Back in 2015/6, I read a magnificent biography of my favourite, my No.1, Frank Sinatra, a two-part colossus of a work by James Kaplan:
‘FRANK: THE VOICE’ (in the UK, ‘FRANK: THE MAKING OF A LEGEND’)
‘SINATRA: THE CHAIRMAN’.
When I finished reading the biography, I was convinced that I had read the definite Sinatra biography. I, some time later, saw that the respected, prolific, highly acclaimed biographer, J. R. Taraborrelli, had written a Sinatra biography, ‘Sinatra: Behind the Legend’ (originally published in 1997, most recently updated in 2015). For some time, I stayed away, I thought it would be pointless my reading another Sinatra biography after Kaplan’s monumental work. However, eventually, I gave into temptation and bought it. GOOD CALL!
Both Kaplan and Taraborrelli love the music of Frank Sinatra, they are both aware of, and neither shies away from, his character/personality faults, they both criticise him and his behaviour when it’s appropriate to do so,
(example, Taraborrelli: “Frank was a serial cheater and his arrogance knew no bounds. He showed no respect for his wife [here, referencing Nancy Sinatra] or for the sanctimony of marriage. True emotional intimacy would always elude him.”),
and they both point out blame when it lies elsewhere.
I guess the differences between the two biographies are:
1) Kaplan’s is much longer!
2) Kaplan’s is, perhaps one could say, more of an academic work whereas Taraborrelli’s is more ‘entertainment’, ‘Hollywood’, glitz-focused, more centred on Frank’s life, his trials and tribulations, his relationships, the ups and downs, than on an academic examination of Frank’s music. I sincerely hope that neither Kaplan nor Taraborrelli take issue with me on that opinion!
HOWEVER, do not think that Taraborrelli’s biography is just a cheap exposé of Sinatra! IT IS NOT! It is a beautifully written, well organised/constructed, balanced, fair, insightful work. One of the aspects of Kaplan’s work which I love is his actual writing, the beautiful way in which he expresses his love of the music, his admiration of the work that went into creating the music, the recordings, the performances. Taraborrelli does it, too:
“On March 27 (1951)…..he (Frank) recorded “I’m a Fool to Want You,” a (recording) session that marked a defining moment in the development of his interpretive skills. The anguish he felt over his relationship with Ava (Gardner) is clear in every note in this recording (it certainly is!!!) (which, incidentally, was not a hit and remains obscure, except to Sinatra aficionados)” (I love the song, the ’51 and the ’57 recording!).
(I once heard it said of Frank’s music [I wish I could find out who said it!]:
“Every Sinatra song is a three and a half minute movie”,
ain’t that the truth?!]
Taraborrelli, quoting Sinatra: ‘”If the song is a lament at the loss of love,” he said at this time (1955), “I get an ache in my gut, I feel the loss myself, and I cry out the loneliness, the hurt, and the pain that I feel. I know what the cat who wrote the song is trying to say. I’ve been there and back. I guess the audience feels it along with me.”‘ (yes, Frank, we do!).
Taraborrelli: “Once in the studio, Frank always took his recording sessions seriously. Unlike many vocal artists, he was involved in some way in nearly every aspect of the session, from choosing the musicians to fine-tuning the arrangements. He had great appreciation for most music (not rock ‘n’ roll, though his artistic disdain for Elvis [“His kind of music is deplorable”] might – I’m just guessing – have had more to do with envy than his genuine feeling for the music) – jazz, classical, as well as pop – and understood it thoroughly, even if he couldn’t read it (as Taraborrelli points out, Sir Paul McCartney, Irving Berlin and Pavarotti, they could never read music and it didn’t exactly hold them back!).
That MUST have had a massive bearing on the quality of the music! Of course, the work of arrangers such as Nelson Riddle, Don Costa, Billy May, Axel Stordahl, Quincy Jones, Gordon Jenkins, it was invaluable, marriages with Frank made in heaven, but the fact that a bit of Frank was in every part of the creation, that made all the difference! We know, for instance, that Frank co-wrote “I’m a Fool To Want You”, recorded in 1951, the year he married Ava Gardner, and 1957, the year his and Ava’s divorce was finalised (they separated in 1953) but Frank surely contributed to the arrangements?? Listen to the melodramatic intros!
(1951, arr. Axel Stordahl):
(1957, arr. Gordon Jenkins):
Taraborelli certainly knows his Sinatra!
“The year 1958 is best remembered by Sinatra aficionados as the year he released ‘Frank Sinatra Sings Only The Lonely’, an album of torch songs that he considered his best work. Arranged by Nelson Riddle, the album contains some of Frank’s finest saloon songs, such as ‘Angel Eyes’ (the quintessential story of a loser at the game of love) and ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry’. This album, which Frank Jr. has called ‘the greatest blues album ever made’ – remained at number one for many months.”
‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry’. Exquisite!
Taraborrelli: (1966) “Frank and Nelson Riddle cut the ‘Strangers in the Night’ album in just two days. It’s an interesting collection in that it demonstrates Frank’s ability to do almost any kind of album effectively. This was clearly a patched-together, hurried effort designed to capitalize on a big hit, featuring songs that have no relation to each other. Yet it is still utterly engaging and charming (I like the album very much).
“The ‘Strangers in the Night’ album soared to number one on Billboard’s charts and stayed there for seventy-three weeks…..
