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Frank Sinatra


He held the 'patent' for the popular song

In this story:

Inspired by Bing Crosby
The songs, the voice, the style
Elder statesman
"Still as sweet"
As an actor, a versatile and natural talent
A career that went higher and higher
Role of a lifetime
From gritty dramas to zany comedies
Doing what comes naturally
He lived life his way
Romance, Sinatra-style
The Camelot connection
The swinger and a dad
Endless philanthropic interests

"No one sells a song like Francis Albert Sinatra," a music critic once wrote. And that remained true through nearly six decades of sweeping changes in music and pop culture.

Sinatra cut his first record in 1939, and by the time he had finished he had made some 1,800 recordings, gathered nine Grammys and was considered by many critics to be the preeminent singer of this century.

As music critic John Rockwell once said, Sinatra is "the greatest singer in the history of popular music."

Fellow crooner Mel Torme echoed the praise, saying Sinatra "held the patent, the original blueprint, on singing the popular song."

Perhaps Sinatra's mass appeal is best summed up by a date: 1996, the year he won his last Grammy -- 47 years after his first record -- for the album "Duets II."

The second in a series of CDs, "Duets II" paired Sinatra with contemporary artists like Bono of U2 and Gloria Estefan, and symbolized the resurgence in the popularity of swing era music in the 1990s.

"Sinatra has got what we want: swagger and attitude," Bono had been quoted as saying. "Serious attitude. Bad attitude. Frank's the chairman of the bad. I'm not going to mess with him. Are you?"

Inspired by Bing Crosby

Ignoring his father's claim that "singing is for sissies," young Sinatra, living in Hoboken, New Jersey, attended a 1933 concert by his idol, Bing Crosby. Sinatra was so moved by Crosby's singing, he decided at that moment that he, too, would pursue a singing career.

Gigs at local clubs and bars led to a radio contest in which Sinatra, teamed with a trio, took first prize.

A succession of concert dates and radio shows followed. By 1939, he fronted for bandleader Harry James.

Taking note of Sinatra's slim build and huge ego, James remarked, "He considers himself the greatest vocalist in the business. Get that! No one's ever heard of him! He's never had a hit record, and he looks like a wet rag, but he says he's the greatest."

In 1940, big band legend Tommy Dorsey signed Sinatra, and in the years that followed, the team made several hit records for an edgy nation consumed by World War II.

By 1942, Sinatra became the idol of bobby-sox-wearing high school girls.

A concert at New York's Paramount Theater, according to many observers, was the official launch of Sinatra's career as a solo artist.

The songs, the voice, the style

And what a solo career it was. Sinatra put his stamp on dozens of tunes familiar to the music lover's ear, including the timeless theme of the Big Apple, "New York, New York," and the anthem of every iconoclast, "My Way."

Some other Sinatra classics include "Night and Day," "Witchcraft," "Love and Marriage," "Strangers in the Night," "September of My Years," "The Lady is a Tramp" and a duet with daughter Nancy, "Something Stupid," along with countless others.

Critics raved that Sinatra was one of the first to care about the words he was singing, "reading" the lyrics with a clarity that had never been matched and wringing emotion from each line.

"What is the point of singing wonderful lyrics if the audience can't understand what is being said or heard?" Sinatra once said.

Claiming he never took voice lessons and could never read sheet music very well, Sinatra said swimming helped him build his lung capacity, which gave him the ability to lengthen phrases, a Sinatra trademark. It was a singing style that was often imitated.

In the early 1950s, Sinatra's singing career was nearly cut short by severely damaged vocal cords. But by the middle of the decade, the voice was back, and the nation, distracted by a new rage -- rock 'n' roll -- still made Sinatra a best-selling recording artist. His 1955 album "In The Wee Small Hours" reached No. 2 on album charts, and "Songs For Swingin' Lovers" in 1956 spent 66 weeks on the charts, also topping out at No. 2.

Musicologists, however, often refer to this period as a low point in Sinatra's singing career.

Elder statesman

In the 1960s, Sinatra formed his own record label -- Reprise Records -- and topped charts again with the albums "Nice and Easy" and "Strangers in the Night." He did this while performing Las Vegas concerts with fellow "Rat Pack" members Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

By the 1970s, Sinatra had become the elder statesmen of the entertainment industry, and his legend as one of the foremost talents of the 20th century continued to grow.

In 1990, Sinatra celebrated his 75th birthday with a national tour, showing his fans that he was still king of music's hill, despite the fact his legendary voice had faded with age. At the 1994 Grammy Awards in New York, Sinatra was honored for a lifetime of musical accomplishments with the prestigious "Legend" award.

A few days later, the singer passed out after becoming overheated during a Virginia concert. He was released from the hospital hours after being admitted, but the incident effectively marked the end of his days as a performer.

