Saturday, 12 December 2015

Frank Sinatra's Centennial

It was 100 years ago today, on December 12 1915, that Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey. Mr. Sinatra was one of the first multi-media superstars. Beginning his career as a singer, he would find success on both radio and in film. To this day he still numbers among the twenty five top selling recording artists of all time. He would have a lasting impact not only on other crooners who followed him, but on artists as diverse as U2 and Josh Groban.

Frank Sinatra was born to Italian immigrants on December 12 1945. He was very young when he developed an interest in music. He was a fan of such singers as Rudy Vallée, Russ Colombo, and especially Bing Crosby (arguably the first multi-media superstar). He was 15 years old when his Uncle Domenico (his mother's brother) gave him a ukulele for his birthday. He soon started performing at family gatherings.

Mr. Sinatra began performing professionally as a teenager. Among other things, he sang without pay for Jersey City radio station WAAT. It was in 1936 that he joined a local singing group, the 3 Flashes. Renamed the Hoboken Four, Frank Sinatra and the group appeared on the radio show Major Bowes Amateur Hour. The Hoboken Four won first prize on the show, which included a contract to perform on both stage and radio for six months. It was a job as a singing waiter in 1938 that would bring him to the attention of radio station WNEW in New York City. He was hired to sing as part of a group for the station's show Dance Parade. His first recording would come about because of saxophone player Frank Mane, who had performed with him on WAAT. In March 1939 Mr. Mane arranged an audition for Frank Sinatra and he recorded the song "Our Love".

It was in June 1939 that bandleader Harry James signed Frank Sinatra to a two-year contract. It was with Harry James's band that Frank Sinatra made his first professional recording, "From the Bottom of My Heart". Mr. Sinatra did not achieve any major successes with Harry James's band, although one song he recorded with them, "All or Nothing At All", would become a hit when re-released in 1943. Increasingly frustrated with Harry James's band, in November 1939 he left the band for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, where he replaced  Jack Leonard as their lead singer.

It was with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra that Frank Sinatra first became a superstar. It was in 1940 that he had his first major hit with the band, "Polka Dots and Moonbeams", which went to no. 18 on the Billboard chart. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" was followed by several more hits. "Imagination" went to no. 8. "You're Lonely and I'm Lonely" went to no. 10. We Three (My Echo, My Shadow, and Me)" went to no. 3. His final single with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra went to no. 1. In 1940 alone the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra released over 40 song, the majority of which were hits.

By 1942 Frank Sinatra had decided to start a solo career. Unfortunately his contract with Tommy Dorsey gave Mr. Dorsey 43% of everything Mr. Sinatra earned. The two then entered a legal battle that was eventually settled in August 1942. Unfortunately, it also resulted in animosity between the two men that would never be resolved. As successful as Frank Sinatra had been with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, he proved even more successful as a solo artist. His first single, "Night and Day", went to no. 16 on the Billboard chart. Over the next several years Mr. Sinatra would have several hits and it was not unusual for both sides of his singles to chart. He had several number one records, including "Oh! What It Seemed to Be", "Five Minutes More", "Mam'selle", and others.

What is more, Frank Sinatra became an outright phenomenon. While Bing Crosby may have been the first multi-media superstar, Frank Sinatra may have been the first teen idol. While still with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra he ranked no. 1 among male singers in polls conducted by both Billboard and Down Beat. Such was Frank Sinatra's popularity with teenage girls that by 1942 there were around 1000 Frank Sinatra fan clubs throughout the country. In 1944, when Frank Sinatra performed at the Paramount in New York City in October 1944, 35,000 fans who wanted inside to hear the singer created  a near riot. Before Elvis Presley or The Beatles, Frank Sinatra was a phenomenon with teenagers. By the years 1945 and 1946 he was selling ten million records a year.

Unfortunately such success was not to last. By 1948 Frank Sinatra had dropped to the number 4 spot on Down Beat's poll of the most popular male singers. The following year he had dropped to only no. 5 in the poll. Worse yet, that same year he had dropped to no. 49 in the top 50 for record sales. Even Frank Sinatra's live performances were no longer doing well. At one time playing to crowded houses and causing near riots, by the late Forties and early Fifties Frank Sinatra was playing to small crowds. When he performed at the Chez Paree in Chicago in 1952, there were only 150 people in a nightclub that seated 1200.

