Friday, September 30, 2011

Rock Bio #9: Frank Sinatra

Part of a series of brief artist biographies I wrote for in the spring of 2010 ...

Before Michael Jackson, the Beatles, or even Elvis, the biggest pop star in America was Frank Sinatra. In a career that spanned nearly 60 years, the baritone crooner from Hoboken, New Jersey, captivated audiences with a suave, almost conversational style that cut straight to the heart of each standard he made his own.

Francis Albert Sinatra dropped out of high school to chase his dream of being a singer, and in 1939, at age 23, he was hired as the vocalist in Harry James's big band. After six months he left to join Tommy Dorsey's outfit, and together they had more than a dozen top-ten hits, including "I'll Never Smile Again," which was number one on July 20, 1940, the day Billboard published its first chart.

Sinatra stepped out on his own as a performer in 1942 with Cole Porter's "Night and Day," becoming America's first teen idol later that year when he opened for Benny Goodman at New York City's Paramount Theater—young girls went wild. Columbia Records signed him as a solo artist in '43, and although a lengthy musicians' strike prevented Sinatra from recording again until the end of the following year, the label reissued a 1939 recording of "All or Nothing at All" by Harry James and Sinatra that shot to number one on the heels of the singer's newfound superstardom.

Sinatra appeared on popular radio shows like Your Hit Parade, and by 1945 his acting career was on the rise at MGM. He had eight top-ten hits that year, including "Saturday Night (Is the Loneliest Night of the Week)," written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and he made sure the duo were hired by MGM to write tunes for his first musical, Anchors Aweigh, costarring Gene Kelly. It was a box office smash.

"The Voice" left Columbia Records at the end of '52 and concurrently had no radio, TV, or film work lined up. At 37, Frank Sinatra was unemployed—but not for long. He signed with Capitol Records and was back on the charts soon after with "I'm Walking Behind You," and his film career was at its peak with a plum role in From Here to Eternity (1953), for which Sinatra won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

At Capitol he collaborated with arranger Nelson Riddle on albums like Songs for Young Lovers (1954), which featured standards centered on a romantic theme ("They Can't Take That Away From Me," "I Get a Kick Out of You"); they were, in effect, pop music's first concept albums. Ol' Blue Eyes, as he was affectionately known, also recorded dance LPs—Swing Easy! (1954), Songs for Swingin' Lovers! (1956)—that continued to rule the album charts even as rock 'n' roll was taking over the singles charts.

In late 1960 Sinatra started up his own label, Reprise Records, and put his "Rat Pack" friends Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. on the artist roster. Calling his own shots during this period, Sinatra worked with Count Basie ("Fly Me to the Moon"), Antonio Carlos Jobim ("The Girl From Ipanema"), and even his daughter Nancy on the number-one duet "Somethin' Stupid." He also won the Album of the Year Grammy for 1965's September of My Years on the strength of "It Was a Very Good Year."

The Chairman of the Board closed out the '60s with "My Way," the lyrics of which were written specifically for him by Paul Anka; it quickly became a standard. Sinatra cut back on recording and film roles in the following decades, but in 1980 he created yet another standard out of "Theme From New York, New York," originally performed by Liza Minnelli in Martin Scorsese's 1977 film.

Once compact discs were adopted as the standard format for music in the early '90s, Sinatra's back catalog was lavishly remastered and reissued. He then returned to the studio for Duets (1993) and Duets II (1994), which teamed him up with singers like Bono, Aretha Franklin, and Willie Nelson (though none of them recorded in the same studio as Sinatra). Both discs were hugely successful.

Sinatra retired from performing in 1995, just shy of 80. On May 14, 1998, he passed away, leaving behind a rich legacy as one of the greatest performers of the 20th century.

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