Francis Albert Sinatra: My Guilty Pleasure

Chroniclers of popular music's growth in the 20th century have a large field to plow. Jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll, rhythm 'n' blues, rap, hip-hop, grunge ... it's enough to overwhelm the ears. And when we consider how these often artificial categories are subdivided, it is apparent that the work never will be done.

One of the corners of jazz that doesn't get much of my attention is the one where all the singers gather. The human voice -- some, including me, will argue -- was the first instrument. While that's true, it also takes some of the glitter off the voice's importance as an instrument. Nearly everybody has a voice; hardly anybody can use it well. Imagine a world in which everyone owned a saxophone and used it every day. Yike!

But the potential for beauty is there in great numbers, and that potential often is realized. When that happens, all that remains is to let it in, to regard it, to draw some sustenance from it. Additionally, if we can find sustenance in that beauty which our regard translates into pleasure, we are happy creatures indeed.

Frank Sinatra's legend is as close to jazz as skin to flesh. In any assessment of the last century's popular music, he must loom in the limited field of giants. And, as is true of most legends, there is a good deal of uncritical adulation to inflate that legend, despite Sinatra's penchant for the boorishness that his acolytes prefer to call his "personal style."

In the 1950s, nevertheless, when Frank was settling in for the extended season of Las Vegas shenanigans that characterized the Rat Pack years and earned him the title of "Chairman of the Board," he was at the peak of his vocal power. Despite the hysteria of his younger big band years, when he was one of the prototypes of the present-day rock star, his middle years were his finest.

And that period of his career has become my guilty pleasure.

After a lifetime of resisting Sinatra's politics, resenting his ungracious treatment of strangers and deploring his bloated sense of self-importance, I sat down 25 years ago and listened through his career from its beginning. I came away from the experience with a grudging respect for his achievement and, over the years, watched dispassionately as he retired, then returned, then retired, then returned, until I finally abandoned even an active dislike for him -- a dislike based strictly on non-musical criteria. I came to regard him as irrelevant. If I thought of him at all, it was more as a cultural icon than as a musician worthy of further study.

But as my love affair with jazz matured and as my listening became more broadly based, Sinatra crept back onto my list of frequent listens. Despite the corny "Strangers In The Night" and the truly horrible, but aptly named, "Something Stupid" with his daughter, Nancy, in 1967, I began to realize his importance to the acceptance of the American popular song as an art form unto itself. The music of Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter and Berlin would have survived without Sinatra, but, with a few exceptions, their music would have survived as the handloom or the spinning jenny survives -- as a quaint reminder of Sinatra, of course, changed all that for those venerable popular composers. Despite the shortcomings in Frank's many endeavors -- as an actor, a businessman, a political water carrier, a civil human being -- it is as a musician we must judge him. And it is as a musician he shines.

Like an overweight man who raids the refrigerator in the middle of the night, I catch myself at the oddest moments singing "The Night We Called It A Day," "One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)" or "The Summer Wind." I have a jukebox application on my computer that allows me to customize my listening on the Internet, so I have included a Frank Sinatra channel in my preferences and, thereby, discovered a great many songs I'd not heard before. Only last week, I discovered "Coffee Song (They've Got an Awful Lot Of Coffee In Brazil)" via this method, and for 10 days now I've had the bloody, bouncy thing percolating around my head like some persistent daydream of my high school girlfriend.

And let me not forget Sinatra's association with some of the jazz greats: Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and Harry James.  Still, it is less with that genre of music than with individual songs that I associate him, and that is a very nearly unique phenomenon in my listening experience. Many singers have their signature tunes. Tony Bennett can't get off stage without "I Left My Heart In San Francisco" and anyone who's ever sat in a Chuck Berry audience never failed to leave the concert hall without hearing "Johnny B. Goode." The tunes define these artists in, perhaps, a less-than-fair way, primarily because dozens of others have done them as well or better.

But it is a rare singer who becomes the signature for his tunes. Sinatra's style has a way of embedding itself into the song. Just as Ray Charles' style appropriated ownership of "Georgia On My Mind" from its composer, Hoagy Carmichael, Sinatra's has staked out an entire portfolio of tunes that owe their continued popularity to the kid from Hoboken.

In short, when I hear the name of Chuck Berry, I think of his many songs and of the many people who performed them. When I hear songs like "That Old Feeling," "I've Got A Crush On You," "Night And Day" or "It Was A Very Good Year," no matter who is performing, I think of Sinatra.

Yet, I have a difficult time thinking of Sinatra as a jazzman, but that's probably more my fault than his. He did, after all, have the sense in the early 1950s to clash with Mitch Miller, musical director of Sinatra's label at the time, Columbia Records, over Miller's anti-musical approach to selling discs with the gimcrackery that still afflicts many rock bands. And that was during a period of decline for Frank, a period which would end with yet another string of hits, the revival of his film career and the founding of his own label, Reprise.

He obviously had a reverence for jazz, was significant during its fertile periods and, with his talent, opened the way to our music for many who don't claim to be anyone other than someone who enjoys a ditty. There are many lesser achievements a man can claim.

Forget that his periodic emergence from retirement allowed us to be earwitnesses to his pipes' rusting away. And forget that, as late as the final decade of his life, his penchant for twisting fine lyrics into the Rat Pack hipster jive talk of the '50s signaled the triumph of his ego over his musicianship.
The truth remains that Frank Sinatra practiced some enviable stewardship with regard to the popular song. And for that he deserves, not only his place in the jazz world, but also his status as a towering influence in the first century of its history.