Fortunately for Mr. Sinatra, better times would be ahead. Two things would happen in 1953 that would mark the beginning of a comeback. On March 13 1953, Frank Sinatra signed a seven year contract with Capitol Records. Later in the year he appeared in the  film From Here to Eternity. These two events did not simply mark a comeback, but also marked the start of what might have been the most creative phase of his career. Beginning with his album The Voice of Frank Sinatra in 1946, Frank Sinatra was among the first recording artists to embrace the format. It should then come as no surprise that he was also among the first recording artists to release a concept album. In the Wee Small Hours, released in 1955, featured mostly songs written specifically for the album (one of the exceptions being the classic Duke Ellington song "Mood Indigo"). What is more, the album centred on the themes of late night loneliness and lost love. Even the album cover, featuring Sinatra standing on a city street late at night, was consistent with the album's general theme. Frank Sinatra would follow In the Wee Small Hours with two more albums that could be considered concept albums: Songs for Swingin' Lovers! in 1956 and Only the Lonely in 1958.  While Frank Sinatra was not the first artist to release a concept album, he was certainly among those who pioneered the form.

While Frank Sinatra embraced record albums, his singles began performing better than they had in years. His first single with Capitol, "I'm Walking Behind You", went to no. 7 on the Billboard singles chart in 1953. In the Fifties he had several singles that reached the upper reaches of the Billboard singles chart. "Young at Heart" went to no. 2. "Learnin' the Blues" went to no. 1. "All the Way" went to no. 2. Unfortunately, while Frank Sinatra's albums continued to do well, after the advent of rock 'n' roll his singles started performing less well. After 1957 none of Frank Sinatra's singles released on Capitol hit the top ten. Worse yet some of them didn't even chart at all.

It was then in 1961 that Frank Sinatra formed his own label, Reprise Records. While in the Sixties it would be rare that Mr. Sinatra would hit the top ten of the Billboard Hot 100, over all his singles released on Reprise performed better than the last few released on Capitol. He went to no. 27 on the Billboard Hot 100 with "Softly, as I Leave You" in 1964. In 1965 he hit no. 28 with "It Was a Very Good Year". The mid-Sixties would see Frank Sinatra have his biggest hits of the decade. "Strangers in the Night" hit no. 1 in 1966, while his duet with his daughter Nancy, "Somethin' Stupid", hit no. 1 in 1967.

While Frank Sinatra's singles rarely charted in the Seventies, his albums continued to perform very well. It was not unusual for his albums to hit the top twenty of the Billboard album chart as late as 1980. It was in 1984 that Frank Sinatra released his last solo album, L.A. Is My Lady. Two albums in which Mr. Sinatra's voice was electronically joined with younger singers, Duets and Duets II, were released in 1983 and 1984 respectively.

Frank Sinatra might have begun his career as a singer, but like Bing Crosby before him he became a star in other media as well. As the most popular singer of the World War II era, Mr. Sinatra was very much in demand as a guest star on various radio shows. Over the years he appeared on such shows as The Burns and Allen Show, The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Programme, Your Hit Parade, and many others. As might be expected, Frank Sinatra also starred on his own radio shows. From October 1 to December 31 1942 he appeared on Reflections on CBS. He had his very own show, Songs by Sinatra (AKA Frank Sinatra Sings) from October 20 1942 to February 25 1943. Over the years he would be the star of several more radio shows, including The Frank Sinatra Show (1944-1945), Songs by Sinatra (1945-47), Light-Up Time (1949-50), Meet Frank Sinatra (1950-1951), and To Be Perfectly Frank (1953). From 1953 to 1954 he even played a hard boiled detective on the radio drama Rocky Fortune.

While Frank Sinatra saw a good deal of success on radio, arguably the most successful medium in which he worked beyond recording was film. Frank Sinatra made his film debut as the lead singer of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (uncredited) in the film Las Vegas Nights in 1941. He also appeared as himself in the films Reveille with Beverly (1943), Higher and Higher (1943), and The Shining Future (1944). It was with the 1944 musical Step Lively that he first played a character other than himself, starring as Glenn Russell. The late Forties saw Mr. Sinatra starring in some of his most successful films, including Anchors Aweigh (1945), It Happened in Brooklyn (1947), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), and On the Town (1949).

