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The skinny balding short-arse genius of song – Colin Hogg on Frank Sinatra

Colin Hogg reviews Sinatra: The Chairman, by James Kaplan (Hachette, $40).

According to this new book, the only reason the mobster Sam Giancana didn’t have his famous troublemaking pal Frank Sinatra knocked off was that he loved the singer’s voice so much. It was a lucky thing for Sinatra the infamous killer was a fan, and a lucky thing for the world through the middle of the 20th century, though these days the thrill of Sinatra’s trill has faded a little with exposure and time and changing musical fashions.

It’s sometimes difficult now, listening to his ring-a-ding-ding stuff generally and My Way particularly. His quiet moments, his miraculous feeling for lyrics, especially when he had good ones, still connect though.

But it was a century ago last year that Sinatra was born and going on for 80 years since he invented a new sort of pop stardom, singing so well, with such serious connective emotion that the seas of shrieking adoring fans overlooked the fact he was a skinny balding short-arse with a scarred face (injury from his forceps-assisted birth) and an attitude to match.

Sinatra famously took his attitude to the top with him, a living monument to carefree unbridled masculinity, often skating his heavy talent across thin ice, but enduring right up until his death, and some time after that too.

This book, a whopper at nearly 1000 pages, is the second and concluding volume in James Kaplan’s masterful, compellingly-anecdotal record of America’s greatest singer and it’s even harder to put down than it is to pick up. It takes off where Frank: The Voice left off at the end of the 1950s and propels forward across his final 40 years, an extraordinary story, so full of brilliance and bad behaviour and with so many famous co-stars it needs every one of those very many pages.

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Some of the stories might take your breath away. Like this little one:

It was an eventful summer at Cal-Neva (a casino Sinatra owned a large share of) though not all events made the papers.

The night after the opening, a local deputy sheriff named Richard Anderson came to the lodge to pick up his wife, Toni, an attractive cocktail waitress just finishing her shift. The two had been married for three months; prior to this, Toni had been involved with Frank Sinatra. Yet even though she was now a married woman, Frank – who was, after all, also her employer – continued to treat her in a proprietary way. Anderson had warned Sinatra to stay away from his wife.

On the night of June 30, as the deputy stood in the lodge’s kitchen, talking to the dishwashers while he waited for his wife, Frank came in and asked Anderson what he was doing there. When Anderson said he was picking up his wife, Frank tried to throw him out. Anderson refused to leave; matters escalated. In the scuffle that ensued, Anderson punched Sinatra – so hard that Frank was unable to perform for the next couple of days. In retaliation, Sinatra had Anderson suspended from the police force.

Two weeks later, the deputy sheriff and his wife were driving to dinner when a car moving at high speed in the oncoming lane forced them off the road. The Andersons’ car smashed into a tree and Richard Anderson was killed instantly. His wife, thrown from the car, suffered multiple fractures. The other car – a maroon convertible with California plates, according to an eyewitness – never stopped, and the driver couldn’t be traced.

Sinatra was a walking chip on the shoulder, the little guy who wanted to be the tough guy, whatever it took. He didn’t record My Way for nothing, though he tired of the song. Right from the moment he had the power his talent and fame gave him, it was his way or – as in the case of Deputy Sheriff Anderson – the highway.

In the end, he fell out with all his old pals, except Dean Martin, who never took Sinatra seriously anyway, and lost all his lovers and wives. When Sinatra started his own label Reprise, in the early ‘60s (he fell out with his old label), he banned rock and roll from it, signing up all his pals and his old jazz idols instead ensuring the label came close to tanking in its early years as rock music took over the world.

Sinatra was simultaneously a movie star, but his contempt for the process of filming, doomed him to a patchy screen career, though he had his moments (From Here to Eternity, The Manchurian Candidate).

But genius can only stretch so far. After all, Sinatra’s also the man who invented the concept album in the 1950s with gloom classics like Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely, an idea that would be taken up by the rock music he banned from his label less than a decade later.

His best-by date had passed when rock music swept the old ways into the shadows and denied older singers like him younger ears. He responded in the early 1970s by announcing his retirement, though it didn’t last – it just slowed him down as he adjusted to singing his songs to his own aging demographic.

James Kaplan is good on the music, catching Sinatra’s extraordinary in-the-moment feel for a song, his creative restlessness. And he’s great on the Mafia stuff, JFK, the inevitable Rat Pack, the treacheries and paranoia, the designation of women as lesser, but wonderful, creatures.

A terrific book. Weird times in the old goldmine.


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