Monday, November 22, 2010

Frank: The Voice

Frank: The Voice
© 2010 James Kaplan
786 pages

"I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet... a pawn and a king,  I've been up and down and over and out, and I know one thing -- each time I find myself layin' flat on my face, I just pick! myself! up! and get back in the race! (From the tune that made me love him, "That's Life")

All my life, I've known who Frank Sinatra was. He died in 1998 and I saw him on television -- he wore a tuxedo and sang, and everyone called him "Ol' Blue Eyes".  When Deep Space Nine introduce the character Vic Fontaine -- a 1960s lounge singer who sang Sinatra standards -- I realized I really liked the music Vic sang. I ddn't know what it was called -- swing? -- but I knew I liked it and I knew Frank Sinatra was famous for it. So in 2004 I bought "The Very Good Years", Sinatra's reprise collections, and I've been wild for his music ever since. So naturally, when I saw Frank grinning at me from the library's new books section, I checked the book out immediately.

In my obsession with Sinatra, I've read more than a fair few biographies of Frank, and there are none more thorough than this. Frank isn't a complete biography, but covers his meteoric rise, fall ("Icarus") and resurgence ("Phoenix"), culminating in his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1953. Kaplan's website refers to this as the 'first' volume in his biography of Sinatra. If it's anything like this, I'll be reading it. Drawing from numerous biographies (Frank's, Ava Gardener's, and others) as well as official new sources,  Kaplan paints a picture of Sinatra as a scrappy kid from Hoboken who, driven by a domineering mother and his own staggering ambition, clawed his way to national prominence through determination and a gift for making music.  Regardless of what else you might say about him, says Kaplan, Sinatra was an artist dedicated to the craft of sharing music. He poured himself into the songs, performing them rather than singing them -- and this earnestness, combined with his fixation on greatness and a gift for making the right friends,  sent him to the top.

Sinatra's sudden decline and fall in the late forties and early fifties is usually panned in other biographies I've read: his voice cracked and his career tumbled downhill as mysteriously as he rocketed up the first time, they say. Kaplan sees it as a change in the public mood following the conclusion of World War 2. No one wanted to hear Sinatra artfully yearning -- they wanted gaiety and novelty numbers, and Sinatra's cockiness -- chasing women though he was married,  unrepentant partying, and occasional fisticuffs with the press -- lost him the adoration of a nation. If he wanted it back, he'd have to work for it -- and that he did.  I've never read a biography with so much attention on Sinatra's decline, fall, and triumph, and for that reason alone I'd recommend this to Sinatra fans. This book is more on Sinatra the man than Sinatra the legend,  and he has his virtues as well as his vices. Kaplan describes Sinatra a man full of feeling: when that feeling was released into his music, he was majestic -- but terrible when he released his feeling by chasing women or punching aggressive photographers.

Would this book have made me a fan of Sinatra if I just heard the man's music today? I'd still be impressed by his strength of will, that never-giving-up attitude that pushed him through advertising, the spirit I heard in "That's Life!". I probably wouldn't so keen on the skirt-chasing and arrogance borne of success, but it seems from the biography that the 'Icarus' years gave him some degree of humility. He matures with age and exits with grace. I look forward to Kaplan's furthering the story -- the best is yet to come.


  • Eight-page excerpt, Vanity Fair
  • Mr. S: My Life with Frank Sinatra, George Jacobs
  • The Way You Wear Your Hat: Frank Sinatra and the Lost Art of Livin', Bill Zehme
  • Frank Sinatra: an American Legend, Nancy Sinatra
  • Frank Sinatra: My Father, Nancy Sinatra
  • My Father's Daughter: A Memoir, Tina Sinatra
  • Sinatra: the Artist and the Man,  John Lahr.  This has one of my favorite stories of young Frank staring across the river at New York and saying, "I'm gonna make it. One of these days I'm going to leave this place, and I'm going to be big in New York". I'm paraphrasing of course, but the idea of him standing in a run-down neighborhood and staring the glittering lights of New York City, making his mind up that he was going to succeed, has always stuck with me.
  • And there are the Ratpack books, like Shawn Levy's Rat Pack Confidential.

We're grateful to those flocks who wear the bobby socks, 'cause without them we both must agree --
...we never would have made it with our personality! (Frank Sinatra and a friend, "Personality")

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