Back when the word "blog" did not exist, or maybe it did but I didn't know from it, I got the plum of an assignment from editor Richard Snow of American Heritage. Actually it was I who sold him on the idea at a luncheon meeting at Volare, an old Italian resturant on West 4th Street that Richard favors. With an assist from management, which obligingly played "The Best is Yet to Come" and "Witchcraft," "You Make Me Feel So Young" and "Come Fly with Me," I told anecdotes about Sinatra and must have done so well enough because I got the green light for a long piece -- up to ten thousand words -- on the old blue-eyed boy. I did it under the title "Frankophilia: Why Sinatra is our Greatest Singer, Period." I've long wanted to reprint this piece, with certain revisions and augmentations as would inevitably occur, but in the meantime I wondered whether it might be available on line. I found this link, which gets you to the first three or four paragraphs at least.
Maybe there's a way to get further. I will keep looking. If not, and in the meantime, here's my opening. I can't resist adding or changing a sentence here or there. If there is an audience for this I will post more from the piece -- and use the occasion to revise and augment -- so let me know, dear reader, whose wish is my command.
Byline: Lehman, David Volume: 53 Number: 6 ISSN: 00028738 Publication Date: 11-01-2002 Page: 30 Type: Periodical [American Heritage]. Language: English
BY DAVID LEHMAN
AT ZITO'S BAKERY ON BLEECKER STREET, a Greenwich Village institution, there are two framed photographs on the wall behind the counter. One is a picture of the Pope. The other is a picture of Frank Sinatra smiling broadly and holding a loaf of Zito's bread.
Directly after every baseball game the Yankees win at Yankee Stadium, the public-address system plays Sinatra's recording of "New York, New York." When the Yankees defeated the Atlanta Braves in the sixth and final game of the 1996 World Series, capping an improbable comeback from a two-games-to-none deficit, it seemed as if everyone in the stadium was singing along, swelling the final chorus: "And if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere, / It's up to you, / New York, New York." The aging Sinatra -- he was in his sixties when he recorded "New York, New York," the last of his blockbuster hits -- does amazing things with the initial And in the lines just quoted, twisting and turning the word as if it contained not one but three or four syllables; the voice seems to go down a valley and come back up a hill on the other side. The gesture is inimitable though it also invites imitation, and watching a Sinatra fan trying to duplicate the effect can be very entertaining. Here it was the instrument of joyous release. Here you had a crowd approaching 60,000 people getting into the act. It was a great moment of New York solidarity, and it was also in its way an expression of Frankophilia, the populace's love for the greatest of all popular American singers.
Few people, and fewer nonathletes, know what it feels like to bring 60,000 cheering fans to their feet. Sinatra had that power. It was (and still is) his voice that thousands of men hear coming out of their mouths in the shower. His is the voice of cities: "New York, New York" at Yankee home games (and in the closing credits of Spike Lee's Summer of Sam). "My Kind of Town" at Chicago's United Center, where the Bulls of Michael Jordan held court and which Sinatra officially opened with one of his last live concerts. And "Chicago" ("that toddlin' town") in the Chicago Cubs' venerable Wrigley Field.
In each case it is not precisely the song itself but the Sinatra version of the song that has established itself as our public voice, the surrogate voice of the man in the street, the fan, the voice of heroes but also of losers, mutts, and sobbing drunks. He owns a great many songs. Thus we have records like Keely Sings Sinatra (2001), featuring Keely Smith singing "My Way" and "It Was a Very Good Year," and Tony Bennett's Perfectly Frank, which includes "One for My Baby" and "Angel Eyes." A favorite CD of mine, Blue Note Plays Sinatra (1996), consists of jazz treatments of Sinatra songs. There's Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with "Come Rain or Come Shine," Freddie Hubbard with "All or Nothing at All," Dexter Gordon with "Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry," Cannonball Adderley with "Dancing in the Dark," Sonny Rollins with "I've Got You Under My Skin," The Three Sounds with "Witchcraft" and "It Was a Very Good Year," Jacky Terrasson with "I Love Paris," Miles Davis with "It Never Entered My Mind," Ike Quebec with "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)," Bennie Green with "This Love of Mine," and Joe Lovano with "Angel Eyes." In what sense are these Sinatra songs? Except for "This Love of Mine," for which he wrote some of the lyrics, Sinatra wrote none of them, but he sang them so well that they are forever associated with him. Seldom can a performing (or interpretive) artist lay claim to such an almost authorial relationship to material someone else composed.
In the Hollywood version of Guys and Dolls (1955) Marlon Brando plays Sky Masterson and Sinatra plays Nathan Detroit. Conventional wisdom has it that both are miscast, because Masterson has to do more singing and Brando does not have the better singing voice. I happen to like Sinatra's performance as Nathan Detroit, who runs "the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York." It's a persona he would relish in the first of the Rat Pack movies, Ocean's Eleven (1960), a comic caper in which Sinatra and company (Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, et al.) conspire to rob five Las Vegas casinos simultaneously. In Ocean's Eleven, Angie Dickinson, playing Sinatra's estranged wife, tells him that he "could never love a woman the way you love danger." What he leads is "not a life, it's a floating crap game."
What he leads, too, is a talented band of guys who love pleasure, gambling, women, drinking, singing and laughing at each other's jokes and stunts -- and who have the joie de vivre, or the manic-depressive stamina, to film during the day and do a night club act at night. Viva Las Vegas. It was, you might say, all an act, but you'd be equally justified to call it a way of life. A life of high ambition -- in more than one genre and by more than one standard, a popular as well as a critical one. Habitual defiance of expectations. Living the lows, taking the blows. A glass of Jack Daniel's on the rocks "or whatever gets you through the night" and then up and at 'em. Wall Street opens with an aerial view of lower Manhattan in early mornig, and the voice of Sinatra singing "Fly Me to the Moon," and though I know that others -- such as the first men on the moon -- associate the song with other places or activities, hearing it me think of that street of dreams that begins at a river and ends in a graveyard.
Sinatra, who wanted the role Brando got in Guys and Dolls, did go on to record Sky Masterson’s best song, “Luck Be A Lady,” triumphantly in 1963. He performed the song often in concert afterward, and you may catch a snatch of it during a vodka commercial set at a gambling resort. It is the pure sound of bravado -- it does justice to this high point in Frank Loesser's songwriting career. But the linkage of Brando and Sinatra at the top of the ticket in Guys and Dolls marks a confluence too rich to go unremarked, because Sinatra is to singing what Brando is to acting: a method actor, who doesn’t just sing a song but lives it. He inhabits a song as Brando inhabits the roles of Stanley Kowalski, the rebellious biker in The Wild One, Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront, and Don Corleone.
Sinatra has, one may say, narrative ability. He turns a song into an intimate, seemingly autobiographical short story, usually a love story as told from the heights of romantic excitement (“I’ve Got the World on a String”) or the depths of romantic despair (“I’m a Fool to Want You”). At an academic conference devoted to Sinatra at Hofstra University in November 1998, the year of his death, the singer Julius LaRosa (who sang on Arthur Godfrey’s TV show in the 1950s -- and was famously fired on the air for allegedly lacking humility) chose Sinatra’s version of “I Get a Kick Out of You” to illustrate the singer’s narrative approach. “He sang the song not as it is written, not as a band (or dance) song, but as a song with a story to tell,” LaRosa said. On another occasion, LaRosa remarked that Sinatra could “turn a thirty-two bar song into a three-act play.”
To be continued. . .