OL' BLUE EYES
May 15, 1998
Franks Sinatra, the Chairman of the Board, passed away in California yesterday at the age of 82. Following a background report, Jim Lehrer and guests discuss the legendary crooner's life and music.
JIM LEHRER: We're joined now by John Lahr, author of the recent book Sinatra, The Artist and the Man. He's a staff writer for the New Yorker. And Frank Rich, who writes on culture, among other things, is a columnist for the New York Times. John Lahr, as a singer, what was it Sinatra could do that nobody else could?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
May 15, 1998
A look at the life of Frank Sinatra.
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July 1, 1997
Remembering Hollywood tough guy, Robert Mitchum.
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A Lifetime of Swoon: a important dates and music samples from the Chicago Tribune.
Defined by the "seamlessness of his sound."
JOHN LAHR, Author, Sinatra, The Artist and the Man: Well, at the time he broke in I think the thing that defined him was the seamlessness of his sound, the fact that he had learned from playing with Tommy Dorsey to sort of make his voice the equivalent of Dorsey's trombone and extend the phrases so that you actually-he could hold his breath longer and, therefore-as often, and that seamlessness and the intensity with which he rendered those songs was really exceptional, and he caught the mood of the time.
JIM LEHRER: Was this something that he was born with, or something that he taught himself?
JOHN LAHR: Well, you know, like any great star, it's a gift, and he was also his own greatest invention. He used to swim underwater and practice-sing songs to himself underwater just to practice his breath control. And it increased the bellows, as he called them. But that was part of it. And part of it was the terrific sort of intensity and charisma that he was able to project. One of his wives, Ava Gardner, said his-a large part of his talent was his ability to flirt with the audience. And I think that she was on to something.
JIM LEHRER: Frank Rich, what would you add to that in terms of the specialness of his singing?
The honesty of his music.
FRANK RICH, The New York Times: Sort of to pick up John's thought, quoting Ava Gardner, there's an emotional intensity, and intimacy that is really rare. Many, many singers aspire to that. Many of them fake it. He really delivered it, and there's such an honesty to the emotions of him at his best. He could also be very phony at its worst. But there's such an honesty there. I think that's one reason why he has continued to impress and speak to generations who have come long after the style of song that he championed has sort of faded from view.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. He had his little down period, but people of all ages listen to Sinatra music as we speak.
FRANK RICH: Right. And yet, the great body of his music is a popular music that is rarely written anymore. He sort of kept that in fashion just because he's so timeless I think he helps make us appreciate how timeless these songs are in a way very few other singers can these days.
JIM LEHRER: Frank, as an actor, how does he rate?
"As an actor, I think he's a very good singer."
FRANK RICH: As an actor, I think he's a very good singer. He-(laughing)-you know, a lot of his movies were, after all, jokes. Some of them, of course, the rat pack movies, were designed to be jokes. But, you know, he's an okay actor. I think we look at his 50's comeback as acting being part of that. But even in the clip-"From Here to Eternity"-that we just saw, this is not great acting. He was in a few good movies, including most notably, the "Manchurian Candidate," which may have been his best performance.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. John Lahr, a lot of singers have tried to be successful actors and were not able to do it, but Frank Sinatra was. What would you attribute that to?
"...his great acting was as a singer."
JOHN LAHR: Well, I mean, can I just say-to Frank's point-that his real acting, his great acting was as a singer. I mean, that's what sort of people don't understand. He was a dees, dem, and dose guys. He was a man who even at the time he broke through as a young crooner was a volatile, tough guy, but the person he projected in song was a delicate, sensitive, lyrical person. Now, he had those qualities, but what song did for Sinatra, what those lyrics did, and why he defended them and did them so brilliantly, they provided a scaffolding for him to express these feelings and get-and lose the sense which he had all his life of humiliation for his lack of education and his inability to sort of own the manners of the class that he aspired to, so really people always said of Sinatra that he lived in his songs. And what that is to me, and I think it is true, it was really the acquisition of a class. It was-and he really turned it into a landscape, and he painted-he painted himself into that landscape so that we can't imagine a great many of those songs without him.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. Now, Frank, Sinatra did have his dark side. I mean, he had some friends who had associations with the police and among other characters, and he drank and he played wildly and all of that, but it didn't seem to matter. Why not?
FRANK RICH: I think it's a tribute to his talent. I mean, really often his public life away from singing was often contemptible. He certainly-we know he did a lot for charity, and he did individual acts of charity for friends who were down and out. But that aside, he did hang around with mobsters to some extent. He injected that atmosphere into the Kennedy White House, it seems, and, of course, he was very, had this air of violence around him and was very insulting and abusive to people, particularly women in the press. Yet, such was indeed this performance that John just described, which did come from something within his heart, obviously, that it could counteract that and transcend it. He's such a great artist, and communicated something else through his art that overrode it.
JOHN LAHR: Can I say something?
JIM LEHRER: Sure, John. Go ahead.
JOHN LAHR: I just wanted to say that the press has to divide Sinatra the good and Sinatra the bad, but I think that the point is he was of a piece. He was great as a singer because he felt things very strongly, and he expressed that feeling through-and with the lyrics he could-and the music he could control what he called his Sicilian temper. Without that scaffolding, things could get ugly, but he still reacted to the world in the same sort of intense explosive manner, so that the shadow and the light are inevitably mixed and I think add to his allure and power with the public.
JIM LEHRER: But did he-John, did he deserve the reputation for being a mean-just the way Frank described him?
JOHN LAHR: Well, let me put it to you this way, Jim. The word "monster" has its root in two words - blessing and warning-and it seems to me that he epitomized all those things, which is part of his greatness.
JIM LEHRER: Frank, I have said three or four times now, getting to this segment, that from the very beginning of the program tonight, just in introducing it just now, that Frank Sinatra was one of a kind. Am I right to say that in terms of his-as one of a kind as a performer?
FRANK RICH: Yes. I would clarify it in this way. Obviously, there's a number of other great American singers, some of whom sang the same music that he did-Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett. There are many, many others--we could spend all night listing them.
JIM LEHRER: Sure.
An international appeal.
FRANK RICH: But this morning I was speaking to one of the few song writers of his hey day who's still alive, Cy Coleman, who wrote "Witchcraft." And the point he made to me that to him made Sinatra unique was he was the last one, the only one with the force to put over that music, those kinds of songs internationally. As much as we might love Mabel Mercer or Tony Bennett, it-they're not in the same-at the same level Sinatra was in speaking to people all over the world through these great American popular songs.
JIM LEHRER: I take it you would agree with that, John?
JOHN LAHR: Yes. The only other thing I'd add to what Frank said is that I think it's one of the great American show business careers, and one of the interesting things to me is that with each generation, we seem to sort of personify the mood of his time, and in the 40's that crooning really did calm a culture in a very volatile moment. It was very much an anodyne, when it came to the 50's, the swinging Sinatra, the rat pack, that was the mood of abundance and the party that he was at the head of the table at.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. John, Frank, thank you both very much for being with us.
JOHN LAHR: A pleasure.
JIM LEHRER: And there's only one way to end this discussion and this program tonight, and that is with Frank Sinatra singing. Here he is in 1974, in Madison Square Garden in New York, and the song is "My Way."