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The seductive singer

His career spanned over four decades. It showed the enduring power of Frank Sinatra's sensual, caressing style. He died on May 15, 1998. RATNA RAJAIAH pays a tribute to `Ol' Blue Eyes' on his birthday that passed Friday last.

Frank Sinatra in a scene from "The Joker Is Wild"

ON DECEMBER 12, 1995, the lights of the Empire State Building in New York turned blue. Naturally. Ol' Blue Eyes had just turned 80 and an ecstatic and grateful America was saying ``Happy Birthday!'' to one of the world's greatest and most enduring singers.

One Oscar, two Golden Globes, 10 Grammys, (the first in 1953 and the last one in 1997, two for Album of the Year in two consecutive years, and the only other singer to do that was Stevie Wonder), a singing career that spanned over four decades and outlasted Elvis Presley and the Beatles, and fame and wealth like few have seen. You could say that Frank Sinatra must have been used to being served the world on a platter.

But what would you say were the chances of the partially deaf son of poor Italian immigrant parents — they lived in an apartment block where they had to share the toilets with 10 other families — from a one-horse town called Hoboken becoming a singer?

A forceps delivery ruptured the right eardrum of the little baby boy born to Dolly and Marty Sinatra. They named him Francis Albert and a disappointed Dolly, dressed little Frankie in the pink baby clothes that she had bought for the daughter that she was expecting.

In 1931, at the age of 16, after hearing Bing Crosby sing live on stage, Frankie excitedly told his parents: ``I can do that!'' They laughed and dreamt of their only child becoming an engineer. That made Frankie often burst into tears of rage and frustration, but it never ever shook his belief in his own voice and his ambition.

The 1930s. The Great Depression had just begun and music became the sole solace of the people, breaking all barriers and nurturing some of America's greatest music and musicians. Radio and the introduction of jukeboxes took music straight to the masses. It was prime time for America's big bands and swing music.

Bing Crosby had recorded his first single and Benny Goodman, the `King of Swing,' was bringing to a glorious crescendo what people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Fletcher Henderson had started a decade ago.

One night in 1939, in a club called the Rustic Cabin, an ex-Benny Goodman bandsman called Harry James listened to the skinny, young headwaiter also doubling up as the evening's vocalist.

Two things were startling about the singer. His eyes and his voice. James hired him immediately to sing for his band, but just six months later he had been lured away by the great trombonist, Tommy Dorsey, whose band was the launching pad of some of the best singing talent at that time. Frank Sinatra was only 24.

Within months, Sinatra and Dorsey together became one of the biggest musical gigs in America. But even Dorsey's hugely successful platform soon proved too small to accommodate Frankie.

After just two years with the band, Frank went solo. And from then it was an electrifying climb to the top. The darling of both live performances and the recording industry, Sinatra was soon recording almost one single every month. His live shows were huge sell-outs, with one show in New York being mobbed by 25,000 screaming, swooning girls, earning him one of his many nicknames, `the Sultan of Swoon'.

Fan mail began to pour in at the rate of about 700 letters a day and by 1945, he was sharing the stage with, amongst others, the man whose picture he once had pinned up in his bedroom — Bing Crosby. (Later Bing Crosby complained: ``Frank Sinatra is the kind of singer who comes along once in a lifetime — but why did it have to be my lifetime!'')

Shaking a leg with Jules Munshin (centre) and Betty Garrett in "On the Town".

Sinatra had become America's most dazzling singing star, selling as many as10 million singles each year. (Just to put that into perspective, when Elvis Presley died in 1977, he had sold 41 million albums!)

In 1947, Sinatra recorded an astounding 72 new songs, making almost a million dollars a year at a time when a new car cost around one thousand dollars. The world, it seemed, had been freshly carved up just for Frankie and served sizzling hot on a platter.

Then, as suddenly as it landed on his table, almost before he could properly tuck in, somebody snatched the platter away.

Sinatra's voice started to pack up, stories of his associations with the Mafia (he was apparently seen in Havana with the notorious Mafia mobster `Lucky' Luciano) and the Communists started doing the rounds. (Remember this was the era of McCarthyism).

In 1949, the Committee on Un-American Activities claimed that Sinatra had ties with both the Mafia and the Communists. Then the lid blew off his affair with actress Ava Gardner and his wife Nancy left him. So did his record label, Columbia Records, his film contract with MGM was terminated and MCA, his agent, dropped him like the stinking bag of bad news that he seemed to have become. The 32-year-old millionaire, who used to peel off notes from wads of $100 bills, was reduced to a 34-year-old burnt out case borrowing money from Ava Gardner.

