THE DEFINITIVE SINATRA BIOGRAPHY: A MASTERPIECE! (by JAMES KAPLAN)

VOLUME 1:

‘FRANK: THE VOICE’ (in the UK, ‘FRANK: THE MAKING OF A LEGEND’)

 

VOLUME 2:

‘SINATRA: THE CHAIRMAN

 

Before I began reading what I am now sure is a never-to-be bettered, definitive 1,800 page, two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, penned by a genius of a writer, James Kaplan, he, Frank, was already my No.1.

 

I have a wide, wide range of musical tastes, from Mozart and Rachmaninov, through Elvis and Roy Orbison, to Led Zeppelin to Fleetwood Mac and Earth Wind and Fire, to Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Chet Baker, Frank and Tony Bennett and many, many others – I LOVE music – but Frank is ahead for me. Tony Bennett comes in a definite close second and the rest, third, forth, fifth…they are way back.

 

I have now finished reading Kaplan’s monumental work and I love Frank even more. I obviously know a lot more about him, his life, his demons, his trials and tribulations, his battles, his character flaws, his weaknesses, his insecurities as well as his many pluses – this is no treacle biography, it’s warts ‘n’ all – and that has drawn me closer to the man and his music.

 

Of course, no new biography of Sinatra would be complete without more revelations about his womanizing, drinking, playing-hard, gambling, ‘rumoured’ Organised Crime, politics, the Rat Pack etc stones being unturned and Kaplan overturns a lot of heavy stones. Kaplan takes the reader deep into the dark places painfully and tragically inhabited by Frank during his life. I was going to ignore those sides of the biography in this review because, A, obviously they are in the biog so why point them out? B, to mention just some of it without the full context of everything in the book is unfair to Frank and, C, my interest is primarily in the music. However, just as Mozart, to name only one musician, spoke through his music, just as so many musicians’ work and output is heavily coloured by their ups and downs, their highs and lows, the happy times and their despair, so much of Frank’s music was inextricably tied to his life, his living. Now that I have read Kaplan’s biography of Frank, the music thumps me even harder. I ‘get’ Frank – I ‘get’ no other musician in anything like the same way (because I ‘know’ Frank so much better than I know any other musician). I feel, looking back at the reading experience, that I was immersed in Frank’s world. It’s not possible to completely detach Frank’s music from the rest of his life:

 

Kaplan:

 

The song (“I’m A Fool To Want You”)…a big melodramatic ballad…Herron (the composer) and Wolf (the lyricist) had given him a lyric sheet, and Sinatra, as always, had studied it carefully, trying to absorb the words into his bloodstream… “I’m a Fool” may not be a great song (it happens to be one of my favourites) but Sinatra’s shattering performance of it transcends the material. His emotion is so naked that we’re at once embarrassed and compelled: we literally feel for him.

 

“That’s a heartbreaking performance,” said George Avakian, not ordinarily a fan. “And the lyric, which I understand Sinatra contributed largely to, is very powerful. Psychologically, it’s very much a part of Sinatra. The fact that it’s a song that reflected his life at the time always intrigued me. There aren’t too many occasions when a record comes out of a person’s life so directly.”

 

 

I don’t mean to cheapen the life of Frank but, it a way, it might be fair to describe it as a soap opera and, in that sense, a biography of his life offers much to many, to those interested in the womanizing, the politics, the Mafia stories…but, for me, Frank is about the music and I guess that is why, having read about some of his not-so-great personality traits, he is still my No. 1. I guess, subconsciously, I compartmentalize Frank. One minute he might be threatening someone and, the next, he is singing like an angel and I find the music irresistible, so many of his performances mesmerizing, whether on the stage or in the movies. Unless my memory fails me, I don’t think Kaplan gave his opinion as to where he felt that Frank was most happy. Surely it was in a recording studio, with Riddle, May, Costa…with a great orchestra…when he felt ‘on song’, when the musical stars were aligned. Frank loved the money, the adulation, being the leader, being revered but, deep down, at his core, it was about the music…the music was in his heart and soul, it was his very essence:

 

Kaplan:

 

Frank’s confidence grew with every tune. He began a practice he would continue to the end of his career. “I take a sheet with just the lyrics. No music…At that point, I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand the 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 ben 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. If the take is good you’re done.”

 

“I’ve always believed that the written word is first, always first,” Frank once said. “Not belittling the music behind me, it’s really only a curtain…you must look at the lyric, and understand it.”

 

Who on Earth am I to criticize other legends but indulge me, please…other vocalist giants, to name just a couple, Ella and Mel Tormé, perfect voices, I can listen to them for hours, but they don’t tell stories like Frank, no one does, no one invests of themselves to anything like the same extent. I don’t think Mel does it very much at all (I can’t believe I’m criticizing The Velvet Fog!). I do think that Tony Bennett is special, that he immerses himself in the song (his arranger and pianist for decades, Ralph Sharon, was a crucial element in Tony’s discography and concert performances). Frank was a huge fan – he called Tony:

 

“The best singer in the business , the best exponent of a song…He’s the singer who gets across what the composer has in mind, and probably a little more, There’s a feeling in back of it.”

