Skip to comments.Mark Steyn on Frank Sinatra
Posted on 05/17/2008 6:15:19 PM PDT by Rummyfan
Ten Years Ago All this week at SteynOnline, we've been marking the tenth anniversary of Frank Sinatra's death, beginning with this appreciation, and continuing with Sinatra live, Sinatra the voice, Sinatra on screen, and Sinatra and pianist. Today, we wrap up the series with some reflections on how Frank's passing was marked by the media and by fellow musicians. This piece appeared a couple of weeks after his death in The American Spectator:
As Sinatra himself wondered in another context:
What now, my love?
What now? When Frank finally faced his final curtain, checked into the big casino, split the scene with the cat with the scythe, Time magazine headlined its cover story simply "Put Your Dreams Away" - after his old closing theme:
Put Your Dreams Away For another day...
Alas, not for just a day, but for always. Time's headline distilled perfectly the sense of loss - for elderly grandmothers recalling bobbysoxer days at the Paramount; for wannabe-hip Gen Xers in shot cuffs staring at grainy footage of Frank and Dino with the smokes and the tumblers and knowing that guys will never be allowed to have that good a time again; and, above all, for those of us who feel that with Sinatra's passing the golden age of popular song slipped a little further into the past and out of reach, the golden age of Rodgers and Hart, of Berlin and Porter, and also, while we're at it, of my compatriot Ruth Lowe, an obscure Toronto pianist who gave Frank not only "Put Your Dreams Away" but also his first number one, "I'll Never Smile Again."
One wouldn't want to date the era too precisely. Across sixty years, Sinatra got to songs by writers as diverse as Rudyard Kipling and Sonny Bono. Kipling's "Road To Mandalay," written in 1892 for his Barrack-Room Ballads and a favorite of concert party baritones throughout the British Empire, comes out as surging big-town swing with Frank checking out the chicks east of Suez. Sonny's "Bang! Bang!", written as bouncy-bouncy Hit Parade fodder for Cher, is transformed from a kiddies' jingle into a rueful meditation on life's illusions. And as long as Sinatra was out there, there was always the chance that the magic would alight on yet another song. He died owing Capitol the last album of a three-album deal: the only 82-year-old pop singer with a recording contract. And even though he hadn't been on stage since his 80th birthday, the official position up until the end, as articulated by his spokesperson Susan Reynolds, was only that "Mr. Sinatra has no plans to tour at present."
The weirdest thing about his death was all the rock star tributes. Maybe it's just that no one else is left: Bing and Ella, Sammy and Dean are all gone, so are Frank's writers - Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne - and his orchestrators - Don Costa, Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins. So instead Bob Dylan and Ted Nugent, Tom Waits and Stephen Stills, Bono and Usher and Jewel stepped up to salute a man with whom, on the face of it, they have nothing in common. But here's the dirty little secret of rock'n'roll as it enters its fifth decade: whatever its merits as a spectator sport, for its practitioners it's...unsatisfying. Who wants to be up on stage pushing 60 with nothing to say but "Well, she was just seventeen/You know what I mean..."? Yeah, okay, the Stones do--and good luck to them. Besides, "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" makes more sense as a plaint for seniors than it ever did as an anthem of rebellious youth. But for the most part, middle-aged rockers, held in thrall to their juvenilia, would love to be Sinatra. Rock'n'roll was supposed to liberate pop music; instead it's imprisoned it in what Nancy Wilson - the Nancy Wilson who sings with Heart, that is, not the old jazz dame - calls "frenzied, thrill-seeking, hormone-driven rock theater."
Admittedly, not all aging rockers are Frank fans. I once made the mistake of mentioning Sinatra's cover of ''Mrs. Robinson" to Paul Simon. "Frank Sinatra had no business recording that song!" said Simon indignantly. "He couldn't relate to the lyrics at all, so he changed them all." Frank's version goes:
So how's your bird, Mrs. Robinson? Mine is fine as wine And I should know Ho ho ho
...which isn't exactly what Paul had in mind. On the other hand, the last time I saw him, Simon wasn't listening to much of the new stuff either. " I've never heard the Spice Girls," he mentioned en passant, "but I gather they're a young persons' phenomenon." Nor was he keeping in touch with his contemporaries. "I haven't heard it, but I gather Bob Dylan's last album was a big hit," he said at one point. A few years ago, at the end of a long TV interview with Simon, I suggested to him that he was bound, surely, to find rock music more and more limiting. He looked at me as if I were nuts: "You can do anything in rock'n'roll," he said. Five years later, he'd written a Broadway musical, retired from touring, given up on radio because he'd been told he didn't fit any of its "formats," and was peppering his conversation with references to other New York Jewish composers like Kern and Gershwin. On his desk, he had a Frank Loesser songbook.
Compared to the midlife crises of the rock generation, Sinatra's career trajectory is enviable. He was a pop star once - in the forties, when the girls were squealing and swooning and wetting their knickers - but when that all turned sour, Frankie determined that, if he was ever popular again, it would be on his terms. In 1984, he started singing "Mack the Knife" and made it one of the surest crowdpleasers of his last decade. Think about it: At 69, the guy is adding to his repertoire and the audience likes it. Elton and Bowie and all the rest can only marvel.
