Long before Elvis shook up the stage; before John, Paul, George, and Ringo had us twisting and shouting; there was a skinny kid from New Jersey who had fans screaming with excitement as he stood behind the microphone. Throughout his lengthy career, he was called The Sultan of Swoon, Ol’ Blue Eyes, The Voice, and Chairman of the Board.
His name is Frank Sinatra, and he left a lasting impression on music, and the American entertainment industry as a whole.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born in 1915 in Hoboken, New Jersey to Italian immigrant parents. He discovered that he enjoyed singing, and that he was quite good at it, at an early age. He became a saloon singer, and soon got jobs as a singer with several bands; first with a hometown group called The Hoboken Four, and later with bands led by Harry James and Tommy Dorsey.
Sinatra married his childhood sweetheart, Nancy, in 1939; a few years later, he launched his solo music career. After years of group performances, his first solo album released in 1946 – back in the days of vinyl, this was issued as a set of four records, containing a grand total of eight songs. “The Voice of Frank Sinatra” was a roaring success. With deep blue eyes, a mellow voice, and his distinctive phrasing, Sinatra quickly became a big hit with teenage girls in the 1940’s (called bobbysoxers, for the short white socks they often wore).
Hollywood Film Career
Hollywood beckoned the popular young singer, and he answered with fiery enthusiasm. Sinatra first appeared in small roles in several films – his movie career took off with a leading role in the 1945 film “Anchors Aweigh,” in which he co-starred with Gene Kelly. He and Kelly also teamed up for “On the Town” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” both released in 1949.
While idolized by his fans, Sinatra did have his less-than-sparkling moments, as well – his reputation took a bit of a tumble, more than once. He lost some shine in the public eye when he began a love affair with young movie star Ava Gardner. His record sales suffered when he divorced Nancy, by this time the mother of his three children. And at one point, a vocal cord hemorrhage threatened to end his singing career altogether.
Not one to give up (and despite his recent vocal scare), Sinatra fought for – and won – the role of Maggio in the 1953 film “From Here to Eternity.” The performance earned him an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Sinatra continued his successful film career through the 1950’s and 1960’s, often portraying roles that mirrored his own personality. He also tried his hand at directing with a film called “None But the Brave” in 1965.
The Original Rat Pack
In between filming movies, Sinatra sang his heart out, becoming a popular concert draw in Las Vegas. He was part of the Rat Pack – a group of celebrities that included Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, and Joey Bishop.
Besides having a silky smooth voice, the entertainer was a leader in fashion and culture. He dressed impeccably, embodying a sense of style that impressed men and women alike. He wore perfectly tailored suits and had the habit of cocking his hat at a rakish angle that suited him quite well. “Cock your hat,” Sinatra once advised, “Angles are attitudes.”
Although he had no formal music training, and never learned how to read music, Sinatra had a true musical gift. He worked tirelessly to get a song just the way he wanted it – a perfectionist as both a singer, and a bandleader. “Whatever else has been said about me personally is unimportant. When I sing, I believe. I’m honest,” he once told an interviewer.
In a National Review article published last year, honoring the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth, George Will wrote of Sinatra’s dedication to studying words; comparing his work to poetry in musical form. The singer was passionate about the emotions behind his lyrics, and it showed in every song he wrote. Often making use of the Great American Songbook as a reference and inspiration, Will applauded Sinatra for bringing much-needed attention to the book for musicians going forward.
The Greatest Singer of the 20th Century
Sinatra is widely regarded as one of the greatest American singers, and the American public certainly showed him a lot of love. The entertainer was honored with the Kennedy Center Honors in 1983, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1985, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 1997. He won 11 Grammy Awards; including the Grammy Legend Award, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. After Sinatra’s death in 1998, music critic Robert Christgau called him “the greatest singer of the 20th century.”
“Sinatra enunciated his words with a casual sophistication that defined his notion of class. But underneath there was always Hoboken, in all its immigrant insularity and street swagger. Where most American pop was spawned from the liquids of African-inflected Southern speech, Sinatra’s home idiom was harsh, urban, learned the hard way.
“And after that it was naturalized and nationalized—bent and weathered by jazz, crispened and universalized by pop…With every phrase, he turned English into American and American into music.”
How did “The Voice” himself want to be remembered? In a 1965 interview, he put it this way: “I would like to be remembered as a man who had a wonderful time living life, a man who had good friends, fine family – and I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that, actually.”