What's so great about Sinatra?
February 22, 2007 12:25 AM   Subscribe

What was (is) so great about Sinatra?

I have heard lots of the songs, seen a few of the movies, read a few stories. I just don't get it.
posted by holdkris to Media & Arts (34 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
As a musician (geez, I sound like such a snob), I value him for his phrasing. It's hard to explain until you listen to a bunch of Sinatra, but he has a way of constructing musical lines that sounds so easy and carefree. They say that the early beboppers listened to Sinatra and tried to copy elements of his phrasing. If you listen to early Sonny, Bird, or Dizzy, you can hear some of this.

And from a pop culture sense, well, he is "so great" for the same reason that any pop culture icon is "so great". He had sex with some hot women, he did drugs with some important people, and he had a famously large package, apparently.
posted by rossination at 12:35 AM on February 22, 2007 [3 favorites]

I thought he was pretty good in the movie Suddenly.
posted by meta87 at 12:40 AM on February 22, 2007

I too wondered what was so great about him, and I didn't like him until I listened to some of his Christmas music. I love Christmas music, so having fresh songs with a nice voice behind it is nice. I don't care much for his other work though.
posted by CliffDiving44 at 12:53 AM on February 22, 2007

Best answer: He generally respected a lyric, although there are several cases where a lyric he recorded was different than the published lyric of the tune, often by special arrangement with the songwriters. He worked hard at enunciating, so that the lyrics were understandable to his audience. He'd worked enough with bands and orchestras early in his career to trust them to work around a vocalist, as if he, the vocalist, was an instrumental soloist. He trusted a rythym section to make a swing tune swing, which let him sing the melody without forcing it. As a stylist, he never had the most powerful or resonant voice, or the greatest range, but he used what he had as naturally as he could, and made it generally seem a much better voice than it actually was, by respecting its limits.

Go listen to Frank some more, because he can teach you some things about music and collaboration, if you let him.
posted by paulsc at 1:06 AM on February 22, 2007

Response by poster: paulsc - how do I know where to begin, it seems there are several recordings for every song
posted by holdkris at 1:37 AM on February 22, 2007

Best answer: When considering any artist's body of work, I personally like the chronological view. That means, I try to find the earliest work they did, and then follow their development as an artist, by considering works in roughly the order in which they produced them. So, for Frank Sinatra, you have to go back to the late 30's, when he was starting out as a singer with the Tommy Dorsey band. His voice then was much different than it was at the end of his career, and his style far less polished. His first big hit in 1940, was "I'll Never Smile Again" and if you hear it, and then, immediately, a song from any of his recordings in the '70s or '80s, the differences in the voice are pronounced, but the evolution of technique is incredible.

Find an angle to this interesting man's life that captures your interest, and consider his music in light of that, might be another approach, perhaps. He was many things, besides an entertainer, but his career as an entertainer spanned the creation and popularization of several forms of media. At one point, he was giving 8 shows a day, in appearances in New York, in the late 1940's. Can you imagine what kind of stamina it took to do that? Who would do that now, if anyone?

The more you find out about the guy, the more there is to consider in his music.
posted by paulsc at 2:14 AM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh and as an aside, check out his performance in the original Manchurian Candidate.
posted by DenOfSizer at 3:04 AM on February 22, 2007

Miles Davis, as part of his trumpet practice, used to take the deepest breath he could, dive into a swimming pool, and blow Sinatra phrases through his embouchure until he ran out of breath.

So, pretty much as rossination has it.
posted by Wolof at 3:06 AM on February 22, 2007

how do I know where to begin,

He put out a couple of great albums, "In the Wee Small Hours" and "Songs For Swingin' Lovers". I reckon "Swingin' Lovers" is a great place to start - you get an idea of what the fully-packaged Sinatra sounds like, backed by a great band playing great arrangements of great tunes.

