James Kaplan’s Sinatra: The Chairman takes around a thousand pages to get us from his Academy Award for From Here To Eternity in 1954 to his death in 1998. Kaplan’s previous volume, Frank: The Voice (2010), used up almost 900 pages to get us from Frank’s birth in 1915 to ’54. The combined 1,900 pages of the two books isn’t long by the standards of, say, Robert Caro and LBJ, but it’s got to be a record for any singer or actor. If some publisher eventually put both volumes in one big package, they ought to call it “Sinatra by the pound.”
If you ever wanted to know exactly what Frank Sinatra was doing on every single day of his life, Kaplan is your man. The Chairman is rich with fascinating detail, much of which I’d never heard. Sinatra had to scrap plans for an album of Italian songs; except for a few choice words, and, presumably, some hand gestures, alone among the great Italian-American pop singers of the ’40s and ’50s, he didn’t speak the language. (So much for the Italian love songs Johnny Fontaine croons at Connie Corleone’s wedding.)
When he was alone he listened to his favorite composer, Giacomo Puccini; Ralph Vaughan Williams was a close second.
He regarded Billie Holliday as ”the greatest single musical influence on me.” (Shortly before her death, Lady Day brushed off her influence on The Chairman: “I may have showed you how to bend a note, Frankie, that’s all.” When Holliday died, Sinatra was inconsolable, holed up in his apartment, “drinking, weeping, and playing her records over and over.”
The Chairman is jam packed with Sinatra factoids: Frank walked out on the movie Carousel after a disagreement with the director. At the 1956 Democratic convention, either Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn or Sen. Theodore Green of Rhode Island put a hand on Sinatra’s shoulder only to be told, “Take the hand off the suit, creep.” Sinatra, a camera bug, took Life magazine’s cover shot for the 1971 Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight.
Sinatra hated one of his biggest hits, “Strangers in the Night,” which he thought was about “two fags in a bar.” Late in his life, Sinatra, for some reason that will never be known, recited Kipling’s “Gunga Din” and made it into a 45 rpm record which he distributed to his friends.
Some details are fascinating though they illuminate nothing, such as when Kim Novak took a brief break from shooting The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), Sinatra sent her the complete works of Thomas Wolfe.
I wish some details were followed up on. We’re told that Sinatra painted for relaxation (which I remember from an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show). Did anyone think they were any good? Have any paintings survived?
But thousands of details aren’t all that interesting and, in any event, details don’t always add up to a coherent portrait. Though he sucked up to gangsters the way Evelyn Waugh fawned on the British aristocracy, Sinatra’s connection with the Mob remains nebulous. “Sinatra’s Mob associations,” writes Kaplan, “had far more to do with mutual admiration than affiliation.” What exactly is Kaplan saying? That Frank wasn’t married to the Mob, he just had a crush on them?
Kaplan feels that Sinatra regarded the Mafia as “an alternative aristocracy. He idolized them all his life, much as a small boy might idolize cowboys or soldiers.” No, not quite. Sinatra wasn’t a small boy when he hung around with Lucky Luciano and Willie Moretti and Joe Fischetti, who was once connected with the Capone gang. Cowboys and soldiers are worthy of admiration; gangsters are bullies, killers, and thieves. Why would an adult—a successful artist—associate with such lowlifes?
For that matter, one might ask why Sinatra was so obsessed with John F. Kennedy and his family. Papa Joe was attracted to celebrity, and in Sinatra he saw not only free publicity for his son but a connection to something more important: “Kennedy wanted organized crime’s help in rallying organized labor behind his son.”
OK, but why did Sinatra respond? Kaplan says, “Because Joe Kennedy held the key to something that Frank wanted badly: political power.”
I don’t buy that. What would “political power” mean to Frank Sinatra? The kind of power Sinatra craved was on a much lower plane—power over women, power to control record and movie deals, and, likely, the power to punish gadflies like Jackie Mason, who irritated Sinatra with the Mia Farrow jokes in his nightclub act and was beat up and sent to the hospital for his persistence.
A more serious flaw in The Chairman is Kaplan’s propensity for making extravagant claims based on rather shaky evidence. For instance, “in leaving [Tommy] Dorsey Sinatra had, virtually single-handedly, ushered out the big band era and ushered in the age of the vocalist as star.” Sinatra’s stardom as a vocalist may indeed have been the death knell for big bands, but Gary Giddins, in his 2001 Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, has already made a very convincing case that it was Crosby who became the first big band singer to be a superstar vocalist.
