Francis Albert Sinatra (born 1915) may have been the most popular singer in American history, in a career that spanned from the 1930s into the 1990s.
Francis Albert Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on December 12, 1915. He was the only child of Martin and Natalie "Dolly" Sinatra. He lived in a predominantly Italian-American working class neighborhood. As a student at Demarest High School, he became popular by exhibiting the traits he would carry with him throughout his lifetime—those of a generous but pugnacious individual.
Early in his life Sinatra knew he wanted to become a singer. His influences were Rudy Vallee and his idol, Bing Crosby. After dropping out of high school he began to sing at obscure clubs. He got his first big break with Major Bowes and his "Amateur Hour" in 1935, singing in a group called the Hoboken Four. Sinatra, by preference, continued to sing in various New Jersey nightclubs, hoping to attract the attention of the bandleaders who led America into the "Swing Era" on the many hundreds of radio stations that were popping up all over the country.
From the Rustic Cabin Club in Alpine, New Jersey, Sinatra got his first radio play in 1939 on station WNEW in New York City. He then signed with his first bandleader, Harry James, for $75 per week. That same year he married his longtime sweetheart, Nancy Barbato. They would eventually have three children.
After seven months with Harry James, Sinatra joined Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra, causing his career to skyrocket. Dorsey's orchestra was one of the most popular in the land and remained so with Sinatra singing, from 1940 through 1942. During that time he performed with the band in his first two movies—Las Vegas Nights (1941) and Ship Ahoy (1942). He began his solo career at the end of 1942 and continued his meteoric rise.
As the leading American singer through the war era, he epitomized the evolution of American music with its blends of music that included jazz and the classics. The idiom would come to be known simply as American popular, or pop music. The Swing Era lasted from 1935 through the end of World War II, and Sinatra was by far its best known vocalist. His musical roots and education were that of the Tin Pan Alley tradition, but he was a diligent student of Italian opera as well. Most important to him throughout his career would be his insistence on his own style and arrangements for whatever music he sang. His unique phrasing of lyrics and his jazzy syncopation of melody lines were delivered in a voice best described as light baritone with a sharp New York accent, resonating deep into his nasal cavities to produce the classic crooning effect.
His wide-shouldered suits and his bow ties were imitated by many men, but his most ardent followers were the teenaged girls, nicknamed the "bobby-soxers," who swooned or screamed for "Frankie" when he sang. For the "Croon Prince of Swing," his widespread appeal was further fueled by America's explosive mass media growth in newspapers, magazines, films, record players, and radio stations. Sinatra was the first to attract the kind of near hysteria that would later accompany live appearances by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. This type of excitement reached its peak in the famed Columbus Day Riot of October 12, 1944, when thousands of his fans (mostly female), denied entry into the already-packed Paramount Theater in New York City, stormed the streets and vented their frustration by smashing nearby shop windows.
Though Sinatra was exempted from military service in World War II because of a perforated eardrum, he helped the war effort with his appearances in movies and benefits for soldiers. He was an outspoken supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt and liberal viewpoints, including racial and religious tolerance. His charitable appearances were consistent and numerous.
Sinatra's first and only major downfall in the public eye came in 1951 and lasted for almost three years. His extramarital affairs led to his divorce, and his subsequent well-publicized, tempestuous marriage to actress Ava Gardner also ended in divorce in 1957. Rumors of Mafia connections spread, mostly from his socializing with alleged Mafia kingpins, and these rumors persisted, along with publicity about his noted barroom brawls. Musical tastes were changing as well, as "belters" like Eddie Fisher and Frankie Laine were replacing the crooners in popularity. All of these events, in addition to his failure to serve in the military, combined to alienate him from an adoring but fickle public, and especially from the press. The allegations of underworld activity were never proven, and no indictments were ever made. His comeback was secured with his appearance as the feisty Italian-American soldier, Angelo Maggio, in the critically acclaimed film From Here to Eternity (1954). The role won him an Academy Award for best supporting actor, and he was back on the record charts as well with "Young at Heart."
