Frank Sinatra Turns Eighty

December 13, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Blue lights in honor of “Old Blue Eyes.” It seems like the entire world is celebrating Frank Sinatra’s 80th birthday. There’s a new 450-song collection of CD’s, and a handful of new books, including the coffee table version by his daughter, Nancy, chock full of family photos. Sinatra was the only son of Sicilian immigrants, born in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1915. As a teenager he sang in a local band, but soon struck out on his own as a soloist.

FRANK SINATRA: (singing) I walk along. They’ll ask me why, and I’ll tell them I’d rather.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: It was in the 40’s that Sinatra became famous. A teen idol, he earned the nickname “The Voice.” His songs were intimate, lyrical, and romantic.

FRANK SINATRA: (singing) I hear music when I look at you.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: A series of stormy marriages and messy divorces led to dark and melancholy songs.

FRANK SINATRA: (singing) In the wee small hours of the morning–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Sinatra also danced with Gene Kelley and acted with a host of Hollywood greats. He appeared in some 63 films and won an Oscar in 1953 for his performance in “From Here to Eternity.”

FRANK SINATRA: (in film) Hey, buddy. Sam. Hey, come on out fellahs, the tour ain’t Gimbals basement. Stand back there now. Here we go. It’s seven for that, a five deuce. Hey, seven. (rolling dice) Snake eyes. That’s the story of my life.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But whatever else he did, it was singing and Sinatra that were synonymous.

FRANK SINATRA: (singing) Fly me to the moon. Let me play among the stars.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Even for the Apollo 11 astronauts, who put Sinatra on the top of their list for their trip to the moon. In the 1970’s, Sinatra’s image as a bad boy grew, as did his critics, but the singer, who rarely gave interviews, dismissed his critics, saying, “Whatever has been said about me personally is unimportant. When I sing, I believe I’m honest.”

FRANK SINATRA: (singing) The record shows I took the blows, and did it my way.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We’re joined from New York now by two Sinatra experts. One writes; the other sings. Will Friedwald is author of the recent biography Sinatra, The Song is You. Tony Bennett has been performing and recording popular music for more than 40 years. And, Tony Bennett, starting with you, I read somewhere that you said you once got your education playing hooky and listening to Sinatra at the Paramount. What lessons were you learning, and how did that affect your career?

TONY BENNETT: Well, you know, one time I was–had a summer replacement. I was the Michael Jackson of my day. I had so many hit records at that time, and what happened is I became very nervous because they cut the budget for the summer replacements, and when I got there, there was an empty stage, and I had to fill it up for the summer–I got very nervous, and I just took a deep breath and went back stage at the Paramount–Mr. Sinatra was there with Tommy Dorsey, and, and I was warned, they said, look out, he’s a pretty tough guy. I said, “Well, then I think I’m going to get along with him because I love the way he sings.” And he told me–the lesson that he gave me–he said, “Never compromise.”

He said, “Only sing–don’t do cheap songs, don’t do silly songs, just do, just do wonderful songs that are well-written.” And I took his advice, and it’s what it did–it was so constructive because it created a longevity in my career. I’ve been able to stay on top for 40 years now because of good music.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Yes, indeed. You said you loved the way he sings.

TONY BENNETT: And I love–he’s got a golden voice.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is it about his voice, what is it that you loved about the way he sang?

TONY BENNETT: Well, I think, I think in all of the arts there are just certain people that have a gift, you know. I think it’s a certain spirituality, it’s a God-given gift that just certain individuals have, and he’s just blessed with this magnificent ear and taste and knowing–a magnificent sense of phrasing. What he created, he–you know, Bing Crosby invented the art of intimate singing, where Sinatra almost made his, his interpretations biographical.

They, they–it’s–as he’s singing, you could sense that this is what he’s lived at the moment in his brain, that he’s explaining his life story to you and how he feels about life, and he created psychological singing through an intimate microphone.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Bill Friedwald, what, what did you get from the musicians that you talked to about Sinatra and what made him, what made it his way?

WILL FRIEDWALD, Author: Well, to use that phrase, Sinatra is really the first singer, and of course, Tony is another, but Sinatra was really the first singer to really take total control of his musical destiny. He comes from a period–and Tony can attest to this–when a singer would essentially show up a recording session and be handed a song and say, this is what you’re going to sing and here’s how you’re going to sing it, and Sinatra says, no, that’s not the way we do it. Sinatra would go to a session and tell his producers what he wanted, and like you say, they would do it his way. And of course, you know, Sinatra would pick his own songs.

