One of my favorite Christmas presents has been Frank: The Voice, the new Sinatra biography by James Kaplan. Sinatra is a long-term fixation of mine, nearly as much for his complicated personality as for his music. It’s a terrific book in all ways, including in explaining (to me, who knows very little about music) some of the less explicable elements in Sinatra’s gifts, e.g., the power of his phrasing, that something-something in his delivery that makes the song just quiver then bloom inside you as you listen. Apparently, his approach was pretty doctrinaire:
I take a sheet with just the lyrics. No music. At that point, I’m looking at a poem. I’m trying to understand the point of view of the person behind the words. I want to understand his emotions. Then I start speaking, not singing, the words so I can experiment and get the right inflections. When I get with the orchestra, I sing the words without a microphone first, so I can adjust the way I’ve been practicing to the arrangement. I’m looking to fit the emotion behind the song that I’ve come up with to the music. Then it all comes together. You sing the song.
This peek into the process is both illuminating and a bit of a shame. I’m glad to know it (and to know the seriousness with which he took his craft), but now I want to forget it and just listen.
Yet when I read about Sinatra’s personal life, it only deepens the songs for me because of the deep tumult there. A difficult, contradictory character, and an immensely appealing one to me. I’m now in the Ava years, that dangerous dance he did with movie star Ava Gardner as his career was hitting the skids in the late 1940s.
Both bruised souls with a taste for hard-drinking, hard-living and a kind of giddy nihilism, they were a combustible match. As Kaplan writes,
Frank had found his true partner in the opera that was his life.
Indeed. Gardner notes that, soon after their first big night together, the astronomically ambitious Sinatra told her, “All my life, being a singer was the most important thing in the world. Now you’re all I want.”
(Of course, he said this at a time when he’d yet to carve out a new role in music for himself, post-boy-crooner, but still.)
A choice bit, from Betty Burns, the wife of Sinatra’s manager, Bobby:
We would be sitting in the living room and hear them upstairs in the bedroom quarreling and arguing. Ava would scream at Frank and he would slam the door and storm downstairs. Minutes later we’d smell a very sweet fragrance coming from the stairs. Ava had decided she wasn’t mad anymore, and so she sprayed the stairwell with her perfume. Frank would smell it and race back up to the bedroom. Then it would be hours before he’d come back down.