Listening to his recorded legacy, an incredible body of work that spans 1939 to 1994, there can be little doubt that Sinatra is the single greatest interpreter of American popular song-the one performer who elevated what he referred to as “saloon singing” to a high art. He had a lot of nicknames: “Chairman of the Board,” “Ol’ Blue Eyes,” “Frankie Boy,” “Swoonatra” or simply “The Voice. ” But for all his aliases, not to mention his place in popular culture, Frank Sinatra’s vocal instrument left a permanent mark on 20th-century America.
His versions of the country’s popular songs set a definitive standard for singers and instrumentalists alike. Born in 1915, Francis Albert Sinatra grew up in Hoboken, N. J. , in an age of new technology. Sound films, electronic recording and radio suddenly made music accessible to a much larger audience. It was also an era where singing was coming into the modern age, courtesy of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. Though the young Sinatra initially aspired to become a journalist, an encounter with a Bing Crosby film turned him around.
Radio boosted Sinatra’s early ambition. A syndicated program called The Original Amateur Hour heard Sinatra’s solo audition, paired him with a pre-existing cabaret trio, and sent the group on tour around the country as the Hoboken Four. After singing with the Hoboken Four, Sinatra longed for solo ambitions. Eventually Sinatra landed a gig as a singer and waiter at The Rustic Cabin, a club in Englewood Cliffs, N. J. Again, radio brought him a critical break: New York’s WNEW regularly broadcast from the venue, and in June 1939, trumpeter Harry James was listening.
A star of Benny Goodman’s ensemble, James was starting his own big band at the time, and happened to be looking for a male singer. Though the band struggled to make ends meet, the exposure was priceless. The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, a more popular and established band, offered Sinatra a job. They made him an outfit to sing in while performing his gigs. He became the star attraction of the outfit and soon he longed to strike out on his own. In September 1942, after high-powered contract negotiations let him free from Dorsey’s contract, Frank Sinatra began his solo career.
Soon, Sinatra would amass a large fan base, the most rabid of whom were the bobbysoxers: teenage girls. On December 31, 1942, Sinatra opened at the Paramount Theater in New York. ‘Sinatramania’ was at its peak, an event which led Sinatra’s rival Bing Crosby to jokingly declare: “Frank’s the kind of singer that comes along once in a lifetime, but why did he have to come along in mine? ” He appeared in movies, on radios and in concert halls across the country.
The records he made for Columbia from 1943 showed off many of his finest interpretations of song; during his term with the label, he honed his signature delivery of romantic ballads and collaborated with the finest pop musicians and arrangers. As the 1940s drew into the 1950s, Sinatra’s career began to reach a halt. Hit making song styles began to change and celebrity journalism hounded him for his extramarital affairs and alleged mafia connections. But just as his recording career hit a break, his acting career picked him up. Sinatra won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity.
He signed a deal with Capitol Records, and with the success of the record Young At Heart in 1953, he restarted his career in music. His Capitol records brought together a deeper, rougher voice with the American popular songbook, and arrangers of the highest order. Most important among them was Nelson Riddle, with whom Sinatra recorded many of his career-defining numbers. Sinatra would start the 1960s as he ended the 1950s, his first album of the decade, Nice ‘n’ Easy, topping Billboards album chart, this, despite Sinatra growing discontented at Capitol Records and having decided to form his own label, Reprise Records.
His first album on the label, Ring-A-Ding-Ding (1961), was a major success peaking at #4 on Billboard and #8 in the UK. On January 27, 1961, Sinatra played a benefit show at Carnegie Hall for Martin Luther King, Jr. and would go on to play a major role in the desegregation of Nevada hotels and casinos in the 1960s. Sinatra led his fellow members of the Rat Pack and label-mates on Reprise in refusing to patronize hotels and casinos that wouldn’t allow black singers to play live or wouldn’t allow black patrons. Sinatra would often speak from the stage on desegregation.
Sinatra’s final public concerts were held in Japan’s Fukuoka Dome in December 1994. The following year, on February 25, 1995, at a private party for 1,200 select guests on the closing night of the Frank Sinatra Desert Classic golf tournament, Sinatra sang before a live audience for the very last time. His closing song was “The Best is Yet to Come. ” Sinatra was awarded the Legend Award at the 1994 Grammy Awards. He was introduced by Bono. In 1995, To mark Sinatra’s 80th birthday, the Empire State Building glowed blue. A star-studded birthday tribute at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles would be his last televised appearance.
After suffering his second heart attack, Frank Sinatra died at 10:50 pm on May 14, 1998, at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, with wife Barbara and daughter Nancy by his side. Sinatra’s final words, spoken as attempts were made to stabilize him, were “I’m losing. ” He was 82. The next night the lights on the Las Vegas Strip were dimmed in his honor. On May 20, 1998 at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills, Sinatra’s funeral was held, with 400 mourners in attendance. Gregory Peck, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, Jr. addressed the mourners.
A private ceremony at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Palm Springs was held later that day before Sinatra was buried next to his parents in the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, a quiet, cemetery on Ramon Road at the border of Cathedral City and Rancho Mirage, near his famous Rancho Mirage compound, located on tree-lined Frank Sinatra Drive. Legend has it that Sinatra was buried in a blue suit with a flask of Jack Daniel’s and a roll of ten dimes which was a gift from his daughter, Tina, along with a card that said “Sleep warm, Poppa — look for me. The words “The Best Is Yet To Come” are imprinted on his tombstone. Though popular music would soon move away from the standards he performed, it was stardom from then on for Sinatra, both on wax and on film. But perhaps the best way of measuring the extent of his impact was his acceptance by other jazz musicians, especially instrumentalists. So vital are his interpretations that any musician who performs songs from Tin Pan Alley and Broadway must contend with the legacy Sinatra left behind.
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