“…..’Summer Wind’…is still considered by most music critics and Sinatra aficionados as one of Frank’s best recordings…”:
I wrote above that Taraborrelli’s biography is well constructed. I’ve read many times, and I agree, that Frank managed to navigate the choppy waters of his life by compartmentalizing. He didn’t have to struggle with the task of reconciling the various elements of his life because he kept them separate. It was as if he was, simultaneously, living different lives, that of, for example, being a father, being a wife, a singer, a friend, a star – when recording or when on stage, when performing in front of his adoring fans, he was Sinatra, the musician, the star – his marital ups and downs, his cavorting, his alleged associations with ‘the Mafia’, were irrelevant, none of it existed when he was being Frank, the singer,
EXCEPT that Frank, the complex, mercurial, perhaps bipolar (Taraborrelli writes that psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, in the 1950’s, did diagnose manic depression [called bipolar disorder today]), possessive, arrogant, at times disloyal, unreliable, untrustworthy, unforgiving, cruel, unsociable, violent, seemingly, at times, sociopathic yet warm, loving, altruistic, kind, compassionate, loyal, sociable, charitable, needy, insecure man, all of him, the good and the bad, the ups and the downs, the elation and the anger, the joy and the pain, it was all in his music – his music would not have been the music we love so much if Frank hadn’t been that composite.
Example: in 1953, Frank performed at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. He had an argument with Ava Gardner before the opening night and she didn’t go to the show. She did go the next night. Did the ruptions affect Frank’s performance?
Taraborrelli: “A ‘Journal-American’ story the next day reviewed the show: The Voice unleashed a torrent of sound at the sultry Ava. Emotion poured from him like molten lava as he piled the decibels ceiling high. He sang twenty-four songs with scarcely a pause for breath. The customers, except those completely numbed by the moving reconciliation [with Ava], loved it. Never before in the history of nightclubs had an artist been so generous with his voice.”
THAT’S what you got with Sinatra! He was fully invested in his music and in his performances.
Towards the end of Frank’s life, Joey D’Orazio, a very good and close friend, said to Frank (in a phone conversation),
‘”…We were young and stupid. We can’t kick ourselves about it now.” But Frank said he wished he could “go back”, that he “probably could have been nicer to some people.” “Then you wouldn’t have been Frank Sinatra, ” Joey observed.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I wouldn’t have been Frank Sinatra.”
Jumping back to 1963, Frank allowed ‘Playboy’ magazine to interview him. On the subject of his music, Frank (as quoted in Taraborrelli’s book – and Kaplan’s!) said,
“Most of what has been written about me is one big blur…but I do remember being described in one simple word that I agree with. It was in a piece that tore me apart for my personal behavior, but the writer said that when the music began and I started to sing, I was ‘honest’. That says it as I feel it. Whatever else has been said about me is unimportant (to Frank, it wasn’t “unimportant”, he took everything to heart, took everything personally!). 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 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 an audience is like a broad – if you’re indifferent, endsville….”
Anyway, that is the enigma that is Frank Sinatra, a man whom, despite all of his faults, we love, we feel for, we feel sorry for, we empathise with, that’s the magic of Sinatra.
Taraborrelli takes the reader on the thrilling, dramatic, tortuous, stormy, beautiful journey that was Sinatra’s life. For all it’s a big book, the ride moves quickly – from a starting point reference to John and Rosa Sinatra, Frank’s grandparents, through his upbringing, his career rollercoaster (“I started the decade [1950’s] as ‘the man least likely’ and closed it out as a grateful human being given a second shot at life”), the music, the concerts, performances, shows, the movies, his ambition, his survival instinct, his fighting (as in ‘never give up’) spirit, his friends, including, of course, Sammy, Dean, Peter and Joey – and SO many more – the women, the relationships, the marriages, Nancy Jr., Tina and Frankie Sinatra, the alleged associations with ‘The Mob’, Vegas, his business interests – the whole shebang!
The journey is broken down into easy to read, succinct, yet detailed, sections and chapters, eg:
Part One: ‘BEGINNINGS’
Marty and Dolly (Frank’s parents)
Frank Is Born
…and so on…
Part Three is entitled ‘BIG TIME’
(the chapter, ‘Lana Turner’, what a chapter! That lady was hard to handle!!).
Part Four is entitled ‘THE AVA YEARS’.
Part Seven is entitled ‘THE RAT PACK YEARS’.
Part Nine is entitled ‘THE KIDNAPPING OF FRANK SINATRA JR.’.
(they’re all great but I couldn’t put the book down when I was reading this section!).
Part Twelve is entitled ‘THE BARBARA YEARS’.
Parts Thirteen and Fourteen, ‘THAT’S LIFE’ and ‘AND NOW THE END IS NEAR…’ are heartbreaking, quite difficult to read, family troubles, Frank losing his friends and his joie-de-vivre, his health worsening, Frank lost in his reminiscences and nostalgia…. When I finished the book, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. If anything says that the book got to me, it’s that!
I said the following after I had read James Kaplan’s biography of Frank and I’ll say it again, having read Taraborrelli’s Sinatra biography, I love Frank more than I did before I read the biographies, I loved him more after reading Kaplan’s and I love him more after reading Taraborrelli’s but, I know, I didn’t have to live with him. I cherry pick Frank, I love his music, his acting, I love his ‘good side’ and I guess I ignore the bad stuff (whilst acknowledging that if he had been different, he wouldn’t have been Frank and the music wouldn’t have been what we love).
Gene Kelly said of Frank (as quoted in the biography), ‘ “There’s not the remotest possibility that he [Frank] will have a successor”’ – I agree 100%.
I fully recommend both Kaplan’s and Taraborrelli’s biographies. They were both an education for me. Moreover, it’s just great reading the thoughts of Sinatra aficionados. Great books! Thanks, guys!
(I blog reviewed James Kaplan’s biography of Frank in 2016).