Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Frank Sinatra

Yeah, you heard me- Frank Sinatra.

I had to get a new I-Pod- type machine and decided to program some Frank into it- after all, he was the VOICE of a generation.

And, you know what? He was really great... I mean inarguably great. His phrasing (he evidently learned breath control from his old boss Tommy Dorsey), and his melodic sense are uncanny. But what's truly inspiring is the quality of his voice- the tone, the timbre. It's a unique, beautiful instrument.

When he sings a song like The House I live In (That's America to Me), his sincerity inhabits the lyric and turns a patriotic cliche into a pastiche of great American ideals. I'm not sure why, but it seems somewhat leftist to me, even though it touches on all the current Republican themes: family, church, etc, it also mentions "the worker at my side," and "all races and religions." Certainly not Tea- Party friendly words. Of course, the fact that it was cowritten by Abel Meeropol, later the adoptive dad of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg's sons, and Earl Robinson, blacklisted during the McCarthy era, may also contribute to the leftist feeling of the song.

I love it anyway. This film was made by Albert Maltz (blacklisted- Hollywood 10). The song starts at 6:36.

And of course there are the love songs: in a society as repressed as post- war white America, any method to achieve sexual gratification outside of marriage had to have been some kind of triumph! Sinatra was the voice of seduction- romantic, sweet, dreamy even. Women could lose themselves in a voice like that and men could lose themselves in those women. It didn't hurt that Sinatra and his cronies had begun to extoll the virtues of an all alchohol culture.

But, once again, like so many musical geniuses, he was the imperfect vessel for the perfect talent. In his early movies, he is cast as the naif: the skinny sidekick who needs a girlfriend, or the earnest pal who, believe it or not, sings like an angel. He's all angles, cut cheekbones, Adam's apple bobbing, greasy curly hair.

Ultimately, Sinatra became a truly hateful person. A crony of killers and mobsters, he embodied the worst aspects of show- biz arrogance. His once rail- thin figure was replaced by an alchoholic chubbiness, his short- clipped toupee a sad reminder of the once- curly locks. He became his own Dorian Gray portrait.

Most telling, for me, was a rendition of The House I Live In from Ronald Reagan's 1985 Inauguration. Sinatra could not manage to stay on key. He just could not sing that song. Was it too difficult for the aging saloon singer, or was it because he no longer believed in the spirit of the song?

I'd like to think it was the latter. And I'd like to think it was because he was so wrapped up in the songs that the lyrics really meant something to him, and that the sincerity of his delivery at it's best could not be replicated by a debauched, middle- aged conservative.

Well, yeah, I'd like to think that, but he was probably just having a bad night. Too many bad nights.

Next time: why I love Tony Bennett.


SueWho said...

This is great. I want to hear "The House I live in" sometime soon, I hope.

zebeckras said...

I don't care much for Sinatra actually. I think he had a great voice, but that thick sort of thuggish accent came through too clearly. Dean Martin on the other hand... his voice is like *butter*. His live recordings also have a charm to them that Sinatra seemed to replace with vitriol and hubris. So yeah... that's the source of my current fascination with Dino Martino. ;D

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