Frank Sinatra The Voice That Thrilled Millions Part Two of Three

Written by Dennis Munday
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Frank Sinatra 1948

When the forties ended, Sinatra’s career went into free fall and his popularity waned. As he moved into his thirties, his appeal to the teen audiences declined. He appeared on the Lucky Strike’s radio show ‘Hit Parade’, where he had to sing the top ten records of the day. During the late sixties, I picked up a couple of bootlegs of these shows, and one of the tunes he sang was ‘The Woody Woodpecker Song’, which was a big hit in 1948.

When he sings the line, though he can’t sing a note / there’s a frog in his throat, Sinatra tacked on; so have I, at his undisguised disgust at having to sing such a corny song. The critics panned his later Columbia recordings, and when Downbeat reviewed ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, they stated that his vocals; ‘lacked intimacy and a few notes were off-pitch’. ‘Bali Ha’i,’ fared even worse with the reviewer stating; “for all his talent, it very seldom comes to life.” 

Frank Sinatra 1949Sinatra was not the only one who suffered, with the arrival of modern jazz, the swing era and the big band’s popularity went into decline. America and the world were changing, in particular, Hollywood. The lightweight musicals that Sinatra had starred in were made to keep the people’s spirits up during WWII, but now they were demanding a different kind of movie. Rock ‘n’ Roll was about to burst onto the scene and Sinatra’s audience, the ‘bobby-soxers’ had grown up, got married, and had kids. Now, he needed to seek out a new audience.

On February 14, 1950, Nancy Sinatra announced that they were splitting due to her husband’s affair with the actress Ava Gardner, resulting in more damaging publicity. Sinatra first met Ava Gardner in 1944, but it wasn’t until late 1949 that the relationship became serious. Ten days after his divorce became absolute; Gardner and Sinatra married on November 7, 1951. The relationship coincided with the dip in Sinatra’s career while Gardner’s was taking off. Sinatra’s mother was delighted with Ava, as she was not only stunningly beautiful, she could drink and swear like a trooper, which enabled Gardner to keep up with Sinatra’s foul-mouthed mother.

Sinatra suffered for the medical condition macrophallus (Latin for hung like donkey), something that most men would endure, (me included). When Ava Gardner was asked by a reporter why someone of her beauty went out with an 119-pound weakling, she replied; “he may weigh only 119-pounds, but 19-pounds of it, is cock.” According to the testimony of his valet, George Jacobs, Sinatra was so ‘well hung’ that he needed special underwear to harness his member. 

Both had an insatiable appetite for sex, and it was an intense and emotionally charged marriage. They were equally possessive and made each other jealous with their extramarital affairs and, as Gardner was footing the bill for everything, this must have gotten to Sinatra. As the marriage broke up, Ava confided to friends that Sinatra could no longer satisfy her sexually and deliberately made films in Europe to get away from him. While he was filming From Here To Eternity, she had a fling with Luis Miguel Dominguín, Spain’s number one bullfighter, and four years her junior. Her co-star Humphrey Bogart told her; “I’ll never figure you broads out. Half the world’s female population would throw themselves at Frank’s feet and you are flouncing around with guys who wear capes and ballerina slippers.”

Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra.

The break-up was Gardner’s decision and, in a desperate move, Sinatra slit a wrist and went to the hospital, imagining Gardner would rush to his bedside. However, she didn’t show and he discharged himself, realising that his act wasn’t going to woo Gardner back, and explained the bandaged wrist was the result of an accident. MGM had penalty clauses in their contracts with their stars regarding having babies, and when Gardner became pregnant twice during the marriage, she had two abortions. She said years later; “We couldn’t even take care of ourselves. How were we going to take care of a baby?” However, they did remain good friends for the rest of their lives.

In September 1951, Sinatra made his debut appearance in Las Vegas at the Desert Inn, which was the brainchild of Wilbur Clark. However, Clark’s money ran out before the building could be completed, and Morris Barney ‘Moe’ Dalitz, a member of the Cleveland mob took over the construction. Even though Dalitz was the principal owner, he remained in the background and used Clark as the front man.

Both Columbia Records and the talent agency MCA dropped Sinatra and, although his movie career went into decline, Louis B Meyer was reluctant to let him go. When Meyer did, it was for a crack that Sinatra made regarding his mistress. Meyer responded, “I don’t ever want you to come back again.” The ratings for his CBS TV show The Frank Sinatra Show were never great and the series cancelled. Sinatra never realised the kind of success that Perry Como, Dean Martin, and later Andy Williams scored on TV though their personalities were more homespun than Sinatra’s abrasive persona.

