A mouthful of Chateau Mouton Rothschild ’49 chased by a teaspoon of celery salt and a sprinkling of cayenne pepper, or a teaspoon of Hymettus honey washed down with the driest of dry martinis.”
That was The Voice.
At least, that’s how British biographer Robin Douglas-Home described listening to the vocal instrument of Frank Sinatra that was known as The Voice.
Many critics over the 50-plus years of his career have tried to convey in words the evanescent magic of the Sinatra sound. Whitney Balliett observed in The New Yorker that the voices of popular American singers tended to be home-made and friendly, the kind you felt like squeezing or shaking hands with.
“Their voices, which rarely have much coloration, are a complex mixture of cheerful intent, emotion, electronics and bravado,” Balliett said. “But the popular singer’s lack of technical aplomb is his great virtue.”
Balliett argued that while an opera singer such as Enzio Pinza oversang Richard Rodgers, a pop singer like Tony Bennett undersang in such a way that Rodgers’ superb melodies seemed to come to life on their own.
“Pinza inflated Rodgers’ songs but Bennett illuminates and aerates them,” Balliett said. “Bing Crosby was the first popular singer to learn this trick, and he did it in large part by listening to jazz musicians. In turn, he taught a generation of popular singers. The best of them was Frank Sinatra.”
This vocal style was called crooning and musical scholars saw it as a return to the bel canto ideal of 16th century opera, a moderated and subtle delivery distinct from the belting grandiosity displayed by modern opera singers. What made crooning possible was the microphone. “Crooners didn’t have to belt out their voices in order to reach the rafters,” wrote John Rockwell in his 1984 book, “Sinatra.””A microphone allowed them to float the sound easily on the breath, articulating consonants clearly and naturally.”
Sinatra was listed as a lead tenor with the Hoboken Four in 1935, but even then he was a light baritone, according to Rockwell.
Over the years his voice deepened to become a classic baritone, the category closest in weight and timbre to a normal male speaking voice.
“What gives Sinatra his distinctive quality, and what makes it easier for him to declaim conversationally, is his vocal “edge”–the focused sharpness of attack that defines every note,” Rockwell said. “Unlike many singers, classical or pop, his voice rarely slips back into his throat.”
Rockwell wrote that the nasality of Sinatra’s singing was not upper-class affectation, it was a product of the forwardness of his vocal production, the way he let the tone resonate in his nasal cavities instead of becoming constricted in his throat and chest.
“In so doing, he is conforming to the finest classical operatic principles,” Rockwell said. “Singing like Sinatra sings is living on interest; he hardly ever has to dip into capital.”
Singing into a microphone, however, had its own set of problems. As writer/lyricist Gene Lees pointed out in his 1987 collection of essays, “Singers & the Song,” the plosive consonants “p” and “b,” and “t” and “d,” and even the aspirated “h,” are booby traps to a singer working close to a microphone, often causing the sound that is called popping the mike.
“You will hear it on many records,” said Lees. “Some of the best singers will now and then pop one of those letters in a recording session, rattling the speakers in every living room in which the record is later played. In the entire body of his recorded work, you will not hear Sinatra pop a consonant.”
Nelson Riddle, one of Sinatra’s great arrangers, once said that the early Sinatra, from the Columbia days, sounded like a violin, but the later one, that emerged at Capitol, sounded like a viola.
Sinatra himself gave credit to others. “Mabel Mercer taught me everything I know,” he said once. In 1958, in Ebony magazine, he praised Billie Holiday.
With few exceptions, every major pop singer in the U.S. during her generation has been touched in some way by her genius. It is Billie Holiday, who I first heard in Fifty-second Street clubs in the early Thirties, who was and still remains the single greatest musical influence on me.”
And then there was bandleader/trombonist Tommy Dorsey.
“Tommy taught me everything I know about singing. He was my real education,” Sinatra says in Alan Frank’s 1978 biography, “Sinatra.” The band leader certainly helped him with his breathing. “I discovered that ‘sneak-pinhole’ in the corner of his mouth, not an actual pinhole but a tiny place where he was breathing,” Sinatra said. “You know, in the middle of a phrase while the note was still flowing through the trombone, he’d take a quick breath and be able to play another four bars.”
Beyond question, a key to the specialness of The Voice was Sinatra’s phrasing. “His phrasing is final, absolute, definitive,” said Robin Douglas-Home.
Adds Douglas-Home: “So logically and inevitably do the phrases follow each other that, after hearing him sing a song, that song never sounds quite right sung by anyone else. He phrases more as if he is speaking to someone: the intervals, word stresses, note values and rhythms are changed to fit more with the cadences of colloquial speech.
“Add the breath control, the slurs, chopped notes, grace notes and held notes that have been his trademarks… and you have the basic ingredients that give that natural, effortless credibility to every word he sings.” Before Sinatra, Bing Crosby epitomized the popular American singer, but Whitney Balliett believed Sinatra was a more serious singer than Crosby, whose offhandedness he felt created an absent-minded quality.
