When it comes to Frank Sinatra’s life, James Kaplan’s timing is just about perfect. This Saturday, December 12 marks the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth in Hoboken, New Jersey.
James Kaplan has written a two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra – “Frank: the Voice” and the latest, “Sinatra: the Chairman."
Kaplan tells the story of Sinatra’s life as a singer, radio performer, and movie actor – and his ups and downs professionally and personally.
Las Vegas is one of the most prominent places in Frank Sinatra’s life and career, and Frank Sinatra is also one of the most important figures in Las Vegas’s history.
James Kaplan talked with KNPR about Frank Sinatra. Some interview highlights:
In your book you describe Sinatra’s vocal brilliances as a mix of “phrasing, rhythm, and syncopation.” It sounded so easy over the years, but he worked really hard at that, didn’t he? I mean, it didn’t come naturally?
People often ask me: what was the biggest surprise, for you, in working on these books? I have the feeling they’re usually looking for some hitherto unearthed bit of juicy gossip. And all the gossip has been unearthed. It’s all out there. I had to deal with it, too. I had to write about it and try and fact check it and make sure it was all correct. But for me the biggest surprise was how incredibly hard Sinatra worked on his singing. And that included, of course, the things you mentioned. Breath control. Phrasing was not something that he worked on per se, but thought about a lot, and learned deeply from the beginning from Billie Holiday, whom he idolized. And then there are the lyrics. He adored a great lyric. And when he first got a song – a new song – he would study that lyric as if it were a poem until it was in his bones before he ever sang a note of music. It’s a great voice. It is a voice beyond great, really, because I think what Sinatra brings to his singing that nobody else does - no one else does no matter how great the voice - is making you feel that he is feeling these feelings and thinking these thoughts in the second that he’s singing them. How he does that is very mysterious.
Sinatra and the Mob
To put a fine point on it, Frank was mob friendly. He had been since the beginning.
What accounts for that? Was it the kind of folks he grew up in Hoboken? What was the attraction? It seemed to be a real symbiotic relationship.
Symbiotic is pushing it a bit. I would say mutually exploitative is more like it. This doesn’t excuse him for the time he spent – for the great amount of time he spent, happily spent - among mobsters. But the explanation of it is that Frank Sinatra grew up Italian-American in Hoboken, New Jersey in the 1920s and 1930s at a time when Italian-Americans were very low on America’s social ladder – just a half step above African-Americans. Like African-Americans, Italian-Americans were seen as happy-singing-dancing people. It was a horrible cliché. It was terribly racist, but people believed that. People believed that Italian-Americans just loved to eat spaghetti, and now and then shoot people. And Frank Sinatra suffered a lot from those stereotypes, and he hated it. He hated the easy racism of America in the 1920s and 30s. And it went on into the 1940s and 50s…The [nightclubs] were run by the mob, and a lot of these guys, were mafia. They were Italian-American and Frank Sinatra saw these guys as men of power. Unlike the cliché of Italian-Americans – putting aside the shooting people part – they were not happy-singing-dancing people. They were not inferior. They were men of power and Sinatra – to his discredit - also saw them as men of honor. He idolized them. And from the beginning, as he ran into them in the clubs, he loved hanging around them. And he idolized them the way a small boy idolized cowboys or football players. He thought they were tough and he thought they were cool. And he felt that way until the end of his days. And these guy ran the casinos in Vegas and they saw in Sinatra – again symbiotic, not so much – mutually exploitative. What they saw in Sinatra was a big draw. These guy were all about the bottom-line. They were all about the moolah, the cash, the skim. They were all about getting the suckers into the casinos to gamble away their earnings and Frank Sinatra was a star who could draw them there. That’s what they liked him for.
Sinatra and Las Vegas
What did Sinatra do for Las Vegas and what, in turn, did Las Vegas do for Sinatra?
As the town grew in the 50s, Sinatra was on this incredible comeback. He was making these new great albums at Capitol Records, suddenly he was a movie star again. He was the hottest thing in show business. And he loved Vegas. And he loved The Sands. And the town really sprouted-up around him…Suddenly, with the Rat Pack – suddenly in 1960, there was this whole idea of Vegas as the world capital of naughtiness….Sinatra was the star of the place. He brought in the crowds, he personified the naughtiness that people dreamt about. And they loved to come and see Frank sing his gorgeous songs, but also to be bold and swaggering, and kind of “I don’t give a damn” on-stage.
How should we think about Frank Sinatra as we commemorate a hundred years since his birth?
My contention is that what will be remembered about Frank Sinatra even after this whole mystique of the Rat Pack - the effortless style, the tuxedos, the cufflinks, the way he wore his hat, the way he swung the microphone cord, his fantastic charisma – even after all that fades, what is going to remain, and will remain for decades and probably centuries to come, is that incredible voice. THAT is really his legacy - that feeling again that when we hearing Sinatra sing, we are feeling along with him, and thinking along with him in the midst, in the middle of these great songs that he’s singing. And it’s really a quality that continues - as long as I’ve listened to Sinatra - continues to raise the hairs on the back of my neck. And I think it always will. I think an awful lot of people feel the same way.
James Kaplan, author of a two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra: “Frank: the Voice” (Doubleday, 2010) and the latest, “Sinatra: the Chairman” (Doubleday, 2015)
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