Nelson Riddle, his arranger in the 1950s, helped Sinatra stay on the competitive record charts throughout the rest of the decade. In fact, Sinatra stayed on the charts steadily through 1967, despite the sudden and overwhelming preeminence of Rock 'n' Roll music. This durability was due in part to the advent of the long-playing album, the LP, upon which Sinatra could surround a central theme with a large collection of songs or ballads. From 1957 through 1966 he had 27 top ten albums without producing one top ten single. These albums were led by Only the Lonely (1958), Come Fly With Me (1958), and Come Dance With Me (1959). The bobby-soxers were now adults, but Sinatra had shifted smoothly to the role of the aging romantic bachelor. This was signified by the image of him leaning alone against a lamppost, raincoat in hand. His movie appearances multiplied during this period, with nine in the span of just two years, including Guys and Dolls (1955), Young At Heart (1955), The Tender Trap (1955), The Man With the Golden Arm (1955), and High Society (1956).
His music came to be known as "middle of the road," but his ever-present style put him in a class by himself because of his ability to convey the heartfelt romantic message. Additional hits of the 1960s included "It Was a Very Good Year," from his Grammy Award winning album September of My Years (1965), and "Strangers in the Night" (1966). He did reach the top of the singles charts in a duet with his daughter Nancy, "Somethin' Stupid," in 1967. A brief marriage to 20-year-old actress Mia Farrow ended in divorce in 1968. He continued his movie roles, including Tony Rome (1967) and Robin and the Seven Hoods (1964), but they had declined in artistic merit. Critics saw these movies as vehicles for reinforcement of his tough-guy image, as well as his and his friends' answer to the great youth movement that was taking place around them. These friends included entertainers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford, a clique that came to be known as the "Rat Pack."
After his famous recording of "My Way" (1969), Sinatra made an ill-fated attempt to sing some of the lighter tunes of modern rock composers. This led to a brief retirement from entertainment (1971 through 1973), a time that was accompanied by a shift in his politics from liberal to conservative. He had become a close friend of Ronald Reagan's and helped Reagan in his later successsful presidential campaigns.
By this time Sinatra's financial empire produced millions of dollars in earnings from investments in films, records, gambling casinos, real estate, missile parts, and general aviation. He came out of his retirement in 1974 with a renewed interest in the middle of the road genre and older tunes. He was married for the fourth time, in 1976, to Barbara Blakely. His return to the limelight was highlighted by his famous recording of "New York, New York" (1980) as he entered his sixth decade of entertaining.
In 1988, Sinatra joined with Sammie Davis, Jr. and Dean Martin and embarked on a cross-country tour. The tour lasted only one week. Sinatra later organized another reunion tour with Shirley MacLaine in 1992 and it was a resounding success. By 1994, Sinatra was experiencing memory lapses but that did not keep him from performing publicly. He merely added the use of a teleprompter to remind him of the lyrics. After celebrating his 80th birthday at a public tribute and roast at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium, new collector's packages of recordings were released and became instant best-sellers.
The legions who grew up with him and his music were complemented by adoration from younger generations, all of whom have made "Old Blue Eyes" the pre-eminent popular singer of the 20th century.
Sinatra had his detractors, as well a controversial man may, but most of his biographers are reverent of him. Two who are generally not reverent are Earl Wilson in Sinatra: An Unauthorized Biography (1976), an in-depth study of the man and the allegations that dogged him, and Kitty Kelly in her unsparing portrait, His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (1986). Also recommended, though openly admiring of the man, are Sinatra: An American Classic (1984), with its fine pictorial display, by John Rockwell; Norm Goldstein's Frank Sinatra: Ol'Blue Eyes (1982); and Frank Sinatra—My Father (1985) by his daughter Nancy. Gene Ringgold and Clifford McCarty provide an excellent pictorial account of his life in films in The Films of Frank Sinatra (1971).
Ewen, David. All the Years of American Popular Music (Prentice-Hall, 1977).
Kelley, Kitty. His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra (Bantam, 1986).
Simon, George T. The Big Bands (Schirmer Books, 1967). □