Sinatra was The Man, for a whole generation of young people, for the boys as well as the girls...He said for the boys what they wanted to say. He said to the girls what they wanted to hear. The body of excellent songs that had come into existence in the United States at last found a singer worthy of them. He was the best singer we had ever heard. He was one of the best singers in history. And we knew it. He was our poet laureate. (Gene Lees, Singers and the Song II, , New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press 1998, p.93)
The first teen idol
Frank Sinatra (1915-1998), born Francis Albert Sinatra, was the leading male pop singer of the mid-twentieth century. Born into a working-class Italian-American family in Hoboken, New Jersey, he began his career as a singer with the big bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey, at a time when singers, like band musicians, were subordinate to the bandleader. In the early 1940s he left Dorsey's band and began to record as a solo artist, in the process changing pop music history by attracting a young female audience, then called "bobby-soxers", who reacted to him with the hysteria which in later decades would be the response to the male stars of rock'n'roll and pop. "Sinatramania" continued through the 1940s with a long sequence of hits for Columbia Records, but towards the end of that decade his career went into a temporary decline.
Pioneer of the concept album
In the early 1950s he made film and radio appearances, but it was only when he signed with Capitol Records in 1953 that his fortunes began to revive. He made a series of albums for the label, using the new LP format to assemble thematic collections of songs dealing with adult emotions rather than teenage romance, crafted by experienced songwriters from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway and arranged by the likes of Nelson Riddle and Billy May. Sinatra was not only gifted with a vocal technique which drew praise from jazz musicians and opera singers, but was a talented actor, as his film work had shown. In his Capitol albums he projected what became the archetypal Sinatra image, comparable in some ways to the screen persona of the actor Humphrey Bogart - a combination of wary world-weariness, romantic yearning and a touch of menace - which proved highly attractive to the large audience which bought his records and attended his concerts. The 1950s, however, also saw the rise of rock'n'roll, a music which Sinatra despised for what he saw as its primitive and adolescent nature, in contrast to the hard-won sophistication of his own music.
The 1960s: Leader of the Rat Pack, Chairman of the Board
Sinatra continued to enjoy success both on record and in films during the 1960s. founding Reprise, his own record label, working often in Las Vegas and heading the "Rat Pack", a group of performers noted for their riotous off-stage antics. Yet with the rise of 'sixties youth culture he found himself on one side of a widening generation gap. While his daughter Nancy had chart hits with the help of songwriter and producer Lee Hazelwood, his son Frank Sinatra Jr. followed in his father's footsteps by performing "standards" in nightclubs and indulging in diatribes against 1960s pop music - but Sinatra Jr. never had a best-selling record. Father and daughter topped the UK and US charts in 1967 with the duet "Somethin' Stupid", and Sinatra attempted to keep up with the changes in pop music by recording songs by the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and other Sixties songwriters such as Jim Webb and Joni Mitchell; but these efforts failed to win over a younger public and annoyed some of his older fans. (He damaged his credibilty by recording an album of the songs of Rod McKuen, a Canadian singer-poet very popular with the middle-of-the-road audience but regarded by many critics as a purveyor of sentimental kitsch.) Sinatra's career once again seemed in decline and he retired in 1971, only to return in the first of a series of comebacks in 1973. At the time, Ralph J. Gleason, the San Francisco jazz and rock critic and elder statesman of Rolling Stone magazine, wrote a column about the event, saying that he could remember a time when "Frankie" had come to San Francisco and was considered "hip". This remark was greeted with hilarity in some circles - an indication of how out of fashion Sinatra had become. But this was to change in the years which followed.
Ol' Blue Eyes keeps coming back
Both his comeback tours and his album "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back" were successful. He enjoyed his biggest-ever chart success with "My Way" - although his tendency to record crowd-pleasing songs (his other major hit, "New York, New York" also fell into this category) disappointed those who had seen him as the champion of quality pop singing and what became known as "The Great American Songbook". Sinatra did have an artistic side - in the 1940s he befriended the songwriter and composer Alec Wilder and conducted an album of Wilder's classical works, and he was a keen amateur painter - but his public image was of a consummate showman. His turbulent private life and much-discussed friendships with leading underworld figures meant that he was hardly an Establishment figure, but in the showbiz world he wielded considerable power, being known by such nicknames as the "Chairman of the Board" and "The Boss". His influence extended to politicians, from the Kennedy family to Ronald Reagan.