Frank Sinatra -On The Town.jIt is strange that Sinatra went from hero to zero in such a relative short space of time. On the Town, was released in December 1949 and grossed over $4 million and a big hit. Now, a few years later, Sinatra couldn’t get arrested. This changed in April 1953, when Frank Sinatra signed with Capitol Records, and the producer Voyle Gilmour took him under his wing. As Gilmore liked Billy May humorous style, it was his intention to bring him in to arrange the first Capitol sessions (May had worked with the big bands of Glen Miller and Les Brown). Unfortunately, May was booked to play a gig in Florida and unable to take charge of the session. He told Gilmore; “feel free to let somebody else do the charts in the Billy May style.” The first track that Sinatra recorded for Capitol was ‘Lean Baby’ conducted by Axel Stordahl. However, the arrangement was by Heinie Beau a swing clarinet player who had been an arranger with Tommy Dorsey.

Gilmore had worked out that, these swinging arrangements were more suitable for the times and Sinatra’s voice. On the next session recorded on April 30, 1953, Gilmore brought in Nelson Riddle, and a partnership was born. Early on in his career, Riddle was hired by Les Baxter to write arrangements for Nat ‘King’ Cole. One of the tracks was ‘Mona Lisa’ (as well as ‘Unforgettable’), which turned out to be one of Cole’s best-selling records. Riddle arranged ‘South of the Border’ and ‘I Love You’ in a ‘Billy May style’, but for the remainder of the tunes, he arranged them in the Riddle style.

Columbia Record’s Mitch Miller had once insisted on Sinatra singing a novelty song (very popular at the time) ‘Mama Will Bark,’ where he had to growl and bark on the record. It was a big miss with his fans but went down well at the Battersea Dogs Home. Sinatra’s last recording for Columbia ‘Why Try To Change Me Now’ was recorded on September 17, 1952 with Percy Faith conducting. During the fifties and sixties, Faith was responsible for some the banalest, boring and tedious MOR muzak. Sinatra’s vocals on these recordings were lifeless and had no zip what so ever. When he recorded ‘Lean Baby’ on April 2, 1953, some eight months later, it’s like listening to a different singer. The vocals are more muscular, and it sounds like he’s enjoying himself, and not just going through the motions. There’s a swagger in his voice, and Gilmore bought out the ‘swinging’ persona, and the passion that lay dormant in Sinatra. Unlike his Columbia recordings, which were more swung than swing. With Capitol Records and Voyle Gilmore, Sinatra had found a home and worked with people who understood what he required.

Capitol released seven singles during 1953, and ‘I’m Walking Behind You’, gave Sinatra his highest chart position when it went to number 7 in the Billboard Hot 100. During his term at Capitol, Sinatra recorded many concept albums with a central theme to them. As well as albums featuring blues, torch songs, and barroom ballads, which showed the darker side of his personality. Throughout the fifties, he worked with some the finest arrangers on the scene. He made eight albums with Nelson Riddle, including Songs For Young Lovers, Swing Easy!, In the Wee Small Hours, and probably his greatest album, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers! He finally got to work with Billy May and they made, Come Fly With Me, and Come Dance With Me! All the albums went top three bar two, and Sinatra was back in the charts, with Come Fly With Me and Only the Lonely making the number one spot.

/Frank Sinatra 1953

During the seventies, I was Polydor’s Jazz A & R manager and worked with the legendary jazz producer Norman Granz. After what must have been a splendid lunch, where the claret had been flowing, Norman paid me a surprise visit. When we started to discuss the Hollywood big band arrangers, he wasn’t complimentary. He referred to the likes of Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Marty Paich, and Frank DeVol as being average arrangers; although he thought highly of Quincy Jones. When we got to Billy May, he stated; “Bill Holman’s subbed for May so many times, when he signs his personal cheques, he writes Billy May,” and roared with laughter. In those days, many of the top arrangers would sub out a number of tunes to lesser-known arrangers, who would then arrange them in the style of the ‘well known’ arranger. He went on to say; “Billy was working on an album for Frank Sinatra, and when it came to the time to deliver the arrangements, May had disappeared. They had to get Holman in to write the scores, although May received the credit on the album sleeve.” By this time, Norman was in his element and finished the story; “Oh yeah, they eventually found Billy juiced up in Mexican whorehouse.”

