From the moment he stepped on the stage of New York’s Paramount Theater in December 1942, Frank Sinatra dominated show business as no other entertainer had before or has since.
Before the skinny 27-year-old singer in a floppy polka-dot bow tie crooned a note, a tsunami of hysteria, teenage female shrieks, squeals, screams, applause and cries exploded from the packed audience, walloping band leader Benny Goodman. “What the hell was that?” he blurted.
It was the heralding of a singer whose artistry spanned a half-century and, for several generations, defined the ’40s, ’50s and the early ’60s.
Sinatra is the movie star whose roles in 59 features ranged from unforgettable Academy Award-winning portrayals to mercifully forgotten cameos; the movie producer
and the owner of a tremendously successful record company; the radio and then TV star of his own shows; the night club and concert performer whose appearances in Las Vegas to Tokyo are still sold-out events.
He is the ladies man whose flirtations, romances, marriages, infidelities, affairs, divorces and liaisons with the world’s most glamorous women were reported by the press with the frenzy usually reserved for a war, and, in fact, were running, frequently bloody battles.
He is the casino owner; the Chairman of the Board; the confidant of Presidents from Roosevelt to Reagan; the wise guy whose associations with Mafia mobsters inspired reams of news stories, long FBI files, and best-selling novels. He is also a philanthropist whose personal contributions and fund-raising for charity exceed a billion dollars.
And yet ultimately, through some alchemy of art, it always distilled down to 32 throbbing bars, a half-dozen stanzas.
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper,
A pirate, a poet, a pawn and a
I been up and down and over
And I know one thing.
Each time I find myself
Flat on my face
I just pick myself up
And get back in the race.
With the exception of four songs, including his early hit, “This Love of Mine ,” Sinatra didn’t write the lyrics, but there was never any doubt in the minds of his listeners–whether the squealing bobby soxers at the Paramount or the middle-aged, mink-clad matrons decades later at the Sands who threw their room keys onto the stage–that Sinatra was singing his songs. “My Way,””All or Nothing At All,””Nancy,””I’m a Fool to Love You,””In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”
Ella Fitzgerald said, “He’s got the heart, the soul, the feeling for a lyric.”
When he turned 75 years old, on Dec. 12, 1990, LIFE Magazine commented, “He more than any living person, has come to represent the American song.”
Lest that be dismissed as the sentimental hype of middle-aged scribes, two bench marks should be noted. In July 1940, Sinatra’s vocal of “I’ll Never Smile Again” with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra was No. 1 on the disk charts and radio’s Hit Parade for two months, selling a million records. The best selling albums of Christmas 1990 were Sinatra’s “The Capitol Years” and “The Reprise Collection.”
“I’m just a saloon singer,” Sinatra has said. But then Hemingway is just a writer.
Sinatra, in fact, did begin singing in his father’s saloon in Hoboken, N.J. His mother, Dolly, in addition to working in the tavern, was a trained practical nurse, who often worked for public organizations. She was also the Democratic ward leader, who could deliver a large block of votes from Little Italy at every election.
The first time Frank Sinatra sang in public, “I must have been a hot 12 years old. Probably at some political rally…I think it was at some hotel in Elizabeth, New Jersey,” he reminisced to a reporter at his first announced “retirement,” 21 years ago. “I probably sang ‘Am I Blue?’ and probably got paid a couple of packs of cigarettes and maybe a sandwich.”
Singing at political rallies–Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Jack Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Ronald Reagan–became a lifelong avocation.
According to legend, the 18-year-old high school dropout and his fiancee, Nancy Barbato, were watching Bing Crosby on the stage of Loew’s Journal Square in Jersey City, when Sinatra vowed to become a singer.
He entered all the amateur-night contests in vaudeville and movie houses of Hoboken, Newark and New York, eventually winning Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour in 1937 and a job touring with Bowes.
But Sinatra was booked with an instrumental trio as the Hoboken Four. When the grueling bus tour reached California three months later, Sinatra quit.
As an item of movie trivia, he made his first screen appearance with the group in Major Bowes’ “Amateur Theater of the Air,” a series of two-reelers released by RKO Radio Pictures.
Back in Jersey he played local clubs, sometimes five shows a night, on the Jersey shore. By 1939 he was singing on 18 different local radio shows for the exposure. Only WNEW paid him carfare.