 

(music by the incomparable Michel Legrand and Jacques Demy, lyrics by Marilyn and Alan Bergman, piano thanks to the ‘Professor’, one of my favourites, Bill Evans  –  possibly joint favourite pianist with Oscar Peterson)

 

Kaplan is also a fan:

 

Re “I Wanna Be Around” (Sadie Vimmerstedt/Johnny Mercer):

 

Here, though, Tony Bennett is the winner. His version, kiss-off though it may be, is ecstatic – his voice has the quality of a great jazz horn – while Sinatra’s competent interpretation of “I Wanna Be Around” is emotionally muted.

 

 

I guess, at this point in my review, I’m touching on what, for me, is the most magnetic characteristic of this biography:

 

Kaplan’s writing.

 

Frank’s singing reduces me to tears again and again and again. It doesn’t matter how many times I have heard a song, each time I listen, it feels like a newer, bigger experience. I read Kaplan’s understanding of Frank’s music, I read what it means to him, how it effects him, and the language Kaplan uses touches me in a way that the usually verbose me can’t put into words. I guess, if Kaplan had been sitting with me when I was reading the books, I’d have been continuously saying, “Yes, that’s it!!!!”….”Yes, on the nose, on the button!!!”:

 

Kaplan:

 

In the closing song of his January 19 (1955) show at West Melbourne Stadium, “Ol’ Man River,” he flaunted his renowned breath control on the phrase “you get a little drunk and you lands in jail,” holding the low note on the word “jail” until it seemed no human could hold it any longer, then dropping the tone a fifth, then dropping again, then moving seamlessly into “I gets weary and sick of tryin’,” all on a single lungful of air, for an astonishing twenty seconds or more.

 

“Wee Small” is an amazingly integrated piece of work, both for its time and for all time, holding its mood of tender sadness throughout, amid the many somber colors of nelson Riddle’s musical palette. Frank so often sings in a kind of hush that when he momentarily switches gears from gentle to rascally, as in the cynical verse to “Can’t We Be Friends?” (“I took each word she said as gospel truth/The way a silly little child would”), the effect is jarring. This is an album of capitulation, not retaliation – his “Ava album,” as Frank would later call it.”

 

 

Utterly beautiful!!

 

“Two of the songs that feel most naked in this regard are Hoagy Carmichael’s exquisitely ironic “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” with a lyric based on a poem by Jane Brown Thompson, and Cole Porter’s towering “What Is This Thing Called Love?” On the latter, with its lyric equal to any Roman ode, Sinatra is in spine-chillingly peak vocal form; as he makes plunging melodic improvisations that flirt with basso territory, he sounds like a cave of the winds….

 That is exquisite, beautiful writing!

 

 

 

 

Re “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (12 January 1956 – actually, the early hours of the 13th –   recording for “Swingin’ Lovers”):

  

Kaplan:

 

the band ran through the number once while Frank stood in the control booth with Riddle, producer Voyle Gilmore, and recording engineer John Palladino. Sinatra was listening carefully, making sure the recording balances were correct and the arrangements sounded right…..The heavenly strings and the bright brass interplay effortlessly behind the first and second choruses, and then, as Frank caresses the last lines of the bridge –

 

But each time that I do, just the

thought of you

makes me stop before I begin…

 

Roberts (George Roberts, bass trombone) and the strings lift the long crescendo higher and higher and higher until it seems they can go no higher and then Milt Bernhart goes wild on his slide trombone, simply blowing his lungs out. It is to Sinatra’s immense credit that his powerful final chorus, driving the song home, is as strong in its own right as Bernhart’s historic solo.

 

 

Regardless of how many times I listen to Frank’s songs, I never cease asking myself “How do you do it, Frank?” so the ‘science’ behind the wondrous music fascinates me:

 

Kaplan:

 

Dorsey had a massive rib cage and extraordinary lung power. He could play an unbelievable thirty-two-bar legato. And yet he hopelessly idolized the legendary Texas trombonist and vocalist Jack Teagarden, a great jazz artist, a man who could transform a song into something new and sublime and dangerous. Dorsey didn’t transform: he ornamented; he amplified.

 

Soon he (FS) was listening to the above-mentioned composers (Brahms, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel) as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams and Delius and Glazunov and Fauré. His ear expanded with his lung capacity.

 

Mike Shore, ghosting interview (for ‘Playboy’ in 1963) with FS:

 

‘Sinatra’:

 

When I sing, I believe. I’m honest. If you want to get an audience with you, there’s only one way. You have to reach out to them with total honesty and humility. This isn’t a grandstand play on my part; I’ve discovered – and you can see it in other entertainers – when they don’t reach out to the audience, nothing happens. You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but the audience is like a broad – if you’re indifferent, endsville.

