How Frank Sinatra changed the world

Story highlights

  • December 12, 2015, marks the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra
  • David Lehman: Why do people continue to celebrate this man? Begin with his musical genius

David Lehman is the author of the new book, "Sinatra's Century: One Hundred Notes on the Man and His World" (HarperCollins). He is founder and editor of the Best American Poetry series. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)December 12 is the 100th birthday of Frank Sinatra.

From Las Vegas to New Hope, Pennsylvania, fans are toasting Old Blue Eyes at black-tie dinner parties with Rat Pack entertainment. Siriusly Sinatra satellite radio is going wall-to-wall Frank. He is the star of the month on Turner Classic Movies.
David Lehman
Why do people continue to celebrate this man? Begin with his musical genius. As long as melody and harmony are valued, people will listen to, and dance to, and make love to the sounds of Sinatra.
    The first of his nicknames was "The Voice." The young man's voice was incomparable in its power, timbre, range and agility. There are the songs he sang in the 1940s as the boy singer in the Harry James and Tommy Dorsey bands and when he went on his own and wowed the girls who rioted at the Paramount in New York City for a chance to hear Frankie. And there are the songs he sang in the 1950s when the voice deepened and he began to epitomize a grown-up masculine ideal.
    In the first category the songs include "All or Nothing at All," "I'll Never Smile Again," "Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night in the Week," "Time After Time." In the second category: "You Make Me Feel So Young," "I've Got You under My Skin," "Witchcraft," "All the Way."
    In the 1960s, the third decade of his dominance, Sinatra took swing to new heights with Count Basie ("Fly Me to the Moon"), dabbled in the Bossa Nova ("The Girl from Ipanema"), and made great songs sound like chapters in his own autobiography ("It Was a Very Good Year").
    More often than not, it is Sinatra's version of a song that is definitive. He recognized that the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, Leonard Bernstein, Jule Styne, Jimmy Van Heusen and many others had created classic American popular songs. By recording them, Sinatra renewed the life of great music.
    Sinatra changed popular song by the force of his example -- by his great, jazz-inflected phrasing -- and by bringing to the interpretation of a lyric the skill and passion of a method actor.
    He has a song called "Here's to the Losers." Though we know he is a millionaire many times over, a legend, a star, and the sometime beau of Ava Gardner, arguably the most beautiful girl in the world, he has no trouble convincing us that he is one of the losers, the last drunk on his feet at a quarter to three, spilling his guts incoherently to Joe the bartender in the great saloon song, "One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)," written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.
    At the same time, no one sounds more joyous and buoyant than Sinatra when he's on top ("I've Got the World on a String") and is about to undertake a romantic adventure and invites you to tag alone ("Come Fly with Me").We're lucky that The Voice had a movie career, because we get to hear him sing ("On the Town," "High Society," "Guys and Dolls," "Pal Joey") and also because of his superb performances in strictly dramatic roles: in "From Here to Eternity," for which he won an Oscar, and "The Manchurian Candidate."
    If we love it that a singer can double as a movie star and can be the acknowledged leader of the Rat Pack on the one hand and the Chairman of the Board of his own recording company on the other, here's your man: complicated, driven, a perfectionist, an artist who sang like an angel but could speak like a hood, a man of noble generosity and a violent temper. He lived out a myth not altogether of his own making. Rumors constantly circled around him. To this day some people believe that Sinatra got the part of Maggio in "From Here to Eternity" because a goon decapitated a thoroughbred named Khartoum and deposited the horse's head in the sleeping film director's bed.
    Sinatra's influence goes beyond music. He's an exemplar of style, proof that appearances matter. The fedora tilted just so ("a flower's not a flower if it's wilted, / a hat's not a hat till it's tilted"); the tuxedo; the trench coat; the splash of sour mash in a glass. It is because of his style that you see Sinatra on television today in commercials for vodka or whiskey. You hear him sing "My Way" in a late episode of "Mad Men" when Don Draper and Peggy Olsen dance. His voice belts out "New York, New York" after every Yankee game, win or lose, at Yankee Stadium, home of champions.
    There is yet one more reason to celebrate this centenary of Sinatra's birth. Dean Maritn cracked, "It's Frank's world. We just live in it." This has been Sinatra's century -- and his career arc, in its political dimension, mirrors that of the American journey. He began as an FDR Democrat, a young rebel who campaigned hard for social tolerance. As JFK's pal he produced an all-star inaugural ball in January 1961. He ended a Reagan Republican. Yet the love of his music transcends all barriers of class and race.
    "May you live to be a hundred," he used to like to say, "and may the last voice you hear be mine." Like millions of other Americans, I sing in the shower and the voice that comes out of my mouth is, thanks to a daily miracle, his.