At the start of the fifties, Sinatra’s film career was also stuttering. He starred in Double Dynamite in 1951, with Jane Russell and Groucho Marx, as well as Meet Danny Wilson in 1952, with Shelley Winters and Raymond ‘Perry Mason’ Burr. At the time, neither film was a financial success or received critical acclaim. However, Meet Danny Wilson (shot in b/w), which is almost a fictionalised biopic of Sinatra’s life, is now considered to be ‘a forgotten classic’. However, this too was about to change, as Sinatra was chosen to play Private Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity. He’d read the James Jones novel, and decided he was the man for the part. He stated; “for the first time in my life, I was reading something I really had to do, I just felt it. I just knew I could do it.”

Frank Sinatra - Double Dynamite - Jane Russel-Groucho Marx.There’s been a lot said and written on just how Sinatra got the part in the film with many citing references to ‘The Godfather’. However, it was Ava Gardner who lobbied for Sinatra to be cast in the part. Gardner was staying with Harry Cohn, one of the producers of the movie, and Gardner told him; “you know who’s right for that part of Maggio, don’t you? That sonofabitch of a husband of mine. He’s perfect for it.” In November 1952, Sinatra went to New York for a screen test, and up against one of the great character actors Eli Wallach. He was so desperate for a break that he also offered to waive his fee and work for an expenses-only deal of $1,000 a week. Now, if ‘The Mafia’ were involved, would Sinatra have settled for this piddling little fee? I don’t think so. One thing for sure, Sinatra knew what he was doing.

From Here to Eternity premiered on August 5, 1953 and, in 1954, the film won eight Academy Awards, which included best-supporting actor for Sinatra. Burt Lancaster commented on Sinatra performance “His fervour his bitterness had something to do with the character of Maggio, but also with what he had gone through the last number of years. A sense of defeat and the whole world crashing in on him, they all came out in that performance.” It was his performance in From Here to Eternity, and winning the Oscar that kick-started Sinatra’s’ stalled career.

Not only did Sinatra have a prolific release of albums during the fifties, he matched it with his output of films. It was a mixed bag, which included musicals, comedies, war, thrillers, and a cowboy film thrown in for good measure. The musical’s and comedies include Guys & Dolls with Marlon Brando, High Society (a musical version of The Philadelphia Story) with Bing Crosby. Pal Joey with Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth, and The Tender Trap with Debbie Reynolds, as well as The Joker Is Wild; a biopic about Prohibition-era nightclub crooner and comedian Joe E. Lewis.

Amongst the serious films, were Some Came Running with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLain, and Kings Go Forth with Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. He also starred in The Man With Golden Arm, which is Sinatra’s finest film. He wanted the part of Terry Malloy in On The Waterfront, which was shot in his hometown Hoboken but missed out to Marlon Brando. At the same time, Brando was also given the script for The Man With Golden Arm. However, Sinatra signed before Brando could get a look-in. Filmed in black-and-white, this was one of the first films to tackle heroin addiction seriously. Sinatra played Frankie ‘Dealer’ Machine, a heroin addict and a dealer in illegal card games. The film is gritty, and like Maggio in From Here To Eternity, the character was tailor made for Sinatra. During the fifties, narcotics were a taboo subject, and Hollywood’s Production Code (MPAA) refused to grant it their seal of approval though they eventually relented. This led to more freedoms in the movie industry to explore other taboo subjects, like kidnapping, abortion, and prostitution. Another film of immense interest is Suddenly, which is a film noir about an assassination attempt on the President of the USA.

/The Man With The Golden Arm

Throughout the fifties, Sinatra made many TV and radio appearances, as well as touring and playing many live shows. He appeared at the London Palladium, playing to SRO audiences, as well as a command performance at the London Coliseum, before Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth. The New York Times ran a profile on Sinatra, stating that he was the highest paid entertainer in the world, earning $4 million a year. He also attended a lunch to honour Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, with over 400 Hollywood luminaries. Sinatra was always a man with two sides, and when Sammy Davis lost an eye in a car accident, he took care of him, and let him stay in his Palm Springs home while he recuperated. As far as his private life went, He announced his engagement to Lauren Bacall, but they never made it up the aisle.

During the sixties, Sinatra recorded more than thirty albums, which is an incredible output by anyone’s standards, and with many different arrangers. Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Gordon Jenkins, are the usual suspects, along with Sy Oliver, Neil Hefti, Claus Ogerman, Robert Farnon, Don Costa, and Quincy Jones. There was also a change of record label, as Sinatra wanted artistic control over his recordings, and he approached Capitol with the idea of having his own label, but they turned him down. He then thought to buy Norman’ Granz’s jazz label Verve, however, the $2.75 million dollar price tag, which MGM eventually paid, may have put him off. In addition, there was no love lost between Granz and Sinatra. In 1960, He decided to form Reprise Records and signed up several of his pals, including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. However, the venture didn’t last long, as in 1963; Reprise was sold to Warner Brothers. The last record Sinatra recorded for Capitol was Point of No Return, and it reunited him with Axel Stordahl, who arranged his very first Capitol recordings.

