The Chairman Turns 100
By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
While making the rounds of local garage sales over the past weekend, I spotted a box packed with 30 Frank Sinatra CDs spanning nearly his entire career, from 1939’s “All Or Nothing At All” with Harry James all the way to 1984’s “L.A. Is My Lady” album with Quincy Jones. I asked the owner of the house how much the CDs were, and she said I could just have them.
Well, I was floored. Has the digital revolution gone so far as to render valueless even these desirable discs? Or maybe it was because I mentioned that Sinatra would have been 100 years old in just a week, and she thought, here’s someone who would appreciate them. So I took them home, put one on an old-fashioned CD player, and it didn’t take long for me to fall again under the spell of the colossus of American popular song.
The topic of Sinatra continues to stir controversy; lately, there have been several comments online in Facebook and other sites from folks who still think he wasn’t much of a singer. Yet these recordings – from the croon-swoon 1940s through the hard-swinging ecstasy and melancholy of the 1950s, the experimentation and attempts to find common ground with the rock generation in the 1960s (which I think is his most interesting period), and the gradual loss of his voice’s flexibility but not of its deepening soul in the 1970s and `80s – are testimony that no singer of American popular songs took as many risks, or produced as many spine-tingling moments, as Sinatra.
If there is one decisive thing that separates Sinatra’s records from those of virtually all of his peers, it is the quality of arrangements that he was consistently able to get. It can be argued that Axel Stordahl, George Siravo, Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, Ernie Freeman and Don Costa all did the best work of their lives by far for Sinatra. The man almost always had great musical instincts, and by whatever means – including intimidation – he was able to get results. Listen to any career-spanning boxed set of material by other major figures of American popular song – like fellow Rat Packers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., or Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Mel Tormé or anyone else – and you’ll hear the difference. As great as these singers were, none had as consistently sublime support as Sinatra.
Yeah, I know all about the stories of his temper, his associations with various Mafiosi, his ugly feuds with the press, the gradual switch from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican triggered by his grudge against Bobby Kennedy, and so much more. I also know about his many acts of kindness and generosity, often kept hush-hush at his insistence, and it’s hard to reconcile that Sinatra with his wicked other self. Once, I attended a rehearsal of Sinatra’s orchestra in the NBC studios, and I vividly remember the unspoken atmosphere of fear in the room, even though Frank wasn’t present.
There was even a time when I had had enough of his boorish behavior and swore that I would never buy another Sinatra record. But then, an assignment came along, I resigned myself to do my job and listen to his music one more time, and I would fall under his spell again. Geniuses can do that to you every time.
So I salute you, the Chairman of the Board, on your 100th birthday. In spite of all the efforts of the many imitators trodding the boards these days, we will not see the likes of you again. And to the lady who gave me the CDs, thank you again for reminding me why.
Date posted: December 11, 2015