The Frank Sinatra centennial is almost upon us.
Next Saturday would have been his 100th birthday – he died in 1998 – and for the occasion, CBS will air “Sinatra 100 – An All-Star Grammy Concert” at 9 p.m. Sunday.
The Grammy people have assembled the following singers to perform his repertoire: Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Harry Connick Jr., Alicia Keys, John Legend, and Celine Dion (all of whom belong in Sinatra-land, for different reasons); and, in the “God only knows why” category, Garth Brooks, Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood, Usher, Zak Brown, Juanes, Seth MacFarlane and Trisha Yearwood.
Don’t be too cynical is my advice. Watch it first. When those Grammy exploitationists put on a Beatles tribute, it turned out to be great music television. Who knew that Katy Perry secretly yearned to button up all the way to her clavicles and sing the Beatles’ “Yesterday” with purity and chastity?
“Sinatra” is not a musical genre all to itself, despite the enormous ignorance of classic American popular music imposed by Mitch Miller and his cynical, hit-making, money-grubbing successors. But if that’s one way for what was once called “standards” to survive, who’s to argue?
In honor of the Sinatra centennial, I have a couple of final things to offer:
1. On Bigness
After thinking about Sinatra’s life and work all year, I suddenly had a revelation: Much of America’s pop cultural devotion to bigness (big bands in jazz, orchestras accompanying all the great singers, movies that smugly advertised “casts of thousands”) is founded on the terrible, life-forming privations of subsistence during the Depression.
For Depression-bred performers and filmmakers, the best thing they could do for the world was put large numbers of people to work. It was an intrinsically noble accomplishment, even when the result was as unaccountable as Stanley Kramer’s film “The Pride and the Passion” (with Sinatra, Cary Grant and Sophia Loren) or as sublime as an arranger like Gordon Jenkins or Axel Stordahl or Quincy Jones writing amazing charts to accompany Sinatra.
When the rest of his stable of professional arrangers was in charge (Billy May, Nelson Riddle, Don Costa), he might have done just as well sometimes just accompanied by a piano trio. Listen to his version of “One for My Baby” accompanied only by his pianist, Bill Miller.
Sinatra, even as an old man, loved putting musicians to work in the largest possible numbers – traveling with them if possible. No matter how the music came out – great or depressingly corny – he knew he was “doing good.”
2. On “The Clan” and Sophistication for One and All
The Grammy tribute show was taped in Las Vegas’ Encore Theater on Wednesday. It will be filled with Sinatra’s own commentary and performance contributed by the Sinatra family especially for the occasion. His heirs are doing a bang-up job preserving the truth of his legacy, even when it was far from pretty.
It became fashionable in the “psychedelic” rock era to denigrate the Vegas performances of Sinatra’s “clan” – Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Joey Bishop, etc. And unfashionable they remain, even as their juvenility and sexism is increasingly inarguable.
But I would submit that Sinatra and his “clan” were – along with Jack Paar and Johnny Carson – among the greatest figures America ever had in offering up a spectacle of credible freedom and sophistication to a conformist, home-bound American middle class. It could never dream of cavorting like Dean, Frank and Sammy on stage in Las Vegas, but it could be vicariously exhilarated to no end that someone could.
The number of performers who spent much of their lives offering a credible spectacle of sophistication to the American middle class was never large, which makes them all the more heroic now. That’s true, whether we’re talking about Cary Grant literally dying in Davenport, Iowa, because he insisted on doing his one-man show in the American heartland, or Sinatra and Co. turning Vegas into “Sin City” for Iowans, Kansans and North Dakotans who needed, for spiritual sustenance, at least a glimpse of an alternate life of misbehavior, non-conformity and “ain’t that a kick in the head” freedom.
To Middle America, Frank Sinatra brought the profound rue that accompanied “the wee small hours of the morning.” But, most importantly, he also brought the joyous mythological energy of sloshing tumblers of Jack Daniels when you accepted his invitation to “Come Fly With Me.”
To read more from Jeff Simon about Frank Sinatra – including the two times he reviewed him in concert – go to buffalo.com