That Sinatra survived the last forty years is impressive. That he survived with his legend enhanced is amazing. But an awful lot of that is being credited to what Stephen Stills and Bono call his "attitude" and Jewel his "style" and Ted Nugent his "cool." It's hat brims and Jack Daniel's - anything, it seems, to avoid acknowledging the unpalatable truth: that Sinatra built his house upon the bedrock of great songs sung better than they've ever been.
In any case, the minute you start hailing his "attitude," you run up against someone for whom that's the chief obstacle. According to Frank Rich in the New York Times, Sinatra "not infrequently resembled a thug"; he was "a man who bedded and abused women by the score." I think Rich is indulging in what the psychologists call displacement; if you've spent six years defending Bill Clinton, the strains are bound to show. As for bedding and abusing women, all Frank's ex-wives stayed friends (and the living ones showed up at the funeral) and the casual affairs stayed strikingly fond of him, too. Rich, though, isn't the only media commentator who takes the line that, while all the other celebrities harried by J. Edgar Hoover were undoubtedly the victims of an intrusive and obsessive federal agency out of control, the Sinatra investigation was uniquely justified. I had some small personal contact with him, and he didn't seem like a "thug"; he was a friend of several friends of mine, and I'd be inclined to take their valuation. But the obsession with Sinatra's "flaws" is bizarre. This is a man who's left us "Angel Eyes" and " You Make Me Feel So Young" and "When Your Lover Has Gone." By contrast, 2-Live Crew has given us such timeless lyrics as:
You said it yourself you like it like I do Put your lips on my d--k And suck my ass---e, too.
And, in return, Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. of Harvard metaphorically does just that and insists that 2-Live Crew is working in the same tradition as Shakespeare. When the late Tupac Shakur, author of such gems as "I f----d your bitch, you fat motherfu--er," met his end, the critics insisted that the gangsta stuff was just a front, that in private he was a real sweetie-pie, sensitive and good to his mother. In the rap era, Rich & Co. spend so much time bending over backwards to defend ugliness they seem to have lost their capacity to believe in beauty--the beauty of In the Wee Small Hours or Songs for Swingin' Lovers.
As to the off-stage stuff, he struck me as very normal, which was weird because by the time I met him he'd spent half-a-century being treated abnormally. You get a sense of that in one of his last public interactions with the guys with "the funky shoes". In 1990, The Los Angeles Times "Calendar" section ran a big cover story on George Michael, which was, inevitably, one big whine about the price of fame. Franks was moved to write a rare letter to the editor:
When I saw your Calendar cover today about George Michael, "the reluctant pop star," my first reaction was he should thank the good Lord every morning when he wakes up to have all that he has. And that'll make two of us thanking God every morning for all that we have.
I don't understand a guy who lives "in hopes of reducing the strain of his celebrity status." Here's a kid who "wanted to be a pop star since I was about 7 years old." And now that he's a smash performer and songwriter at 27 he wants to quit doing what tons of gifted youngsters all over the world would shoot grandma for -- just one crack at what he's complaining about.
Come on, George. Loosen up. Swing, man. Dust off those gossamer wings and fly yourself to the moon of your choice and be grateful to carry the baggage we've all had to carry since those lean nights of sleeping on buses and helping the driver unload the instruments.
And no more of that talk about "the tragedy of fame." The tragedy of fame is when no one shows up and you're singing to the cleaning lady in some empty joint that hasn't seen a paying customer since Saint Swithin's day. And you're nowhere near that; you're top dog on the top rung of a tall ladder called Stardom, which in Latin means thanks-to-the-fans who were there when it was lonely.
Talent must not be wasted. Those who have it -- and you obviously do or today's Calendar cover article would have been about Rudy Vallee -- those who have talent must hug it, embrace it, nurture it and share it lest it be taken away from you as fast as it was loaned to you.
Trust me. I've been there.
Lovely. I can hear him saying it. "St Swithin's Day" was one of his regular lines. I remember him saying once about some long verse or other that it took "till St Swithin's Day" to get to the chorus. Judging from how "loosened up" he is to this day, I don't suppose George Michael got it at all. But Sinatra stayed one of the most balanced of big-time celebrities, which is why all three of his kids are three of the least screwed-up showbiz progeny in history.