 

“It’s the words of a song that are important…I pick my songs for the lyrics. The music is only a backdrop. I sing love songs and mean them. They’re meant for two girls, both named Nancy. One is my wife, aged 24, and not jealous and the other is my three-year-old.”

 

Kaplan:

 

On the wall of his new den…was a framed quotation from none other than Schopenhauer: “Music is the only form of Art which touches the Absolute.”

 

Maybe Frank did have an extra-large rib cage….he…shifted into a new gear, swimming and running and listening to classical music…As soon as he got back to New York, he returned to his old voice teacher Quinlan and practiced “calisthenics for the throat….

 

 I could go on….2 volumes, 1,800 pages and yet it’s all meat on the bone, no fat, no gristle. It’s difficult for me to summarise the biography because none of it is froth, it’s all fascinating!

 

I have so much to thank James Kaplan for – James opened the door into Frank’s world and my connection with Frank and his music is now so much deeper, my love all the greater. I don’t just love Frank Sinatra, I am now, I think literally, in love with his music.

 

Frank is the ‘Capo di tutti Capi’ of music (I’m not sure if he’d be ok with that honorific):

 

Kaplan:

 

Evans (George B. Evans, who represented FS for a time) saw that Sinatra’s visual appeal, while unique, was limited. What got the girls was that voice – specifically, the unique blend of that personality and that voice. Other singers were better to look at. Others had winning personalities and terrific voices. But no one, absolutely no one, got his personality into the voice like this kid. He sold a song, and told a song, like nobody else. Especially, of course, if the song was a ballad. He yearned in front of thousands of females , making every girl in the place want to mother him or screw him – Sinatra had each and every one of them in a dither about which. But he had to be heard.

 

He was, she’d (Ava Gardner) felt from the first time she heard him, “one of the greatest singers of this century. He had a thing in his voice I’ve only heard in two other people – Judy Garland and Maria Callas. A quality that makes me want to cry for happiness, like a beautiful sunset or a boys’ choir singing Christmas carols.”

  

The critics loved him too. “I watched mass hysteria,” wrote the New Musical Express’s reviewer. “Was it wonderful? Decidedly so, for this man Sinatra is a superb performer and a great artiste. He had his audience spellbound.” The Sunday Chronicle’s man mustered even less English reserve: “Bless me, he’s GOOD! He is as satisfying a one-man performance as the Palladium has ever seen.”

 

 A great vocal recording of a popular song is an inseparable weave of words and melody, of the singer’s work and the arranger’s, and – of course – the musicians’. But also to be taken into account is the meaning of the song, which is not always what the lyrics say. “Young at Heart” was a paean to rebirth, the ideal soundtrack to Frank Sinatra’s matchless comeback: “Fairy tales can come true; it could happen to you” was the perfect rejoinder to Swifty Lazar’s “Even Jesus couldn’t get resurrected in this town.” And everything about this recording was perfect. New high-fidelity recording tape and microphones brilliantly brought out Sinatra’s diction, phrasing, and pitch-perfect tone, not to mention the gorgeousness of the musical background and Nelson Riddle’s arrangement, From the opening fillip – a string passage announcing the melody in a quizzical, slightly off-kilter way that draws the listener in irresistibly – it was clear that a genius was at work….All at once, Sinatra and Riddle were a team. Frank had never sung this way, and Nelson had never written this way…And what he and Frank were doing was inimitable: “Young at Heart” is a wonderful number, but it’s more a great moment than a great song per se – it’s difficult to imagine any other singer, no matter how skilled, ever bringing as much to it as Sinatra brought to it that night, three days from his thirty-eighth birthday.

 

 

 Quincy Jones on FS:

 

He (FS) was hip, straight up and straight ahead, and, above all, a monster musician. I loved him, man, I admit it, I loved him as much as anyone else I ever worked with, because there was no gray to the man. It was either back or white: If he loved you, there was nothing in the world he wouldn’t do for you. If he didn’t like you, shame on your ass. I know he loved me too. In all the years of working together, we never once had a contract – just a handshake. The Sinatras always made me feel like part of their family, children, grandchildren, and all.

 

 1970 London concerts (x 2):

 

One of the British musicians on the dates, bassist Daryl Runswick, recalled, “There are few occasions when a bunch of world-weary London musicians are provoked into awe by a performance. It happened [then]. The thing that I remember is how hard Sinatra appeared to work. I was a few feet away from him and I recall how much he was concentrating. He was flawless…”

 

 I must force myself to draw this blog review to a close (I applaud myself for withstanding the temptation to luxuriate publicly in Kaplan’s beautiful references to the genius Antonio Carlos ‘Tom’ Jobim and the magic that his collaboration with Frank gave us!).

 

‘Frank: The Voice’ (aka ‘Frank: The Making of a Legend’)

 

and

 

‘Sinatra: The Chairman’

 

A Triumph!

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