While the Forties saw Frank Sinatra emerge as a star of musicals, the Fifties would see him emerge as a star of dramas. In 1953 From Here to Eternity was released. In the film Mr. Sinatra played Private Angelo Maggio, a role for which he won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Unlike the congenial roles he had played in musicals in the Forties, in the Fifties he sometimes played very unsympathetic roles. In 1954's Suddenly he played a ruthless criminal intent on assassinating the President of the United States of America. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) he played a heroin addict. Mr. Sinatra was nominated for the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the film. Not only did Frank Sinatra play some unsympathetic roles in the Fifties, he also starred in some very successful movies, including Not as a Stranger (1955), Guys and Dolls (1955), Pal Joey (1957), and A Hole in the Head (1959). The decade was capped off by one of his most enduringly popular films of all time. Ocean's 11 (1960) not only starred Frank Sinatra, but the entire Rat Pack (called the Summit or the Clan among themselves). Although it made less money than some of his films released in the Fifties, it remains one of the most popular films he made to this day.

Frank Sinatra's film career in the Sixties would not be quite as impressive as it was in the Fifties. Perhaps his most notable role of the Sixties was as Major Bennett Marco in The Manchurian Candidate. The film proved to be a success and is today considered a classic. As to Mr. Sinatra, he considered it the high point of his career. Frank Sinatra also appeared in two more films with much of the Rat Pack: Sergeants 3 (1962)  and Robin and the 7 Hoods (1964). He played detective Tony Rome in the films Tony Rome (1967) and Lady in Cement (1968). He also appeared in such films as Come Blow Your Horn (1963) and Von Ryan's Express (1965).

Following the critical and box office failure of the western Dirty Dingus Magee in 1970, Mr. Sinatra would not appear in films for some time. He played the male lead in The First Deadly Sin (1980)  and he had a cameo in Cannonball Run II (1984). Cannonball Run II would mark his final movie appearance.

While Frank Sinatra had a great deal of success in recording, on radio, and in film, television proved to be the one medium he could not master. In 1950 he starred on The Frank Sinatra Show on CBS. The show proved to be a disappointment in the ratings, but managed to last two seasons. Another show, also titled The Frank Sinatra Show, would prove somewhat more successful when it debuted on ABC in 1957. It managed to last for three years. While neither of Frank Sinatra's TV series proved particularly successful, he regularly appeared on other TV shows as a guest. Over the years he appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as Four Star Revue, Texaco Star Theatre, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and (as might be expected) The Dean Martin Show.

While Frank Sinatra appeared on many variety shows, he appeared less frequently in dramas or sitcoms. He appeared as the Stage Manger in Producers' Showcase's production of Our Town in 1955. In 1958 he guest starred on the TV show The Thin Man. His final TV appearance was in an episode of Magnum P.I. in 1987.

Frank Sinatra died on May 14 1998 at the age of 82. There would be tributes befitting a man who had an enormous impact on pop culture in the 20th Century. The lights on the Las Vegas strip were dimmed in his memory and even the casinos took one minute to remember Frank Sinatra.

Frank Sinatra had an enormous impact on popular culture in the 20th Century. What is more, he was successful in multiple media. Arguably it all began with his voice. Frank Sinatra had a voice that naturally had an incredible amount of range, much greater than that of many popular singers in the Forties. What is more, Mr. Sinatra employed his voice in ways that earlier popular singers never had before. In the Forties many popular crooners were content to imitate the phenomenally successful Bing Crosby, but Frank Sinatra went an entirely different route. He trained himself to hold notes for extended periods of time. He also adopted a more jazz-influenced style of singing. Mr. Sinatra was also much more emotive than many popular singers of the Forties. He often emphasised specific words or phrases in songs, giving them more emotional depth. All of this, combined with the natural range of his voice, set Frank Sinatra apart from many of his contemporaries.

Combined with his relative youth and his good looks, it was perhaps his voice that made Frank Sinatra the love object of bobbysoxers across the United States. While earlier singers had largely appealed to adults, Frank Sinatra's greatest appeal to seemed to be to teenage girls. He was is in effect the first teen idol. The crazed reaction of teenage girls to Frank Sinatra in the Forties would seem very familiar to later generations who witnessed similar reactions of teenage girls to Elvis Presley or The Beatles.

Frank Sinatra's talent as a singer and his phenomenal success as such would have been sufficient for him to not only be remembered, but to have a lasting impact on pop culture. As it was, he proved to be an extremely talented actor as well. Frank Sinatra could play heroes, such as Major Marco in The Manchurian Candidate, or he could play villains, such as John Baron in Suddenly. As a singer he was naturally at home in musicals, but he was also impressive in dramas, action movies, and Westerns. As an actor Frank Sinatra proved to be as versatile as he was a singer.

Ultimately Frank Sinatra would prove to be a multi-media superstar at a time when stars of multiple media weren't exactly common. It not only earned him a place among the best remembered performers of the 20th Century, but it also allowed him to have lasting impact on popular culture that will last well beyond his lifetime.

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