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Frankophilia: Why Sinatra Is Our Greatest Singer, Period

By Lehman, David | American Heritage, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

Frankophilia: Why Sinatra Is Our Greatest Singer, Period


Lehman, David, American Heritage


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 hack 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 firms 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. This is true of 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 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) Marion 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.

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