- Historic Sites
WHY SINATRA IS OUR GREATEST SINGER, PERIOD
November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
“We would be sitting in the living room and hear them upstairs in the bedroom quarreling and arguing. Ava would scream at Frank and he would slam the door and storm downstairs. Minutes later we’d smell a very sweet fragrance coming from the stairs. Ava had decided she wasn’t mad any more, and so she sprayed the stairwell with her perfume. Frank would smell it and race back up to the bedroom. Then it would be hours before he’d come back down” (Betty Burns, wife of Sinatra’s manager at the time, quoted by Kitty Kelley).
Sinatra put all the misery of his relationship with Ava into “I’m a Fool to Want You” (March 27, 1951), a lonely masterpiece that came out of the nadir of his career.
A Sinatra exit line during one of his fights with Ava: “Swell. You just go off with your sister, and I’ll be in Palm Springs f—ing Lana Turner.”
Ava on Frank: “Frank weighed only one hundred and twenty pounds, but one hundred and ten of them were pure c—k.”
On a visit to Mount Holyoke College in 1992 I was invited to tea by the writ- ers Brad Leithauser and Mary Jo Salter and discovered they are big Sinatra fans. Brad played the Swing Easy and Songs for Young Lovers albums. He took a special delight in Sinatra’s handling of Ira Gershwin’s lyric in “A Foggy Day,” especially his unexpected staccato fivetime iteration of shining in the verse, “And in foggy London town, the sun was shining (shining shining shining shining) everywhere.”
My own favorite Sinatra moments: In “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (1956), what he does with you in “though each time I do / just the thought of you"; in “It All Depends on You” (1949), the improvised bebop scatting when the title phrase returns after a fantastic tenor-sax solo by Wolf Taninbaum.
In the magazine Callaloo in 1999, Reuben Jackson, the archivist of the Smithsonian’s Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald collections, published his obituary poem “Frank,” which begins:
Jackson singles out “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” the title cut on the album of that name, “its longing / unpretentious / and haunting as / moonlight.” He also characterizes the song as “a 32-bar ashram.”
I asked several other writer friends whom I knew to be jazz buffs to pick a favorite Sinatra moment and comment on it. “I love Sinatra,” Phillip Lopate wrote, “and what springs to mind is his version of ‘It Never Entered My Mind,’ where he makes the most of the great lyrics, largely because his voice is best at rue and regret. When he sings, ‘Now I even have to rub my back myself,’ there’s a nice touch of humor in the way his voice rises to suggest the awkwardness of the situation. His maudlinness is under control; it’s a very balanced and sane expression of all we take for granted and then lose.”
The poet Michael Burkard spoke of the moment in “I Get a Kick Out of You” “where in the second verse when he says ‘terrifically’ he prolongs the ifffffff and sounds like he is sniffffffffing cocaine (even though he is sure it would bore him ‘terrifically too’).”
The U.S. poet laureate Billy Collins, whose poems are filled with references to jazz musicians: “I like the way he and only he says ‘chick’ and ‘dame.’”
Lloyd Schwartz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his music criticism in 1994: “One of Sinatra’s greatest performances is his now-famous ‘unreleased’ 1958 version of ‘One for My Baby’ (ultimately issued in 1990 on The Capitol Years ). Instead of the expected, conclusive ‘that long, long road,’ he trails off—with heartbreaking resignation-singing ‘the long… that long… it’s long.…’ Rodgers and Hart’s ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ (In the Wee Small Hours, Capitol, 1955, arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle) was a song waiting for Sinatra. As in most of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, the subject is really language itself—how turns of phrases mirror the inevitable, if unexpected, and mostly unwelcome, twists our lives take:
“‘Once.’ Sinatra’s voice carries the narrative wonder of ‘once upon a time,’ only here it’s more personal, more real. This happened—but how could it? His long pause after playing points up the internal rhyme with saying , but, more important, underlines the isolation of solitaire . Then a smaller catch squeezes unsettlingly between un - and an uneasily stretched-out, tonally wavering easy.