The Influence of Frank Sinatra on Modern Music
One of the most influential figures, and perhaps one of the most popular, in the music industry was Frank Sinatra. He had not only dominated the entertainment world for the longest time, he was also a familiar figure in almost every aspect of the American culture. But what made Sinatra dominate the music industry? Why was he so popular that his name appears in every book related to the history of popular music? Certainly, Sinatra had the charisma and the voice that attracted the audience. But these were not the only reasons why he had been so influential in the music scene. Sinatra had introduced to the entertainment world something that set him apart from the rest of his contemporaries. His style and attitude in singing was what made him remarkable and was his contribution that has forever changed the music industry.
Sinatra and His Music
Sinatra started his career in singing as a vocalist for the James band but gained popularity when he joined the Tommy Dorsey band. However, in 1942, Sinatra left the Dorsey band and continued his career as a solo artist. The music industry was dominated by big bands during the 1930’s and the 1940’s with the vocalist usually being just another part of the band—that is the emphasis usually lies with the band, not the person who is singing. When Sinatra came to the industry, the emphasis slowly began to shift from the band to the vocalist. While the decline of the big bands could be attributed to the musician’s strike in 1942-44 and as a consequence of the World War II, Sinatra had been influential into bringing the vocalist in the limelight. Much was the success of Sinatra in the music scene that even when the big band’s popularity began to decline in the late 1940’s he continued to become popular as a solo artist. No longer did the vocalist need to have a popular band to succeed, he or she could now enjoy a following as long as there is a proper and respectable musical accompaniment. This, again, set Sinatra apart from his contemporaries. Even as a solo artist, he maintained a strong musical connection with his accompaniment.
Sinatra’s appeal and showmanship had helped him gain popularity. He appealed not only for the adults to whom music was composed and performed before, but also to the young. As a result of his appeal, new audiences were revealed and a different presentation of themes and subject in musical composition were thus introduced. His appeal to the bobby-soxers has earned him to be the first singing teen idol. He has, in fact, the first to provoke a mass hysteria among the female audiences, young and old, in a way that has never before been experienced in popular music, and which only a few, like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, could have. Even if we believe that others have become more popular than he, none of them has remained popular for as long as Frank Sinatra—he had become popular before the others, and his popularity survived them all. Having been a celebrity for almost six decades, Sinatra was able to adapt to the changing times and was able to appeal with each new decade.
His appeal was backed up with talent and sincerity with every performance he makes. His ability to groove—that is, the proper execution of rhythm within the pulse—is a big part that distinguishes Sinatra from any other singer. He had determined and started the idea that the key to swinging is more dependent upon where the singer stops notes than where the notes are started. The fact is Sinatra has introduced a lot of new ideas that has forever changed singing, some of which were objected by critics. As an example, Sinatra was criticized as being irreverent to when he occasionally replaces the word ‘the’ for the word ‘that’ in the lyric of a song. However, experts suggests that there is musical intention in doing so in that the latter word could groove more into the rhythm of a song than the word former. Using the latter would also give the song more clarity since it has a clearly defined meaning. Furthermore, as the latter is a word with a short sound, it can be accented and punctuated in ways that the word ‘the’ could not. It must be noted that Sinatra only does this when the meaning of the song is not altered. Being able to mix long and short sounds allowed him to give lyrical emphasis to certain words. This is why, as according to David Finck, “Frank Sinatra was perhaps the one of the first vocalists of the twentieth century to develop the ability to communicate American popular songs to listeners in their most complete form—the music and lyrics presented simultaneously—without ever sacrificing the importance of one for the other. He integrated and balanced swing, tone color, phrasing, diction, and intonation in a way that created unequaled performances… Attack, delay, diction, phrasing and vibrato are among the tools he used to fuse with his musical surroundings. However, it was undoubtedly his sense of rhythm that proved to be his most powerful tool” (10). John Collis, in his book The Complete Guide to the Music of Frank Sinatra, backed this up stating that “Sinatra put great stress—literally—on clarity of diction. He enunciated the ends of words rather than chewed them off. This helped to give his work its intimate, conversational, even confessional character” (9).