He finally took a $ 15-a-week job as headwaiter and the singing master of ceremonies at the Rustic Cabin, a New Jersey roadhouse. When his salary was raised to $ 35 as band vocalist, he and Nancy got married.
But all that unpaid radio exposure paid off. A trumpeter with Benny Goodman’s band named Harry James was forming his own group, and the young baritone broadcasting from the Rustic Cabin had the sound he wanted. With Harry James & his Orchestra Sinatra recorded his first record, “From the Bottom of My Heart,” on July 13, 1939.
It was the era of the big bands, and the biggest was Tommy Dorsey’s. Six months after joining James, Sinatra received an offer from Dorsey, who was noted for showcasing his vocalists. James magnanimously released Sinatra from his two-year contract, a gesture Sinatra never forgot.
With Dorsey’s band, Sinatra recorded with the vocal group the Pied Pipers. He avidly studied Dorsey’s trombone technique to learn to control a breath for 16 bars and to understand Dorsey’s distinctive melodic technique. “I figured if he could do that phrasing with his horn, I could do it with my voice.”
After work, he haunted 52nd Street, studying Louis Armstrong, Lee Wiley and Mabel Mercer. “It is Billie Holiday, whom I first heard in the early ’30s, who was and still remains the greatest single influence on me,” he once wrote a N.Y. Daily News columnist.
Sinatra toured and recorded with Dorsey for almost three-and-a-half years. But as a band singer, Sinatra could not go as far as he wanted. Dorsey, a sharp businessman, was not as generous as James in releasing Sinatra from his contract.
The band leader realized the potential of what he had developed and demanded a third of all Sinatra’s future earnings and another 10% for Dorsey’s manager, Leonard Vannerson.
Sinatra’s historic first solo engagement at the Paramount broke all the theater’s records.
The mass female hysteria at his appearances was an exploding social phenomenon. But it was one primed by his publicist, George Evans, who had distributed free tickets to high schools, paid for ambulances to stand outside the theaters to carry off the fainting fans, and then paid 20 girls five bucks a piece and instructed them how to scream and swoon.
Sinatra returned to radio in 1942, but this time as the star of “Your Hit Parade” at $ 1,000 a week. He won both the Metronome and Downbeat polls for the best popular vocalist for two consecutive years.
Moonlighting from his radio show, the saloon singer became the fashionable attraction at Riobamba club, where his salary rose to $ 1,500 a week (a hundredfold increase over the Rustic Cabin across the river), before he moved up into the Wedgewood Room of the Waldorf Astoria.
His success was like the script of a Hollywood movie, and as life imitated art, he came to Hollywood to make movies; art then began to imitate his life, as writers tailored scripts and songs for Sinatra.
As a singer he had already performed in band numbers in two previous movies, but his solo of “Night and Day” in Columbia’s “Reveille With Beverly” now created the same pandemonium as his personal appearances. RKO Pictures quickly signed and starred him in “Higher and Higher” and “Step Lively,” two lightweight musical comedy romances.
In 1943 MCA and Sinatra’s lawyers bought out Dorsey’s and Vannerson’s interest for a reported $ 60,000, part of the money comingfrom the advance on a recording contract with Columbia. The agents, Columbia and CBS made Dorsey an offer he couldn’t refuse. Either release Sinatra from his contract, or Dorsey would have trouble having his records played on radio.
The next year, 1944, Sinatra’s earnings were estimated at $ 5-$ 6,000 a week from radio, $ 250,000 from motion pictures roles and $ 150,000 in record royalties. The personal appearance tours might add as much as $ 30,000 a week, with hordes of sobbing, hysterical teenaged girls in their wake.
President Roosevelt was quoted as saying Sinatra had “revived the charming art of swooning,” but the New York City Board of Education was not impressed. In 1944, they accused him of contributing to truancy. “We cannot tolerate young people making a public display of losing control of their emotions,” the board said.
Louis B. Mayer had no such qualms. He bought the crooner’s contract, and costarred him with Gene Kelly and Kathryn Grayson in “Anchors Aweigh.” Sinatra had entered the galaxy of the Golden Age of the MGM musical, which culminated for him with “On the Town” in 1949.