And ditto on what everyone's said about phrasing.
posted by bunglin jones at 3:23 AM on February 22, 2007

Ava Gardner had at least one big reason:
Asked by a reporter what she saw in Sinatra - a 119lb has-been - she replied demurely that 19lb of it was cock.
And if you can forget for a moment the creaky old man singing "My Way" crap and instead think of the days before rock, Sinatra was the sexy star all the girls loved. Before Elvis, it was Sinatra the girls screamed for and fainted over.

And he could sing. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was the best pop singer around, and he sang songs by the best writers. You'll have to try to listen through pre-rock ears to really get it. Forget that Elvis and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones ever existed. Sinatra (1915-1998) was what came after Bing Crosby (1903-1977), who also could sing, so compare their early recordings to hear the difference. Listen to nothing but 1930s/40s Bing all week, and then put on some 1940s/50s Sinatra.
posted by pracowity at 3:26 AM on February 22, 2007

60s Sinatra is rather good too: "A Man Alone", "Watertown" and "September of My Years".

The wonder of Frank at his best is in the phrasing and interpretation of the material.

For some unknown reason this question tipped me over the edge of years of lurking to register...
posted by zemblamatic at 4:13 AM on February 22, 2007

if you listened to his singing and didn't get it, you won't.

just accept the fact that most people agree that his voice was something unique, for its coloratura and timbro. and his phrasing was, well, very unique, too.

having said that, one can be more of a fan of, say, Dino. but the greatness of Sinatra's voice is impossible to deny. it'd be like arguing that Michael Jordan couldn't jump. you can of course be more of a fan of, say, Magic, but still.
posted by matteo at 4:35 AM on February 22, 2007 [1 favorite]

After browsing through this thread I came across this article: Frank Sinatra—Through the Lens of Jazz. It's a homage to old blue eyes from a bunch of jazz players...pretty interesting stuff and might provide a little more insight. Plus they go off on some of the themes mentioned above (phrasing, etc)
posted by timelord at 4:47 AM on February 22, 2007

Oh, and holdkris, they've got five albums at the bottom which they consider to be essential. Sounds like a good place to start.
posted by timelord at 4:52 AM on February 22, 2007

He's from New Jersey.
posted by thetenthstory at 5:20 AM on February 22, 2007

Check out Why Sinatra Matters from your local library.
posted by beaucoupkevin at 5:20 AM on February 22, 2007

He generally respected a lyric, although there are several cases where a lyric he recorded was different than the published lyric of the tune, often by special arrangement with the songwriters.

Bravo paulsc. Sinatra was also able to sing the same song and the same lyrics in completely different ways - not something too many vocalists can do. There have to be at least a dozen different versions of "Luck be a Lady" and each one is unique.
posted by three blind mice at 6:23 AM on February 22, 2007

Initially, I think there was a combination of charming good looks with dangerous connections to make him enough of a bad boy that made the women swoon. Compound that with a dedicated work ethic and actual talent, and he really had the whole package. (No pun intended, really.) But when you listen to him sing, you can hear true emotion in there. I think you can hear hatred for his past in "My Way." I think you can hear longing in "Summerwind."

I am a fan of the whole Rat Pack genre, because I think it goes back to a time in Hollywood when the stars were friends with a sense of loyalty and a code of friendship, and because they knew how to have fun. I don't see that in Hollywood today (outside of some of what Clooney has tried to do with the remake of first Oceans film). There was a charasmatic aura around the pack, and Frank was the leader. Even the cheesiest of the movies (Robin & the Seven Hoods is one of my cheese-tastic faves) it looks like they're having a ball. (For the record, I'm more of a Dean fan. I've always said that I think Frank would toss a lady out of bed when he was done with her, but that Dean would at least make breakfast.)

I was living in Hoboken when Sinatra passed. It was astounding to see the people in the streets mourning this man. He had shed New Jersey long ago, was rumored to hate where he came from, and still he is so beloved that traffic literally stopped at the news that he had passed. So he had to have something that the rest of us don't.
posted by librarianamy at 6:24 AM on February 22, 2007

Live, 1955 in Melbourne in front of a stripped down jazz combo. You don't need an orchestra when you have a walking metronome that is Frank Sinatra.

