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The Voice

Published: 
Tuesday, December 8, 2015
DAVID E BRATT, MD

This Saturday Frank Sinatra will be 100 years old. I say so even though he died in 1998. 

To millions of people his body may have passed on but his voice, the Voice of the Chairman of the Board, the Sultan of Swoon, the Swoondogler, remains as vibrant and topical as ever and no doubt there will be Saturday gatherings of like-minded people enthusiastically listening to his CDs or looking at his DVDs whilst tickling their throats with his favorite whiskey, Jack Daniels.

Sinatra’s difficult and complicated life began early. 

He was born at home, in an upstairs tenement in Hoboken, New Jersey, the only child of Italian immigrants who had arrived in the States in the 1890s. He weighed thirteen and a half pounds at birth and the doctor yanked him from his mother’s womb with forceps. 

The procedure left him with horrible scars on the left side of his face and a perforated eardrum. At birth everyone thought he was dead. His grandmother may have saved his life by putting him under a cold tap and slapping his backside. He let out a howl. And survived.

His career began in 1935 and ended in 1995. In that 60 year span he recorded over 2,000 individual songs and sold over 150 million albums worldwide.

He stands at the top of the greatest American performers of the 20th century, vis-a-vis his impact on music trends, durability, popularity and plain old talent. 

The official listing in descending order (some may disagree) is Sinatra, the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Bing Crosby.

His first hit record was All or Nothing at All with the Harry James orchestra but his big break came when he was hired by Tommy Dorsey as lead vocalist in 1939. He left the Dorsey band and went on his own in the early ’40s. Frank got Dorsey to agree to his release with the help of the Mafia who it is said threatened to kidnap Tommy’s children. 

Dorsey was supposed to have said to Sinatra: “I don’t think you’re going to be as big as you think you’ll be…honestly, I hope you fall flat on your ass.”

He was officially proclaimed the first ever superstar after his bobby soxer performances at the Paramount Theatre in New York, on December 30, 1942. 

Thousands of young women filled the theatre for every performance and never left their seats for fear of losing them. They urinated where they sat!

Sinatra’s idol was Bing Crosby—after seeing him in a movie—he said: “I want to be just like him.” Bing was quoted as saying later on in Frank’s career, “A talent like that comes along once in a lifetime, why the hell in my lifetime?”

Towards the end of the ’40s music styles started to change. Mitch Miller, the programme director at Columbia Studios, to whom he was contracted at that period, began giving him absurd material like “Mamma will Bark” which helped to bring about a serious decline in his career. The first couple of years of the ’50s were his down years. Most recording contracts were cancelled and his record sales were in serious decline.

It was during this period of his life that his turbulent on and off affair with the love of his life, Ava Gardner, was at its lowest ebb. She actually had two abortions done as she said that neither he nor she was suitable for parenthood. 

He made a comeback when he offered to play the role of Maggio in the war movie From Here to Eternity for nothing and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at the 1959 Oscars, which catapulted him straight back to the top. 

A Capital Records contract and a made in heaven collaboration with Nelson Riddle gave the world what is largely considered to be the greatest recordings of popular singing of all time and for all time, albums like In the Wee Small Hours; Only the Lonely; Songs for Swinging Lovers; No One Cares; Songs for Young Lovers, etc made musical history and are still listened to today. 

This period is considered his “Golden Years.” His phrasing on the “I can’t get started” line, “In Cincinatti or In Rangoon,” defies description. 

Someone wrote: “No human should be able to phrase like that.”

Another expressed it like this: “He endowed the songs he sang with his own unique personality.” Sinatra described himself as having the ability to express the heights of ecstasy and the depths of loneliness and despair with equal aplomb. As he said: “I’ve known both those cats.”

After Ava, experts wrote that he now sang songs of unrequited love, aka tabanca, with new intensity and yearning. Crooner Kelwyn Hutcheon, known by some, often to his chagrin, as the local Sinatra, and who assisted greatly with the preparation of this article, told me that “when you playing All Alone (possibly his greatest album), “hide de razor blades!”

The attributes of a great crooner are: breath control; sense of timing; respect for the lyric; tonal quality and ability to create a mood. He had them all. In spades!

Sinatra died in May 1998 from the combined effects of heart disease plus urethral cancer and some degree of dementia. His last words were reported to be “I’m losing it.” 

My uncle Herman, claims that media coverage of his passing went on for more than a week. 

Seventeen years later his music is still played all over the world. We will never see his like again.

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