It was a very good year for Frank Sinatra. But it seemed like the exact opposite.
You could say, if you want, that was Sinatra’s way. 1915 – 100 years ago – was the year Sinatra was born. But even that was legendarily fraught with difficulty.
From James Kaplan’s great biography “Frank:” “On the [kitchen] table lies a copper-haired girl, just nineteen, hugely pregnant. She moans hoarsely: the labor has stalled.” A doctor has been summoned. “[He] opens his black bag. From the shiny metallic array inside he removes his dreaded obstetric forceps, a medieval looking instrument, and grips the baby with it, pulling hard from the mother’s womb, in the violent process fearfully tearing the left side of the child’s face and neck, as well as its left ear.”
You could still see the scars toward the end of Sinatra’s life when you were in the audience for his live performances. His left profile was usually avoided in movies and on TV. But even with makeup, the scarring on that side of his face and neck was significant when seen live.
At another moment of his life in 1951, the scarring is different. That too is a very good year even though it doesn’t seem so. He is doing what he used to say he enjoyed as much, if not more, than most other things in his life: He is making a record. In this case, it is March 27, 1951, at low career ebb, and he is scheduled to make three records for Columbia with one of his greatest and most influential arrangers, Axel Stordahl.
Kaplain again: “The first was another number from ‘The King and I’: a cute thing called ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’, with a typically inspirational [Oscar] Hammerstein lyric about coping with fear by pretending not to be afraid.” The next song was called “I’m a Fool to Want You.”
On that one, “When the orchestra started to play, Frank sang lyrics that were emphatically different from those [Jack] Wolf had written … Sinatra sang just one take – a take for the ages – and then as the legend has it, fled the recording studio, unable to go on. In this case the legend rings absolutely true. ‘I’m a Fool’ may not be a great song but Sinatra’s shattering performance of it transcends the material. His emotion is so naked that we’re … embarrassed …: we literally feel for him.”
His sudden lyric changes to the song were so significant that the songwriters realized at once that the song, from then on, would have to bear his name as one of its songwriters.
It would be absurd in a recording career as vast and varied and studded with classics as Sinatra’s to nominate one song as the “masterpiece.” But if, arbitrarily, you needed to select one from his early career, that shockingly naked and personalized conveyance of the song he recorded just after “Whistle a Happy Tune” (on which he whistled, happily) would qualify.
What was happening in his life at the time, was, besides his career’s lowest point, that he was leaving his first wife, Nancy, for Ava Gardner, the legendarily beautiful, independent and promiscuous MGM star who had already, in the middle of their “courtship,” run away with a bullfighter while filming “Pandora and the Flying Dutchman” in Europe. When Sinatra suddenly and unexpectedly arrived in Europe to be with her, the members of the film crew hastily improvised a poker game to keep him occupied while Gardner was off with her torero.
In HBO’s Sinatra biography “All or Nothing at All,” attention was paid to Gardner’s reports of Sinatra’s many suicide threats. At one point, she said, he disappeared into the bedroom after one and after closing the door, a shot rang out. Gardner said she rushed into the room to see Sinatra sheepishly smiling at her after shooting his pillow. A little bit of home life with Frank and Ava.
They were about to get married when he recorded “I’m a Fool to Want You” in a single take. In late life, he was said to wonder aloud “where did THAT come from?”
It’s not really much of a question when you consider the lyrics of his most raw and naked performance on record: “I’m a fool to want you/ I’m a fool to want you./ To want a love that can’t be true/ A love that’s there for others too./I’m a fool to hold you/ Such a fool to hold you/ To seek a kiss/not mine alone/ To share a kiss the devil has known.”
Gardner’s lovers, by that time, had reportedly included Howard Hughes, among many others (she’d already married and divorced Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw).
Both the legend, and Sinatra’s version of it, continued. Consider the obscene and crude objections of the demonic Harry Cohnish film studio boss in “The Godfather” to the Sinatra-ish character’s appearing in a film that, like “From Here to Eternity,” would re-create the singer’s floundering career.
Sinatra, with Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” recorded a lesser version of “I’m a Fool to Want You” again for Capitol but by then his marriage to Gardner was long over. Billie Holiday’s version of the song with her voice in end-of-life drugged-out wreckage on “Lady in Satin” is now festooned with similar legendry: According to Benny Carter, she left the studio in tears after recording it.
In the 21st century, you can listen to all the versions and hear that women, by far, who understand it and sing it best – Peggy Lee, for instance. Listen to, say, Sammy Davis Jr. or Jack Jones sing about a love that persists through faithlessness and it’s just some unfelt toss-off with a sudden, unconvincing Latin beat.
You won’t find “I’m a Fool to Want You” on “The Ultimate Sinatra,” a one-disc Sinatra anthology fro Universal/Captiol created for Sinatra’s centennial year that was able to pull from all Sinatra’s labels in his life – Columbia, Capitol, Reprise. You won’t, for instance, find another definitive Sinatra torch masterwork on it either – Matt Dennis’ song “Angel Eyes.”
What’s there on “The Ultimate Sinatra” is sometimes as devoted to pedantic historic accuracy over art and taste as the worst episode of “Mad Men.”
“Nancy With the Laughing Face” is there with Phil Silver’s love lyric written about Sinatra’s new baby daughter. “Love and Marriage” is there with an arrangement loaded with some of the worst cuteness in the Sinatra songbook (no one could use xylophones, glockenspiels, flutes and punchless muted trumpets more fatuously than Nelson Riddle at his worst).
But what amazing American popular music is here. “Sinatra’s records sound better than ever,” wrote Wilfrid Sheed in “The House That George Built” and he’s right even in an often cutesy greatest hits package like “The Ultimate Frank Sinatra.”
“It Was a Very Good Year” is almost as astonishing a record from the older Sinatra as that first version of “I’m a Fool to Want You” recorded when he was 36. Has any American pop singer growing older ever seemed to survey his own past more convincingly?
“My Way,” with Paul Anka’s hand-tooled lyric, isn’t nearly as convincing. And if you listen carefully now, you can hear that after Sinatra puts everything his lungs and larynx have into that first high note, he needs a splice in the tape to get him to the next phrase without so much as a half-tone rest. Sinatra may have been a genius in the art of breath control but no one is THAT much a genius.
What Sheed wrote is inarguable, when you hear his music now 100 years after his birth. The greatest Sinatra wasn’t always a hit or among the things his three children like so much now. That music is very much worth celebrating 100 years after his birth, even on an oh-so-careful and tasteful and historically accurate compilation like “The Ultimate Sinatra.”
1915 was indeed a very good year for American song.
It gave us another giant – the incomparably tragic Billie Holiday who was born in April of the year while Sinatra was born in December. They are, as Sinatra freely admitted in his life, musical siblings of a sort.
Kaplain again, writing about Sinatra’s first experience hearing her: “Frankie wished he could sing like her. He gazed at her. She was extraordinary looking: slim and straight with honey-colored skin, high cheekbones, something Indian around the flashing eyes. Dark lipstick and white white teeth … She lived in the lyric, made you ache its ache, while skipping around the music’s beat like some goddess of the air, landing just where she pleased.”
The overlap in their sibling repertoire is enormous.
The only way to appreciate their presence together on American musical Olympus would be bring radio back for one night – great musical radio as it seldom really was in America.
And then spend an evening playing every one of the songs that each recorded and play them back to back to hear their intimately related kinds of mastery. First Frank, then Billie. Then Billie, then Frank.
A very good year indeed for music, 1915.
So is 2015 in recognizing it.