"Still as sweet"

In 1995, Ol' Blue Eyes lit up the town he loved, literally. As the music world gathered to pay tribute to Sinatra on his 80th birthday, New York City showed its appreciation by lighting the Empire State Building in blue. It was an unmatched tribute for a man of unmatched talents.

One of his favorite songwriters, the late Sammy Cahn, once summed up Sinatra's singing career in this way: "When he was young, in the '40s, he was a violin. In the '50s, he was a viola. By the '60s, he was a cello and when he got to the '80s, he was a bass.

"The music was still sweet. It was just played on a different instrument," Cahn said.

From his early days to the end of his career, Sinatra always approached a performance on the same note.

"I swear on my mother's soul, the first four or five seconds, I tremble every time I take the step and walk out of the wing onto the stage," he once confessed to CNN's Larry King. "Because I keep thinking to myself, I wonder if (the voice) will be there when I go for the first sounds that I have to make; will it be there?"

But the sound was always there. Maybe, like the song title, it was witchcraft.

"There will never be another Frank Sinatra," entertainer Vic Damone once said. "He is all by himself, with what he's done with his life as a performer and as a man."

As an actor, a versatile and natural talent

Frank Sinatra was no stranger to movie audiences.

His distinguished and versatile acting career includes appearances in at least 60 films, from breezy comedies to dark dramas.

"Frank was as open and as clear a talent as I have ever seen," actor Darren McGavin said.

A career that went higher and higher

Sinatra had his starring debut in the 1944 film, "Higher and Higher." The movie's light style accommodated the young Sinatra's easy, innocent manner.

A string of similar comedies followed, including "Step Lively" in 1944 with Anne Jeffreys, the woman who has the distinction of being Sinatra's first on-screen kiss.

"And all of the fans would say, 'Oh, how did it feel to kiss Sinatra?'" Jeffreys recalls. "'How did it feel?' And I said, 'I don't know, I'm an actress. That's part of the role.' I didn't take it seriously. Now I wish I had."

In films like "Anchors Aweigh" with Gene Kelly and "High Society" with Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, Sinatra played what he was: a fabulously famous and talented singer.

Role of a lifetime

The entertainer donated his time to the 1945 short project, "The House I Live In," a musical that stressed religious and racial tolerance. The film won a special Academy Award.

But it wasn't until the early 1950s -- with his singing career on a temporary downslide due to problems with his vocal cords -- that Sinatra took steps to become the critically-acclaimed actor his fans remember.

While visiting Africa with his second wife, Ava Gardner -- who was filming "Mogambo" with Clark Gable and Grace Kelly -- Sinatra read the best-selling novel, "From Here to Eternity," which had a character named Angelo Maggio, an Italian-American GI.

The movie rights to the book were soon bought by Columbia Pictures.

"I became determined to land that role," Sinatra said.

Sinatra borrowed money from Gardner, flew to Los Angeles, took a screen test and won the supporting role for the 1953 film. For his work, Sinatra was paid only $8,000, compared to the $150,000 a picture he had previously received.

It paid off. Sinatra won an Academy Award as best supporting actor for his portrayal of Maggio. The success also opened the door to other roles for Sinatra.

From gritty dramas to zany comedies

In 1955, he starred in the film, "The Man With The Golden Arm," the story of a junkie struggling to kick his heroin habit. Sinatra got another Oscar nomination, this time as best actor.

That same year, Sinatra sang with Marlon Brando and Jean Simmons in the award-winning musical, "Guys and Dolls."

"The Manchurian Candidate," which came out in 1962, is considered by many critics to be one of Sinatra's best.

The Cold War political thriller starred Sinatra as a Korean War veteran haunted by recurring nightmares and a sinister enemy plot.

Sinatra continued to perform in comedies, such as "Ocean's Eleven" (1960) and "Robin and the Seven Hoods" (1964) -- films he made with his legendary "Rat Pack" buddies, including the entertainers Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford.

Sinatra played an action hero in "Von Ryan's Express" (1965). As Col. Joseph L. Ryan, he leads a trainload of American prisoners out of Nazi Germany.

Sinatra starred in "The Detective" (1968), one of the first films to deal with subject of homosexuality.

His last dramatic role came in "First Deadly Sin" (1980), playing a New York cop on the hunt for a psychotic killer. The movie was not well-received by critics. It landed co-star Faye Dunaway a Razzie Award nomination for worst actress.

Sinatra made a self-mocking cameo appearance in the 1984 comedy, "Cannonball Run II," and was the voice of the Singing Sword in the cartoon movie, "Who Framed Roger Rabbit."

Doing what comes naturally

Sinatra dove into his acting roles with relish.

"I thought that acting is like playacting like we did when we were kids," Sinatra once told CNN's Larry King. "But suddenly you're grown up and it's for real.

"And then you become immersed in what you're playing, too. I made myself think that I was really that guy in any film I did."

Sinatra's peers thought Sinatra was a talent on screen.

