WHY SINATRA MATTERS
by Pete Hamill
BOOK REVIEW by Nina Walsh
I worked with a woman for several years who adored Frank Sinatra. Me? I was too young. I did not know who he was. Of course, I knew his eternal songs such as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “New York,” “Yesterday,” “The Way You Look Tonight” – which has special meaning for me. It is what we chose for my daughter and her Dad to dance to for their Father-Daughter Dance at her wedding. The lyrics were perfect for the occasion. But I was oblivious to the fact he had died just one year and two weeks before her wedding! So it was my friend frequently talking and swooning about “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” which made me want to read this book to learn more about this crooner who was loved and revered by so many. I don’t think I have ever watched one of his movies, but I have to say, after learning more about him, I am eager to see one or more of them. My mother must have loved him along with the rest of her world. But I don’t remember her ever speaking of him. Perhaps that is just part of my lost memories.
Some of the songs mentioned in the book brought a tune to my mind, but an equal number or more were unfamiliar titles to me. To refresh myself on his songs which I know, I went to YouTube. I barely came across a song there I did not know, surprising myself on my own Sinatra repertoire. This man was a real icon!
The title, Why Sinatra Matters, was elusive to me until I was well into the book. Superficially, it seemed the reason he mattered was his music, his vocal ability, his stage presence, and the love he engendered from his fans. But those were not the key reasons why Sinatra mattered. It has more to do with sociology of the times: What happened to the immigrants who flooded into the United States during his lifetime, how they became a part of mainstream America and changed the status quo; what was happening politically within the US during his lifetime, and, more specifically, how Sinatra’s life, his choices, talents, and experiences were an integral part of who we are today.
The unique perspective of Pete Hamill, as author of a Sinatra biography, cannot be overlooked. He was a casual friend of Sinatra’s from 1963 on. Pete knows things about Sinatra that only a fairly close acquaintance would know. He sheds light on many experiences, but he leaves other things in the shadows for those not-in-the-know to muse over and make their own guesses on what the truth is.
It matters that Sinatra was an immigrant. For his first five years, he thought he was a normal American kid until someone called him a dego plus some other choice names. He grew up knowing stories, things that happened to Italians. The soil in their homeland had failed many of the immigrants of that era, so they took refuge in American cities. Most Italian immigrants came from Sicily and had darker skin at a time when Americans were to have fair skin. But it wasn’t just skin, it was Catholics, Jews, and anyone who was different from Americans. Then in New Orleans, the Mafia was born out of fear and not much fact. Sinatra once said, “Half the troubles I’ve had were because my name ended in a vowel.” Later in life, he was asked why he gave donations to the NAACP. His reply was, “It wasn’t just black people hanging at the end of ropes.” To be an accepted American, you needed to be white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. If you weren’t, the game was rigged against you. Ghettos became a safe place where the only thing that mattered was “family.” Hoboken was Sinatra’s home. There were two ways of thinking as an Italian-American: the old way and the new way. The old way centered around family celebrations, weddings, funerals, etc. The new American way included freedoms, choices, and loose rules. Sinatra was a bit of both. He liked the new ways of gamboling and seizing opportunities, but he clung to the old ways of being suspicious of authority, possessive of women and in need of family. Even after leaving his first wife, he was a tiger in protecting his family.
Frank’s father, Martin, had blue eyes and could pass for an Irishman. He became a boxer with the name of Marty O’Brien. He was known on the streets with one name, and, at home, with another. He met an energetic young woman, Dolly Garavente, who was from northern Italy. Marty, with his tattoos, was beneath the Garaventes, and the Sinatras saw them as snobs. Both parents were against the union. So the couple eloped. Frank was his parents’ only child.
It was during Frank’s youth that the phonograph, radio, and moving pictures were invented. They were dramatic changes. For the first time, immigrants could hear the classical music of the old country, whereas, in the old country, they could never afford the clothes or tickets to attend a concert.
World War I was a homeland battleground between the old ways and the new ways. Would the immigrants fight for their homeland or for America? Hamill says the war enabled the “The Golden Door” to slam shut with millions of immigrants on the inside. Now there was only the new way. And Frank Sinatra embraced it.
Following the war came the Prohibition years. Sinatra is quoted as saying, “Prohibiltion was the dumbest law in American history. It was never gonna work, not ever. But what it did was create the Mob. These dummies with their books and their investigations, they think the Mob was invented by a bunch of Sicilians in some smoky room someplace. Probably in Palermo. Bullshit. The Mob was invented by all those self-righteous bastards who gave us Prohibition. It was invented by ministers, by Southern politicians, by all the usual G-D idiots who think they can tell people how to live. I know what I’m talking about on this one. I was there.” And he was there from ages 4 to 18.