More to the point, Kaplan claims that at Capitol Records Sinatra “and a brilliant young arranger named Nelson Riddle had begun creating the string of groundbreaking recordings that would revolutionize popular music in the ’50s.” They most certainly did not. The men who revolutionized popular music in the ’50s were Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Elvis Presley. Not to minimize the importance of Sinatra’s and Riddle’s achievement, but they did not “revolutionize” a style of popular music—they perfected a style of it that began in the mid-’30s and was on the wane by the time Kennedy was elected.
As the most eloquent of Sinatra fans, Wilfrid Sheed, put it, Sinatra became “a sort of one-man bureau of standards … if he is remembered for nothing else, ‘The Man Who Saved the Standards’ would not be the worst epithet the man could have.”
But precisely because he perfected a style of music in its last stage of popularity, Sinatra had little or no influence on the music that followed him, unless you want to claim Harry Connick Jr. or Seth McFarland, who just cut an album of standards using his collection of Sinatra’s original charts.
If you want to credit Sinatra with inventing the “concept” album a decade or so before Dylan and the Beatles—then you might be onto something. From 1954 to perhaps the end of the ’60s, Sinatra chose the greatest standards and picked out the juiciest of contemporary songs, and along with Riddle, Billy May, and, though Sinatra purists discount his work as too syrupy, Gordon Jenkins, grouped them by mood (usually love in full bloom or love gone wrong).
When Kaplan describes Sinatra the singer, The Chairman soars: “a flawless legato, perfect diction, and graceful phrasing based on a total mastery of breath control.”
For any Sinatra lover, the time spent describing the process of song selections and the recording sessions are bliss, much more interesting than the material which takes up most of the book’s pages on the plethora of mediocre-to-terrible movies Sinatra made after From Here to Eternity. He was terrific in The Man With the Golden Arm and better still in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962), but in few others. The director Frank Capra nailed Sinatra’s strengths and weaknesses as a movie actor: “a performer first, actor second. He never repeats a song to the same audience,” and thus notoriously resisted rehearsing his scenes.
Kaplan does not help when he overinflates his prose to try to build up some of Sinatra’s films. Whatever its virtues, The Philadelphia Story does not have “Shakespearean charisma.” And Pal Joey really wasn’t “something like great, or two-thirds great.” (Pauline Kael called it, correctly I think, “a blighted Hollywoodization” of a Broadway musical.)
Ah, but the records.
Sinatra’s greatest collaborator, Riddle—“a sensualist with a demeanor of a scientist. And not a happy scientist”—gave The Chairman full credit: “The cover, the liner notes, the songs, he arranged them. Everything. There was no producer—Frank produced, It was Frank,” even if the muse was Ava Gardner. “Ava taught him to sing a torch song,” Riddle thought. “She taught him the hard way.”
The much-maligned Gordon Jenkins said, and rightly, I think, that “During recording sessions with Sinatra, the magic takes place between Frank and myself.” The Chicago mobster Sam Giancana once got so mad at Frank he threatened to put out a hit on him, but, “Christ, how can I silence that voice? It’s the most beautiful sound in the world. Frank’s lucky he’s got it. It saved his life.” Jackie Kennedy, who despised Sinatra and tried to keep him away from her husband, cried when she heard Frank sing “Angel Eyes.”
Milt Bernhart, a great session trombonist, recalled, “He could sing with the grace of a poet, but when he’s talking to you, it’s Jersey.”
The Jersey very nearly got him into more trouble than the voice could get him out of. Time and time and time again—more times than anyone needs to read about these things, especially if they read about most of them in Kitty Kelly’s potboiler His Way—we’re plunged into the salacious antics of a man who seemed to grow more immature with age. I don’t care if I never read another pop culture writer delve into the significance of the Rat Pack. (Though “Frank, Dean, and Sammy were real men, their respective myths tend, to this day, to jostle reality aside.” Could any of that group besides Frank really be said to be mythical?
As for Sinatra’s bizarre marriage to Mia Farrow, it’s at least reassuring to know that it seemed just as absurd to everyone around both parties when it happened. (“No one, absolutely no one,” said one member of Sinatra’s entourage, “took this romance seriously.”
Still in all, if you’re enough of a fan to stay with this mountainous clutter of Sinatra memorabilia, you’ll almost certainly find something to make you feel rewarded for your effort. For me, it was a nugget about Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen who, a couple of years before Sinatra’s death, were invited to his house for dinner: “Frank and his two fellow music legends sang together around the piano and generally, as Sinatra’s wife Barbara Marx put it, ‘got on like a house on fire.’”
Damn. Mr. Hughes (Dylan’s alias), The Boss, and The Chairman of the Board sitting around the piano and trading songs till the wee small hours, and no one there to record it.