Actress Shirley MacLaine criticized Sinatra's refusal to "work harder at what he's doing." But she still praised his talent.

"There are in this world, just talented people, and Frank was one of them," actress Barbara Rush said. "He was a wonderful actor. A really good actor. He had passion."

He lived life his way

Sinatra lived life his way, and the legions of reporters and writers covered the man their way.

His personal life was a top attraction to the media, who were drawn to his legendary image as a "connected" carouser, a lover and a fighter.

And in reports that followed his every move, the nation soon learned that for Sinatra, love and marriage didn't exactly go together like a horse and carriage.

Romance, Sinatra-style

They learned about the relationship with his first wife, Nancy Barbato. She was his sweetheart from his teen years, the one who knew him when he dreamed of a career as a singer.

They married in 1939 as Sinatra's career reached the countdown stages before lift-off. Their first child, Nancy Sandra, was born in the following year, and they had two more children by the end of the 1940s, Franklin Wayne (Frank Jr.) in 1944 and Tina in 1948.

But the fairy-tale marriage that ascended with Sinatra's fame soon came crashing down when Sinatra became involved with one of the world's best-known sex symbols, Ava Gardner.

The affair made headlines and led to Sinatra's divorce from Nancy. Six days after the papers were signed in November 1951, Sinatra married Gardner.

The relationship between Sinatra and Gardner was passionate and volatile.

"The troubles were all out of bed -- the quarreling started on the way to breakfast," Sinatra said.

They separated in 1953 and divorced in 1957. The split hit Sinatra hard, and Sinatra-watchers say he contemplated suicide during this time. Music critics, on the other hand, noted that he put more emotion in his songs after the split with Gardner.


Through the years that followed his break-up with Gardner, Sinatra was linked to some of the most beautiful women in the world, including Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe.

Sinatra shocked fans in the 1960s with his courting of and marriage to Mia Farrow. She was 20; he was 50.

Farrow's mother, actress Maureen O'Sullivan, said at the time, "Never mind Mia. He should be marrying me."

Even fellow "Rat Pack" buddy Dean Martin got into the act.

"I've got scotch older than Mia Farrow," Martin said.

Farrow and Sinatra divorced in 1968, two years after they were married.

Sinatra finally settled down with Barbara Marx, the former wife of Zeppo Marx. They married in 1976, and she escorted the entertainer through the twilight of his career.

Sinatra might have been a better friend to his former wives than he was a husband. When it was revealed that former wife Mia Farrow's love interest, director Woody Allen, was having an affair with her adopted daughter, it was reported that Sinatra offered to have Allen's legs broken.

The Camelot connection

Sinatra was always considered "connected," enjoying close relationships with everyone from presidents to princes, and, of course, alleged ties to the Mafia, something he strongly denied.

He vigorously supported John F. Kennedy's campaign for president heading into the 1960s, and Sinatra's version of "High Hopes" was the campaign's theme song.

Rumors, however, claimed that he dropped out of favor with the Kennedys following revelations that he introduced the president to a woman who simultaneously became Kennedy's mistress and the mistress of Mafia boss Sam Giancana. The reports were never confirmed.

Mafia ties were always a popular subject in books about Sinatra. Perhaps the one that claimed the most attention was Kitty Kelley's controversial "His Way," an unauthorized biography that Sinatra tried to prevent from being published.

The Washington Post called the scathing biography "as damning a book as has ever been written about an American entertainer."

A swinger and a dad

The Sinatra image often fluctuated. He was a rowdy "Rat Pack" swinger one minute, doing the town with Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.

"You've got to be livin', baby," he would say, "because dyin' is a pain in the ass."

The next minute, he was a doting father. For example, accompanied by his band, he attended the high school graduation of daughter Nancy.

Sinatra was also known for impeccable style, from the liquor he drank to the clothes he wore.

"He never wore brown after dark," says Bill Zehme, author of the Sinatra biography, "The Way You Wear Your Hat." "For instance, men who wore brown would be ... taken aside. (Sinatra) would say, 'What are you doing? You wear black or dark gray or maybe navy, but that's it.'"

Endless philanthropic interests

Sinatra battled racism and helped open doors for black talents like Sammy Davis Jr.

He fought Hollywood's blacklist during the 1950s, putting out-of-work writers, actors and colleagues on his payroll throughout his career. It was Sinatra who helped pay for Judy Garland's bills when the actress was in financial straits.

His family says Sinatra's philanthropic interests were endless. According to stories from people who associated with him, Sinatra often read the newspaper and found people who suffered misfortune. He'd then have his secretary send them money -- always anonymously.

He gave so much to charities over the years that his family says they have simply lost track of a dollar amount, estimated to be "in the millions."

Sinatra has become so popular, and perhaps so hard to pin down, a group of scholars has dedicated conferences to his status as an American cultural icon.

One gathering in 1998 at Hofstra University is titled, "Frank Sinatra: The Man, the Music, the Legend."

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