Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Like a lot of people, I'm sure, I've had a love/hate relationship with Frank Sinatra all my life.

I was born into a time when he was challenging Bing Crosby, my tribe's champion, for the bragging rights to most popular crooner. We all loved Bing, I grew up loving him too and grew to appreciate how revolutionary his impact was on the development not only of popular music but on jazz and swing as well (no less an authority than Loius Armstrong claimed Bing as an influence on jazz music).

Several years ago we got a great first volume of a Bing bio (Gary Giddins' POCKETFUL OF DREAMS) that hasn't seen the sequel yet but set the record straight about Bing's early years and innovating influence and did it in a way that had me wanting more.

James Kaplan has done the same with his FRANK: The Voice. Sinatra was equally popular, equally influential in the world of not just popular music but jazz and swing as well. And like Bing their impact went way beyond mere music, as through the movies they elevated our country's sense of its immigrants, first the Irish and then the Italians, as well as a lot of young men's styles (and Bing went right on influencing style 'til the end, only then it was older white golfing men).

Kaplan gets it right, though, when he characterizes Bing's persona and style and music as "cool" compared to Frank's heat. What he means has nothing to do with the slang sense of "cool" (though that too in ways most people might not get) but in the passions these men aroused.

Bing's laid back vocal mastery made an amazing musical talent seem as easy as chatting on the phone, while Frank upped the ante in several ways, including making almost every ballad he sang sound so personal he created that whole swooning screaming teenage girls things because each one felt he was singing just to her and meant it!

And as this book shows, in many ways he did, not just as a Lothario. Bing was a lot more accomplished and brilliant than his image may have let on, but whatever emotional and psychological complexity he may have had, he never showed. Frank expressed his emotional and psychological complexity in just about everything he did and said, and especially in everything he sang.

This too looks like a first volume, as it follows Frank from birth only up until he won the Oscar, his comeback move, for the role of Maggio in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY. Kaplan puts the GODFATHER horse-head-in-the-bed myth to rest, or tries to, but the mob connection is delineated in other ways that make it clear "the boys" were helpful in other ways, including never giving up on him like a lot of others did when he went through the slump before the Oscar year.

The best thing about FRANK, is that Kaplan gets a lot of the artistry correct as well as the reasons why Sinatra isn't just a pop icon or once adored singer or a Hollywood history gossip mine, but actually is one of the few who have truly had an impact on not just his times but on the history of his times.

It's always difficult to explain to someone young who has grown up with the internet or texting or e mail or computers or whatever dominates the ways in which we communicate and create, what it was like when none of these things existed. It's equally difficult to explain what it was like before Sinatra, or to go back even further, before Bing.

No one is really sui generis, there's always past influences and accidents of history that bend those influences toward a new outcome, but nonetheless, not just 20th Century "America" would look different and sound different and BE different without these two men, Bing and Frank, but the 21st century as well. Kaplan's book gives you a few facts to support that argument, as well as a lot of distillation of a lot of other people's versions of the events recorded, including some scholarly and some not so much.

I couldn't put it down. And when I finally reached the end and did, I got a new feeling—I can't wait for the second volume, which I hope Kaplan is finishing up right now.


-K- said...

I enjoyed it a great deal as well. What a waste the Mitch Miller years of the early Fifties were. Bouncy, up tempo stuff that nobody liked, much less bought.

And I guess I should mention today that among the many things I'm thankful for is the ability to go online, order a reasonably-priced, fresh off the press hardbound book and a CD ("Wee Small Hours of the Morning") and have them both delivered to my door within 48 hours. I wish everyone's life could be this easy and fulfilling.

Lally said...

Yes, that whole Mitch Miller period in popular music is like the late fifties early sixties rock'n'roll period when bubblegum predominated (Fabian anyone?), both of which reminds us that these periods when people just get overwhelmed with reality and want to escape with frothy stuff that excludes the deeper and more complex art and artists (like Frank's obvious vulnerability, a quality that was new when he introduced it into popular music) come and go and we don't have to panic about them.

Lally said...
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