Rocking our world
Savoring Sinatra - still
By GINA VIVINETTO
Published March 1, 2005
I'm for whatever gets you through the night. - Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra. The name alone conjures images of cool. Along with Elvis Presley and the Beatles, Sinatra was one of the most important entertainers and cultural figures of the 20th century. He was also one of the most controversial.
For 60 years, Sinatra was a star of radio, screen, stage and television, sharing his distinctive voice and charm with an adoring global audience. Young ladies, from as far back as the bobby-soxers in the 1940s, swooned over Sinatra. Young men envied him - and tried to figure out how he made the ladies swoon.
The thing about Sinatra, however, is he wasn't just cool. To me, he was vulnerable. And sad. Love wrecked him, more than once. And he never hid it. Sinatra was able to connect with different kinds of people because he knew what it was like to be maligned, judged, hated for being an outsider. Sinatra couldn't tolerate elitism and disloyalty. He could be brutal, but only if you slighted him or someone he loved.
Not everyone saw him that way.
After his death, New York Times columnist Frank Rich wrote: "He was without question one of the greatest artists of any kind this country has produced. As a human being, he not infrequently resembled a thug. How do you properly mourn a man who palled around with mobsters from Lucky Luciano to Sam Giancana, tainting not just himself but the Kennedy White House with their criminality? A man who bedded and abused women by the score? A man who directly and indirectly visited physical violence on perceived enemies in the press and elsewhere?"
There's never been a shortage of books and films about the legendary crooner, who died in 1998 at 82. The most recent is Frank Sinatra: The Man and the Myth (White Star, $19.99), a DVD capturing Sinatra and his fun-loving and, notably, interracial Rat Pack of pals, including Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin. The Pack paved the way for future stars to travel in entourages and have a ring-a-ding time.
As the DVD points out, it wasn't all shenanigans. In the days of racial segregation, Sinatra refused to perform in Las Vegas venues that didn't allow Davis equal treatment. Unless Davis could enter in the front door with Sinatra and Martin, and be served and treated equally, Sinatra refused to book a gig.
One by one, the venues began changing their segregation policies. Sinatra was committed to social causes, a point made in Why Sinatra Matters (Back Bay, $12.95), a slim, eloquent book about the singer written in 1998 by Pete Hamill.
When Sinatra, who grew up ostracized, the son of Italian-American immigrants in working class New Jersey, was asked later in life why he donated so much money to the NAACP, Hamill quotes him as responding, "It wasn't just black people hanging on those f--- ropes."
The Rat Pack changed the lexicon as well: In the 1980s, a group of young Hollywood actors who socialized together was dubbed the "Brat Pack." Today, rapper P. Diddy refers to his multicultural clan, including white actor Ashton Kutcher, as the "New Rat Pack."
Sinatra still gets props from contemporary singers of all genres, including American standards crooner Harry Connick Jr. and U2's Bono, an Irishman who cites Sinatra as his biggest influence and who jumped at the chance to record a song on 1993's Duets, an album of "collaborations" between contemporary singers and Ol' Blue Eyes. (The singers' parts were recorded separately, fixed in the studio.)
Local musician Kamran Mir, singer-guitarist for the alt-rock band Urbane Cowboys and host of The 11th Hour, an alternative music program on WMNF-FM 88.5, is a big Sinatra fan, though he may not look it.
The tattooed 27-year-old says he has bought about 35 Sinatra albums since discovering the singer in college. Mir says it's not just Sinatra's music he relishes.
"It's the myth, the man, the legend. The way Sinatra could just walk into a room and own it," Mir says. "He is the essence of cool." Mir says every young guy, regardless of background, tries to emulate Sinatra's style, in some way.
Mir tests himself at karaoke time, choosing Sinatra standards The Lady Is a Tramp and Summer Wind. In his personal life, too, Mir takes pointers from the Chairman.
"I occasionally refer to a woman as a doll," Mir says, laughing, "and I drink a lot of Jack Daniel's."
Sinatra keepsakes around Mir's apartment include a light switch plate depicting the Rat Pack grouped in front of the Sands hotel in Las Vegas and a copy of Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters, a favorite among Sinatra fans.
Last week, I tracked down Hamill, who was in Mexico working on a novel. I asked him what motivated him to write a book about Sinatra, whom he had met later in life and knew briefly.
Hamill's story, as he relayed to me over e-mail, was similar to Mir's, and to the millions of other young men who admire the singer.
"I grew up with his music, of course, in the years after (World War II), and the music was very important if you were a son of immigrants, living in a city. It was, after all, urban. "And in a different way, it was attacking the stereotype of Italian-Americans, my friends who were embarrassed by the guy with the organ grinder and the monkey," Hamill wrote. "When I entered my mid teens, in hormone overload, the music became even more important."
Hamill mentioned Sinatra's uncanny knack for interpretation, his ability to make each song his own and yet allow the listener to feel something personal.
"Sinatra in the 1950s was able to take those love songs and squeeze out the sentimental flab, creating a mature, stoic acceptance of loss and pain. Like Billie Holiday, he was able to take words and music by other people and turn the songs into autobiography."
Hamill pointed out another aspect of Sinatra's magic: His music matured with his audience.
"In a way, it (Sinatra's music) also became autobiography for all of the young men who were listening to him, including me. After Ava (Sinatra's divorce from actor Ava Gardner), and the crackup, he wasn't really singing for young women anymore. He was singing for the lonesome guys on the corner, again including me."
Hamill mused about Sinatra's lasting appeal. Perhaps, he speculated, it has something to do with the tone of Sinatra's famous tunes and the hard times in which they were written, how they encapsulated a "a need to believe in the day after tomorrow, in a love that will endure."
"Remember, Sinatra came out of immigrants, and almost all of them believed that better times were coming, particularly during the bad years of the Depression," Hamill wrote. "At the same time, that generation - and for all I know, today's young people - were used to disappointment, to certain kinds of failures, and that music helped them get through the night. "World War II was the original context. Guys went away, as they now do to Iraq, and they never come back. Sinatra's ballads are often about surviving grief."
In Why Sinatra Matters, Hamill writes:
"The world of my grandchildren will not listen to Sinatra in the way four generations of Americans have listened to him. But high art survives."
Hamill goes on to cite the works of jazz great Charlie Parker, singer Billie Holiday and Mozart.
"Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human.
"In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relive the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E.M. Forster, "Only connect.' "
Yes, connect. Sinatra continues to sing, for the swinging, for the lonely, for all of us.
-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.
-- Gina Vivinetto can be reached at 727 893-8565 or email@example.com
[Last modified February 28, 2005, 16:11:03]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]