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He had the world on a string

He had the world on a stringBy ROSS PORTER

Frank Sinatra was a great singer (duh), but he was also insecure about his looks, thuggish and a misogynist.

The Voice
By James Kaplan
Doubleday, 786 pages, $40

For biographers, Frank Sinatra's life has been a literary bonanza. He was, simply stated, a very complicated man. A musical tsunami who sang with such unprecedented beauty, taste and ease that he helped to create a genre called the Great American Songbook. In complete contrast to his musical beauty, Sinatra behaved like a thug, kept mobsters as friends and was a misogynist.

The obvious question, 12 years after his death, do we really need another Frank Sinatra biography? After reading James Kaplan's Frank: The Voice, the answer is yes! It is a thoughtful, compassionate and easy-to-understand book that helps to make sense of one of the most complex entertainers ever to sing on a stage.

Kaplan, a magazine writer and novelist, spent three years interviewing 150 people - Sinatra's family said no - and another two years writing the book.

Frank: The Voice highlights Sinatra's ambitious mother Dolly, woman of great psychological power, a civic politician and part-time abortionist. She worked with the mobsters of Hoboken, N.J., while at the same time being astute enough to manoeuvre the politics of city hall. She ruled over her husband Marty, an illiterate fireman and failed boxer, who did odd jobs for the mob.

Dolly was an unpredictable mother who could be both sadistic and loving. Perhaps out of guilt, she spoiled Frank. As a teenager, he had his own account at a clothing store. He longed for her approval and could often be found seeking comfort listening to music on the radio.

Kaplan also builds a case that many of Frank's problems were caused by his difficult birth. The doctor used obstetric forceps to pull him from his mother's womb. He tugged hard and in the process tore the left side of Sinatra's face and neck and damaged the exterior cartilage of his ear and punctured the ear drum. The kids in the neighbourhood called him Scarface. As a youngster, Sinatra showed up at the doctor's residence seeking justice for his traumatic birth.

From Kaplan, we learn that Sinatra never liked the way he looked. For publicity shots, he insisted on being photographed from his right side and often used Max Factor to cover the scars on his neck. He thought his head was shaped like a walnut, that he had no ass and was rake thin.

"But he made up for all this with the inordinate size of another part of his anatomy, which was so big, according to his valet in later life, that he had to have special underwear made to keep it in check," Kaplan writes. "Macrophallus is the medical term, and Frank was proud of his extraordinary endowment."

Sinatra's tormented marriage with actress Ava Gardner is covered in considerable detail. Their complex relationship created unfathomable anguish for him and resulted in one of his several attempts to commit suicide. Kaplan draws several parallels between Sinatra's relationship with his overbearing mother and the untamable Gardner.

Many of the most enjoyable moments in Frank are, appropriately enough, about the music. There is much about Sinatra's days with Tommy Dorsey. Singing with his big band was crucial to Sinatra's growth in becoming an inspired singer. The uncompromising Dorsey raised the musical bar and settled for nothing but the best from all those in his employ. Sinatra watched how Dorsey took breaths while playing the trombone, and applied a similar technique, elevating his breath control, phrasing and diction as a vocalist. These qualities made him stand out from the competition for the rest of his singing career. A good example of Sinatra applying this approach is the hit I'll Never Smile Again, written by Toronto's Ruth Lowe. Although this was a Dorsey hit, Sinatra's flawless, melancholy delivery made it his tune for life.

It was also while working with Dorsey that he developed an approach to singing that he continued for the rest of his career. He would take a piece of paper with just the lyric to a song, with no music. As Sinatra explained, "At that point, I'm looking at a poem. I'm trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing the words, so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I've been practising to the arrangement. I'm looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I've come up with to the music. Then it all comes together. You sing the song."

At more than 700 pages of text, Frank is long. Yet it ends in 1954, when Sinatra is just 39, wins an Academy Award for his performance in From Here to Eternity and meets Nelson Riddle, the arranger who would help to put him back on the charts.

If James Kaplan's planned second volume entertains, educates and informs as well the first, then this could be the definitive look at one of the greatest song stylists in the history of music.

Ross Porter is CEO of Toronto's JAZZ.FM91, author of The Essential Jazz Recordings and co-producer and host of the radio documentary Frank Sinatra: The Man, The Music.


Related Reading

By Will Friedwald
Pantheon, 811 pages, $45

This is the book I'd most like to receive as a birthday/Christmas/pointless present - if I didn't have it already. Will Friedland's mighty labour of love for sale has brought forth something of a miracle. If there's a better writer alive on jazz singing, I haven't found him (or her). Friedwald's 800-plus-page magnum opus cum doorstopper offers often lengthy essays - many of them more than 3,000 words and all remarkably thoughtful and musically sophisticated - on 210 singers. It also doubles as a guide to their best recordings, which should please the hippest jazz cat as well as the rankest novice. Naturally, all the greats are here - Ella, Louis, Billie, Anita, Frank, Peggy, Tony, Sarah (no last names required) - but also less well-know figures that will be fresh discoveries for many, such as Jackie Paris or Annette Hanshaw. As well, Friedwald offers convincing correctives to the lightweight reputations of the likes of Doris Day and Jack Jones (though nothing will make me swallow his version of Little Feat's Dixie Chicken). Demonstrating that he has all the chops, Friedwald ends this indispensable volume with excellent entries on the likes of Elvis Presley, Mahalia Jackson and Bob Dylan.

Martin Levin

Click Here to see the original article on the Globe and Mail

#1 Tommy Sandler 2011-01-02 16:35

Tommy Sandler Ruth Lowe's ( I'll Never Smile Again ) son , thank you so much for mentioning mom and I'll Never Smile again in your Globe story, very much appreciated. One day you should come by the house and look and hear some of the recordings , photos and scrap books I have, You'd be knocked out . VERY cool stuff . Anytime you want , Cheers Tommy 416 948-5911

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