If there was only one voice on a saloon jukebox on a lonely Saturday night, you’d want it to be Frank Sinatra’s.
Sinatra often said that all he ever wanted to be was a saloon singer, but the wonder of his music made that saloon big enough to seat us all.
In his most affecting moments, Sinatra had such exquisite vocal control that he could be as graceful as morning snow or as cocky as a Vegas high roller. It was this duality that helped him comfort our deepest wounds and propel our most far-reaching dreams.
With Sinatra’s death late Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, the pop world lost its greatest singer, but his legacy remains on record. In his scores of albums, you still get the intimacy and style of a man whose life was filled with all the disappointments and triumphs chronicled in his songs.
Sinatra, 82, was not a miracle worker. He sounded merely professional at times and he rarely was convincing when dealing with material that was even remotely related to the currents of the rock era. Yet, he sang for the most part with an intelligence and style unparalleled in modern pop.
Greatly influenced by both the crooning style of his hero Bing Crosby and by the dramatic instincts of Billie Holiday, Sinatra lifted popular singing to a new level of sophistication through his reliance on the adventurous phrasing of jazz.
Blessed with such marvelous arrangers as Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins and Axel Stordahl, Sinatra, whose active career touched on at least parts of seven decades, had generally excellent instincts for material.
To hear a Sinatra version of a Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer lyric often meant you were hearing a different song from the one the writers gave him. Singing behind the beat or highlighting key words for emotional punch, Sinatra became a co-writer.
He made you feel the brush of the summer wind and the chill of a California that’s cold and damp and the sizzle of a summer day in Paris.
The lyrics he favored aren’t the words of youthful revolution, which explains why he seemed so estranged from rock music. But the songs are the images of life, and Sinatra chronicled those images so remarkably that even the rock audience came to appreciate him.
The final time I saw him on stage was in November 1995 at the Shrine Auditorium, where some of rock’s most celebrated figures, including Bruce Springsteen and U2’s Bono, celebrated his 80th birthday.
The most moving moment was when Bob Dylan, a master of writing lyrics the way Sinatra was a master of interpreting them, broke from the evening’s pattern of performing songs associated with Sinatra.
Dylan sang his own “Restless Farewell,” a ‘60s composition that reflects independence with much the same defiance of Sinatra’s signature tunes. As Sinatra sat nearby, Dylan sang, “So I’ll make my stand / And remain who I am / And bid farewell / And not give a damn.”
Sinatra was touched by the outpouring, having to wipe tears from his eyes at one point. It was, it turned out, his public farewell to us all.
If Sinatra’s art was universal, his personal life was enigmatic.
Though he was the ultimate insider, a friend of presidents and princesses, Sinatra’s art was rooted in the underdog sensibilities of the outsider--the kid from the cold-water flat in Hoboken, N.J., who spent much of his youth dreaming about life across the river in Manhattan.
In a 1968 biography, Arnold Shaw summarized the conflicts in this complex figure: "[Sinatra] wanted to be the last word in charm, but was frequently an explosive porcupine of ill-temper. He prided himself on his exquisite taste, but he couldn’t help using his fists and four-letter words in public. He wanted to move gracefully among the cultured and social elite, but he could not resist associating with pugs and hoods.”
There are four letters from Sinatra that I keep in a special place at home because they remind me of the private person behind the public voice.
The first letter was in response to a sarcastic review that I wrote in 1975 of Telly Savalas’ nightclub act in Las Vegas, at the height of the actor’s TV show success as Lt. Kojak. Savalas was so marginal as a singer and storyteller that the review suggested he ought to be arrested for impersonating an entertainer.
Sinatra was furious, and he dashed off a long letter to the editor to “vehemently protest the shabby treatment” afforded Savalas and to advise the editors to “put Mr. Hilburn on the comic pages where he so obviously wants to be.”
The three notes that followed over the years were much shorter and more cordial, expressing appreciation for reviews praising Sinatra’s own work.
My guess is that Sinatra didn’t write them. He probably just instructed someone on his staff to send thank-you letters, as a matter of simple courtesy.
But there was no doubt that he wrote the first one--and it reminds me now of what must have been his fierce loyalty and intensity.
Like many Sinatra fans after hearing of his death, I pulled out his albums to search for a song that spoke to his musical legacy, something he might sing on the saloon’s closing night.
This wasn’t the time for “My Way,” “New York, New York” or any of the other robust anthems. In a moment of loss, you want something more intimate . . . something such as “To Love and Be Loved,” a Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen song that Sinatra recorded in 1958.
To love and be loved.
That’s what life’s all about
(It’s what) keeps the stars coming out
What makes a sad heart sing
The birds take wing.
In the end, Sinatra helped our sad hearts sing, and he gave our spirits wings. He found emotional truths in his music, and he shared them with us--then and now. In the sanctuary of that magical voice, the truths remain eternal.
More coverage: Frank Sinatra’s life, legacy and career achievements. F12-F15