National Post

Sinatra — good and bad

Rememberin­g the legendary singer and actor on the centenary of his birth

- National Post robert. cushman@ hotmail. com Robert Cushman

The audience at a Sinatra performanc­e could hardly be unaware of the man himself, but speaking from within the song is a different voice — if it’s the man himself, then it’s the best in him, finding and sharing beauty.

— Robert Cushman, rememberin­g the singer on the centenary of his birth,

Elia Kazan, the great American film and stage director, hated -Frank Sinatra, main ly because of what he’d heard about the singer’s arrogant and unruly behaviour on and off movie sets. But in 1968, with Sinatra at what might be called the last stage of his prime, Kazan was persuaded — by Raq- uel Welch, remem b er her? — to attend one of his shows. Halfway through the first song Kazan, who k- new everything about act ing, turned to his glamorous date and said “y God! This ( expletive- deleted) guy is the best actor I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s completely naked up there. He’s a genius.”

I- got that nugget from Sin atra: The Chairman by James Kaplan, the second half of a m- assive and probably defin itive two- volume biography — a double-doorstoppe­r from Doubleday — p-ublished to coincide with the centenary of its subject’s birth, on Dec. 12, 1915. The first volume Frank: The Voice came out in 2010, and it contains an observatio­n that should be considered in conjunctio­n with Kazan’s. Mitch Miller, of singalong fame, was the classical oboe v- irtuoso turned record pro ducer, who mastermind­ed what’s generally considered t-o be the low-point of the Sin atra career: the early 1950s when, having fallen from his u-nprecedent­ed teen-idol emi -nence of the previous decade, he was recording novelties and sub-standard ballads in a vain attempt to keep up with the musically depressing times. It w- as, however, the other Sin a tra — the great interprete­r of great songs — whom Miller seemed to have in mind when he decried the common notion that the singer’s best work was autobiogra­phical. No, he said, he was singing his audience’s emotions, not his own. This accords with the philosophy of o-ne of Sinatra’s primary influ ences, the godmother of New York cabaret, Mabel Mercer. A very modest and sensible lady, she always said that it was her job to make her hearers feel their own feelings, not hers.

The nakedness Kazan saw, the impersonal­ity Mi- ller de scribed, are not incompatib­le. They’re what acting, which includes some kinds of singing, is about: the exploratio­n of feelings that everybody has a- nd can recognize, the rev e- lation of a persona that re lates to that of the performer but is not identical with it. In Sinatra’s case the situation is complicate­d by there being so much persona to relate to. There’s the mother-dominated high school dropout from New Jersey who became a towering artistic, financial and even p- olitical success, an omnivorous reader and listener, but still felt like a social and intellectu­al outsider. There’s t-he private and public philan thropist who spent and raised millions on a worldwide tour f-or children’s charities, declar ing with undoubted sincerity that “an overprivil­eged adult ought to help underprivi­leged c-hildren,” and there’s the asso ciate of gangsters who seems to have used their services, not to secure himself movie r oles — Kaplan debunks that one pretty thoroughly — but to settle personal grudges. There’s the friend who was p-assionatel­y loyal until he dis carded you. There’s the doggedly passionate anti- racist, the man with the guts to be a l-iberal in a John Wayne Holly wood, the JFK booster who, apparently out of pique when he too was discarded, went over to Nixon and Agnew and Reagan. There’s the courteous, even chivalrous guy whose conquests Kaplan estimates to have been in the hundreds if not thousands. There’s the man who throughout his life stayed loyal if not faithful in his fashion to his first wife Nancy and the man whose s-econd wife, Ava Gardner, ap parently remained the great passion of his life and also the great friendship. A leitmotif of both Kaplan’s books is Frank and Ava’s perpetual pursuit and rejection of one another, before, during and after their marriage.

How to reconcile all this? Twenty years ago, on Sina tra’s 80th birthday, I wrote “the tedious truth seems to be that he is capable, like most of us, of both good and bad b- ehaviour, but that his pos ition gives him more scope in both directions.” I suppose I still believe that, but I have to admit that, reading Kaplan’s b- ooks, I find the bad behav iour more disturbing, the man himself harder to like, t-han before. The gang connec tions don’t bother me so much — actually they become rather b-oring, not to mention confus ing — but the verbal and even physical cruelty, often towards h-elpless subordinat­es, is real ly ugly. The cruelty, though, never gets into the singing which at the worst, which isn’t very often, substitute­s macho swagger. More often, there’s vulnerabil­ity. I don’t think this is dishonesty; more likely it’s sublimatio­n, the artist admitting to a weakness he could n- ever admit in life, where in stead he took it out on others.

