former Monitor writer and editor, continues his sideline of playing drums with his jazz band, Rod Nordell & Friends.