The World We Knew: My Father and Frank Sinatra
Scottish Review, March 10th 2015
Dads matter. They give us many things, including many reference points – like what it is to be a man, potentially a love of a football or rugby team, perhaps even some political views.
I gained all of that from my father but one of the biggest, most evocative connections I have with him is through the music and voice of Frank Sinatra.
My dad, Edwin, was born in 1933 and was a young man in the late 1940s and early 1950s when he first became a Sinatra fan. This was the period of young Sinatra swooning the ‘bobby-soxers’ – the pubescent female fans who saw Frank as their idol. This was followed by his marriage to Nancy publically falling apart, his on-off romance and entanglement with Ava Gardner and his career commercially crashing.
In 1953, Sinatra, with his career in the doldrums, undertook a British tour. This was just before his rebirth began. The record label which had made him a star, Columbia, had released him; he had signed to Capitol but not yet made an impact, and his role as Angelo Maggio (for which he won an Oscar) in ‘From Here to Eternity’ was yet to hit cinema screens.
He came to Dundee and played the Caird Hall. My dad went to the concert, and remembered it as particularly poorly attended, with at most 800 people in the voluminous concert hall. Sinatra, by now used to playing to small audiences, made the show special and intimate by at the outset inviting everyone to come down from the balcony, and from the back, and sit at the front for the show.
That night was always special for my dad. It also took place in the same year as the British Open Championship was held in nearby Carnoustie. My dad went several times to the tournament, all the more memorable by being won by his golfing hero Ben Hogan.
All through his life Sinatra mattered to my father and his many fans. What was so special and magical that connected to my dad, which went beyond the caricature of the Mafiosi bully, or the self-aggrandisement and mythomania of ‘My Way’?
Sinatra represented in the 1940s and 1950s a different kind of singer to all who had come before. And a different kind of man. He used the microphone to create an intimacy; he sang in a way which drew deeply from jazz and from Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet and breath control and Billie Holiday’s phrasing, which had not been heard before.
Previous singers sang to you, whereas Sinatra created the impression he was singing about and revealing himself. It is really isn’t an overstatement to say that more than Bing Crosby, Elvis, the Beatles and Dylan, the craft of singing in popular music should be divided between pre and post-Frank.
Sinatra the music and the man were interwoven. He was complex, riven by elemental emotions, faced great setbacks and triumphs and was someone people knew had loved and lost, in particular, with his affair, marriage and divorce from Ava Gardner.
The line between Sinatra’s art, his music and personality was always a thin one. In his life he came over as alternately sensitive, vulnerable, alone, brash, arrogant and cocky. In his music and most convincingly in his seminal 1950s Capitol albums these conflicting moods were presented in a coherent, themed setting. Thus, ‘Songs for Swingin’ Lovers’ sees Frank as the upbeat, wise-cracking, optimist, while ‘In the Wee Small Hours’ has melancholy, blueness, hurt and loss. In life, he seemed to embody all of these things.
My own love affair with Sinatra’s music began through my dad: appreciating the timbre and depth of his voice, the arrangements of Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and others, and the definitive adaptions of the Great American Songbook deriving from the Broadway musicals. But it wasn’t until I had lived a bit, in my late twenties, and having moved to Glasgow that I really began to relate to the beauty, power and pathos of Frank’s music.
In October 1993 my father died suddenly at the premature age of sixty. At the funeral at Dundee Crematorium we played Sinatra’s ‘That’s Life’, my father’s favourite song in his latter years which he occasionally sang in Lochee pubs. As well as Tony Bennett’s version of ‘One for My Baby’ – from his tribute album ‘Perfectly Frank’ which had been the last birthday present I had given my dad.
A strange serendipity happened that year. Sinatra had given up recording for nearly a decade and in the summer of 1993 announced that he was cutting a new album of duets revisiting some of his classics with a stellar cast, coming out on his former label, Capitol Records.
