By Bray, Christopher
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 136, No. 4863
Frank Sinatra was the first singer who sounded like you. Bing Crosby can have you kidding yourself you can sing just as well, but that doesn't mean he sounds like you. Whether caroling of "Blue Skies" or of "Blues in the Night", Crosby was an old-fashioned entertainer who thought it his duty to come across as contented--as if singing was of itself sufficient to bring about moral equilibrium. Not so Sinatra. Put on one of his great albums--anything he recorded between 1953 and 1966 will do, as the academics and musicians who've contributed learned but lucid essays to Jeanne Fuchs and Ruth Prigozy's Frank Sinatra: the Man, the Music, the Legend pretty much agree--and it's like listening to your own heart implode.
Whisking a wounded world-weariness into Crosby's emulsive, eggs-over-easy style, Sinatra did for singing what Marlon Brando was simultaneously doing for acting--he showed us how close it was to derangement. While even his most upbeat numbers make love feel like lunacy, his downbeat numbers make lunacy feel like life. "If the song is a lament at the loss of love," Terry O'Neill recalls Sinatra saying in his photographic memoir Sinatra: Frank and Friendly, "I get an ache in my gut. I feel the loss myself." No wonder the bobbysoxers loved him. As Philip Furia's "Sinatra in (Lyrical) Drag" (one of the more provocatively titled contributions to Fuchs and Prigozy's festschrift) makes clear, so many of the songs Sinatra made famous were originally written for women.
A romantic in a world dominated by classicists, Sinatra matters because he was the first man to sing as if what he sang about mattered to him. Bono is a bonehead, but he wasn't wrong when he called Sinatra the "big bang of pop". Not that Sinatra wanted anything to do with the stuff. As David Wild points out in his essay "They Can't Take That Away From Me", although Sinatra covered George Harrison's "Something" and duetted with sundry popsters on a couple of atrocious autumn-of-my-years albums, he never liked what he called pop's "dirty lyrics ... sung, played and written ... by cretinous goons".
All the evidence tells us Sinatra was no angel himself, but it wasn't just the power of his press agent that made him feel safe enough to name-call the new kids on the block. He hated pop more for its amateurishness than its amorality. When he said "rock'n'roll smells phoney and false", he didn't mean he thought the emotional turbulence it sang about was trumped up. He meant that its creators lacked the control to give form to that turbulence. They weren't singing about chaos; they were just singing chaotically.
Because, despite the widespread belief that we can all sing-along-a Frank, Sinatra was a technically accomplished artist. As both David Finck and Samuel L Chell remind us in the collection's two most musicologically penetrating pieces, his breath control was the stuff of legend. In the 1940s and 1950s, a rumour did the rounds that Sinatra had mastered some mystical art of inhaling through his nose while exhaling through his mouth. The truth was rather more mundane. Sinatra had worked hard at boosting his lung capacity. Like Houdini, he practised swimming underwater, trying to make a gulp of air last as long as he could.
Hence one of the reasons he wrong-foots amateurs. Sinatra's endurance training meant he could stitch together discrete lyrical phrases in a way nobody ought to be able to do while still sounding human. Sounding so human that he became our aural everyman, Sinatra breathed new life into what we have subsequently come to call the Great American Songbook. The metaphors in Joseph Fioravanti's "Sinatra's Love Songs" can be over-ebullient, but there is no disputing his claim that Sinatra's 1956 version of Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" "stretches key notes and words as a means of deepening perception". Sinatra's sinuous phrasing reshapes a hitherto calmative ballad into a crazed entreaty for self-repression. …