The war had solidified the feelings of immigrants as bonafide Americans. And they came home to a country that was less free than when they left for war. Independent thinking Dolly Sinatra, Frank’s mother, opened a speakeasy which she named Marty O’Brien’s. While Marty/Martin, made trips to Canada for whiskey. After all, he was a tough-guy fighter. But he wasn’t quite tough enough. One night, he got his head split open. So then, they opened a saloon. Because of her political associations, Dolly was able to keep it open. She was a true politician polishing all the apples thrown her way.
The Mob and the Mafia are not the same thing. The Mob included Jews, Italians and Irish. They were responsible for organizing the supply, and sometimes production, of liquor. With their vast profits, they paid off everyone including cops and prosecutors. In fact, Sinatra said that, growing up, he thought everyone was on the dole including teachers and God, if he ever came to Hoboken.
1927 was monumental. Lindberg flew across the ocean, Babe Ruth hit 60 homeruns, Stalin came into power, and Dolly got her husband a job as a fireman. Dolly kept a billy club under her bar. Sometimes she gently used it on Frank, then hugged him to her breast. Remembering his past, he said, “I married the same woman every time.”
The stock market crashed in 1929, but the Sinatra fortune seemed to grow. They moved from a small apartment to a large house where a 14-year-old Frank had his own room for the first time. Two years later, they bought their own three-story home for $13,400. About this time, he began dreaming of his future. He sang a lot as a kid – at the bar with the player piano. He joined the glee club in junior high, and glued his ear to the radio. He bought sheet music to memorize the lyrics. He never did learn to read music! His mother gave him a ukulele so he could sing on the street with his friends. It was about this time that Bing Crosby appeared. Years later, Sinatra reminisced, “The thing about Bing was, he made you think you could do it too.”
Sinatra slid through the depression on easy street. His mother set up a credit account for him at a clothing store, he had a growing collection of records, and his father let him drive his friends in their Chrysler at age 16. Their house even had a telephone!
Turning to Sinatra’s SOUND, his finest accomplishment, I have to quote Hamill’s description, “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.”
His natural diction gained from family and neighborhood was rough. He knew he couldn’t sing that way, so studied the diction of the great actors – Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and others. They spoke a different version of English than he was accustomed to hearing. He says, “I started becoming in some strange way, bilingual.” He would practice his new English when alone in his room. He grew up paying attention to and memorizing the lyrics of the outstanding lyricists of that time: Jerome Kern, Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and others. Some of these were immigrants themselves. Those who lived through the Great Depression and Prohibition, emerged with attitudes more cynical and tougher than before. Sinatra learned to be a tender but tough guy which is how Hamill describes him. Then he writes, “Before him, that archetype [ark-i-type] did not exist in American popular culture. That is one reason why he continues to matter; Frank Sinatra created a new model for American masculinity.”
Sinatra told Hamill, “I discovered very early that my instrument wasn’t my voice. It was the microphone.” In Sinatra’s time, it took imagination and guts to put your talent forward. Sinatra’s attitude was – if you don’t make it, there are always jobs on the docks or bars to tend.
By this time in the early 30’s, radio was producing the first national pop singers. Bing Crosby was a huge hit. Also the big band sound resonated with Sinatra’s generation of immigrants. He began singing in social clubs near home. But it was when he, at 17, had a small group, and they crossed over into New York to sing in roadhouses, that his singing became noticed. He didn’t make any money, but sometimes got some food or cigarettes. Yet he knew the adage – practice makes perfect. His parents were not in favor of his dreamy aspirations or his dropping out of school during his senior year. His mother eventually relented and bought him a $65 sound system with microphone which gave him the boost he needed. His group, the Hoboken Four, won first prize in 1935, on the radio show “Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour.” Then they were invited to tour with Major Bowes. This was the first time Frank was paid to sing — $75 a week. They toured the country all the way to California and back to Hoboken, where the group broke up. Frank caught odd jobs, eventually becoming a singing waiter at $15 a week and tips, at the Rustic Cabin, just across the river from Manhattan.