The week after my dad’s funeral saw the release of the ‘Duets’ album. I bought it on release day by exchanging the contents of a large biscuit tin of coppers my father had saved into the local Clydesdale Bank – for the impressive amount of £22. This was when banks didn’t mind doing things for the benefit of their customers!
I then walked along to the nearby Tower Records on Glasgow’s Argyle Street and with this money bought ‘Duets’, and Sinatra’s last proper album from his 1950s and 1960s stint at Capitol, ‘Point of No Return’.
That connection meant a lot to me then, and means even more to me now. The ‘Duets’ album is one I am glad he recorded rather than didn’t, but it is not very good and a shoddy coda to a magnificent career. It was of course hugely successful and a sign of the way the music market was shifting: the triumph of newly created nostalgia, and even the rock and pop stars of the 1960s and 1970s returning to bland interpretations of pre-pop evergreen classics.
It is ‘Point of No Return’ I find myself returning to and remembering the day I bought and first heard. It is Sinatra’s real parting shot to Capitol in 1962: an album he had to turn in as an obligation as he was already half way out the door, recording and releasing material on his own label Reprise Records. It is filled with looking back and wistfulness, sentiments which would come to the fore in the mature Sinatra. Recorded with his old Columbia arranger, Axel Stordahl, who it turned out was dying of cancer, the feel is of an elegy, sadness and regret and an acute awareness of fragility and the passing of time.
Sinatra’s music and muse covers so many different styles and feelings including the tender spots of male vulnerability, doubt and anxiety, mixed with over-compensation and over-certainty. Pete Hamill in his extended essay ‘Why Sinatra Matters’ wrote that, ‘As an artist, Sinatra had only one basic subject: loneliness’. He surmised that his downbeat ballads were ‘strategies for dealing with loneliness’ and his uptempo numbers ‘expressions of release from that loneliness’.
That both captures something and seems too simple. Sinatra’s music, the power of his voice, his timings and interpretations take us into somewhere precious about the human heart, soul and the poignancy of the human condition. His musical career and styles covered some of the biggest changes in post-war America and the West, from the newly expressive ‘bobby-soxers’ during and after World War Two, to the way his Capitol albums made as concepts to convey certain moods matched the wider horizons of an affluent society and rising living standards, while in the 1960s he turned to pop and jazz as he battled to remain popular with the rise of the Beatles and Dylan.
Years from now Sinatra’s music will be able to tell people much about what it was like to live in the latter half of the 20th century, about popular taste, the artistic imagination, and what the mores and codes of the day were. The music will also in the way that of Miles Davis or Duke Ellington’s can, have both a place and a location and yet transcend it and be universal.
There is a Sinatra who appears an anachronism to today’s more sensitive public culture: the man who could be boorish, sexist, racist, threaten violence and hold grudges for what seemed like an eternity. That Sinatra may have been over-emphasised in the Kitty Kelley kiss and tell biography or the mythology of ‘The Godfather’ being based on his life, but it has a hold on part of the public image of Sinatra, with both admirers and detractors.
The complex layers and characters of Sinatra combined with the grace and majesty of his music was a lodestar which connected and spoke to my father all his adult life. When I hear Frank’s voice, and how he interacts and relates to a melody, putting the words in a certain place, the intonation, phrasing and caressing of a tune, I feel there has been no finer musical expression in the latter half of the twentieth century.
But in the year 2015 which is the 100th anniversary of Frank Sinatra’s birth, I hear so much more. I hear the echoes of the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a coming age in the 1950s: of an American world before the cynicism of ‘Mad Men’ and Watergate. Even more I feel a connection to the emotions and memories of my father from when he was setting out with optimism in the early 1950s to his latter days in the 1990s.
Frank Sinatra gives me all that and more: an invitation into an intimate world, one which is elsewhere, in places impossibly stylish and far to reach, and yet at the same time is nearby and part of my remembering my father. What more could you dare to want from art and music? That to me is part of the wonder of Planet Frank.