The Gardner marriage began when Sinatra’s career w-as at its lowest ebb, and end ed when it returned to high tide, with his Oscar- winning performanc­e in From Here to Eternity and the beginning of his great string of recordings for Capitol. Popular wisdom holds ( and Kaplan reiterates) that Gardner was on his mind when he recorded all those searching ballads, beginning with the great bitterswee­t LP, I-n the Wee Small Hours. Per haps. But when I first heard his performanc­e on that album of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Glad to Be Unh-appy (talk about an emblem atic title), I didn’t even know a- bout him and Ava. I just re sponded to the song. As he did.

That’s the crux. Sinatra’s career began ( his first recording was in 1939) just as the greatest era of American songwritin­g was beginning to wind down; fine songs in the tradition variously known as s- tandards or the Great Amer ican Songbook or ( these days and tellingly) “Sinatra music,” were still being written but there were fewer of them. Sinatra seized on them, in his band- singer and bobbysox-idol days, but he also collected the older ones, the Jerome Kerns and George Gershwins and Cole Porters and others less heralded but still i nspired. He did so on a larger scale when the long- playing era came along, at Capitol and on his own label Reprise. He didn't work through the cata logue as systematic­ally as Ella Fitzgerald in jazz or Bobby Short in cabaret, but he did so with an unerring sense of which songs would work for him. He explored them, and he inhabited them.

In fact he disappeare­d into them. It’s depressing that so much Sinatra-worship should focus on “the Rat Pack,” a t- awdry and short- lived phe nomenon that’s inspired some perverse nostalgia. If you look at the footage of Sinatra and company horsing around in Vegas, exchanging jokes and insults, it’s pretty glum, not least because Frank himself ( unlike his pals Dean and Sammy) was no comedian. But then the orchestra will strike up I Have Dreamed or My H-eart Stood Still, and immedi ately you and he are in a different world. The audience at a Sinatra performanc­e could hardly be unaware of the man himself, but speaking from within the song is a different voice; if it’s the man himself, t-hen it’s the best in him, find ing and sharing beauty.

Part of it of course is technique: the superfine breath-control, the inimitable voice t- hat sculpts a song, the grav ity with which he separates syllables, the phrasing that always knows which words to emphasize. His sensitivit­y in sad songs — what he termed saloon and others have called s uicide songs — is legendary, but it extends to happy songs as well. Sinatra’s recording of You Make Me Feel So Young lives in the memory as the quintessen­tial uptempo celeb ration — what Cole Porter, who didn’t write it, called “the quintessen­ce of joy” — so it’s a surprise to listen to it again and realize that he actually delivers it at a jaunty medium pace, every word cherished a- nd caressed but never over sold; his songs for swingin’ lovers are as ardent, as deep, as fastidious, as his songs for only the lonely. Even when he does ramp up the tempo, as on his brass- backed recording of Dancing in the Dark, the stoic desperatio­n at the song’s core comes clearly, crisply through.

W-hen I said he was no comedian, I meant it only in the formal sense. He certainly relishes the wit in a song. Hand him Rodgers and Hart’s I Wish I Were in Love Again, the definitive anti- love song, and he will give it his ironic best, italicizin­g nothing, communicat­ing everything. Or in a broader swinging- brass c-ontext, he can give a wonder f- ully cheerful deadpan read ing of Don’cha Go ’ Way Mad, a song about an acknowledg­ed infidelity (“Who would have dreamed your cousin/ Would wander into that restaurant?”)

H-e freely admitted to loath ing his two biggest late-career hits: Strangers in the Night too sappy, the anthemic My Way “too on the nose.” “No matter what the image may s- eem to be, I hate boastful ness, I hate immodesty, and that’s how I feel every time I sing the song.” You know what? I believe him, believe that in betraying himself as a s- inger, he was betraying him self as a man. But there are s- o many truths to out number the betrayals. There’s his extraordin­ary quiet recording of the Antonio Carlos Jobim song Dindi, whose beauty and w-onder he seems to be discov ering, awestruck, as he sings. From She Shot Me Down, a very late album and one of his finest, there’s I Loved Her which begins “she was Boston, I- was Vegas” and goes on “op posites attract, the wise men claim/still I wish that we had been a little more the same.” The way he stretches out that word “little” — “lit- tle” — infusing it with anger, regret, bitterness, passion, pain and self-blame, all at once, is sung acting at its greatest, just as K- azan said. It’s the accumulate­d power of the man, in the service of the song.

I’ ve been writing about Sinatra in the present tense, which seems right because — a hundred years after his birth, 17 years after his death, he’s still with us: as a legend, as a personalit­y, and — most i mportantly — as a body of work unmatched in its field. When he l eft Capitol, the label hit back by releasing a triple LP package of some of his greatest tracks. The liner notes ended by asking “were better recordings by a singer ever made?” The question w- as rhetorical but I’ ll an swer it anyway: No, none ever were.

The gang connection­s don’t bother me so much but the verbal and even physical cruelty, often towards helpless subordinat­es, is really ugly ‘He’s still with us: as a legend, as a personalit­y, and — most importantl­y — as a body of work unmatched in its field.’

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