Harry James was forming his band and needed a male singer. He had heard of Sinatra and checked him out. Now he was back up to $75 a week and married his hometown girlfriend Nancy Barbato who went on the road with him. In 1939, he made his first recording of two songs; one being “All or Nothing At All.” It sold 8,000 copies, but a few years later it was re-released selling over a million.
He auditioned with Tommy Dorsey, but was so nervous, not a sound came out. Later, Dorsey lost his singer and went looking for Sinatra. Now he was up to $125 a week, plus Nancy was expecting. Frank learned much from the Dorsey musicians. Dorsey had immense breath control and could tie the end of a phrase to the new phrase coming up. Sinatra mimicked this technique teaching himself by holding his breath underwater. Dorsey and Sinatra became closely allied. In fact, Dorsey was godfather for baby Nancy.
There was a trio of Italian Americas who changed the status of Italian Americans forever. First, La Guardia with a Jewish mother and a Protestant father, was elected to Congress, then became mayor of New York in 1933. Next was Joe DiMaggio. Phenomenal ball player! In 1936, he batted in 29 home runs! In 1941, he made a record which has not been broken yet: He batted safely in 56 consecutive games. He was more than a ball player. As Hamill puts it, “he was the epitome of grace. American grace. Italian American grace.” Then Sinatra burst on the scene, right in sync with the war effort underway. His 1942 record employed strings and woodwinds, not the big band sound. Jukeboxes were new, with Sinatra as the top-billed male soloist. Sinatra had a hard split with Dorsey, no longer close buddies. To get away from him, Sinatra agreed to give Dorsey one third of his earnings for ten years! There is more to this story, but I have to leave you begging for more info, which I won’t give. You have to read for yourself.
Meanwhile, Sinatra’s voice on records at home, heard on the radio and juke boxes, created a unique audience for him. Hamill describes the scene of Sinatra walking out on stage at the Paramount on December 30, 1942, wearing baggy pants and a bowtie made large enough by Nancy to hide his Adam’s apple. “He started singing, ‘The bells are ringing, for me and my gal…” The rest of the words were lost in the screaming.”
The makeup of Sinatra’s audience was unique. Usually, male singers are mobbed by female fans. Not Frank. He had more male than female fans! With fame comes troubles. Hamill calls it “the velvet prison of fame.” Your life isn’t your own. Someone always sees what you are doing and reports it. Sinatra said, “It just changes everything. You can’t go to a beach. You can’t walk into a movie. You can’t stand on a corner and eat a hot dog. You want the fame but, baby, you pay a price.” With pressures everywhere, Frank was not an ideal husband.
The demise of Frank and Nancy’s marriage happened at the end of the 40s. He was with Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner, and others until he met Ava Gardner. It was not a smooth road with Ava; then in the spring of 1950, he lost his voice due to a vocal chord hemorrhage! Subsequently, he lost his audience – both men and women. The public was disgusted with his treatment of Nancy. Nothing was going well. In 1953, his wife and others tried to pull strings to get him a movie part. He wanted to play the part of Maggio, a hometown friend, in the movie From Here to Eternity. Strings were pulled in his favor, yet Eli Wallach was selected. In the end, Wallach also had the opportunity for a live show which he preferred, leaving Sinatra to play Maggio for a mere $8000. This marked the beginning of the Comeback.
In the recording industry, his career was over with Columbia Records. Now it was 1953. Capitol gave him a one year contract, including he would pay for his own recording sessions. By chance, Sinatra hired Nelson Riddle as arranger. The upshot is Riddle brought out Sinatra’s comeback sound, complete with hat. They made 318 recordings over the next 25 years. Frank’s movie came out with great reviews, and people were flocking to hear him sing. While his career was returning, his marriage was dead. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and his records were selling.
His male audience was returning. Men love a story of the down and out person recovering and climbing back to the top. His singing voice had changed. Hamill describes the change as “deeper, richer, with more timbre, the voice of a man.”
That man’s voice still resonates today. We have not tired of his music yet. He still matters. Sinatra was a real man with foibles and shocking talent. Hamill ends his story with, “Frank Sinatra was a genuine artist, and his work will endure as long as men and women can hear, and ponder, and feel. In the end, that’s all that truly matters.”
A statistic: Sinatra made 1307 recordings from 1939 to 1995, plus recordings of concerts, his videos, and, of course, movies.
Sinatra died at 82 on May 14, 1998. He left a throng of adoring fans and a contingent who labelled him “a thug or monster, whose behavior was redeemed only by his talent.” He was an emerging amalgam of society. Today, only the music remains, but what music it is!