In case you missed it, December 12th was the one hundredth anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth. There are a number of commemorative posts out on the blogosphere and news world. And rightly so. Frank Sinatra is I think is generally considered the greatest American singer of all time and I concur with that. I’ve wanted to honor Sinatra for the longest time, ever since I posted a Dean Martin appreciation way back when I started my blog in 2013. What’s held me back is that I could never decide what five or six songs would highlight his career. He’s got so many, and it’s a real dilemma to choose. But, this is the critical moment to honor Francis Albert Sinatra, and so whatever choices I make will have to be for better or worse.
Not only is it tough to decide which songs to select, but how do I arrange the selection? Do I try to pick one from each section of his storied career? I hate to be handcuffed that way. Some of my favorites would slip through. Do I try to pick a song from each of the various types of songs he sings? Do I try to pick songs where I can highlight different singing skills he displays? I could never make up my mind. So, I’m just going to pick what I like but are not all of the same type and go from there. If you want to read the various phases of his career, and the noted songs in that phase, read the Sinatra Wikipedia entry. It seems comprehensive.
What makes Frank Sinatra the greatest? In a one word answer, everything. His persona, his presence, his song selection, his arrangement, his sensitivity to the lyrics, his emotional inflections, his articulation, his understanding of the history of the genre he sings, and of course his vocal ability. One of his nicknames was “the Voice,” and he really does have a great tenor voice. But it’s not just his voice. When Sinatra puts it all together, there is an honesty that gets communicated. Whatever he is singing, the listener believes has happened, and that is a tribute to his artistic skill.
Let me try to point out a few of those elements. Wikipedia quotes Sinatra biographer, Tom Santopietro:
For Santopietro, Sinatra was the personification of America in the 1950s: "cocky, eye on the main chance, optimistic, and full of the sense of possibility".
Not only was Sinatra a personification of America during his peak era, I would say that his persona came from his “New Yorkness.” New York City in the 1950’s was at its height, the pinnacle of the cities in the United States (it still is, but the others have caught up) and being in post WWII America, New York City was the pinnacle of cities around the world. “The capital of the world” as some called it. Americans, but especially New Yorkers, were after the second world war brassy, sure of themselves, dashing, and sophisticated, the very things that make Sinatra’s persona stand out. There’s no better example of that then “I’ve Got the World on a String.”
Now that song wasn’t written for Sinatra. In fact it had been around for over twenty years when Sinatra recorded it, but Sinatra transforms it. It becomes his.
Notice the sensitivity to the words to “The Way You Look Tonight” and how it leads to the sense of honesty when he says, “cause I love you.”
Listen to the articulation: the emphasis on the “k” in “look tonight;” the “v” in “lovely;” the “wr” in “wrinkles your nose;” and the “f” in “foolish heart.” Usually it’s the vowels that allow the singer to express emotion, and Sinatra does that here too, but here he uses the consonants as well. And it all leads to a sense of conviction. Normally a cliché such as “cause I love you” in a song generates a sense of phony artifice or over sentimentalizing, but Sinatra makes it true. You believe him.
“The Way You Look Tonight” is a song from what is called the Great American Song Book, a loosely defined collection of songs from the great American composers of the early part of the 20th century. Sinatra’s renditions of the Great American Song Book songs almost all have become the standard rendition. No other version of “The Way You Look Tonight” stacks up to Frank’s.
Part of what made Sinatra the greatest of the American singers is his conscious song selection from American music, either from the blues and jazz of black musicians to the popular big band that appealed to the white audiences. Here in “Mood Indigo,” a Duke Ellington jazz classic, he captures the subtleties of American diction.
What particularly catches my attention as I hear that are the nuances in – not sure if this is the right word – sonority, the resonances in his sound. Sinatra uses every means available to create different resonances. Obviously he resonates in his vocal box, but listen how in various places he shifts the sonority to his chest, then to deeper in his chest, to his sinuses, to his lips, to his jowls. There is a different nuanced emotion to every shifting resonance. It’s amazing.
Of all the elements to Sinatra’s singing that make him standout, I would say that it’s his articulation of the words—that subtle accent he speaks with. He has a sort of ethnic accent, Italian-American yes, but a Northeastern city accent. Some say New Jersey (Sinatra was from Hoboken, NJ), some say New York, but I would say it’s a general ethnic, second generation accent. He combines the great American song book, which in ways traces to both black and white culture, with the 20th century immigrant experience. He captures it all, through song selection, arrangement, and most important I think his articulation. His articulation of the English language is not what I would call classic. He brings over Italian crooner sensibility, especially that resonating tenor pitch, which gives a different texture than some of the other American singers of his day. Listen to the subtle nuances of his articulation in “Come Rain or Come Shine.”
Hear the pronunciation of “came” in “came blowin’ in;” “lingered” in “lingered there;” “sand” in “golden sand;” “new” in “the world was new,” and especially “autumn” in “the autumn wind.” That makes it so personal and individual and distinct. I love that song. It just might be my favorite Sinatra song. It simultaneously spans the emotional range of a new romantic relationship and then the loss. Again, Frank’s singing makes it true.
I ought to have a clip of Sinatra live where you can get a sense of his stage presence. Here is his great Count Basie song, sung I think with the actual Basie orchestra, “The Best is Yet to Come” where his voice, presence, and mannerisms generate a sense of marvelous possibility.
I’m not a woman, but geez, I’d go on an adventure with him. By the way, the words “The Best is Yet to Come” are on his tombstone.
Another song that is just so Frank Sinatra is “My Way.” One of Frank’s nicknames was “The Chairman of the Board,” which I think is a variation from all the Duke and Count and King nicknames from the jazz era. I think of Frank, planning his career, strategizing his arrangements, conceiving his tonal pitches, as Chairman of the Board when I hear “My Way.” In this song he looks backward rather than in the future.
I find that to be such a manly song.
For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
Frank again convinces with his voice dynamics and his resonances. Quick story on that song. Many years ago, as a lead engineer I was in a competition for an effort where “the powers at be” had to pick one of two designs, and I led one of them. It was a couple of years work of designing, building, and testing. Going into the final competition the rumor was they were going to pick the other design. I braced myself for the loss by memorizing the words to “My Way” and I kept singing it to myself all the way through the final tests. I had no regrets and took the blows going through with the peace of mind I did it my way. But as it turned out, we won.
I know I said six songs, but to hell with it. I’m going to give you two more. Mark Styen, the Conservative columnist who started out as a music and cultural columnist, ranks to my surprise Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year” as the number one song of the 20th century.
"It Was A Very Good Year" captures his audacity. Half-a-century after its recording, it seems entirely natural, made for Frank. But it wasn't, and it took a happy accident and a transformative arrangement to match the song to the singer.
That’s another song of looking backward, a song with lots of subtle emotions, and Sinatra projects them all. How about a forward looking one to end this post. Is there a more optimistic, swaggering song than “New York, New York?”
That song has all of what makes Frank Sinatra great. Yes, he is, Frank Sinatra is “king of the hill.”
Gosh, I’ve left out so many of his other great songs: “Come Fly With me,” Old Devil Moon,” Fly Me to the Moon,” “I get a Kick Out of You.” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “Luck Be Lady,” “All or Nothing at All,” “Night and Day,” “Witchcraft,” “Nancy (with the Laughing Face),” “Love is the Tender Trap,” “That’s Life,” “One for My Baby (and One for the Road),” “In the Wee Small Hours,” “The Birth of the Blues.” I can go on and on.
Tell me, what are your favorite Sinatra songs?