Slips in 1950
However, 1950 was a very bad year. Sinatra’s stormy behavior off-screen, his verbal and physical punch-outs with the press, the headlined extramarital affair with Ava Gardner, discontent with being cast only in lightweight musicals and a plummeting boxoffice forced Louis B. Mayer’s hand.
MGM formally announced: “Frank Sinatra asked for and received his release from the studio.”
At Columbia Records, Sinatra and Mitch Miller, the director of artists and repertoire, fought over the choice of material, songs and arrangements the singer thought were gimmicky. With plummeting sales, the record company would not even give Sinatra an advance on his next album.
His openly liberal politics and, later, his stand against the blacklist, enraged Joseph McCarthy’s supporters and right-wing columnists, who labeled Sinatra a pinko.
But perhaps worse, the emotional turmoil of the divorce from Nancy Sinatra, the turbulent, tabloid-hounded romance with Ava Gardner, the sleepless nights, the endless fights, cost him his voice.
“It was pathetic,” an engineer for Columbia Records at the time recalled. “Sinatra would open his mouth and nothing would come out but a croak. Usually, when a singer is in bad shape, we can help him by extending his notes with an echo chamber. But Sinatra was one of the meanest men we ever worked for, so we engineers and musicians just sat on our hands and let him go down.”
Sinatra was emotionally exhausted and physically ill. During a gig at the Copacabana in New York, his throat hemorrhaged, and he barely finished the engagement. At 33 years old, the American phenomenon of the ’40s was written off as washed-up.
He had married Ava Gardner and now flew with her to Africa, where she was filming “Mogambo” with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly. He spent his time reading, notably a best-selling first novel, “From Here to Eternity,” which had a character named Angelo Maggio, a feisty, flamboyant trooper from Little Italy.
“I determined to land that role. As soon as Columbia pictures acquired the movie rights, my agent, Abe Lastfogel (at William Morris), camped on the late Harry Cohen’s doorstep,” Sinatra said.
Sinatra had to borrow the money from Gardner to fly to Los Angeles to “undergo the humiliation of a screen test” for a supporting role for which the studio had already announced Eli Wallach. But Sinatra felt he was born to play Maggio, and his test impressed studio head Cohen and director Fred Zinnemann. The actor was paid only $ 8,000, compared to the $ 150,000 a picture he had previously received.
“From Here to Eternity” won eight Oscars, including one for Sinatra as Best Supporting Actor.
His voice came back with a maturity, authority and charm that touched audiences as the songs of a man who had experienced the heaven-and-hell of love. One could not hear “I’m a Fool to Want You,” which he co-wrote, and not think of the tortured romance and marriage to one of the world’s most beautiful and mercurial women. It was more than a ballad; it was an epic love story.
In 1953, Sinatra joined Capitol Records, a seven-year association that produced many of his swinging trademark recordings like “Young at Heart” and “The Lady Is a Tramp.”
Within two years the movie star, recording artist and saloon singer was again earning a million dollars a year. It was the most astonishing comeback in show biz history. The ’40s phenomenon became a ’50s legend. And his popularity and income doubled and doubled again to $ 4 million in 1957, a new high for a show business personality.
By the end of the decade he had been the top recording artist for five years, made four movies the previous year, was part owner of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, and, always the saloon singer, the top draw on the night-club circuit.
In the late ’60s he established his own label, Reprise Records, producing a string of hit albums. When Reprise was incorporated into Warner Bros. Records, he became a major stockholder. He later sold his interest for a reported $ 27 million.
His 1971 “retirement” was followed two-years later with the album “Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back” and the Main Event world tour, in which he made more headlines offending the press.
In 1983 he was honored by the Kennedy Center for his lifetime achievement in the arts.
The 1988-89 Ultimate Event world tour with Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. broke box office records in 29 cities, including a concert in Rio de Janiero before 175,000 people, the largest audience to attend a concert by a soloist, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. In Tokyo it had an ultimate one-night gross of $ 1.8 million at the 7,000-seat NK Hall with top tickets of $ 520.
A two-hour CBS special in December 1990, “Sinatra 75: The Best is Yet to Come ,” kicked off a yearlong Diamond Jubilee World Tour.
When dramatist William Mastrosimone, who wrote the script for the upcoming CBS-TV miniseries on the life of Frank Sinatra, was interviewing the subject, Sinatra, in a moment of reflection, summed it all up: “I have had at least five lifetimes.”