I’ll Be Frank

sinatraSinatra. Whenever I thought of him – which was not often, until a few months ago – he appeared as a symbol of cultural and moral decadence, the essence of a Las Vegas that was the essence of a particular smug, moneyed ghastliness; smooth self-satisfaction with an edge of thuggishness and an all-pervasive atmosphere of sexism and casual racism; showbiz in the worst possible sense. More prosaically, when I was growing up he seemed like the dark heart of Radio 2 in the days when Radio 2 was the antithesis of everything exciting and wonderful about pop and rock and soul; something like Big Band Special felt quite harmless, albeit laughable, in its wish to pretend that the 1960s had never happened, whereas Sinatra was reactionary nostalgia weaponised. The dinner suits, the cocktails, the notion of suave, the eau de Playboy (even less appealing when adopted by the likes of Robbie Williams). Bloody My Way – the Sid Vicious deconstruction felt, to my father as much as to me, not only brilliant but necessary. Yes, I did like Guys and Dolls, but for Damon Runyon and the songs, more or less despite Sinatra; I would at the most grudgingly admit that he played a sleazy lowlife pretty well, and feel that Miss Adelaide would be better off with more or less anyone else…

For the last few months I’ve been having singing lessons – I read the bit in Viv Albertine’s brilliant autobiography when she decides to see if she has any sort of voice, and was suddenly convinced that I had to try this. I didn’t – and still don’t, really – have any idea what sort of thing I wanted to sing, so I’ve largely been happy to go with the suggestions of my teacher, Ben. However, Mrs Abahachi’s favourite song ever is Night and Day, and I agreed to try that; Ben always pulls up a couple of recordings when we start on a new song, to give me a sense of what I’m trying to do, and the main version in this case was Sinatra’s. And, well, listening to it properly for the first time, I was bowled over. His technique is simply superb. Take the first line of the verse: not “Night and Day. <breath>. You are the one”, but straight through, with perfect breath control.

Listening to other songs – as learning material, obviously – I can now acknowledge how effortlessly he covers a pretty substantial range. His timing is truly immaculate most of the time. Yes, there’s a fair amount of showbiz bombast (paeans to New York and Chicago, the aforementioned My Way), some nauseating sentimentality (You Make Me Feel So Young), but he can do intimate, and even vulnerable – most obviously, One For My Baby (And One More For The Road). The settings are too often syrupy and overwhelming (I find myself imagining a previously unknown recording in which he performed after hours with a piano trio), but it’s only in the later years that he seems to settle comfortably into the orchestral bath rather than pushing against it. The real problem is that a lot of these songs are simply too familiar, so it takes an effort actually to listen to them properly – but when I do, it’s difficult not to be impressed and even seduced (and to feel even more revolted by the pathetic attempts at imitation by Williams and the like, taking on board all the image and none of the skill or feeling).

And this week, heaven help me, Ben’s selected song is My Way; partly because I need to work on volume and sustain, apparently, but clearly also because he thinks this sort of thing suits me. And, well, sung straight and sincerely, trying once again to hear the song rather than fall back on the fact that I already know it all too well, both it and Sinatra’s performance of it do appear in a different light. It is undeniably memorable, musically and lyrically, and great fun to sing with all those crescendos – we can celebrate the theatricality of Freddie Mercury, say, or John Lydon, so why does Sinatra get denied the benefit of any doubt?

