Some years ago, I shared a barber with the late Mel Tormé. It was a small, low-key shop where the talk was usually sports and the music on the radio was always jazz or vocals from the American Songbook.
One morning, Tormé and I found ourselves pausing amid an offhanded conversation as the radio played Frank Sinatra singing Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” — which figures in a rather important way in James Kaplan’s marvelously thoughtful, readable biography, “Frank: The Voice.” As we listened, I recall murmuring something to the effect of, “It’s the phrasing, isn’t it?” only to have Tormé correct me. “The diction comes before the phrasing,” he said. “We all owe that to Ella [Fitzgerald] and to Frank. We all work in their shadow — and Frank cast a big shadow for such a skinny guy.”
It’s possible that more Americans carry Sinatra songs in their mental soundtracks than they do any other American singer’s. It’s also possible that some people categorically dislike his work, though the shortest explanation for that probably is a psyche devoid of the pleasure principle. In either case, the question of whether we really need another book about Sinatra is bound to arise. His flamboyantly tumultuous personal life was exhaustively chronicled in the celebrity-besotted media — in syndicated columns, fan magazines, tabloids — and in a series of tell-all biographies. However, Kaplan, a novelist and co-author with John McEnroe and Jerry Lewis of unusually deft collaborative memoirs — brings something valuable and new to this account of Sinatra’s first four decades, culminating in his cinematic triumph in “From Here to Eternity” and stunning vocal comeback in the early 1950s.
First and most valuable, Kaplan gives us an illuminating portrait of a serious artist who helped revolutionize his medium. Sinatra’s immensely influential chapter in popular music’s story might be titled “ballad noir,” for it shared many of the same roots as the other expressions of that fruitfully conflicted sensibility. Jazz became the first great American art music by translating the rhythms of American urban life and the sounds of American speech into notes. Sinatra was among the first great popular singers to phrase their songs in the way that American sentences actually were spoken and to inflect their phrasings with the anxieties and hopes, disappointments and longings of a new urban America, brashly self-confident one moment, beset by 3 a.m. doubts the next.
There’s a reason we recall so many Sinatra lyrics: You always understood the words. Sinatra began his approach with perfect diction. Phrasing and harmonies provided subtle layers of interpretation but always in fidelity to the song and the lyrics as written.
Method acting was a powerful force in the aesthetic climate in which the mature Sinatra forged his interpretative sensibility, and Kaplan’s fascinating exploration of his approach to a new song suggests its unexpected influence. Sinatra, for example, first engaged a new piece as lyrics on a page without notes.
“At that point, I’m looking at a poem,” the singer said. “I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing the words, so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together. You sing the song.”
Kaplan also does a brilliant job of suggesting how the way Sinatra sang the song grew out of the life of an artist every bit as confounding and conflicted as his era — a man by turns generous, attentive and immensely decent, then ugly, violently abusive and self-absorbed to the point of cruelty. His parents kept a saloon in Hoboken, N.J., called Marty O’Brien’s, which was his father’s nom de guerre in the ring during his bantamweight career. He appears to have exercised little influence over his son; not so his mother, described by Kaplan as a sometime abortionist and Democratic ward boss, who alternately indulged and physically abused her son.
Their relationship would set the pattern for all his subsequent dealings with women, as his might-as-well-have-been-absent father sent him looking for substitutes throughout his life. The most influential of those was the domineering bandleader Tommy Dorsey, for whom Sinatra so memorably fronted. Kaplan’s biography brims with deftly sketched, novelistic portraits of Dorsey and other notable musical and Hollywood figures in a propulsive narrative that never flags.
Some of the most compelling material involves Sinatra’s doomed marriage to Ava Gardner, who became not only the dark muse of the singer’s best vocal work but also the prime mover in obtaining the role in “From Here to Eternity” that made him once again a star. Most people think they know the story of how Sinatra (whose connections to the mob were complicated) got the part because they’ve seen Mario Puzo’s unforgettable fictional gloss on the episode in " The Godfather.” As Kaplan compellingly recounts it, the real story is far more fascinating. Sinatra’s career was at its nadir when he married Gardner, the film industry’s reigning beauty. They were too much alike ever to stay married — both were easily bored, drank like fish (vodka for her, Jack Daniel’s for him), had terrible tempers, couldn’t stand to be alone and fell into bed with whomever happened to be close.
When it became apparent to Gardner how perfect the part of Maggio would be for Sinatra, she approached their mutual friend Harry Cohn, who was making the film, and offered to do a picture for him for free if he would give Sinatra a screen test. The call for that came while the singer was in Africa with Gardner on the set of “Mogambo” — the portrait of her relationship with director John Ford is one of the book’s best — and she lent Sinatra the money to fly back to film the test.
Unlike Puzo’s fictional mogul, Jack Woltz, Cohn was genuinely fond of Sinatra and once had flown to New York to nurse him through a serious illness. Ultimately, though, in Kaplan’s version, he chose him for the role for two reasons — Cohn thought the other finalist, Eli Wallach, looked too Jewish for the part, and the movie already was over budget and Sinatra was willing to work for just $1,000 a week.
Sinatra would never recover from the loss of Gardner, and his sorrow and confusion over their breakup would color his greatest period as a singer. As his great arranger, Nelson Riddle, said, “Ava taught him how to sing a torch song.”