When musical supervisor Artie Butler needed a singer who sounded like the young Frank Sinatra in order to re-create some early recordings for the CBS miniseries “Sinatra,” agents responded from all over the United States.
“‘I got a guy! I got a guy!’ they said, and then they sent me a Sinatra sound-alike from the ’60s,” says Butler. “You see, my generation, we were young then. We forget that this guy was there 20 years before. The Sinatra I needed was from the early ’40s. You say ‘young Sinatra’ now, they think ’60s and ’70s. You forget how many years this guy’s been this great.”
It was almost 50 years ago, in December 1942, that Frank Sinatra made his debut as a solo performer at New York’s Paramount Theater as an “extra added attraction” with Benny Goodman’s band. Major theaters then booked star musical acts when a new feature film opened.
Jack Benny introduced him and in Nancy Sinatra’s book, “My Father,” the late comedian recalled: “I thought the goddamned building was going to cave in. I never heard such a commotion with people running down to the stage, screaming and nearly knocking me off the ramp. All this for a fellow I never heard of.”
It was the last time anybody would ever say that.
Sinatra had sparked attention with the Hoboken Four in 1935, winning first prize on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour and then touring with one of the Major Bowes traveling units. By the time he made his debut with the Harry James Band in June 1939, female fans, especially, were sitting up and taking notice.
Connie Haines, female vocalist with the James Band, told author Alan Frank, “Our first booking after he joined us was at the Hippodrome in Baltimore. Frank was so new he wasn’t even billed. The fans didn’t know his name but nevertheless they were standing at the stage door, screaming and yelling for him.”
Before he turned solo, Sinatra had made hit records with the Tommy Dorsey Band as one of the Pied Pipers, a mixed vocal quartet led by Jo Stafford.
One of them was the No. 1 single, “I’ll Never Smile Again,” which stayed on Billboard’s Top 10 for four months in 1940.
Within a year, he had overtaken perennial ’30s favorite Bing Crosby as the most popular band singer in many fan polls and by 1942 he was the Dorsey Band’s main attraction.
Jo Stafford described for Nancy Sinatra the typical reaction when they played the Paramount: “When the stage went down into the pit, the audience was right there, on top of you. In those days the girl singers were always wearing flowers in their hair and it used to be downright dangerous when the pit went down. Just the fact that I knew Frank Sinatra and sat next to him on the bandstand was enough for them to snatch my hair out! They would grab for those flowers, for my earrings, for anything!”
The growing adulation was not lost on Sinatra. Bing Crosby was still the top vocalist in the business, but other young band singers, like Bob Eberly and Perry Como, were gaining ground. With the outbreak of World War II, the world was changing and popular music was changing with it.
Sinatra would later recall: “I think the kids were looking for somebody to cheer for. Also, the war had just started. They were looking for somebody who represented those gone in their life.”
His decision to leave Dorsey was momentous. “It was a very big gamble for me, leaving Tommy,” Sinatra would say, “but I figured that nobody had seriously challenged Bing Crosby since 1931. There were other guys coming up and if they got the edge on me by a few months, I might never have made it.”
After his solo appearance at the Paramount in December 1942, there was no doubt that he would make it. An enterprising press agent fueled the growing phenomenon, and not until Elvis Presley and the Beatles came along would the world of popular music see so much commotion.
Fan reaction at that first Paramount engagement set the pattern for what would follow. “The sound that greeted me was absolutely deafening,” Sinatra said. “It was a tremendous roar. Five thousand kids, stamping, yelling, screaming, applauding. I was scared stiff.”
He was held over for four weeks, performing six shows a day. “Outside, the lines started at 11 o’clock at night for a show 11 o’clock in the morning. They’d be there all night,” recalled Richie Lisella, then Sinatra’s assistant road manager.
“When they saw him they’d get wild. I saw fans run under the horses of mounted policemen. I saw them turn over a car.”
The publicity mill went into high gear. More than 20 years before “Beatlemania,” there were Sinatra’s “bobby-soxers,” so-called for the ankle-length socks the girls wore. Sinatra was “the Sigh Guy,””The Sultan of Swoon,” or, simply, “The Voice.” There had been pop idols before, but none who so captivated America’s youth.
E.J. Kahn Jr., in The New Yorker, reported that any public appearance by Sinatra was almost a guarantee of at least a modest riot. “When he was to appear in a Boston armory, the management had the seats bolted to the floor,” wrote Kahn.
“The Paramount is the shrine of the disorder… many of his fans literally consider the theater their home and spend the day in it, occupying a seat through half a dozen shows for the price of one ticket.”
Top 10 records and popular radio shows like “Your Hit Pa-rade” and “The Broadway Bandbox” propelled Sinatra’s fame through 1943 and 1944. Everywhere he went he made news.
On Sept. 28, 1944, the Associated Press reported, “Frank Sinatra, radio crooner, had tea with President Roosevelt today and joined him in a little chat about the art of making girls swoon.”