While I admit that much like Clapton he can go sentimental (My Way, Strangers in the Night), much like Clapton he is a God.

Besides "In the Wee Small Hours" was most likely the first concept album, or at least the first effective one to be recognized as such. While never touching rock and roll, he managed to be an innovator without being hip.

He had a bad boy image and crooned traditionally enough to be liked by parents and the children. He literally owned the stage, to the point where "Chairman of the Board" seems like less of a nickname and more of a natural extension of who he is.
posted by geoff. at 6:32 AM on February 22, 2007

There's one elements that has been discussed in this thread yet -- he started as a teeny bopper singer, and, as he matured, his selection of music tended to mature with him ("Bim Bam Baby") not withstanding. At his prime, he was singing intensely sophisticated songs with a distinctly adult sensibility, which he sang with an intimacy that made them sound autobiographical. These were songs of lovers lost and mourned, of lovers desired and unattainable, of jet-setting romance; nothing teeny bopper about them. His selection of songs represents the best of American pop songwriting, and its worth knowing his catalog.

Also, his bast albums are thematically unified, which was something that many modern jazz musicians were experimenting with, but was not common among pop artists; after all, music was then still dominated by singles.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:30 AM on February 22, 2007

Best answer: He's completely overrated; don't discount your gut reaction to him. He sounds consistently slightly flat to me, and he yells out his songs like a thug—which he was.

He represents all that is Bully Culture, and I think people like him for the same reason that they like Mobster movies: they like seeing the little guy stepped on by the more powerful and the conscienceless. Sinatra's the music to listen to after coming home from a long day of strikebreaking and busting Union heads, or tenderly making love to your wife after dumping some guy's corpse in a hole.

The Rat Pack were a bunch of guys who were famous just for being assholes, and Sinatra was their figurehead because he was the biggest asshole of them all. If ten thousand people believe a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing. Your dislike of Sinatra is not irrational.

He is great in "The Manchurian Candidate", though.
posted by interrobang at 8:33 AM on February 22, 2007 [4 favorites]

Here is a Sarah Vowel transcript dealing with Frank's death.

A whole This American Life dealing with Frank.
posted by edgeways at 8:44 AM on February 22, 2007

Sinatra was also the inspiration for the Johhny Fontane character in The Godfather.
posted by kirkaracha at 8:53 AM on February 22, 2007

He sounds consistently slightly flat to me, and he yells out his songs like a thug—which he was.

Ooh...I'm gonna have to disagree w/ you there...if anything, Sinatra was more in control of his intonation than most singers (popular ones at least). He really came up under Tommy Dorsey, and that's where I think he really learned to exercise his voice. I suppose you could consider his delivery "thuggish"...but personally, I don't hear that at all.

Now as to whether or not he was an actual thug? Well, from everything I've read and heard...yeah that actually sounds about right. Not all the time (here people will cite charity work, attitudes towards desegregation in Vegas, etc), but, I won't deny that point.
posted by timelord at 9:04 AM on February 22, 2007

For me, it's the experience and world-weariness, perhaps wistfulness, his voice expresses in songs like "Summer Wind," "When I was 17," and my first wedding-dance song, "The Way You Look Tonight."

More than any other singer, he made me nostalgic for an era I never knew, and maybe none of us ever really knew outside the movies, an era of big-skirted party dresses and strolling in gardens and on ocean boardwalks, with the war over and only prosperity ahead. When the grownups, the WW II generation, were young and healthy and in charge and anything was possible. Yeah, it's fiction, but so is the images garnered by Beatles songs, and by any singer now or since.
posted by GaelFC at 9:08 AM on February 22, 2007

Response by poster: thanks for those links edgeways. I must say he has about the coolest mug shot I have seen, especially considering the violation.

Speaking of Beatles GaelFC, I asked the same question of them a few years back, but figured that one out. Maybe I am too young for Frank.
posted by holdkris at 9:25 AM on February 22, 2007

There's one elements that has been discussed in this thread yet -- he started as a teeny bopper singer, and, as he matured, his selection of music tended to mature with him ("Bim Bam Baby") not withstanding.