And that may not sound like much, but as Tony can attest, in those days, you know, a singer would never have any say in what they would record. It was very rare. And Sinatra not only would pick his own songs, but he would also pick his musicians, and, again, that was just, you know, unheard of.

He would listen, and he would pick his arrangements, and he would even work out the arrangement with the arranger beforehand. Most of the classic things with Nelson Riddle are, in effect, sketched out by Sinatra beforehand. He would say that I want four bars of strings here, a tenor solo here or flutes, and Riddle would essentially color in his outlines.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I heard he could also tell musicians when he wanted a B flat instead of a B minor and yet, he never studied music,is that right?

WILL FRIEDWALD: Well, from what I gather from the musicians, Sinatra, you know, he’s not like a sight singer, like a jingle singer who can just look at a note on a page and reproduce a sound, but he can follow a score, and he can tell musicians exactly what they want in very technical and precise terms, particularly and it’s not just a matter of knowing what notes are there, but knowing at what volume level to come in, and the same thing goes with the technology of the studio. I mean, he really fathoms all the technological possibilities.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tony, but–excuse me, I’m sorry, go ahead.

WILL FRIEDWALD: There’s even–there’s a tape I have of him in the 1940’s, when he was still very young, where he’s telling the trumpeters to use cut mutes instead of plunger mutes. I mean, he’s that specific in what he wants.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tony Bennett, you talked about how Sinatra influenced you and your style. Were there any singers that influenced him? I mean, did he study with anybody particularly?

TONY BENNETT: There was a fellow by the name of Quinlan that, that taught all of the good singers like Vic Damone and Perry Como and Sinatra, and Dick Hanes, and he was quite famous. But there–there’s also–he was very influenced by Bing Crosby, we all were at that time.


TONY BENNETT: Well, Bing was–just imagine something five times stronger than the popularity of Elvis Presley and the Beatles put together. Bing Crosby dominated all of the airwaves.

He was the only guy who had hour shows on radio stations, where other artists would just have one record played. He had hour shows, and he had two–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And could you see the influence of Crosby and Sinatra? I mean, where did you see that?

TONY BENNETT: Only in the very, very early recordings. He did some records with Skits Henderson, and you could actually here him imitating just the way Harry Conac imitates Sinatra right now. You could hear, you could hear Frank Sinatra imitating Bing, but it was very quick thing.

Right away, he just realized, hey, wait a minute, I have to be myself, because if you sound like someone else, you see, you see, in other words, if you steal from one, it’s perjury, if you steal from everybody, it’s research, and that’s the difference. (laughing)

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Bill Friedwald, I read also that Sinatra knew he had the voice to be famous, to be a star. Is that accurate?

WILL FRIEDWALD: Well, that’s sort of another area where Crosby rubbed off on him, because, you know, essentially the story goes when Sinatra was 17, he went to a Bing Crosby movie and decided he wanted to do that, to be the next all-media superstar like that, and a gentleman told me that–a friend of mine, Mr. Gary Stevens, who knew Sinatra back to the 30’s–says that once around 1942, Sinatra sat down with him and told him his whole career.

He had everything planned out, what he wanted to do, including going on to Hollywood and making movies, and he even said in 1942, you know, I want to win an Academy Award. I mean, he just had that kind of determination and like I say, from the beginning, he was seeking to plan out the whole career.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you think he’ll be remembered, as a musician, or as a cultural icon, or what?

WILL FRIEDWALD: Well, I don’t necessarily think there’s a discrepancy between the two. I mean, by being our single greatest representative of the whole world of popular culture, you know, it’s beyond being a singer. I mean, he’s just, you know, the supreme personality. He’s the supreme artist, and he’s the figure that, you know, all of popular culture revolves around.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Tony Bennett, how do you think he’ll be remembered?

TONY BENNETT: Well, you know, I think there’s a great story about Caruso. Years ago, his wife, 10 years after he was–died, she often pondered on why, why was my husband so great, and then she came up with the answer, and I compare this to Sinatra as–in popular music–she said, Caruso sang for many kings all over the world but there was only one Caruso.

And that’s the same thing with Sinatra. I mean, he’s done–he’s sang with royalties all over the world, all kinds of royalty, but there’s only one Sinatra.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, thank you, thank you very much for joining us, both of you.