Frank Sinatra Ring a Ding Ding 1Sinatra’s first album for Reprise was Ring-A-Ding-Ding!, and in the same vein as his Capitol albums. During this period, he recorded with the two ‘royal’ big band leaders, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The first Basie album An Historic Musical First was arranged by Neil Hefti, however, on this outing the album is a bit lack-lustre and sounds like the band has just finished a gruelling tour. The Ellington album doesn’t fare much better though it might have been wiser to include a few Ellington tunes. The second album with Basie, It Might As Well Be Swing is much better, as the band is on form, and Quincy Jones’ arrangements are spot on. Quincy had played trumpet with the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie.

Other albums of note are Songs From Great Britain, September of My Years, Moonlight Sinatra, A Man and His Music, and Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim. Two other albums need to be mentioned, the first is Strangers In The Night. The title track, written by the German bandleader Bert Kaempfert (lyrics by Charles Singleton & Eddie Snyde), went on to become a number one single. Ernie Freeman arranged the title track, but Nelson Riddle scored the remainder of the album. The album also features a great version of ‘Summer Wind’, which features in the 1984 film, The Pope of Greenwich Village featuring Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts.

The second album is My Way, which became Sinatra’s signature tune for the rest of his life. The song was originally sung in French (‘Comme d’habitude’) until Paul Anka came up with English lyrics, specifically with Sinatra in mind, and the rest is history. The last album of the sixties was A Man Alone, which featured Sinatra singing (and speaking) the words of the American poet Rod McKuen (associate producer). It was Sinatra intention to make a serious statement, but the critics panned the album, stating it was an embarrassing posture. However, the meter of poetry is different to that of the 32-bar standard song that Sinatra had sung all of his life, and not easy to arrange music around. Sinatra should be commended for trying something different, and the album did spawn the single, ‘Love’s Been Good To Me’.

My all time favourite Sinatra album was released in 1966; Sinatra At The Sands, and it was his first live album. Recorded in the Copa Room at the Sands Hotel, with the Count Basie big band conducted by Quincy Jones, the album contains many Sinatra standards, which became definitive recordings. Sinatra is so relaxed and laid back, it’s as if he was singing to friends in his front room; then Las Vegas was his second home. The set included a couple of ‘Tea breaks’, which consist of Sinatra relating stories about Dean Martin’s drinking. I have always been particularly taken with his version of the Gershwin’s ‘I’ve Got A Crush On You,’ where he banters with the tenor saxophonist Eddie ‘Lockjaw’ Davis. Sinatra was perhaps the only singer that could get away with taking liberties with a Gershwin classic.

/Frank Sinatra - At The Sands

During the sixties, Sinatra’s film career was as prolific as his albums. There were two cowboy movies, the first was Sergeants 3 (a tongue-in-cheek remake of Gunga Din) with Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. The second was 4 For Texas, with Dean Martin, Anita Ekberg, and Ursula Andress. He starred in Oceans 11 with The ‘Rat Pack’, composed of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Joey Bishop, and Peter Lawford. They borrowed the name from Humphrey Bogart’s 1950’s ‘Holmby Rat Pack’, which included Sinatra, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, David Niven, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Van Heusen. However, Sinatra and his pals always referred to their crew as ‘The Clan’ or ‘The Summit’. As well as starring in films, they made records, played many live shows, and were a big draw in Las Vegas. The group had a reputation for heavy drinking and womanising, not that they had to chase after the women.

Sinatra starred in the spoof musical Robin and 7 Hoods, with Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Bing Crosby. Then a couple of war movies, Von Ryan’s’ Express, which was filmed in Italy, and None But The Brave. The first Japanese/American co-production, which Sinatra directed though it was the only time he sat in the director's chair. There were three outings as a Private Eye in the vein of Humphrey Bogart in Tony Rome, Lady In Cement, and The Detective. However, his outstanding film of the decade was the mindbending The Manchurian Candidate. This nerve tingling cold war thriller, shot in black and white, has a surrealistic, dark, and macabre documentary feel. Appearing with Sinatra were Janet Leigh, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury. The only blip occurred when kidnappers Barry Keenan, Johnny Irwin, and Joe Amsler, abducted his son Frank Jr. After Sinatra paid the $240,000 ransom, they were quickly captured and sentenced to long prison terms.

Part One Here 

Part Three Here

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