“Drive a ballad”
“Dorsey taught Sinatra, in Dorsey’s words, to ‘drive a ballad,”‘ Balliett said. “Sinatra’s ballads, freed of Crosby’s ornamentation and reverberative effects, took on an almost hymn-like dimension.
“He believed the lyrics he sang, and he delivered them with an intense, clean articulation. His voice was smaller and lighter than Crosby’s, but his phrasing and immaculate sense of timing gave it a poise and stature Crosby’s lacked.”
Watching Sinatra sing further illustrated the underpinnings of his vocal skills. Wrote biographer Derek Jewell: “Watch as well as listen to Sinatra at work to understand the full meaning of this. Hear the careful snap and precision of his diction, see him changing the distance of the mike from his mouth, which achieves a continual effect of light and shade in his songs.”
Robin Douglas-Home sat in on a 1961 recording session and found himself at first watching Sinatra rather than listening. “I saw complete and utter involvement with the song he was singing–involvement so close that one might feel he was in the throes of composing both tune and lyric as he went along.
“When he controlled his breathing he shuddered, almost painfully–shoulders shook, neck muscles twitched, even his legs seemed to oscillate. His nostrils dilated and his eyes closed dreamily, then opened again as sharp as ever as he watched a soloist, then closed again and his face contorted into a grimace, and his whole frame seemed to be caught up in a paroxysm, quivering all over as he expressed a key note or word like the ‘November’ in ‘September Song.”‘
Sinatra lit a cigarette and waited for the song to be played back. When it came through the speakers, this time Douglas-Home listened.
“The song was a slow, nostalgic ballad of unrequited love, a bitter-sweet hymn to a very special girl who somehow got away,” he wrote.
Gene Lees said there was no questioning Sinatra’s musicianship, either. “He has never claimed to be a ‘jazz singer,’ referring to himself as a saloon singer ,” Lees wrote. “But he is a universal favorite of jazz musicians.” He cited a 1956 poll of musicians by critic Leonard Feather for his 1956 Encyclopedia Yearbook of Jazz. Sinatra won 56 out of 120 votes.
Composer Lyn Murray recalled for Gene Lees watching Sinatra over a period of days conduct an orchestra in rehearsal for an engagement in Las Vegas. Murray said that Sinatra expended 21 hours rehearsing the orchestra, meticulously preparing every nuance of time and blend and dynamics.
Composer/arranger Artie Butler, musical supervisor for the CBS miniseries “Sinatra,” had to put Sinatra’s recordings under a microscope in order to re-create, embellish and edit them for dramatic purposes.
“He had the essence of swing,” Butler says. “He crossed the bridge between Madison Avenue and Eighth Avenue; he was highbrow and common. He’s a guy from Hoboken and he never lost that; he used it to build his sense of sophistication. His musical integrity, his phrasing, are outstanding.”
Butler’s taste runs to the Capitol years of Sinatra, and the days of arrangers Billy May, Axel Stordahl, Gordon Jenkins, Nelson Riddle and Don Costa. “My essence of what Sinatra was is based on that period,” he says. “It had what we used to call the ‘Sinatra two-feel.’ You’d say to a band, ‘Gimme that Sinatra two-feel.’ It became a generic phrase, they knew what it was: ‘Da-da/those eyes/they’re part/of the tender…”‘
Back to basics
Butler had to literally take apart some of the ’40s recordings in order to re-record them with Sinatra’s own original voice track and vocal embellishment by Sinatra sound-alike Tom Burlinson and Frank Sinatra Jr.
“My task was one of re-creating, one of finessing,” he says,”so that when they cut into one of the songs from a piece of underscore, it was seamless. But just to get a chance to touch this guy’s records was amazing–not to change them , because you can’t change them. They’re like paintings, you don’t change them.”
Of all the singers of his generation, only Sinatra and Tony Bennett remain at the top.
“Sinatra sailed on through it all,” wrote Gene Lees, “seemingly safe from the storms of fad. What Sinatra’s legacy will be, we cannot know. But for a time, for a very long time, Frank Sinatra turned the singing of the American song into an art form, and his collected output must be considered a national treasure.”
Several favorite Sinatra songs did not make it into the miniseries, songs like “I’ve Got You Under my Skin,””This is All I Ask,” and “The Lady is a Tramp.” But just as many were included: “It All Depends on You,””All or Nothing at All,” and “It Was a Very Good Year,” as a recurring theme.
“We end with ‘My Way’ over the credits,” says Butler. “We only had room for a one-minute version. I suggested I do an instrumental and then go into Frank’s original record from the incredible instrumental that Don Costa wrote. So the movie ends with Sinatra going, ‘Ah, yes, it was my way.’ What the heck else can you end this with?”