In the later decades of the twentieth century Sinatra once again became fashionable, with "easy listening" and "lounge music" becoming accepted genres and the songwriters of the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley era attracting scholarly attention. At his funeral in 1998, even Bob Dylan attended to pay his respects - something that would have been unimaginable thirty years earlier. Many pop and rock singers recorded albums of "standards" and Sinatra was a key influence. His influence continued into the twenty-first century, as can be seen in the many Sinatra imitators on American and British TV pop talent shows. Although the visual image and stylistic mannerisms of the "Rat Pack" are easily copied, singing with the authority and sensitivity of Sinatra at his best has proved to be a weightier challenge for these young hopefuls.
Links to PeelJohn Peel began buying records around the time when Sinatra's career had gone into a short decline. Peel made no reference to having purchased any Sinatra records, but he would doubtless have heard the singer's work on Radio Luxembourg. In his later years he did not feature records or sessions by the new generation of performers influenced by Sinatra - although he did try to book Tony Bennett for a session after being impressed with his performance at Glastonbury. But Sinatra and other performers of his era appeared in the Pig's Big 78 and Peelenium slots in his shows. The tracks featured by Peel all came from Sinatra's Columbia Records period. A particular favourite was his version of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's anthem of ageing,"September Song", which was played twice.
Peel paid little attention to Sinatra's work for most of his career as a DJ, which he began on WRR in Dallas - an easy listening station, apart from the Kat's Karavan show on which he guested. On his Top 40 radio shows at KMEN he would have played Nancy Sinatra, whose "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" was a big hit in 1966 , while on his return to Britain Frank and Nancy Sinatra'a "Somethin' Stupid" was successful both in the national pop charts and on the Radio London Fab 40. At the BBC, one of his favourite presenters was Alan Dell, an ardent Sinatra fan who included a track by the singer on most of his programmes.
During the Top Gear era, when Sinatra's musical and social attitudes made him persona non grata to the hippy culture, Peel played many records on the Reprise label. This was founded by Sinatra in 1960 to allow both him and his associates to record the "good music" they wanted (as opposed to early sixties "kiddie pop"). It was sold to Warner Brothers in 1963 after disappointing sales and was transformed into a more contemporary label, but retained Sinatra's idea of allowing creative freedom to its artists. Reprise was one of the most "hip" and successful labels of the late sixties and early seventies, its roster including Peel favourites such as Family, Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band, Neil Young, Ry Cooder and Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, alongside such psychedelic-era acts as The Fugs, The Electric Prunes and Tiny Tim and singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman.
With the re-awakening of interest in pop (as opposed to rock) style in the early 1980s, typified by Smash Hits magazine, Sinatra was seen as an exemplary non-rock artist and a style icon, his 1950s image having become familiar from TV screenings of his hit films. He was depicted in a poster by pop artist Guy Peelaert, "Frankie Goes Hollywood", composed in the style of a newspaper article and photo of the singer in his teen idol phase. The popular mid-1980s Liverpool group Frankie Goes To Hollywood took their name from this artwork. The 1990s Scottish band Trash Can Sinatras also referred to the singer in their choice of name, although seldom in their music. The Syncope techno track 'Frankie' (first played by Peel on 15 May 1992) mentions him by name during the record.
Festive Fifty Entries
Other Shows Played
- 22 April 1986: My Funny Valentine
- 25 December 1987: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
- 10 September 1998: I Only Have Eyes For You (LP: The V-Discs) Columbia Legacy (played after Scarfo session track 'Sinatra Cars')
- 02 September 1999: Nancy (With the Laughing Face) Peelenium 1945
- 09 September 1999: Try A Little Tenderness Peelenium 1947
- 08 December 1999: I'll Be Home For Christmas (CD-The Christmas Album)
- 27 April 2000 (Radio Eins): Moonlight Becomes You
- 08 June 2000: Bewitched (CD - The Concert Sinatra) Reprise
- 22 May 2002: September Song Pig's Big 78 2002
- 13 June 2002 (& Dagmar): Mama Will Bark (Columbia) Pig's Big 78 2002
- 20 August 2002: Christmas Dreaming (A Little Early This Year) (Columbia) Pig's Big 78 2002
- 13 April 2004: September Song Pig's Big 78 2004
- 01 December 2004 (Rob Da Bank): 'I Guess I Have To Dream The Rest' (Pig's Big 78) (Label Unknown) Pig's Big 78 2004