Yes, yes, yes -- that's something that tends to get lost in the focus on the mobbed-up Rat Pack image. In the earliest years of his success, Sinatra's image wasn't bad-boy thuggish, or swinging Vegas sophisticate -- it was pure teen idol. He had a huge following of squealing teenage fangirls who might not have known from phrasing or timbro, but thought his crooning voice and boyish looks were just dreamy. My mother was one of those 1940s bobbysoxers, so I've heard lots of stories of the same sort of fannish hysteria and devotion that you'd later see around Elvis or the Beatles. And as folks have mentioned, his talent and style matured over the years, so even as his fans grew older and more sophisticated, they could still find new things to enjoy in his work instead of throwing him aside as an outgrown teenage fad. Lots of those bobbysoxers remained fans for life.
posted by Smilla's Sense of Snark at 10:04 AM on February 22, 2007

Echoing librarianamy and GaelFC -- even just thinking about "Summer Wind" made my heart jump in my throat. For me, I think (combining some of the answers here), it's that sense from his voice that he wants to have a better voice and he wants to be a gentler, better person and he wants to be worthy of you, but... maybe he's not. It's that struggle between what he can do, what he is, and what he thinks maybe he could be (maybe with your help, baby, you can turn him around).

It's not that he's a tough guy, it's that he's a tough guy trying to be good. He's a tough guy that you could change if you just loved him well enough. You could alleviate that sadness, that weariness, from his voice and make him happy. Really, you could, and you would forgive him all the indescretions, because he was trying to change and he knew he could be a better person if you just stuck by his side.

I had an immense crush on a guy in college who was a total dude, just crass and jock-y and totally not my type, except oh my god could the guy write. Beautiful, lyrical, sensitive stories that took my breath away. That spark of sensitivity and caring buried under the macho gruff thing will almost always cause a lot of people's hearts to go ping! and want to reach out and find that unexpected connection.

That's what I get when I listen to Sinatra, at least his ballads. My heart goes ping! and I want to help him in his struggle to be a better person.
posted by occhiblu at 10:26 AM on February 22, 2007 [2 favorites]

My dad sang "Fly me to the moon" a few years back for a church revue. I offered to voice coach him a bit, and listened intently to the recording. I was struck, as soon as I got to "In other words", that the phrasing had jumped. In the verses, Sinatra stays behind the beat - a lot. In the refrain, his phrasing jumps out in front of the beat. Even if you can't directly notice this, the change really demarcates the boundary between refrain and verse. It took me a good week to be able to do that enough to make my dad notice exactly what I was talking about. That phrasing is just brilliant.

The guy was a real son of a bitch, but man could he *sing*.
posted by notsnot at 1:12 PM on February 22, 2007

(Timbre, guys. With an e.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 1:15 PM on February 22, 2007

Please ignore interrobang. In addition to indulging in racism, stereotyping, and prejudice, he's wrong. I suspect he's an aging hippie who is still mad at Mom & Dad.
posted by keswick at 1:38 PM on February 22, 2007

Frank Sinatra Has a Cold
posted by kirkaracha at 2:00 PM on February 22, 2007

Sinatra had amazing rhythmic control. He did the "right" kind of rubato -- the rhythm secion kept a steady beat, and he constantly moved "in and out of phase," while always getting back to being absolutely together on the important beats. If you try to sing along with him, you'll find that it's almost impossible, because he was always someplace different from the rhythm section.

Lots of singers try this, but it doesn't work beause they don't get back together with the band when that's necessary. It's the combination of freedom and precision that makes things work.

Also, lots of singers show that they are feeling the emotion of the song. Sinatra knew how evoke feelings in the listeners. He often sang "straight," so that he didn't hog the feelings for himself, but let the song flow out and into the listeners.
posted by KRS at 2:32 PM on February 22, 2007

Keswick: How is his amusing screed racist?
posted by lalochezia at 8:42 PM on February 22, 2007

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