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why sinatra matters

29 September 2003

The title of Pete Hamill's Why Sinatra Matters promises something it doesn't really deliver. We hear that Frank Sinatra mattered immensely to himself, greatly to his mother, significantly to Italian-Americans, and transcendently to American music. The why of the first two matterings is trivial. The why of the third is obvious: like Fiorello LaGuardia or Joe DiMaggio, Sinatra showed that people from immigrant stock could be stars. The why of the fourth matter – Sinatra's music – is difficult to capture, and Hamill doesn't quite succeed here.

There's no glamorous lifestyle here. Sinatra "abused his body in a way that was special to his generation of American men; that he had survived until eighty-two was itself a kind of triumph over the odds." Hamill presents Sinatra as "a good father and a poor husband," and minces no words over the abusiveness (on both sides) of his relationship with Ava Gardner.

Nor does Hamill wax admiring over Sinatra's acting career. The filmography in the back of his book lists only those pictures "that remain worth seeing," and there are only a dozen of those.

But that leaves the music, and Hamill knows that that matters: "his work will endure as long as men and women can hear, and ponder, and feel." That's a pretty safe description of the recordings that Sinatra made with Nelson Riddle at Capitol in the 1950s, where Hamill (and most critics) would locate the core of his achievement.

Hamill insists that Sinatra was a complete original, someone who developed his own style without models and for the most part without tutoring. He was obviously poles apart from Bing Crosby, the dominant male vocalist of the 1930s. Some observers cite Billie Holiday as an influence on Sinatra's phrasing; Hamill demurs. Sinatra admired Holiday, but as Hamill points out, he doesn't sound much like her, except in the strategic sense that both singers were more concerned with the emotional sense of the lyrics than with the melody or tempo of their songs.

But if neither Crosby nor Holiday influenced Sinatra, that doesn't mean that he sprung from nowhere; such a conclusion is an artifact of the "canon," that list of greats that prevails in any craft. Less-remembered people probably affected Sinatra more than the other figures in the canon. Hamill mentions Sy Oliver, arranger for Jimmie Lunceford's great band, as an influence on Sinatra when the singer worked for Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s. I think that Oliver's own vocal style, and that of other Lunceford singers like Joe Thomas, may well have influenced Sinatra's techniques. It's also possible that Lee Wiley and Helen Forrest – especially Wiley, who like Sinatra revered Rodgers and Hart – had an impact on Sinatra's mature 1950s style.

The best part of Hamill's book, for me, is not his biography or even his appreciation of the music but his picture of a small gathering in a Manhattan bar in 1970 – Sinatra, various wordsmiths, and "two young women whose faces were too perfect." The whiskey flows, Sinatra himself is, uncannily, on the jukebox, and the men talk about . . . literature. Hemingway or Fitzgerald? The writers gravitate toward Hemingway. But it's Frank's table. "The Great Gatsby," he says, "come on . . . Hemingway couldn't do that."

I would have loved to have been there. But I was ten years old, in bed, in New Jersey. I'm glad Pete Hamill reported on the scene.

Why Sinatra Matters, first published after Frank Sinatra's death in 1998, is new in paperback from Little, Brown.

Hamill, Pete. Why Sinatra Matters (1998). Boston: Little, Brown, 2003.