Monday, December 12, 2016

The American voice

On December 12, 1915 Francis Albert Sinatra was forcibly wrenched from the womb. The forceps permanently disfigured the left ear and cheek of the child that would grow up to possess one of the most recognizable faces of the 20th century. The story goes that baby Sinatra wasn't breathing when he emerged and was given up for dead by the doctor, but his quick-thinking grandmother held him under cold water until he started breathing. Quite the beginning. I don't listen to Sinatra as much as I used to. His essential subject was loneliness, specifically male loneliness, thus his recordings don't resonate in the same way as they did when I was younger and solitary. I suppose great art speaks to us more, or less, depending on the season of life we're in.

Shortly after Sinatra's death in 1998 newspaperman Pete Hamill wrote a wonderful little book called Why Sinatra Matters. I pulled it off the shelf a few nights ago. Hamill explains that the reason Sinatra matters is the same reason Mozart and Charlie Parker still matter. Different generations and cultures will listen differently, but "the music remains" and "every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals..." (pp. 8-9)

Though not a conventional biography, Why Sinatra Matters effectively traces the impact that Sinatra's hardscrabble Hoboken, New Jersey upbringing and Italian heritage played in his life and career. It was a source of pride and also something to transcend. "'Of course, it meant something to me to be the son of immigrants,' Sinatra said to me once. 'How could it not? I grew up for a few years thinking I was just another American kid. Then I discovered at - what? five? six? - I discovered that some people thought I was a dago. A wop. A guinea...That's why years later, when Harry [James] wanted me to change my name, I said no way, baby. The name is Sinatra.'" (pp. 37-38) Yet as the first and only child of immigrant parents Frank was a trailblazer, the first American of his family. Back in the neighborhood he spoke the "argot of the street. He could be profane, even vulgar. The word them could become dem, and those could become dose. It depended on the company." (p. 94) But as anyone who's listened to the songs knows, Sinatra's diction was impeccable. Young Frank would go to the movies and imitate how he heard Cary Grant and Clark Gable speak. "Alone in my room, I'd keep practicing the other kind of English." (p. 94) Frank Sinatra was a powerful symbol of the great American melting pot and a hero to scores of Italian Americans. In many ways his story is the American story. Ultimately though, his enduring legacy, the reason "Sinatra matters," rests on one thing. The main thing.

His finest accomplishment, of course, was the sound. The voice itself would evolve over the years from a violin to a viola to a cello, with a rich middle register and dark bottom tones. But it was a combination of voice, diction, attitude, and taste in music that produced the Sinatra sound. It remains unique. Sinatra created something that was not there before he arrived: an urban American voice. It was the voice of the sons of the immigrants in northern cities - not simply the Italian Americans, but the children of all those immigrants who had arrived on the great tide at the turn of the century. That's why Irish and Jewish Americans listened to him in New York. That's why the children of Poles in Chicago, along with all those other people in cities around the nation, listened to him. If they did not exactly sound like him, they wanted to sound like him. Frank Sinatra was the voice of the twentieth-century American city. (pp. 93-94)

One of Frank's signature songs was the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer standard "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)". Sinatra recorded it several times, including a definitive interpretation on the 1958 album for Columbia aptly called Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely. This is the whiskey-voiced Sinatra, somewhere between a viola and cello. Accompanied by piano and only the sparest Nelson Riddle orchestration, it's an almost painfully intimate thing to listen to. To me, and I think to a lot of fans, "One for My Baby" is the quintessential Sinatra closer -- not the cheesy "My Way." I believe it when he sings "it's quarter to three, there's no one in the place 'cept you and me." Fifty-plus years on I'm reminded why he's still THE American popular singer, the Babe Ruth of American song. "So thanks for the cheer, I hope you didn't mind my bending your ear." We didn't mind, Frank. We didn't mind at all.


Randy said...

Alas, I commented but lost it in the sphere of blog world. If space is full of junk I wonder how full of digital mishaps the cloud must be. Ha! Or maybe the moderator was so stunned I did not viscerally object to 'cultural rot' he hit delete by accident, thus losing a rare word of less-than-condemnation from the cultural luddite, yours truly. :)
I think what I said -- it's been a week or two! -- was appreciation for your writing and skill in interacting. I am helped by many, not least my gift-from-the-Lord wife, to learn to appreciate the beauty of music anywhere, even from someone like Sinatra. And when I try to think 'largely' about the whole question, I know where we land as Christians: somewhere in the mix of applying all Jesus taught, helped by the centuries of applying and missing and growing and revisiting. That to say, paraphrasing SD Herron, all beauty is God's. YES!

So since I am finding no traction beyond that I'll share with you my only real knowledge of Sinatra -- something given by one of his extreme detractors, I think the no respect guy -- what was his name? Dangerfield! He said (well known for hating Sinatra): "I actually love the guy because he saved my life once." "How so?" "Well some thugs from the mob were beating me up in the alley and suddenly Sinatra showed up and said, 'That's enough guys.' Sinatra saved my life!"

So I went from luddite to humor-wannabe. At least I knew something about Sinatra!

Always enjoy your writing!

Randy said...

Alas, I looked it up. Apparently from Don Rickles who was actually a friend of Sinatra. Could find nothing of dislike between Dangerfield and him. Oh well. Just correcting. Fun story anyway.