Podcast • November 24, 2010

James Kaplan’s Sinatra

With biographer James Kaplan, we’re listening to Frank Sinatra sing “I’ll Be Around” and realizing that, of course, he kept his word. The Voice is still a believable foghorn in the mist of “your love ...

JPBOOK1-popupWith biographer James Kaplan, we’re listening to Frank Sinatra sing “I’ll Be Around” and realizing that, of course, he kept his word. The Voice is still a believable foghorn in the mist of “your love life, your life life,” as Bono has testified. Or as Sinatra told Bono in the wee hours once in Palm Springs: “Jazz is about the moment you’re in. Being modern’s not about the future, it’s about the present.” Hearing him, Sinatra is still reliably a “modernista” (Bono’s word), a man of the now.

James Kaplan’s Frank: The Voice starts with a bang in recasting the hoary legends. About Frank and the Mob, for example, Kaplan says: understand that the effect of organized crime on the psyche of young Frank began with “his own inner godfather” — that is, with his own volcanic mother Dolly, the Hoboken precinct pol, midwife and sometime abortionist, who “scared the shit outta me,” Frank said. He grew up never knowing whether his mother was going to hug him, or hit him. She became the grandma who summoned Frank’s kids with “Hey fuck-face!” It’s been said to explain Sinatra’s perfectionism, and some of his edginess on stage, that he could see in the audience thousands of versions of his mother’s face.

The other inescapable female in Sinatra’s moods and music, and all through James Kaplan’s story, is Ava Gardner, Sinatra’s second wife for scarcely two years in the early 1950s, but the muse of his singing forever after. “Ava Gardner taught Sinatra how to sing a torch song,” as the nonpareil arranger Nelson Riddle put it, and the hard lessons stuck in the famous saloon songs we are marveling at again: “A Fool to Want You,” Sinatra’s one-take obit on the Gardner affair, and “One for my Baby” and “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

We are listening to “Sweet Lorraine,” from 1946 — Sinatra more than holding his own with the astonishing Metronome All-Stars — Nat “King” Cole on the piano, Buddy Rich on drums, Coleman Hawkins on tenor, Charlie Shavers on trumpet, and from the Ellington band, saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney and trombonist Lawrence Brown. We’re struck by the mutual affinity between Sinatra and the black jazz immortals — his obsessive study of singers like Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer; his long and ecstatic attachment to Count Basie; the admiration shared among legends like Lester Young and Miles Davis. My friend Charlie Davidson, the tailor who “dressed” Miles’ band in its best-dressed days, likes to remember asking Miles: “Do you really like Frank Sinatra?” and Miles responding: “Charlie, if he had one tit, I’d marry him.”

James Kaplan’s may be the first of the many Sinatra “lives” that’s relentlessly detailed about both man and music and judicious about the mercurial mix of the two. Kaplan can hear “the smile in Sinatra’s voice” (when it’s there). And then in conversation he strikes a wonderful line about Sinatra’s peculiar accomplishment — “an almost operatic version of the blues.” Kaplan has dug deep into Sinatra’s diction and masterful phrasing, into his furious ambition and juggernaut drive, his lifelong reading habit, his mostly liberal and always serious politics, his genius intuition for the Zeitgeist. He is persuasive that Sinatra was a man apart in the entertainment industry: a driven popular performer, ever in hot pursuit of new sounds and the next hit, but whose standards in the end were not commercial. He explains why when we speak of Sinatra as the iconic and probably immortal performing artist of the American Century, we put more and more emphasis on that mysterious word: artist. Frank: The Voice extends this bountiful year in major musical biographies — of Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington and now Sinatra. Not the least joy of these 700-plus pages, which close on Sinatra’s comeback with “From Here to Eternity” and the song “Young at Heart” in 1953, is that they’re just the first half of the story.