My initial thought was that there seemed to be something strange in the strength of the association between My Way and Sinatra, as if each absolutely defines the other in a bad way. In most cases we suspend our disbelief when listening to music, and allow millionaire rock stars to inhabit the persona of a poor vagabond or marginalised outsider, but in this case we project our image of him as self-satisfied Vegas pantomime act onto the character he is performing. My Way is received as a celebration of self and of stardom, as if that’s only a matter of hard work and talent rather than good luck and mafia connections, and the hypocrisy and smugness of the whole thing revolts us. Isn’t this a bit unfair? Well, no; as a modicum of research revealed, My Way was written especially for and about Sinatra, elevating  his biography to the status of myth and moral exemplum, so it’s scarcely surprising that it gets performed like that; it probably doesn’t help that it’s also clearly written to show off his technique, a performance piece that actively works against the possibility of any real feeling sneaking past the overwhelming power of the delivery. Put another way, it looks more and more like a song that was written deliberately so that someone like me would hate it…

But maybe we can imagine a different version – as my literary colleagues might say, meaning is defined not by authorial intent or even by a specific performance, but at the point of reception. There is always a gap between singer and character, even when the singer is supposedly playing himself. Let’s imagine the character in the song not as Sinatra but as a decent working man who’s made it through life with his integrity intact, having acquired a bit of wisdom and understanding along the way; let’s listen for the defiance and humour, or the real sense of impending death and the desperate need to believe that it’s all been worth it. Let’s even imagine Sinatra singing it with a sense of the gap between the life portrayed and his own life of compromise and moral ambiguity.

It’s fair to say that I’m still going to feel more comfortable with the simple beauty of Night and Day or the quiet, regretful pain of One For My Baby… Bombast is not my thing, and as I continue to explore Sinatra’s music I imagine I’m going to be focusing on the early years as much as possible. But I can now actually enjoy My Way, and not just because it is such fun to sing; I can, at a punch, imagine that for an uneducated son of poor immigrants it was actually about more than just doing his party trick and hitting the high notes, and even think that maybe Sid – like me, until a few months ago – saw only the surface razzmataz, and missed the point…

37 thoughts on “I’ll Be Frank

  1. The “nauseating sentimentality” of the lyric of “You make me feel So Young” is kind of undermined by the fact that Frank is singing it. The idea of Sinatra “picking up lots of forget-me-nots” is so ridiculous it’s hard to believe he wasn’t aware of the fact and enjoying the absurdity of the image. Or is that just me?

    • It’s the preceding “just like a couple of tots” that make me want to scream, but yes, I think you’re onto something there – and it’s a masterclass in technique that he can apparently sing this with a straight face.

  2. Sinatra practised his breathing control by underwater swimming. He took his singing technique very seriously indeed. Listen to the phrasing on You’re Sensational from High Society; it’s just amazing.

    • I’ve been re-reading Gary Giddins’ comment on this point: “Many people give no thought to his technical virtuosity until they sing along with a record and find themselves gasping for air as Sinatra casually plots a sixteen-bar phrase with one exhalation, too subtly manipulated for you to notice anything but the absolute dramatic rightness of his decision.”

    • You beat me to it, Frank worked his butt off to get that “effortless” technique. Can’t find you a link right now, but a lot of time and thought and practice made that technique and phrasing seem so efortless.

    • Ha! It seems that I have rediscovered the reason why I bought that Sinatra double CD in mentioned back in 2008 in the first place. I am far less lukewarm about his music nowadays, well his 40s and 50s stuff anyway.

    • Obvs that is beside the point you’re making – and adding an extra layer of difficulty to learning to sing the song! I’ve never really fancied getting into Frank – for pretty much the same reasons you list (or a less well articulated version thereof). But I just listened to Night & Day and see what you mean!

      • Aha, so the words were written for Sinatra but not the tune. I’ll have to think about this one… Incidentally, according to Wikipedia David Bowie was asked to write lyrics to the tune as well; rejected, but ended up being incorporated into Life On Mars. So much for Wikipedia…

      • Anka actually acquired the rights to the music – unheard of in those days of Europeans and North Americans ripping off each other’s songs as will – and made a few small changes, so its not 100% the French tune. And of course the lyrics are for and about Frank, not a translation.

        The Lonely Boy is from Ottawa, which is a bilingual city. That probably helped him spot the potential of Comme d’Habitude

        btw, whatever happened to turtlenecks, and who thought they were a god idea in the first place?