Sinatra’s understanding of music is perhaps what made him a great singer. That was his talent. But his talents were emphasized more with his stunning performances. He was the first who viewed himself as a creative singer, often regarding the microphone as his instrument, not merely using it as a prop. He had a vision of what singing could be and strove to perfect his style and capture the hearts of audiences of each generation. His passion and dedication to music set him apart from even the most talented of his contemporaries.
Other singers were more concerned about their voices rather than their delivery of the songs. Sinatra was perhaps guilty of this when he was just starting his career. However, he had developed his style as to deliver his songs as if he were living it. He already had the voice to begin with, but there were others, perhaps more gifted, in terms of the quality of voice, than he was. But none of his contemporaries were as talented as him in performing. His breathing technique reinforced his voice and greatly improved the quality of his singing. New York Times stated that Sinatra “had learned to breathe in the middle of the note without breaking it. He was the first popular singer to use breathing for dramatic effect, and learned to use his microphone to enhance his voice.” Collis stated that Sinatra’s “His legato technique, holding a note, bending it, shading it into the next, eliding a sequence together without apparently pausing for breath, was in itself a departure” from how singing was previously performed (6). Much was his singing technique that he touches the hearts of his audience, singing as if he was telling a story, placing his pauses accordingly. John Turner, in his book Frank Sinatra, summarizes how Sinatra has captured the heart of his audience: “The charismatic magic of Sinatra made him the entertainer supreme on any stage. What made the magic? It was an inner incandescence that could glow or blaze. He actually became each song he sang. He assembled his whole being and projected it to us complete. He articulated our aspirations and defined our emotions… an incredible quality was there—the phrasing, timing, inflection, control, and sheer living spirit” (2).
Not only did Sinatra display his supremacy in a characteristics display of performance on stage, he also delivered carefully arranged and compiled albums. He was one of the first to introduce concept albums. His albums usually compose of songs with themes which characterize the exhilarating highs of romance and the profound lows of loneliness—but mostly of loneliness. Chris Rojek explained that Sinatra used the introduction of the 12-inch long-players to develop a concept or narrative line.
Frank Sinatra has introduced some new concepts that had changed the way singing, and therefore music, was presented. His breathing technique, diction and phrasing, and the way he presents his songs through his singing performances, through gestures, facial expression and the use of the microphone, were effective in stirring the audiences’ emotions, singing as if he was living the story that the song presents. His popularity was such that it shifted the focus of music from the band that plays the accompaniment, to the one who is singing. Sinatra had also pioneered thematic albums and has introduced a new album experience by so doing.
Frank Sinatra is widely held to be the greatest singer in American pop music and was the first modern pop superstar. His popularity provoked mass pandemonium, in much the same way that Elvis Presley or The Beatles were greeted and treated by their fans. His tender romanticism and the freshness of the way he presented his songs attracted audiences of different ages.
The praise that Sinatra receives for his music may be overstated, but what he did for the music industry is so significant that he ranks as one of the most influential singer’s in the history of American music. As Finck explained, “In music, as in any art form, the exchange of ideas is fundamental to the learning process. The contribution that Frank Sinatra made to the education of musicians is more than substantial. His performances overflow with information that has educated generations of musicians… He offered a wealth of information from which future artists may grow” (13).
Collis, John. The Complete Guide to the Music of Frank Sinatra. London, UK: Omnibus Press, 1998.
Finck, David. “The musical skills of Frank Sinatra.” In Frank Sinatra: The Man, the Music, the Legend. Jeanne Fuchs and Ruth Prigozy eds. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007
Rojek, Chris. Frank Sinatra. Malden, MA: Polity Press, Ltd., 2004.
The New York Times Company. 15 May 1998. “New York Times: Frank Sinatra Obituary.” 27 May 2008. http://www.arjazz.org/archive/obituaries/980516_sinatra.html
Turner, John Frayn. Frank Sinatra. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.