Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Frank Sinatra 1915-1998

book cover

Like Elvis Presley, whom he despised, and whom he outlived by two decades on each end before he died May 14, Frank Sinatra was the only child of a strong mother who preferred him to her handsome, ineffectual husband. Both were macho-vulnerable sex symbols who bought the affections of sycophants and innocent bystanders with consumer goods and medical treatment. But Sinatra was a much classier guy than Elvis, and a much bigger prick. An early crusader for racial tolerance and a key supporter of JFK, he played apartheid-era Sun City and was so turned on by power that he ended up fawning over Ronald Reagan, whom he'd once jeered. Although his conquests included Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Mia Farrow, and the love of his life, Ava Gardner, he also went to bed with a dumbfounding profusion of starlets and prostitutes, not to mention the Mafia. And one more thing--he was the greatest singer of the 20th century.

Sinatra's voice went through five periods. With Tommy Dorsey on RCA in the early '40s, the sensual sweetness of his baritone made bobby-soxers swoon, but there was uncommon substance there--he was a male ingenue with character. Without a band crowding him, he got to elaborate this audience-friendly complexity through his teen-idol years on Columbia, but without a band challenging him, he turned into "The Voice," his most physically capable and artistically uninspired persona. From 1948 to 1953, an undisciplined movie career, a crazed love life, and booze in the fast lane taxed his instrument and his musical resolve. Only after he won an Oscar for From Here to Eternity did he have the confidence to invent the Capitol Sinatra. Pushing 40, his baritone lower and a human touch rougher but far more knowing technically and emotionally, he sculpted selected standards and custom-designed specialties into an image of mature, civilized cool that hit the '50s almost as powerfully as Elvis's rebellious vulgarity. On his own label, Reprise, he stopped aging gracefully, overextending his genius and privilege through the '60s, which threw him for a loop. Despite numerous superb recordings and increasingly heroic fame, his music never came all the way back. Finally, the erosion of his voice betrayed his technique. Stake too much on prowess and old age will whup you good.

Although the philistines for whom Sinatra represents all that is good and holy and tragically past in American pop claim that his taste in arrangers was as exquisite as his taste in shirts, in fact he transmuted most of the timebound professionals he worked with the way Elvis transmuted the Jordanaires. But when the arranger was Nelson Riddle, the alchemy was built-in. Like Al Green and Willie Mitchell perfecting soul as its moment ended, Sinatra and Riddle ignored rock and roll to bring to fruition everything that had been happening in their world since big bands put vocalists up front. Instrumentally, the great Capitol albums--Songs for Swingin' Lovers, In the Wee Small Hours, many more--tailor and accessorize the material with jazz, pop, and classical colors and rhythms while exposing it to Sinatra's vast musical intelligence. Though calculated to the nth, the arrangements sound natural, inevitable--just like the vocals, which were both meticulously studied and subject to last-millisecond shading and beat play. Every note is obviously under his control even when it isn't precisely the one the composer intended. Yet the minute adjustments that led early nay-sayers to accuse Sinatra of singing off-key humanize his awesome attentiveness and command, as do the textured hints of pain that sneak into the timing or finish or timbre or microtonal contour of crucial notes in almost every line he sings. He never makes a mistake, and at the same time he's plainly intimate with failure. His perfection is so total it has room for error. No wonder women fell into bed with him.

Sinatra earned the hold he exerted on the women of his generation. Broads swooned as his intricate emotional specificity created a romantic illusion that in the short run could unlock the door to untold pleasure--while he was singing to them, they could be sure he cared. But this worked better in art than in life--in the long run, which was sometimes measured in hours, he wore many of his literal conquests out. As for his male fans, they were in on the con even though they were rarely good enough for it, quickly discarding women they'd never attended to properly in the first place. It's no surprise that among the post-Presley young he gets a lot more guys than gals. The gals have other ways to get off now--provisional romance is one thrill among many rather than the precondition of any thrill at all. The guys, on the other hand, admire Sinatra because he personified a style and an era in which guys still held all the big cards. And they admire the way he made gross material acquisitiveness seem classy instead of just classbound.

So better to stick to the music, where his compulsive upward mobility never undercut his common touch. Sinatra was renowned for a breath control that evoked both operatic bel canto and Dorsey's trombone, fueling the long phrases that made his singing so magically conversational. But though he was even more legendary for studying lyrics like scripts, those who respect rather than adore classic Tin Pan Alley are more deeply touched by his colloquial ease than his dramatic skill. Sinatra enunciated his words with a casual sophistication that defined his notion of class. But underneath there was always Hoboken, in all its immigrant insularity and street swagger. Where most American pop was spawned from the liquids of African-inflected Southern speech, Sinatra's home idiom was harsh, urban, learned the hard way. And after that it was naturalized and nationalized--bent and weathered by jazz, crispened and universalized by pop. No one better conveyed the worldly wisdom of Cole Porter and Sammy Cahn. But Sinatra's pleasure came in even smaller packages than verse-chorus-bridge. With every phrase, he turned English into American and American into music.

Details, 1998