  3. My Dad loved ‘Frankie Boy’ and, although our house wasn’t awash with his music, there was enough around for me to develop a deep dislike for and disdain of all the glib affectation that seemed to be part of his performances. The Rat Pack appeared so greasy and showbiz that a young lad like me, latching on to The Beatles, could easily develop a hatred of the whole package that seemed to inform every singer and TV show in the early sixties.
    Sinatra was also a movie star, and I remember being taken to see Von Ryan’s Express as a kid. He seemed quite good at that (The Man with the Golden Arm – seen much later – provided further evidence) and so I couldn’t just ignore him.

    It’s taken me a long time to be able to see through the showbizziness of his vocal performances (and their showbizzy arrangements) and appreciate his masterful control. I doubt I’ll ever get round to listening to him by choice but, when he comes in earshot, I can admire his technique.

    Delving into his murky relationship with the mafia isn’t a good idea if you want to like the man. He seems to have been both a patsy and a bully.

    • Interesting. I think you’re a decade or so younger than my father, but his attitude, as teenager in late 50s to early 60s, was very similar – except that he opted for the Stones.

  4. Hi AbahachI!!!

    Maybe you are being a little hard on Frank Sinatra. After all he was a product of his time, just as the Beatles were or any other musician or artist is, and a human is formed from the forces of the society around him and not just the goodness and purity of the soul that god gives us. Those who can overcome the evil of their times and remain pure and raise above the contamination of the corrupting forces in society we call saints, not men.

    Frank Sinatra was born in 1915. His grandfather certainly would have lived knowing slavery in the USA, and do not forget black people in the USA did not have full voting rights until the voting rights act was passed in 1965 and Education was segregated until 1954 and racial discrimination in housing was only eliminated in 1968 with the Fair Housing act. Black people were regularly murdered for no other reason than their race in these times. This is the America that Frank Sinatra grew up and lived in and formed his views and behaviors. So to me, to be uncomfortable about Frank Sinatra’s casual racism in the overall historical and social setting of the time, seems a little unfair and in this scenario his open friendship with Sammy Davis – a black person – was quite unusual I think.

    Perhaps you are just projecting your dislike of some aspects of the society of the time on to one person ? ? ?

    I am pleased that you are able to move on now and enjoy the music. Personally, I do not like this style of music. I like my Jazz more raw and if I want sentimentality and good delivery, well there are a hundred Enka artists who can do that all night and all day and in Japanese ! ! !

    Thank you for a really very interesting and thought provoking post I really enjoyed it ! ! !

    • Yes, I am partly projecting – and I was really trying to explain why I was put off by the general image, rather than drawing up a serious charge sheet against Sinatra himself. To be fair, he was relatively liberal in that respect; the sexism and thuggishness are much more blatent. He was indeed in many ways of his time – it’s much more disturbing that people today still see the Rat Pack lifestyle as glamorous and attractive.

      • “it’s much more disturbing that people today still see the Rat Pack lifestyle as glamorous and attractive.”

        Wasn’t it though?

        There’s that ‘nightmare’ scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ where Clarence the angel shows James Stewart’s George Bailey what life in Bedford Falls would have been like if he had never been born. Instead of an ordinary, sedate and ‘properly’ behaved town we see a place bursting with life, especially at night with jazz clubs, ecstatic crowds and the feeling of unbridled excitement. That’s the ‘nightmare’ from which good old George recoils. Was Frank Capra pulling our legs?

        Maybe that’s why Las Vegas is such a real and mythical magnet in the American Dream. Yes, people and society need their Bedford Falls by day but they need the crazy lights of the night as well. Sinatra, Martin, Davis Jr. et al all embodied that brush with glamour and the night.