The world was now ready to ship Sinatra out as a basket case. But Sinatra wasn't ready yet to be so unceremoniously buried. In 1950, he read a script for a film called "From Here to Eternity." The role of the scrappy, intense, ill-fated Italian `Maggio' must have touched a chord and he immediately agreed to do the film.

It won him his Oscar in 1953 and also his ticket back to the top. Capitol Records signed him up and each one of his first three albums with the label went platinum and 33 songs went on the Billboard Top 10 charts.

His acting career also took off with Marlon Brando ("Guys and Dolls") and Grace Kelly ("High Society") as some of his co-stars! Sinatra stayed on this second welcome longer, recording some of his greatest hits during this period including "Strangers In The Night", (1966), "Summer Wind", (1966), and "Somethin' Stupid" (1967). In 1969, he recorded what was to become his signature number, "I did it my way." Originally a French song, the English lyrics and musical score were by Paul Anka.

Two years later, aged 55, he announced his retirement. But Frankie wasn't the retiring sort. So in 1973, he retracted his retirement and stayed on to sing and perform for another 20 years.

Two things stand out about Sinatra's astonishing career. One is the sheer virtuosity of his singing style both in its uniqueness and its enduring power. Frank garnered his inspiration from many places:

Voices — Though Bing Crosby was his early hero he admitted much later on that Billie Holliday remained his all time inspiration.

Instruments — When Miles Davis was recording for "Porgy and Bess", he said that he wanted his trumpet to sound like Sinatra's voice, appropriate because Frank told Tommy Dorsey that he wanted to sing because he wanted to sound like Tommy's trombone!

Other musicians' song books — Frank sang not just songs that were written for him, but others as well including Presley's "Love Me Tender", Paul Simon's "Mrs. Robinson", George Harrison's "Something!" (He thought the John Lennon/ Paul McCartney song "Yesterday" to be one of the best songs ever written.) And yet, he took all this and then coaxed and cajoled it into something that was so uniquely his. A smooth, sensual, potent cocktail that glided and slithered and caressed and seduced itself straight into the hearts of generations of music lovers... and lovers! Gore Vidal said this about Sinatra in a recent BBC interview: ``I would say that half the population of the United States over the age of 40 were conceived while their parents were listening to his records.''

It was also a style that endured over four decades. Sinatra performed with three generations of stars, from jazz greats to pop stars, from Ethel Merman, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Liza Manelli and Elvis Presley. In 1993, Sinatra released the album, "Duets", in which he sang many of his hit songs as duets with Barbara Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Bono of U2. Its sequel won him his ninth Grammy in 1996. Sinatra's last Grammy appearance was posthumous, when Celine Dion's album, "All the Way", in which he sang the title song with her (a 1953 hit of his), got a nomination in 2001.

If the voice endured, so did Sinatra. One day America's darling, the next its media's favourite bad boy, Sinatra was reviled for everything from drinking sprees to being part of the murky, unsavoury link between the White House, Hollywood and the Mafia during the Kennedy era. As a member of the Rat Pack, he got more press for what he did off stage than on it.

His much publicised relationships with women had its lowest point when he romanced and married Mia Farrow. She was 21, he 51. It was a punishing roller coaster ride. But what got him through was the same thing that got a poor, half-deaf Italian kid out of Hoboken into the brightest spotlight on the world's stage.

A close friend said this of Sinatra: ``Frank is the absolutely genuine article, the diamond in the rough. If you want to understand a diamond, you ask about the pressures that made it. And if you want to understand Frank, you ask about Hoboken.'' When Frank did finally `retire' on May 15, 1998, of a massive heart attack, the lights of the Empire State Building went blue once again, this time for three whole days. Not only to mourn, but also as if the world wanted to say to Ol' Blue Eyes, once again:

"Fly me to the moon,

Let me sing among those stars,

Let me see what spring is like,

On Jupiter and Mars,

Fill my heart with song,

Let me sing for ever more,

You are all I long for,

All I worship and adore."

In 2001, when BBC Radio 2 did a poll for the Century's10 greatest singers, Frank Sinatra topped the list. The other nine? Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Bing Crosby, John Lennon, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holliday, Barbra Streisand and Freddie Mercury — in that order!

``Rumours are flying that the Voice has degenerated to a gargle!'' — News headline, 1948.

``...when Sinatra left the stage, we realised we might never witness artistry that big and that provocative, again.'' — Rolling Stone Magazine.

``In that spotlight, treading the boards in his patent-leather party shoes, winging the microphone around as he made love to his own voice, controlling not only the rhythm but also the volume of a 40-person orchestra, and sculpting the audience's feelings as they sat mesmerized, he was the godfather of the musical depths of their sorrows, their lonely nights, their passionate silliness.'' — Shirley Maclaine.

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