Frank Sinatra: The Man, The Music, The Legend, essays edited by Jeanne Fuchs and Ruth Prigozy (Univ of Rochester Press)

I was in Milan on business on May 14, 1998, the day Frank Sinatra died at age 82. The story topped the national news broadcast. Visiting Germany, President Clinton responded to a reporter’s question about Sinatra and America. Then Clinton went on to discuss new U.S. sanctions against India, which had just exploded a nuclear device underground. Then Jacques Chirac made a statement from Paris; he considered himself lucky to have once met Sinatra.

frank.jpgThat November, Hofstra University sponsored the first academic conference on Ol’ Blue Eyes: 43 panels, 120 papers, more than 170 discussants in all. (The event was about twice the size of Hofstra’s 1997 conference on the presidency of George Bush.) Jeanne Fuchs and Ruth Prigozy have collected 15 papers from the conference for Frank Sinatra: The Man, The Music, The Legend, editing them as engaging essays. Part I includes six pieces on Sinatra’s music. Part II covers his film and television work, his relationship to pop music and culture, and even his dancing ability. The breadth of topics, discussed with concision, makes this book surprisingly brisk reading for those wanting to revisit quickly a number of aspects of Sinatra’s career. (Sadly excluded were conference contributions such as “Traumatized Masculinity in The Manchurian Candidate” and “Dolly and Frankie Sinatra and the Italian-American Mother/Son Thing.”) Prigozy ends the first section with a curious essay on “Dick Haymes: Sinatra Stand-In or the Real Thing?” which examines why Haymes failed to reignite his career in the early 1950s while Sinatra succeeded. My copy of Haymes' recording of “On the Street Where You Live” provides ample answer: his ebullient delivery obscures any shadings of personality. He simply wasn’t in Frank’s league.

Samuel Chell's essay describes Sinatra’s overall mission as a singer – an approach that permanently redefined the maneuvers of American pop artists. “When addressing the complex relationship between the singer and the American popular song, it is as misleading to credit the singer for submerging his own ego to the composer’s intent as to regard the song as a mere vehicle for the attributes of the singer,” he writes. “Rather, the singer is like a screen actor, less concerned with adapting himself to the role in the song as making the song expressive of his own image.” The model was established for Elvis Presley, who followed Sinatra’s path from teen idol to pop icon to movie star and Las Vegas entertainer. The story is well told in James F. Smith’s essay “Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley: The Taming of Teen Idols and The Timex Show.”

frank2.jpgSinatra was the consummate performance artist – and an entertainment enterprise. He worked with the tenacity of a businessman who had watched his personal franchise all but crash by 1950. In Ron Simon’s fine essay “Sinatra Meets Television,” we hear the story of Sinatra’s famous near demise. He’d been fired from MGM. He suffered a vocal chord hemorrhage and had to cancel his gig at the Copacabana. His trusted PR agent died. The story usually reads that Sinatra bounced back in 1953 after his separation from Ava Gardner and signing a new record contract with Capitol, since the following year “Young At Heart” became his first top-5 hit in eight years and he won an Oscar for his portrayal of Maggio in From Here to Eternity. But Simon reminds us that Sinatra attributed his ultimate comeback to an initial TV appearance on a 1950 Bob Hope special where he sang “Come Rain or Come Shine” (he would not record that song for another 11 years). Later that year, Sinatra began hosting his own TV series. Succeeding in this new medium, his confidence swelled. He focused on projecting a revised image on the small screen. Although his intonation and pitch were now slightly frayed, he used these qualities to project the psyche of a man who would never quite recover from the disillusionment of love, even as he revved himself up to try again.

Will Friedwald’s Sinatra: The Song Is You (Da Capo, 1997) is generally regarded as the authoritative take on Sinatra’s singing, styling, and musicianship. But I’d also point you to John Rockwell’s Sinatra: An American Classic (Rolling Stone Press, 1984), a large-format book with terrific text and photos. In fact, I’m not sure that anyone has truly surpassed Rockwell in describing Sinatra’s technique. If you’re lucky, you might find a copy among the discounted coffee table-size books at Barnes and Noble.

Rockwell notes that Sinatra was the first pop singer to understand that the microphone is an instrument. On some occasions, the microphone turned against him – namely when he was giving testimony on alleged mob connections. Here’s my favorite Sinatra mob story:

Sinatra_older.jpegIn 1981, Sinatra testified before the Nevada Gaming Commission. The commission chairman, Harry Reid, asked Sinatra to corroborate a story that he carried $2 million in an attaché case to Lucky Luciano. An annoyed Sinatra replied, "If you could get $2 million in an attaché case, I'll give you $2 million." Norman Mailer decided to find out if such packaging is possible. He craftily determined that a $100 bill measures 6.2 inches by 2.6 inches and 350 bills may be pressed down to a one-inch packet worth $35,000. Six packets were laid along the 17-inch axis of a standard attaché case. Four additional packets fit lengthwise into the space left on that first layer. Ten packets per layer amounted to $350,000, with five layers in the 12-by-17-by-5-inch case, adding up to $1,750,000. But by stuffing half-inch packets of hundreds in the corners, Mailer proved you can fit $2,012,000 into an attaché case. Nice trick, smart guy. But Frank Sinatra was not just the ultimate survivor. He was the ultimate winner.

[Published 6/1/07, 165 pp., $39.95]