        Sinatra just couldn’t be pigeon-holed. He was a good husband to Mia Farrow by all accounts but I’ve read some disturbing pieces about his apparent abuse of Marilyn Monroe at Lake Tahoe in the weeks before she died. Do these things matter when considering the music? My Way is of course his signature tune – the soundtrack to a self-important man’s life. But I would opt for that other ‘way’ every time in Sinatra’s music – ‘All The Way’ which would be in my Desert Island discs without fail. The most enchanting of orchestral intros and Sinatra coming in with a perfectly pitched vocal. It’s the wistful reaching out in his voice, a vulnerable man who has loved and lost yet who still believes in something that could last.

  5. I don’t think I will ever appreciate Frank Sinatra but I understand where you’re coming from. I was never a fan of Benjamin Britten but when we had to sing one of his pieces in the school choir I realised what a fantastic piece of music it was.

  6. Aba: I have a small collection of Sinatra albums and I’ve always enjoyed his music. Of course I’m aware of the mafia connections but they don’t influence my appreciation of his music nor do the images of the Rat Pack and Vegas; He is the supreme male singer of his style of that era. Though you could learn something from Johnny Hartman and Mel Torme, both also from that era and both very different.
    Your reference to a ‘working class immigrant’ brought to mind Nina Simone immediately, there’s no reason to limit your study to only male voices, consider listening to Nina and seeing how she does it; good starters would be her versions of Porgy, or That’s him over there, both Sinatra style pieces.
    And then there’s Ella, if Sinatra’s the King, Ella is the Queen, she’s superb and there’s a goldmine awaiting you, Ella’s versions of the great American Songbooks. No one comes close, not even Sinatra. When you think that you’re ready for the Olympics, check out Sarah, she’s incomparable.
    I would like to hear you sing, not for any comparative purposes but to see how a middle aged man can accomplish something that we all wish we could do. Your teacher probably has the ability to record you decently, what do you think?

    • I worship Sarah, and love Ella and Nina – I’ve got quite a collection of vocal jazz from that era. But it is all female, without exception – and I haven’t found it so useful as a model for my own singing. As for recording, the original plan was that I’d improve my singing as preparation for a return to song-writing, but I simply haven’t the time or the energy at the moment. Recording a version of a proper song? Scary prospect, but I’ll think about it…

  7. My parents were pretty much all Frank, all the time (ok, some Glenn Miller and other big band and jaz tossed in), but as a kid of the 60’s it was wasted on me. I’ve come around too – i think it was this one that made me finally start to get him. (didn’t hurt that my daddy was a dead ringer for him, blue eyes and all.)

  8. I’ve always admired Judy Garland for breath control, the phrases in “Over The Rainbow” aren’t easy, and many singers insert breaths in the middle of lines. Sinatra I admire for his singing style as much as his technique, but it’s true that you need great technique to make it sound effortless. That style seems especially suited to Sammy Cahn and Jimmy van Heusen writing the songs (“Call Me Irresponsible” and “The Tender Trap” spring to mind).

    I think he’s great in “Guys and Dolls”, especially “Sue Me” where Frank Loesser catches Runyon’s dialect just right (<all right, already, so call a policeman, all right, already, so true, so new… So call a lawyer and sue me, sue me, shoot bullets through me – I love you.

    But I’m deeply ambivalent about him, for all the reasons you go into, and if “My Way” comes on the radio I’ll have found another station by the time he gets to “final curtain”.

  9. Have you listened to the Dylan covers of Sinatra Shadows in the Night, just out? It’s fascinating (and hugely enjoyable) to listen to both the Sinatra originals and Bob’s interpretation one against the other. Sinatra chose/was given some great songs to sing. New ones to me are most impressive, like ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ and ‘The Night We Called it a Day’. Dylan’s covers are equally good to listen to as well.

    Listen blindfold and guess who is who;-)

    Apparently, this is based on a Rachmaninoff number.

  10. I’ve had a lifelong dislike of Frank Sinatra, without actually analysing why I felt like that – but now Abahachi has done the analysis for me. And yet, I still find myself nominating some of his songs – like Me and My Shadow for the current theme. Because he and Sammy Davis sings it so well I can’t but admire it!

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