This isn't a rant against rap or rock or whatever it is George Michael labels his artistic effusions these days. All right, to be honest, it is. But it's not a lament for the good old days. With Sinatra, the good old days were always now, tonight: the essence of a great song is its versatility and, almost as if in rebuke to the tunnel vision of other singers, Frank was endlessly resourceful in finding new things to do with 'em. In the fifties, he had a beautiful ballad arrangement of "Where or When." In the sixties, he started doing it as a swinger. In 1994, for the Duets II album, he made it a trio with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, in a version that has Steve and Eydie vocalizing the instrumental figures so that the piece is reinvented as something halfway between ultra-Vegas and a contemporary take on Lambert, Hendricks and Ross's jazz stuff in the fifties. As long as Frank was around, he kept the Great American Songbook current. I loved the way he was so relaxed with Rodgers and Hart that the middle section of "The Lady Is a Tramp" - "She loves the free, fresh wind in her hair"--would emerge as "She loves the free fine wild cool knocked out groovy koo-koo wind in her hair," or some variation thereof. Of course, that's exactly what the purists loathe about him. A couple of days before he died, I was being interviewed by the BBC for a Rodgers and Hart special and every time I mentioned a Sinatra recording, you could almost hear the producers wince. I'll bet, in the finished show, all the musical excerpts are by those tremulous, overwrought New York cabaret singers who linger leeringly over every polysyllabic rhyme. These fellows are perfectly pleasant for a while, but they're the morticians of popular song. In their precious, prissy over- reverent interpretations, you hear not the ring-a-ding-ding of Frank but the death knell of the mainstream repertoire. In his own way, Sinatra kept these songs alive and kicking for a general audience; their younger champions seem determined to take some of the biggest hits of all time and reduce them to a minority interest.
I once discussed the subject with New York cabaret darling Michael Feinstein. He was off to Britain, where he was intending to sing the Gershwins' "A Foggy Day (In London Town)." "But I'm going to sing it the way George and Ira wrote it," he said. "It's quite a different mood. Most singers think of Sinatra's recording and they want to do the same kind of macho interpretation." And Feinstein obligingly machoed himself up to demonstrate Frank's finger-snappy, distinctly unfoggy style. "Ira loved Sinatra, but he didn't like his interpolations, especially 'I viewed the morning with much alarm.' Ira very much disliked that 'much.'"
Hmm. I think you could make the case that, when Ira wrote up George's tune for "A Foggy Day," that line - "I viewed the morning with alarm"- is flawed. The word "with" is given far too much weight: it's accented, it's a minim, it's a preposition yet, as written, it lasts forever. Sinatra is too naturalistic a singer to be comfortable with that: his solution - the interpolated "much"- seems perfectly acceptable. Singing is, after all, an interpreter's art. "Without the rendition, there is no song," Jule Styne, Sinatra's onetime flatmate and long-time composer ("Time After Time," "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry"), used to say. I'm with Jule on this one, though it doesn't seem to cut much ice with Feinstein. "Whatever Sinatra's message is, it eludes me," he sniffs.
But, without the guy who did the best renditions, what hope for the songs? Sammy Cahn once told me that Sinatra's gift was that he could make any word sound like what it was, only more so. Sammy, naturally, cited examples from his own lyrics: "When Sinatra sings, 'Weather-wise, it's such a lovely day,' that slur on 'lovely' makes it sound the loveliest word ever. Then when he sings 'lonely' in "Only the Lonely," it sounds such a lonely word." You could find similar examples of heightened onomatopoeia throughout Sinatra's catalog: for an example of his ability to ride a rhythm section bouncing the words off into the stratosphere, look no further than "Wanna go and bounce the moon" in "You Make Me Feel So Young." On Ella Fitzgerald's recording, the word passes unnoticed merely as a pretty "ow" sound.
It always comes back to the songs. When he was asked how he'd like to be remembered, he always said that he hoped it would be for a certain approach to singing which he'd like to think would endure. It's hard to be optimistic: with Sinatra gone, the American songbook is in the shaky hands of operatic crossover artists like Jose Carreras and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, guys without a consonant in their body; or rockers like Linda Ronstadt and Robert Palmer, desperate to appropriate a little retro chic; or bloodless cabaret turns turning these songs into museum exhibits. Sinatra's last words were "I'm losing." No, Frank, we are. From now on, we'll be on that long, long road without our greatest troubadour.
Frankie! Pure class. Top notch.
No wonder he hits it off with Laura Ingraham.
Outside of High Hopes and Something Stupid, you can have it all.
Frank's version is far superior, as is to be expected.
Can’t believe it’s been ten years.
I still enjoy listening to Sinatra. I still enjoy listening to Jolson as well.
September 11th... What Would Sinatra have sung?
That's it in a nutshell. Once songs got "the Sinatra treatment," the game was over.
Mark Steyn ON Frank Sinatra? Gross!
And Frank's idol Bing.
Last night I listened to the Sinatra-Basie collaboration from '62. Frank walked into the studio and said "I've been wating over 20 years for this moment." And man, was it worth it. Swing city. But then again how could it not be with those two?
You Make Me Feel So Young
Taking a Chance on Love
Come Fly With Me
Fly Me to the Moon
Zing Went the Strings of My Heart
There are many other songs that I am fond of but I needed to do numbers that sounded good at 128 bpm. And yes, for those of you that have guessed, it was a square dance singing call record.
XM 73...nuff said
A lady never leaves her escort
It isnt fair, it isnt nice
A lady doesnt wander all over the room
And blow on some other guys dice
Lets keep this party polite
Never get out of my sight
Stick with me baby, Im the guy that you came in with
Luck be a lady tonight
Frank Sinatra - Fly Me to the Moon
He never could sing, not really.
Just did that hand thing and bat his eyes.
Old ladies got wet when he did that. Never could understand it.
You weren't paying attention all those years, were you?
Sinatra recorded exactly one album with Basie and his band.
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