On Columbus Day that year, the adulation boiled over. Sinatra was back at the 3,500-seat Paramount and, as usual, his bobby-soxers were reluctant to give up their precious seats. At the end of the first show on Oct. 12, only 250 girls left.
“The trouble was, there were 30,000 of them outside,” according to John Rockwell, in his book, “Sinatra,” published in 1984.
“Several bodies wide, the line extended west on Forty-third Street, north up Eighth Avenue and back east on Forty-fourth Street, clogging everything in the vicinity of Times Square.”
Eventually, it dawned on the fans that they were not going to get in to to see their idol. “They vented their grief by breaking shop windows and creating an early form of Manhattan traffic gridlock,” wrote Rockwell. “Hundreds of policemen were called in to quell the hysteria.”
Newspapers reported that thousands of shrieking, milling “Our Frankie” girls descended on the Times Square section as early as 4 a.m., causing the Board of Education to launch an inquiry. “We don’t want this thing to go on,” one board member said. “We can’t tolerate young people making a public display of losing control of their emotions.”
A Columbia University psychology professor pronounced that the girls were victims of mass-hysteria. Fans tore at Sinatra’s clothes and stole the floppy bow-ties he wore (made by first wife Nancy) by the dozens. Bobby-soxers invaded the Sinatra home in New Jersey. “Fans would come out there all the time,” recalled Nancy Sinatra in daughter Nancy’s book. “There was no wall around the property. No privacy. I’d go into my bedroom and all of a sudden, I’d see somebody’s face in the window. They’d sit out there on the lawn for hours.”
Pundits leapt to the attack. Author John Rockwell observed that most of them, as they were to do again with Elvis and the Beatles 10 and 20 years later, attributed precious little to Sinatra’s music or his ability, through talent and originality, to thrill an audience: “Instead, theories were offered ranging from his filling a void left by absent soldiers to mass frenzies to the primordial mothering instinct.”
To set the record straight, Rockwell quoted a former bobby- soxer’s recollection of her adolescent longings. “We loved to swoon,” she wrote. “We were sick all right. Crazy. The sociologists were out there in force. What yo-yos. Whatever he stirred beneath our barely budding breasts, it wasn’t motherly … Croon, swoon, moon, June, Nancy with the Smiling Face, all those sweeteners notwithstanding, the thing we had going with Frankie was sexy. It was exciting. It was terrific.”
By 1947, according to Coronet magazine, Sinatra was recording 24 songs a year , releasing a single every month, and selling 10 million records annually. “From which massive output he will derive annual royalties of some $ 250,000,” said Coronet.
“He earns an additional $ 200,000 in the movies. He is the star of a weekly radio program, which pays him nearly $ 500,000. For performing in movie theaters , his present minimum salary is $ 25,000 a week.”
In an ABC Radio poll in 1947, he was named Second Most Popular Living Person, behind Bing Crosby, but ahead of Pope Pius XII.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But what may force pop historians in the end to rank the phenomenon of Frank Sinatra above Elvis and the Beatles is that following the collapse of his career in the late ’40s, Sinatra returned bigger than ever in the ’50s.
In September 1955, Look magazine reported: “When Frank Sinatra started falling after World War II, he went down like a rock. Enmeshed in personal problems, he lost self-confidence and his voice. Then he won his Oscar for Maggio in ‘From Here to Eternity’ and his voice came back as good as ever…
“Now, Frankie is setting a scorching pace with both records (‘Learnin’ the Blues’) and movies (‘Guys and Dolls,’ ‘The Tender Trap.’)”
He was named most popular male vocalist in Down Beat’s 18th annual readers’ poll in 1954, the first time he’d won since 1947. Trailing him were Nat “King” Cole, Billy Eckstein, Eddie Fisher and Perry Como.
In 1959, Joe Hyams declared in This Week magazine, “In records, Sinatra continues to be the biggest thing in the business–a spot he has held for five years. His most recent albums, ‘Come Fly With Me,’ ‘This is Sinatra, Vol.II’ and ‘Come Dance With Me,’ have already sold half-a-million copies at $ 4.98 apiece.”
Sinatra had No. 1 albums in 1958 (“Come Fly With Me” and “Only the Lonely,” which was on the chart for 120 weeks), 1960 (“Nice ‘n’ Easy”), 1966 (“Strangers in the Night”), and 1979 (“Trilogy”).
He had records in the Top 10 spanning 40 years. He recorded over 2,000 of the best songs in the American catalog of popular music. Three of his recordings won Album of the Year Grammy Awards: “Come Dance With Me,” 1959; “September of My Years,” 1965; “Sinatra: A Man and his Music,” 1966.
Composer/arranger Artie Butler, who grew up in the Flatbush district of Brooklyn putting nickels in the candy-store jukebox to listen to Sinatra records , recalls a recent Sinatra concert in Long Beach in which Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme were the opening act. After his performance, Lawrence changed out of his tuxedo and sat in the audience to watch Sinatra.
“I asked him about it,” says Butler.” Steve said, ‘I’m still learning from him. This guy owns it.’ “n